Those Christians who hold that Christ is the only head of the church; that the Bible is a sufficient rule of faith and practice; that Christian character is the measurement for membership in the church; and that sovereignty in matters of church polity and government rests ultimately in the congregation, or God's chosen people who have covenanted together to walk in the ways of the Lord made known or to be made known to them.
Origin. The origins of Congregationalism are not clear; some trace them back to the primitive Church, or to the secretaries of the 13th century, or to John wyclif and the lollards. Modern Congregationalism, however, began with the Protestant reformation. When the Anglican settlement under Elizabeth I proved unacceptable both to Roman Catholics and to Puritans, the latter divided into those who wished to separate completely from the Anglican Church (Separatists or Independents) and those who wished to purify it from within. The Separatist point of view, early set forth in Robert Browne's famous book, A Treatise of Reformation without Tarrying for anie … (1582), embodied the principles of what later was called the "Congregational Way." Churches reflecting these views were established early in the 17th century, but government opposition drove them into exile in Holland. Under Cromwell's Protectorate (1653–59), the Congregationalists made some progress; in 1658 more than 100 churches were represented at the Savoy Synod in London. The 19th century was characterized by a movement toward union for mutual support, with the forming of County Associations of Churches and the combination of these associations (1832) in the Congregational Union of England and Wales, and later similar unions in Scotland and Ireland.
Colonial America. Congregationalism was brought to America by the Pilgrim Fathers, who were Separatists, in 1620, when they arrived on the Mayflower. Subsequently the non-Separatists of the Puritan party also began to arrive in large numbers and to settle around Massachusetts Bay, and the differences between the two groups soon disappeared. The English leader John Robinson counseled his followers "rather to study union than division"; and when Dr. Samuel Fuller, deacon of the church at Plymouth, ministered to the sick of the church at Salem, the "right hand of fellowship" was soon extended to all parties. At Plymouth, the mayflower com pact established a form of government by the will of the majority and played an important part in shaping both the religion and the politics of the colony. There William bradford was repeatedly elected governor from 1621 on and William Brewster (1567–1644) acted as lay preacher. The church polity established by the Puritan leaders of the Massachusetts Bay settlements became normative for the entire area and was soon known as the "New England way." Two early leaders, Thomas hook er and John cotton, wrote in defense of the freedom of the New England churches. The cambridge platform of 1648, a declaration of principles of church government and discipline, regularized the practices of the New England churches, forming in fact a constitution for Congregationalists.
Because they themselves were educated, the early Puritans demanded an educated ministry, and to this end Harvard College (later University) was founded in 1636. The Connecticut Congregationalists followed suit in 1701 with Yale (New Haven); and Dartmouth (1769, Hanover, NH), Williams (1785, Williamstown, MA), Bowdoin (1794, Brunswick, Maine), Middlebury (V[a-z], [0-9]800), and Amherst (MA, 1821) all had founders who were Congregationalists. The earliest missionaries included John Eliot (1604–90), known as the "apostle to the Indians" because of his translations of the New and Old Testaments, and his Catechism (1653), the first book to be printed in a Native American tongue; and Thomas Mayhew (1621–57), who, about 1643, converted the natives of Martha's Vineyard. By 1674 there were 4,000 "praying Indians," with 24 native preachers. Another leader of early Congregationalism was John Wise (1652–1725), pastor of the Second Parish Church at Ipswich, MA, who led his fellow townsmen in resisting an attempt to raise money by levying a province tax. He made the word "democracy" respectable by calling it "Christ's government in church and state." His idea of sovereignty as resident in the people was revived in 1772 and had a distinct influence on the American Revolution. He also resisted the Presbyterianizing of the New England Churches, or the attempt to unite them by means of ecclesiastical councils such as those recommended by Increase and Cotton mather. Although his essay The Churches Quarrel Espoused (1710) dealt a death blow to this whole movement, the Congregational churches (especially in Connecticut) always remained on good terms with the Presbyterian churches to the south of them.
Following the unfortunate witchcraft incidents of the 1690s, religious fervor cooled somewhat in the early part of the 18th century. Doctrinal difficulties arose over who should participate in the Lord's Supper, and a kind of secondary church membership was accorded to those who could give no demonstration of an actual inward rebirth, but who were in sympathy with Christian ideals. The result of this half-way covenant seemed to weaken the ties of church membership, and a revival of genuine religious experience was sought by the eloquent and brilliant Jonathan edwards. The great awakening of the 1740s saw the revival of enthusiasm and religious fervor throughout all the colonies, but eventually this gave way to the preoccupations of the Revolutionary War period.
In the U.S. In 1787 the Northwest Territory attracted many New Englanders, and Marietta, Ohio, became the first permanent settlement in the Northwest Territory (1788). The first Congregational church of Ohio was established there eight years later, and in the following year Muskingum Academy, which eventually became Marietta College (1835). As Congregationalists from New England expanded and moved West, they met Presbyterians moving in from the South. Seeing the futility of competition, both denominations resolved to cooperate by forming a "Plan of Union." At the time it seemed that frontier life lent itself more to a Presbyterian than to a Congregational type of Church government, but neither group found the plan altogether satisfactory. Despite the fact that the Presbyterians profited most by it, they were the first to abrogate it in 1837, although there was partial cooperation until 1852.
Separation of Church and State was not a belief of the early Puritans; on the contrary, the ideal had been a union of Church and State to constitute a Christian commonwealth. This Church-State bond was not broken in New England until the 19th century (1818 in Connecticut, 1834 in Massachusetts), but in spite of the "disestablishment," the denomination continued to expand across the continent. State conferences were formed to build and strengthen new churches, as well as to aid those that were already established. State conferences (or conventions), composed of the churches within a state working together on common matters, first came into being in Connecticut in 1798; the last was in Colorado in 1905.
Education continued to rank high among Congregationalists, and many colleges followed the movement of Congregational Christians across the continent. Among those originally having Congregational connections were Beloit (WI, 1846), Carleton (Northfield, MN, 1866), Defiance (Ohio, 1850), Dillard (New Orleans, LA 1869), Doane (Crete, NE, 1872), Drury (Springfield, MO, 1873), Elon (NC, 1889), Fisk (Nashville, TN 1866), Grinnell (Iowa, 1846), Huston-Tillotson (Austin, TX, 1877), Illinois (Jacksonville, 1829), Le Moyne (Memphis, T[a-z], [0-9]870), Marietta (Ohio, 1797), Northland (Ashland, W[a-z], [0-9]892), Olivet (MI, 1844), Pacific (Stockton, CA, 1851), Piedmont (Demorest, GA, 1897), Ripon (WI, 1850), Rocky Mountain (Billings, MT, 1883), Southern Union (Wadley, AL, 1934), Talladega (AL, 1867), Tougaloo Southern Christian (MS, 1869), Westminster (Fulton, MO, 1851), and Yankton (SD, 1881). Illinois College was formed by a group of student missionaries known as the Yale band, made up of seven missionaries from Yale Divinity School who, in 1829, started west and furthered educational activities on the Illinois frontier.
During the first half of the 19th century, the Romantic movement and the rise and spread of liberal ideas led many Congregationalists to question the old Calvinist ideas of original sin and total depravity. Traditional values were challenged by many church leaders and teachers, especially in the greater Boston, MA, area. In 1819 William Ellery channing preached a famous sermon at Baltimore, MD, on Unitarian Christianity, and six years later the American Unitarian Association was organized and captured more than a third of the churches that had formerly been Congregational. This resulted in the Dedham Case, a tangled legal situation involving considerable church property. Many Congregational congregations, despite an actual numerical majority, found themselves without funds and church buildings. When the historic church of Plymouth split into two groups, the Unitarian First Church in Plymouth retained the traditional date 1620, while the Pilgrim Church in Plymouth retained the traditional Congregational label, but took the date 1801 (see unitarians).
Missions. In the summer of 1806 the possibility of American missions overseas became a reality when a group of five students, headed by Samuel J. mills, were driven by a thunderstorm to seek shelter under a haystack, where they talked and prayed together about "the moral darkness of Asia" and the possibility of going there. The result was the organization of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in 1810. Two years later the five men who had participated in the famous haystack meeting at Williams College in 1806 were ordained in Salem Tabernacle Church on Feb. 6, 1812, and were the first American missionaries to go overseas. For awhile, the American Board extended its membership into the Presbyterian Church and the Associate Reformed and Dutch Reformed churches, and also acted for the German Reformed Church and the Congregational Churches of Canada (see reformed churches ii: north america). In 1961 it joined with the Board of International Missions of the Evangelical and Reformed Church to form the United Church Board for World Ministries; its work is worldwide and includes building churches; supporting schools, colleges, and hospitals; and engaging in programs of social welfare.
In 1839 the Spanish slave ship Amistad, on which 42 Africans had mutinied, killed the captain, and attempted to sail back to Africa, was brought into New Haven harbor. After two years' litigation, the Supreme Court pronounced them free, and three missionaries returned them to Africa. Several groups of Congregationalists, concerned about the welfare of both Native Americans and African Americans, now combined to form the American Missionary Association (1846), an organization that has continued to foster interracial relations. It became quite active in the South, and after the Civil War began the "Contraband School" for slaves freed by the Union armies, which later became Hampton Institute, at Hampton, VA. Berea College, KY, founded 1855, was one of the first integrated schools.
By 1882 there "was not a western state or territory in which Congregationalism was not represented." This was due largely to the work of the American Home Missionary Society, founded in 1862 in New York. According to the first issue of the Home Missionary (May 1828), the society was designated "to promote the religious benefit of a great and growing nation." Although its name has been changed more than once (it is now the Board of Home Missions), it still founds churches; publishes the denominational journal, United Church Herald; aids city, town, and country churches; organizes evangelism; conducts schools for pastors in service; works among Native Americans and other underprivileged people; supplies curriculum material for Christian education in the local church and advises in youth education; assists as it can in higher Christian education and campus ministries; agitates and educates for better race relations; administers work camps and voluntary Christian services; coordinates the work of many benevolent institutions; and publishes books under the name of the United Church Press.
One of the divisions of the Board of Home Missions is the Pilgrim Press, which is a publishing and distributing agency of constructively religious materials for children, teachers, parents, pastors, and churches. Publications of the Pilgrim Press include a wide range of curriculum materials, monthly magazines, biweekly story papers, books for the home and for ministers and leaders, and materials needed for Christian education and evangelism.
Other Activities. Preaching has always occupied a very important place in Congregationalism. Mention has already been made of Jonathan Edwards and his connection with the revivalism of the Great Awakening. Of an entirely different temperament was Horace bushnell who staunchly opposed the emotionalism of the revivals and their insistence upon a conscious, dated, emotional experience of conversion. The true principle of Christian education, he maintained is that "the child is to grow up a Christian, and never know himself as being otherwise." This would happen, he believed, if the life of the family in the home was truly Christian. Religious education took much of its inspiration from Bushnell.
Still another important preacher was Washington Gladden, for 36 years pastor of the First Congregational Church in Columbus, Ohio. As early as 1875 he began to use the principle of "applied Christianity," or the so cial gospel, to the relations between employers and workingmen, and to the settlement of strikes. The Council for Social Action, organized in June 1934, owes much of its inspiration to him. This important body conducts institutes, seminars, and conferences on social issues confronting the Christian world, publishes materials for the study of those issues, assists churches and other local groups with studies in this field, and from time to time, when the sentiment of the church comes to a focus on some social question, makes a public statement on the matter.
Attempts at Union. In the 19th century on the American Frontier, Protestant churches tended to divide and multiply into different denominations. Hence it was not until after 1850 that Congregationalists first began to think nationally. The Plan of Union with the Presbyterians, which had placed them at a disadvantage on the frontier, was finally ended by the 1852 Council in Albany, NY. The Boston National Council of 1865 helped to pave the way for national councils that met periodically in order to advise and guide the churches. Although without power to legislate for the churches, the councils fostered education, implemented the social consciousness of the churches, and toward the end of the period related Congregationalism not only to the great religious communions of America, but to English Congregationalism and that of other parts of the world as well.
The 20th century has been characterized by a growing concern for unity in Protestantism. In 1931 the Congregational National Council united with the Christian General Convention to form the Congregational Christian General Council. The Christian Church had been a smaller but important group of churches, holding similar principles of churchmanship, located mainly in the Virginia-North Carolina area and the Illinois-Indiana-Ohio area. It was itself the result of a merger of three groups that sprang up in the early part of the 19th century. North Carolina Methodists under Thomas O'Kelly had separated from the mainstream of Methodists in 1793 in order to preserve a more democratic church polity. Some Baptists in New England also desired greater freedom regarding church membership as well as in theological thinking, especially with regard to the sacraments. And Presbyterians in Kentucky under the partial influence of Barton W. Stone had inaugurated (1804) a small denomination that de-emphasized Calvinistic theology and played up the importance of direct conversions associated with revival meetings. At first, this group was associated with the Disciples of Christ, who were ably led by the Campbells, father and son, and who eventually became one of the nation's largest denominations. These three small groups, Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian, joined together to form the christian church, the idea being that if each denomination would simply call itself "Christian," church unity would be brought one step closer.
The success of this merger helped to pave the way for a union of the Congregational Christian Churches with the evangelical and reformed church, which was itself a merger. The Reformed Church had originated with the followers of John calvin in the 16th century and had spread from Geneva into southwestern Germany and the Netherlands. On arriving in the U.S., members of these churches established new local churches that used the Reformed hymnals, prayer books, and the heidel berg catechism. An early leader, John Philip boehm, held the first communion service at Falkner Swamp, a farming community 40 miles north of Philadelphia, PA. In 1793 the denomination had become completely independent of European aid. Mercersburg Academy, Franklin and Marshall College, and Lancaster Theological Seminary owe their origin to this group, which early in the 20th century abandoned German in favor of English for the language of worship.
The Evangelical Synod of North America drew its inspiration from both Calvinists and Lutherans of the Continental Reformation. Its local churches were the product of the foreign-missionary societies of Germany and Switzerland and the American Home Missionary Society cooperating on the frontier in the early part of the 19th century. These local churches took root in the upper Mississippi Valley and in 1877 were united to become the Evangelical Synod. Their doctrine was based on the Augsburg Confession, Luther's Catechism, and the Heidelberg Catechism. Elmhurst College in Illinois and Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves, MO, were founded by them.
Similarities in belief, worship, and polity led to the exploration of the possibility of a merger in the 1940s. A document called "The Basis of Union" circulated through each denomination and was amended until generally acceptable by all. When the two denominations independently had given their official acceptance to this, the way was prepared for the uniting meeting of 1957, to form the united church of christ.
Bibliography: w. walker, A History of the Congregational Churches in the United States of America (New York 1894). g. g. atkins and f. l. fagley, History of American Congregationalism (Boston 1942). g. g. atkins et al., An Adventure in Liberty (pa. Boston 1961).
[j. r. willis/eds.]
"Congregational Churches." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 22, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/congregational-churches
"Congregational Churches." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved October 22, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/congregational-churches
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