Congregationalists: The Story

In the year 1534, the Church of England split from the Catholic Church to forge its own way. Now, Anglicanism was different from Catholicism, and there were divided views in the church then, as there still are today, about how different they really ought to be. Some within the Church of England wanted to retain as much of their Catholic heritage as possible, but there were others who didn’t agree.

The Puritans came on the scene as a group within the church who wanted to make Anglicanism protestant. They were influenced by reformation thinkers, and although the Church of England had thrown off some of what were viewed as the more egregious errors of the Catholics, Puritans didn’t think it went far enough. These Puritans were Calvinists and they weren’t in with the Anabaptists, because they held still to infant Baptism.

One thing that the Puritans disliked about the Church of England was its Episcopal polity, styled after the Catholic model. Some of the Puritans preferred Presbyterian polity, and others liked congregationalism – each church body being self-governing, with no hierarchy at all.

As the rush to a new land began, the Church of England became a feature in the American colonies. Later it would be renamed the Episcopal Church, to make it less English, and therefore palatable to the freedom fighters of the American Revolution, many who were members.

In the 1620s through 1630s Puritans began to settle in America, and instead of getting approval from the Bishops of the Church of England, they began to start their own churches, many of them congregational. Essentially these churches were offshoot Anglicans – they were Puritan churches, and the Puritans were Anglicans with an ulterior motive. Of course, being disconnected both geographically and now ecclesiastically from the Church of England meant things were only destined to change further.

The Puritans were pro-reform, but in one area they liked the Catholic model – the idea of the state church. Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded in 1623, and Connecticut in 1636. Both of these colonies became dominated by Puritans, and taxes were used to pay congregational ministers. Obadiah Holmes, a Baptist Minister, was severely whipped for holding a Baptist service in the Massachusetts Bay colony. Freedom of religion wasn’t really a thought yet – the American Constitution was 150 years away.

As congregationalism was becoming its own denomination, leaders within the movement were realizing the need to set down some rules, so that erring churches could be excluded, and so that there would be a set of standards on which they could all agree. In 1648 the Cambridge Platform was written up to fit this need. Congregationalism was gaining an identity in America.

In 1634, the First Church of Boston, a congregational assembly, experienced revival, and there were many converts. Before their admission to the church, each convert would recount their conversion experience in a testimony, how they had realized their own election. The still very puritan members in the congregations would judge the person’s conversion testimony,  and if there was enough evidence of regeneration, the person would be accepted into church membership, allowing them to partake in communion, and have their children baptized. This became a practice in all the New England Congregational churches within a few years.

However, as time went on, more and more people were arriving in the colonies, or growing up within them, and were required to support the state church, but didn’t have this conversion experience. More and more children were beginning to grow up unbaptized. The Congregationalists worried that the influence of the church on the society would be harmed by a large group of people being outside the church, and so the half-way covenant was formed, to the disdain of some of the congregations.

This practice meant that no longer did someone have to have obedient parents with a conversion testimony to be baptized into the church, so long as their parents would publicly agree to church doctrine and endorse the baptismal covenant. Churches were divided over the issue, but by 1700, eighty percent of congregations followed the guidelines.

Because of this, over the course of a few decades, many churches ended up with a majority of members who did not profess a conversion experience.

As congregationalism gained membership, colleges were started to train clergy. Harvard began in 1636, and in 1701, Yale was founded as a Congregationalist school. Congregationalism was approaching its hundredth year in America, and the ministers were noticing it. The half-way covenant had led to churches full of the unregenerate, and some were longing for a new revival.

In 1735, Congregationalist minister Jonathan Edwards began, first at his own church, to preach on hellfire and damnation – trying to invoke in his congregation the recognition of a need for conversion. As time passed, Edwards spoke in other churches too and the first Great Awakening was coming into view as the revival that had been longed for.

Anglican cleric George Whitefield came from England to preach in America with good success. His first tour in 1740 was met with gratitude and relief from some of the congregational churches. Whitefield too seemed to have a Puritan streak – he was a Calvinist who preached conversion.

In 1740 there were 423 Congregational churches in the colonies, 1/3 of all churches. As the ‘40s advanced, many more ministers began to look unfavorably on the revivalist spirit sweeping the colonies. Churches that were dominated with the revival began to be known as “new lights” and those opposed to it became known as the “old lights.”

When Whitefield returned for his third tour of America in 1745, the congregational churches were mostly opposed to him. Whitefield was preaching to everyone, Anglican, Congregational, and Baptist alike. He encouraged Congregationalists to leave their churches, and leave they did – but they didn’t mostly become Anglicans. An unconverted congregational layman named Shubal Stearns heard Whitefield preach in 1745, experienced conversion, and soon was part of a controversy over infant baptism. Stearns became a Baptist and was baptized by immersion by a Baptist preacher.

Stearns wasn’t alone in the move from congregationalism into the separate Baptists. In 1741, Isaac Backus was converted and for five years pastored a congregationalist church. In 1751 he too became a Baptist. Backus would go on to be an influential preacher in the American Revolution.

Backus and Stearns are just two out of thousands of Congregationalists who left to join the Baptists. The Church Stearns planted, Sandy Creek Baptist Church, would itself be part of 42 separate Baptist churches being started in the following seventeen years. Whitefield, in amazement at how many converts of his joined the Baptists, remarked “all my chickens have turned to ducks!”

By 1776, congregational churches had grown in number, but not in percentage. There were now 668 congregations, but only 21% of churches in the colonies.

In 1789, the first national Presbyterian denomination in the USA was formed, the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. Like the Congregationalists, they were reformed, and the main  substantial difference was their Presbyterian polity. Seeing the potential that both groups could be more effective if they linked up, in 1801, they formed the ‘Plan of Union.’ Churches from either denomination could take on ministers from the other. When new churches were starts, they could decide what kind of polity to have. In 1826, the originally Congregationalist American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions was established as the missions agency for both denominations.

However, things weren’t going to well for the Congregationalists as a part of the plan of union. Churches that were Congregationalist began to take on Presbyterian polity. The ABCFM ended up with a Presbyterian majority and as a result, most new churches started were Presbyterian. So in 1852, the plan of Union dissolved. The Congregationalists realized the value of the denominational synods the Presbyterians had, and so just a few years later, they made the Congregationalist version: The National Council of Congregational Churches of the United States.

Meanwhile, Liberalism in Congregationalism had only grown during the years since the divisions over revival. Ministers began to doubt the literalness of the Bible, transition to preaching general morality as opposed to systematic doctrine, and began to challenge what had been always considered doctrinal orthodoxy. A wing of liberal congregational churches had become Unitarian, rejecting the Trinity and divinity of Christ. Though these had remained for many years in the congregational system, by 1925, they divided out, and formed the American Unitarian Association. Later, in 1961, the American Unitarian Association would merge with another denomination to form the Unitarian Universalists – a group so theologically liberal that today it has no theology at all and does not consider itself Christian. The ‘other denomination’ that had merged in to form the UU was the Universalist Church of America, which had a history extending back to 1866. Universalists had rejected that there was a hell, instead believing God would reconcile all to himself. Today the UU is open to pantheists, pagans and atheists alike.

A small church body that had been historically unconnected to the Congregationalists was the Evangelical Protestant Church of north America. This formerly German-speaking denomination was founded in 1885. But the German reformed churches that started it had existed long before that. The Smithfield church shown here was founded in 1781, on the same location it is now, though they meet in the fifth building on that spot. In 1925, most of the things that had separated them from Congregationalism had slowly dissolved, and though they were a bit more Lutheran that the Congregationalists were, they decided to merge into the Congregationalists so as to gain access to their ministers, universities, and structure.

Another merger would happen six years later, as the Christian Connexion would merge with the Congregationalists to form a new denomination called the “Congregational and Christian Churches”. This became “Congregational Christian Churches”, without the “and”, a few years later.  So what was the Christian Connexion? The connexion goes back to 1810, when various restorationist groups had merged together. Some of them disliked being considered a denomination, and so they were often just called “Christians”. If this sounds familiar, it’s because some groups even today have the same doctrine – and some of the same roots. Barton Stone, born in 1772, had been ordained a Presbyterian minister, but rejected Presbyterianism and the creeds. Instead, he held to a view of only scripture being the rule of doctrine and practice.  Stone and his followers were one of the original groups in the Christian Connexion. James O’Kelly was a circuit-riding Methodist preacher, who rejected the Episcopal polity of his denomination, the Methodist Episcopal Church, turning instead to congregationalism. He had founded the Republican Methodist Church, and brought his followers into the Connexion.

Meanwhile, another minister was also teaching a restorationist theology. Alexander Campbell, born in Ireland, had come to the US in 1807. When his first daughter was born in in 1812, he decided to study the Bible’s teaching on baptism, and concluded that infant baptism was unbiblical, leading him to seek baptism for himself and his wife from a Baptist minister. Campbell became a Baptist, until in 1823, based on many disagreements, he left one Baptist denomination for another. That denomination ultimately disbanded, and Campbell became influential and gained a following without the Baptist name. He caught the attention of Barton Stone in the Christian Connnexion. In 1832, Stone and Campbell joined movements, with stone taking his followers and some others from the Connexion, and this group, called by others the “Stone-Campbell restoration movement” was formed. Campbell liked the title “Disciple of Christ” and Stone preferred to just use the term “Christians” or “Christian Church.” Both terms ended up being used. Ultimately, two main groups would from in the late 1800s, the Church of Christ, and the Christian Church Disciples of Christ, though they are both mixes of the teaching of Stone and Campbell. Churches of Christ themselves have divided into instrumental and non-instrumental branches.

Back in the Christian Connexion, after Stone left with his followers in 1832, the remaining Congregationalist restorationist Christians in the movement continued as a group for over 100 years until the 1931 merger, at which point they formed 10-15 percent of the new Congregational Christian Church.

The Congregational Christian Church began to communicate with other denominations that had similar beliefs, and began to find common ties with another Calvinist denomination, the Evangelical and Reformed church. This denomination itself had been formed through a merger, between the Reformed Church in the United States, and the Evangelical Synod of North America. But there was a big difference between the ERC and the Congregationalists: The ERC didn’t have congregational polity. It was Presbyterian. Despite this, the two groups were intent on merger, in 1943, they drafted the Basis of Union, which stated in part:

“The name of the Church formed by this union shall be UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST.

This name expresses a fact: it stands for the accomplished union of two church bodies each of which has arisen from a similar union of two church bodies. It also expresses a hope: that in time soon to come, by further union between this Church and other bodies, there shall arise a more inclusive United Church.”

Not all of the churches in the Congregational and Christian Churches, or CCC, were happy with this declaration of intended merger. Some theologically conservative churches had noticed the liberalizing trend in the denomination for some time, and in 1945 they formed a fellowship within the CCC called the “Conservative Congregational Christian Fellowship.” In 1948 the finally left the CCC to form their own theologically conservative Congregationalist denomination, called the Conservative Congregational Christian Churches, which still exists today with nearly 300 churches.

Another group of churches in the CCC was concerned about the compromise on congregational polity that was coming in the union with the Presbyterian polity of the ERC. In 1955, these churches also split for the CCC into a denomination called the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches. They too exist to the present, with around 400 churches.

Ultimately, the CCC and ERC did merge in 1957 to form the Mainline Denomination the United Church of Christ. About 40% of the body came from the ERC, and 60% from the CCC. Even today there are some congregational and some Presbyterian churches in the United Church of Christ. Since the merger, the denomination has declined, like all mainline churches in the USA, now having only around 825,000 members, in 4,882 churches in 2019.

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