EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth in a series of articles on the various denominations in North America, written by Robert W. Caldwell III, who serves as professor of church history at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
What is Congregationalism?
In church history, the term Congregationalism refers to that form of ecclesiastical polity (or church governance) which envisions the church’s spiritual authority to reside in the local congregation. According to Congregationalists, Christ is the head of the church; he does not exercise his Lordship in the local church through intermediary institutions which are external to that congregation (like bishops or presbyteries). Rather, he rules each individual congregation immediately through his Word. Because Christian believers are endowed with the Holy Spirit, they can rightfully interpret the Scriptures, “covenant” together under Christ’s kingship in local congregations, and ordain ministers who will faithfully lead them according to the Scriptures. Consequently, no person or group external to the local congregation is thus required for these ecclesiastical actions.
Historically, Congregationalists have generally possessed the following characteristics:
- They emphasize the unmediated authority of Christ in their midst (“where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with them,” Matt 18:20).
- They possess a high view of Scripture since it is the instrument through which Christ rules his people.
- They sometimes cherish a cautious and even suspicious attitude toward external “authorities,” like bishops, presbyteries, creeds, or Christian “tradition.”
- They attempt to hold their members to the high standards of morality found in the New Testament.
- They partner with other likeminded churches through groups known as “consociations,” “associations,” and/or “conventions,” but will recognize that these bodies have no ultimate authority over individual congregations.
Baptists read this list and say “hey, these Congregationalists are like us!” This is because many Christian denominations embrace congregational polity. Virtually all Baptists have a congregational church polity, as well as most independent Bible churches, non-denominational evangelical churches, and many Pentecostal and charismatic groups. We will revisit some of these groups later in this series. For the remainder of this article, we will focus our attention on the main body of Congregationalists in North America, the New England Congregationalists. As we shall see, Baptists and many evangelical churches today possess roots in the “Congregational Way” they forged in the seventeenth century.
A Brief History of Congregationalism
Congregationalism originated in England in the late sixteenth century as many Christian groups became increasingly unsatisfied with the slow pace of the English reformation. Leaders like Robert Browne famously argued “Reformation without Tarrying for Any” (1582) that the true church is independent from the state and that Congregationalist principles (outlined above) were the foundation of any true church. In the early 1600s, Congregationalists were vigorously persecuted in England, a fact which led many to leave their homeland. The famed Pilgrims, who migrated to Plymouth colony in 1620 on the Mayflower, were separatist English Congregationalists. Within twenty years, twenty thousand English Congregationalists relocated to New England and established the colonies of Massachusetts and Connecticut. It is because of their overwhelming presence throughout the region in the 1600s that the colonial New England church is predominantly characterized as Congregationalist.
New England Congregationalism played a prominent role in both the First and Second Great Awakenings. America’s greatest theologian, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), who wrote copiously on the nature of revival, was a Congregationalist pastor-theologian from Northampton, Massachusetts during the First Great Awakening. The first major revivals of the Second Great Awakening occurred among Congregationalist churches in rural New England in the 1790s. In the early 1800s, Congregationalists were at the forefront of America’s growing evangelical empire:
- They founded Andover Seminary, the first Protestant seminary in North America (1808).
- They organized the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the first major missions sending agency in North America (1810).
- They evangelized the great “northwest” (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois) as America’s population patterns moved westward in the early decades of the 1800s.
Throughout much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Congregationalists were one of America’s largest evangelical denominations.
By the latter half of the 1800s, however, this story changed. Many theologians associated with New England Congregationalism found theological liberalism appealing, so much so that by 1900 many Congregationalist seminaries had moved away from their evangelical heritage with its strong commitment to Scripture as God’s Word, evangelism, and missions. Within a generation, this attitude trickled down into a large number of their congregations so that today only a handful of Congregational churches in the United States would identify themselves as evangelical and bible-believing. Two Congregationalist denominations of note are the following:
- The United Church of Church (UCC): the largest Congregationalist denomination in America today.
- The UCC champions numerous social and political causes including universal healthcare, social justice, LGBT rights and environmentalism.
- They currently have about 1 million members in about 5300 congregations across the United States.
- The Conservative Congregational Christian Conference (CCCC): a much smaller Congregational denomination which is more conservative, evangelical, and biblically centered.
- Park Street Church (Boston)