Congregationalism

This may be traced back to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, whose objective for the church in England was an enforced uniformity. There were those, however, who thought otherwise. Puritans* wanted to see the national church reorganized on presbyterian rather than episcopal lines. A few others repudiated the whole concept of a state church and favored the “gathered church” principle. These became known as “Separatists”* and were the forerunners of those who later were termed “Congregationalists.” They contended that the church should consist only of those who had responded to the call of Christ and who had covenanted with Him and with each other to live together as His disciples.

A leading figure among the Separatists was Robert Browne,* who in 1582 published in Holland his famous treatise, “Reformation without tarrying for any,” in which he set forth his congregationalist principles. He asserted that “the Church planted or gathered is a company or number of Christians or believers, which, by a willing covenant made with their God, are under the government of God and Christ and keep His laws in one holy communion.” Such churches, he claimed, are subject neither to bishops nor magistrates. Ordination is not vested in elders, but is in the hands of the whole church. In East Anglia and in London, around Gainsborough and in the West country, companies of men and women put Browne's teaching into practice. Rather than submit to ecclesiastical regimentation, many sought religious freedom in Holland, and some of these later crossed the Atlantic where churches of the congregational pattern became one of the formative influences in the New World.

It was from John Robinson's church at Leyden that the Pilgrim Fathers set off in 1620 in the Mayflower. Congregationalism became the established order in Connecticut and Massachusetts until 1818 and 1824. Meanwhile, in England the pattern of church life taught by Robert Browne spread with the growth of Congregational and Baptist churches throughout the country.

Following the civil wars of 1642-46 and 1647-48, Oliver Cromwell* assumed power, and the direction of the religious life of the country was shared between Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Baptists. Insistence upon the independence of the local Christian community was never regarded as precluding a loose fellowship of independent local churches for purposes of mutual consultation and edification, and in 1832 the Congregational Union of England and Wales was formed. The local church is entitled to manage its own affairs, determine its own forms of worship, and call its own minister.

The officers of a Congregational church are usually a minister, a diaconate, and a church secretary and treasurer. Membership of a Congregational church is on profession of personal faith in Christ as Savior and Lord, and new members are normally welcomed by the giving of the right hand of fellowship at a Communion service. The church meeting is the assembly of the members of the church, gathered under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to discuss and decide matters affecting the life of the church. The call to a minister to assume the pastorate of a local church is issued by the church meeting. Deacons are elected by the membership to assist the minister in the administration of the church and also to share with him pastoral responsibilities. The concept of the “gathered church” as set forth by Robert Browne has had a profound effect upon the British and American ways of life. The spiritual principles upon which this doctrine of the church rests have been a source of great strength and inspiration, particularly in times of persecution.

In Britain, Congregationalism took a decisive step in 1966 when local Congregational churches were invited to covenant together to form the Congregational Church. This step has since been followed by the union with the Presbyterian Church of England to form the United Reformed Church.* With this new development, Congregationalism, as traditionally understood, disappears from the scene in Britain, although it is still the basis of church order in Baptist churches, in a growing number of independent evangelical churches, in those Congregational churches which voted not to enter into the scheme of union, and in a number of smaller denominations.

Missionary interest in Congregational churches has historically found expression through the London Missionary Society founded in 1795, which in 1966 became the Congregational Council for World Mission. Former LMS missionaries have included such illustrious names as James Chalmers,* David Livingstone, and John Williams.*

At the world level, Congregationalism has been closely involved with the ecumenical movement, and this fact no doubt explains to some extent the underlying reasons for the several mergers which have taken place in various countries between Congregational, Presbyterian and, in some cases, Methodist churches. The general trend in Congregationalism worldwide has been away from independency.

In 1949 the International Congregational Council* came into being following a conference in Boston in the USA. At that time it was reckoned that Congregational Church members throughout the world numbered just under 2.5 million, of whom well over half were in the USA. Both Scotland and Ireland have had separate Congregational unions, and in Wales the Union of Welsh Independents has existed as a distinct body. Most of the Commonwealth countries have had their own Congregational unions. On the continent of Europe, Congregationalism has had close links with the Mission Covenant churches of Scandinavia, the Dutch Remonstrant Church, and the United Protestant Church of the Palatinate. At Nairobi in 1970 the International Congregational Council was dissolved to make way for the World Alliance of Reformed Churches* (Presbyterian and Congregational).

In 1919 moderators were introduced into Congregationalism-men charged with the spiritual oversight of churches in different geographical areas, with no legal authority over the churches, but available to give advice. Each year Congregationalists have met together in an annual assembly to which each church has sent its representatives. A chairman, either minister or lay, has been elected annually. Inevitably the newly formed United Reformed Church involves a number of modifications in these procedures.

Congregationalists have, generally speaking, set themselves against credal tests for church membership. They have prided themselves on their breadth of understanding and tolerant spirit. While from some points of view this has been their strength, it has also been a weakness in that as a denomination Congregationalism has been particularly open to liberal and modernistic teaching; so much so that some Congregationalists have at times approximated to a Unitarian position theologically.

Erik Routley in his book, The Story of Congregationalism, makes this observation: “When Higher Criticism came, Congregationalists drank more deeply of it than did any of the others. Congregationalism freed by its new federation from the bondage of parochialism, and freed traditionally by its intellectual ethos from any risk of becoming mentally stagnant, offered enthusiastic hospitality to the new critical teachings. . . .” In spite of these tendencies, there has always remained a small but closely knit group of evangelical Christians. Since 1947 the Congregational Evangelical Revival Fellowship has served as a rallying point for most of the more evangelically inclined ministers and members of Congregational churches.

The Congregationalist system has often wrongly been described as democratic, whereas a more correct, even if somewhat idealistic, description would be Christocentric. It is not surprising that, for the most part, Congregational churches have tended to be relatively small in membership-a large congregation finds it less practicable to work out the principle of Christocracy as expressed through the medium of the church meeting. There have, however, been a number of outstanding Congregational churches which have been served by such eminent preachers as R.W. Dale,* J.H. Jowett,* G. Campbell Morgan,* and Joseph Parker.* Among distinguished British theologians one could mention Sydney Cave, A.E. Garvie, P.T. Forsyth,* J.S. Whale, and Nathaniel Micklem.

Undoubtedly the greatest contribution which Congregationalism has made to the church generally is its whole concept of the local church as a Christ-ruled fellowship. Many would feel that the decline of Congregationalism in modern times is largely due to the fact that a humanistic liberalism affected the denomination to such a large extent.

H.M. Dexter, The Congregationalism of the Last Three Hundred Years (1880); R.W. Dale, Manual of Congregational Principles (1884), and History of English Congregationalism (ed. A.W. Dale, 1907); W. Walker, The Creeds and Platforms of Congregationalism (1893); W.E. Barton, The Law of Congregational Usage (rev. ed., 1923); W.B. Selbie, Congregationalism (1927); R.P. Stearns, Congregationalism in the Dutch Netherlands (1940); G.G. Atkins and F.L. Fagley, History of American Congregationalism (1942); A. Peel and D. Horton, International Congregationalism (1949); G.F. Nuttall, Congregationalism (1951); D. Horton, Congregationalism (1952); D. Jenkins, Congregationalism: A Restatement (1954); P. Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (2 vols., 1961); R.T. Jones, Congregationalism in England, 1622-1962 (1962); W.W. Sweet, The Congregationalists (Religion on the American Frontier, vol. 3, 1964).