The Congregational Church had its roots in the Reformation period in England, where there were many who were ready for a more thorough reformation than that of slow-moving hierarchical Anglicanism. Since the days of John Wyclif the leaven of reformation had been at work. The influence of the Anabaptists and Luther was also felt in England. Contemporary documents repeatedly speak of the presence of Anabaptists in the eastern counties of England just across the English Channel from Holland where Anabaptists early developed strength. There was constant travel between the two countries, with exchange of ideas and influences. Dutch Anabaptists and Mennonites are credited by historians with contributing democratic ideas, religious and social, to the Reformation in these eastern counties in England. These ideas together with influences from the Zwinglian and Calvinistic continental Reformation, though not effective in the main line of the Anglican Church, came to expression in the Puritan and Independent movements.
The rift between the Puritan and the Anglican parties in the Church of England was too deep to bridge. The thoroughgoing Puritans were persecuted by church and state. Groups of uncompromising dissenters, who because they separated completely from the established church were called "Separatists" or "Independents," sprang up in Norwich, London, Gainsborough, Scrooby, and elsewhere in the second half of the 16th century. Many out of these had difficult times. Little bands of Biblical Christians, "harried" out of the land, fled to Holland, where they enjoyed complete religious freedom. But they were not happy there because of the difference in culture. They wished their children to grow up as Englishmen. For this reason they looked to the New World for their future home.
In 1620 the first shipload of these English Separatist immigrants, known as Pilgrims, landed in Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. They were followed year after year by Puritans from the homeland, who though not Separatists, preferred to leave England to be free to build the church establishment according to their convictions and to create a state church in New England. Large colonies of them, beginning with Massachusetts Bay Colony at Boston, were established here. Meanwhile the Civil Wars were raging between Parliament and the King of England, which stimulated emigration to the New World still more. Puritans of all types flocked to New England. Here there was no civil authority and no church except what the colonists themselves established. By the town meeting they formed a democratic government, and by the congregational meeting they organized a democratic church. Here American democracy and congregational church government were born out of necessity and the practical application of New Testament teaching. Both the earlier Pilgrim Separatists of Plymouth Colony and Puritans of strong Anglican leanings found this government of church and state so satisfactory that they soon all accepted and heartily cooperated in it. The unified state church which they created came to be called the Congregational Church, which was "established" in Massachusetts until 1833.
While these events were taking place in New England the Reformation in England was going forward rapidly. Under the leadership and protection of Cromwell, himself an Independent who granted full religious freedom, the Independent congregations grew steadily in numbers and influence. They came to be called "Congregationalists" because they held to a congregational autonomy in church government.
The first century of the Congregational Church in America was largely the history of New England, especially of Massachusetts and Connecticut. Not until the Mississippi Valley began to attract settlers from the seaboard states did the church spread west, southwest, and south. Congregational churches are today found in nearly every section of the United States.
The genius of the Congregational Church is clearly stated in its declaration on church polity and wider fellowship: "We believe in the freedom and responsibility of the individual soul and the right of private judgment. We hold to the autonomy of the local church and its independence of all ecclesiastical control. We cherish the fellowship of all the churches united in district, state, and national bodies, for counsel and cooperation in matters of common concern. While affirming the liberty of our churches, and the validity of our ministry, we hold to the unity and catholicity of the church of Christ and will unite with all its branches in hearty cooperation; and will earnestly seek, so far as in us lies, that the prayer of our Lord for His disciples may be answered, that they all may be one."
The foregoing statement of polity and recognition of other Christian bodies as also the Church of Christ has numerous parallels in Mennonite teaching and practice. Mennonite polity, except in some of the conservative groups in North America, such as the Mennonite Church (MC), is congregational. The local church is autonomous. District and general conferences are, or originally were, purely advisory. They are the instruments through which the local churches cooperate in tasks too large for a single congregation. These similar traditions and practices, continued over the centuries, are not merely coincidental. They indicate, as historical documents show, a common heritage in the formative years of the Reformation.
The Congregationalists were the pioneers among the American churches in foreign mission work. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, organized in 1810, maintained (in the 1950s) missions in Southwest and West Africa, in Turkey, Syria, India, Ceylon, China, Japan, the Philippines, the Pacific Islands, Mexico, Spain, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia. The Board of Home Missions, continued the work of the American Missionary Association, the Congregational Church Building Society, and the Home Missionary Society, did a similar work in the homeland.
In 1931 the Congregational Church and General Convention of the Christian Church united to form one body, assuming the name Congregational Christian Church. At the time of the merger the Christian Church had 112,326 members while the Congregational Church had a membership of 939,130 in the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii. A further merger between the Congregational Christian Church and the Evangelical Reformed Church of the United States was halted by the courts in 1950.
In 1952 there were 5,626 Congregational Christian churches in the United States, with a total membership of 1,241,477. The Congregationalists in 1928 in England had 438,000 members. Unfortunately the exact relation between continental Anabaptism and English Anabaptism and Congregationalism has not been established.
Atkins, Gaius Glenn and Frederick Louis Fagler. History of American Congregationalism. Boston: Pilgrim Press, 1942.
Dale, Robert William. The History of English Congregationalism. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1907.
Walker, Williston. The Creeds and Platforms of Congregationalism. New York: Scribner, 1893.
Walker, Williston. The Congregationalists. 1894.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 691-692. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
©1996-2013 by the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. All rights reserved.
To cite this page:
MLA style: Whitmer, Paul E. "Congregational Church." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 21 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/congregational_church.
APA style: Whitmer, Paul E. (1953). Congregational Church. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 21 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/congregational_church.