THE CONGREGATIONAL CHRISTIAN TRADITION
The Congregational Christian Tradition in North America has a long and rich history, which stretches back over four hundred years. At its core, it is about women and men who voluntarily came together into religious community, cherishing an ideal dating back to the English Reformation of autonomous local churches free from liturgical ceremony and hierarchical control. They zealously guarded the right of the congregation to administer its own affairs, select its own leaders, and allow each member a say in the governance of the church.
What we call the Congregational Christian Tradition today is made up of different groups who emerged at different times and places, but who shared these core values of individual responsibility and community autonomy. Foremost among these groups are the Congregationalists, the Christians, and the Afro-Christians. The Congregational Library & Archives strives to collect materials documenting their histories and to tell their stories through research and programming.
A Brief History of the Congregational Christian Tradition
Congregational churches trace their origins to sixteenth-century England, where they were one part of a large and diverse effort to reform the Church of England. After King Henry VIII parted ways with the Roman Catholic Church over his marriage problems, the Church of England, or the Anglican Church, as it was also called, kept many forms of Catholicism—the celebration of mass, ceremonial "vestments" for the clergy, and the hierarchy of archbishops and bishops—but under the authority of the English king rather than the Pope.
What began as a political change, however, ended up forever changing the landscape of religion in Great Britain and the United States.
The dissenters who opposed the Church of England were known as "Puritans," at the time a derogatory reference to their uncompromising zeal for simplicity in worship and church organization. They preferred to call themselves "the Reformed," people following the teaching and practice of the Protestant reformer John Calvin.
The first Congregationalists were Independents, Puritans who believed each church should be a gathering of believers joined together under a covenant agreement with the power to choose their own minister. Beyond that, they disagreed about the likelihood of reforming the Church of England and the need for believers to be separated from its corrupting influences.
Pilgrims and Puritans
Though people often use these two names interchangeably, the two were distinct groups, both in England and in North America. The Pilgrims who first arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620 were a small group of Separatist Independents who had fled England to establish a "pure" church in the New World, free from Anglican control.
Those who stayed in England resisted the Pilgrims' call for separation, hoping they could change the Anglican Church from within. Under Archbishop William Laud, prospects for change grew dim, and in the 1630s and 1640s, thousands of Puritans left England and settled in Massachusetts Bay. Despite moving across an ocean, they did not abandon their goal of reforming the English church. New England was to be a "city on a hill," an ideal Christian society that might serve as an example to the world.
New England's Puritans were not the dour, witch-hunting kill-joys of American myth and legend. They were in many ways typical Elizabethan English men and women who enjoyed good ale and good company, who also held their religious beliefs with deep personal intensity. Early on they flourished in New England, buoyed by the conviction that they were chosen by God to play a central role in the unfolding of human history. This confidence did not endear them to their critics, then or now.
Churches and church leaders played an important role in shaping New England society, but they had no direct political power. In Puritan theology, church and state had separate roles and responsibilities; although magistrates and ministers worked together to make sure that godly standards prevailed. This meant that everyone in the Massachusetts Bay colony, whether a Puritan or not, had to attend church and obey the laws of the Commonwealth.
Today, this requirement looks like intolerance of the worst kind—though they were religious dissenters in England, the New England Puritans refused to allow anyone else the same freedom. But the truth is that no one anywhere in Europe believed that religion should be a personal choice: the church was an arm of the government, and rulers always decided how their people would worship. The Puritan commonwealth, the city on a hill, was also something more than a New World colony. It was a "holy experiment," a place where a dedicated band of believers would show the world what Jesus Christ really intended.
In New England, Independents became Congregationalists. This means that though individual churches were "sufficient," meaning that they ran their affairs without intrusion from outside, they were also part of a network of mutual obligation and "watch care." Local churches regularly consulted each other on difficult questions about calling ministers or disciplining members. There was no such thing as a Congregational handbook that everyone could follow.
In 1648, the ministers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony met together to draw up the Cambridge Platform, a document that laid out standards for ordaining ministers, accepting new church members, and cooperation among local churches. This would be the closest Congregationalists would come to a constitution and the last time they would all meet together for the next two centuries. Congregationalism in Connecticut took a slightly different tack: the Saybrook Platform of 1708 allowed for ministers to meet together in consociations and associations and gave them power to make binding decisions over individual churches.
In all Congregational churches members held equal power, all of them responsible to each other under the covenant that formed the basis of their life together. In fact, ministers first became church members before he could be chosen and ordained by the church. Even then the minister's power was subject to the will of the congregation. He led by their consent.
Were Congregational churches democratic? The connection with later events in New England, especially the American Revolution, does suggest that something important was happening in the Puritan commonwealth. But of course, not everyone had the right to vote. Women had no official voice in church matters and dissenting Baptists and Quakers, when they were not being forcibly banished, still had to pay taxes for church support. But in other very important ways, Congregational New England was unique in the seventeenth-century world. Ordinary citizens had unprecedented power to make decisions about land and property and to hold their leaders in check.
The Eighteenth Century Evangelical Revival
The Congregational Way required a great deal of mutual trust and personal commitment and was not always easy to sustain. In many of the original Puritan churches, potential members had to testify to a religious conversion experience in order to join and pass muster before the minister, elders, and the rest of the congregation. Within a generation of the first settlements, Puritan leaders had to re-formulate the rules for church membership to avoid serious decline. The "Half-Way Covenant" of 1662 allowed non-members to have their children baptized, a move that raised as many problems as it solved. To many, it suggested that New England's glory was past.
The transatlantic religious revival known as the Great Awakening reinvigorated spiritual zeal, but came with a cost. During the 1740s, under the fiery preaching of traveling evangelists like George Whitefield, Gilbert Tennent, and James Davenport, thousands of laypeople experienced dramatic conversions—and then became increasingly critical of their ministers.
All across New England, Congregational churches split into factions—the New Lights supporting the revival and the Old Lights wary of its emotional excesses. While some New Lights eventually returned to the fold, many others left to become Baptists. The Old Lights, Congregationalists who wanted a religion answerable to the Age of Reason, were the forerunners of Unitarianism. Intractable differences over Calvinist theology led to separation and the formation of the American Unitarian Association in 1825.
Revival enthusiasm also generated a variety of intellectually sophisticated responses to the problem of religious "enthusiasm" in an age of scientific learning, most notably in the works of Congregational minister Jonathan Edwards. As a pastor in Northampton, Massachusetts, during the height of the Awakening, Edwards' defense of "religious affections" is a classic melding of "head" and "heart" in American Protestant thought.
Denominational Growth and Westward Expansion
American independence presented Congregationalists with obstacles as well as opportunities. By the late 1700s, the New England clergy, sometimes referred to as the Standing Order, had become thoroughly used to their social privileges, especially tax support from their local communities. Outlawed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, religious establishment lingered on in Massachusetts until 1833.
Suddenly, Congregational churches faced a new world, one in which they would have to support themselves through the voluntary gifts of members. While they were still weathering the effects of losing some of their most prominent churches to Unitarianism, they would also face competition from other "upstart" denominations, the Methodists and Baptists.
Despite these obstacles, Congregationalists soon took the lead in "voluntary religion," as it was called. In 1801, Congregationalists signed a Plan of Union with the Presbyterian church, an effort to pool resources as both denominations moved westward. A good idea in theory, the sharing did not work well in practice, especially as denominational competition heated up and Presbyterians fell into controversy and a brief schism.
They also sponsored an impressive array of voluntary organizations, including some of the earliest on behalf of foreign missions. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (1810), the American Home Missionary Society (1826), the American Education Society (1815), and other similar outreach groups began as cooperative efforts with other Protestant churches, but were spearheaded primarily by Congregationalists.
Congregationalists like the Beecher family and schools like Ohio's Oberlin and Lane seminaries also led the way in social reform, particularly advocating for women's rights and abolition. The American Missionary Association, formed in 1846, joined the denomination's antislavery zeal with its commitments to education and evangelism, and in the post-Civil War years established elementary schools, colleges, and theological seminaries across the south for newly-freed slaves.
Emergence of the Christian Connection
The Christians were a small but vigorous group, with a similar ideal of simplicity and liberty of conscience. A product of the religious revivals of the early nineteenth century, they rejected all denominational labels, preferring to call themselves simply "Christians." They emphasized a simple standard of belief and behavior, following the way of Christ, rather than a set creed or catechism.
The Christian movement emerged following the American Revolution among people energized by republican and enlightenment values, and suspicious of hierarchy. They represented one of the first new religious movements to emerge in the United States. Unlike the Congregationalists, who traced their origins back to England, the Christians came together in the early nineteenth century from three distinct groups with origins in the south, west, and north.
James O’Kelly, a Revolutionary War veteran and Methodist lay preacher, embraced the Revolution’s call for democratic participation and questioned the reliance on hierarchy within Methodism. In the 1790s, O’Kelly inspired congregations in Virginia and North Carolina to separate from the Methodist Church to preserve greater autonomy over church decision making. They originally called themselves “Republican Methodists” but soon changed their name to simply “Christians.” His followers agreed on three core principles: Christ was the only head of the Church, Christian their only name, and the Bible their creed.
The great revival at Cane Ridge and other places in Kentucky in 1801 brought renewed fervor and new converts to a region of the nation newly settled by European Americans. Over time, however, men like Barton Warren Stone, a Presbyterian preacher, grew concerned about the overreaching of the local presbytery and its efforts to silence certain preachers. Stone eventually withdrew from the local presbytery and embraced the name “Christian,” in reference to Christ’s early disciples. Several of the men who withdrew with Stone later joined with the Shakers in the region.
In northern New England. Abner Jones and Elias Smith, began independently to found churches after spiritual journeys through other Protestant faiths. The two men rejected the names of those sects and nascent denominations and called themselves simply “Christian.” Others attracted to their preaching soon followed. Their early churches had three hallmarks: they went only by the name of Christian, they held Christ as their only master, and believed the New Testament to be their only rule.
A new mode of communication - the religious newspaper - brought these three geographically disparate religious movements into one in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. In the pages of the Herald of Gospel Liberty, subscribers from the south, west, and north, could read about communities which shared their religious values and beliefs, no matter how far distant. Area churches began to form into conferences and held regular meetings, the proceedings of which were reported in the Herald. Other publications soon emerged to do similar work. By 1832, they had formed themselves into a General Christian Conference with numerous regional associations. Tension over slaveholding in the United States led to the separation of Southern Christian churches from the General Conference to form their own convention in 1856.
A Progressive Legacy
Many of the nineteenth century's most innovative and influential thinkers were Congregationalists. Before the Civil War, a generation of theologians—including Samuel Hopkins, Joseph Bellamy, Nathaniel Emmons, and Nathaniel William Taylor—reworked Calvinism to mesh with the democratic values of American culture. In the mid-century, Hartford pastor Horace Bushnell pioneered a host of new ideas that would change the direction of American theology. In place of a separate, transcendent God, Bushnell emphasized immanence, God's involvement at every level of human society, even the most intimate interactions between parents and children.
During the late-nineteenth century, many Congregationalists, most notably pastor and writer Washington Gladden, were leaders in the Social Gospel movement. This was an effort to change all of society for the better,to establish the "kingdom of God on earth" by campaigning for workers' rights, education and health care for the poor, and clean and accessible cities.
Other Congregational theologians like Theodore Munger and Lyman Abbott pioneered the New Theology, a more optimistic and socially involved approach to Christianity. By the early twentieth century, these views were no longer those of the radical few but dominated the curriculum of most Congregational seminaries and were preached from church pulpits across the country.
When the Plan of Union with the Presbyterians fell apart, Congregationalists began to plan more aggressively for their own future. They met together in Albany, the first national gathering since the Cambridge Synod of 1648, and promised to raise financial support for western churches. Delayed by the Civil War, Congregational leaders met again in Boston in 1865, where they began to hammer out standards of church procedures (polity) and adopted a statement of faith, known as the Burial Hill Declaration.
Denominational organization came in 1871 with the formation of the National Council of Congregational Churches. With a constitution barely a page long, the National Council had power only to convene a national meeting every two (later three) years and held no authority over local churches.
Following the end of the American Civil War, free Blacks in North Carolina and Virginia quickly founded churches apart from white Christians. As one historian of the Afro-Christian tradition notes, “Although early Afro-Christians patterned their organization after the white Christian churches, they developed their own idiom, style of preaching, liturgy, and worship, which still prevail in many” Afro-Christian churches today. A ministry of hope pervaded worship in Afro-Christian churches, born of the needs of a people who faced suffering, oppression, and pain on a regular basis.
As Afro-Christian churches multiplied, they came together in larger organizational structures. By 1867, the Colored Christian Convention was formed and, within a decade, represented more than fifty churches in three conferences and ordained forty ministers. In 1892, the regional conferences organized themselves as the Afro-Christian Convention. Minutes from the 1916 meeting document the Convention had grown to include seven conferences, four mission churches in Guyana, and one mission church in Trinidad.
The early Afro-Christians valued education and opened a school by the early 1880s in Franklinton, North Carolina for training pastoral and lay leadership. Franklinton Christian College closed in the depths of the Great Depression in 1930, removing an important resource for the Afro Christian community. The white seminary at Elon was largely not open to them. Later in the twentieth century, Franklinton was reborn as the Franklinton Center at Bricks, which continues today as a conference center within the United Church of Christ.
Mergers and Divisions
In the early-twentieth century, Congregationalists were leaders in the ecumenical movement, a world-wide effort to build unity and reverse the denominational fragmentation of Protestant churches. In 1931, the General Convention of the Christian Churches, representing about 100,000 members, and the National Council of the Congregational Churches, with about one million members, joined to form the General Council of the Congregational Christian Churches.
Despite the 1931 national merger of Congregationalists and Christians, Afro Christians continued to operate independently. The formation of the Convention of the South in 1950 brought Black Christians and Congregationalists together in denominational life for the first time. Opportunities for education and fellowship increased over the post-war decade.
In 1957 the General Council of Congregational and Christian Churches merged with the Evangelical and Reformed Church, a denomination created by another ecumenical venture, to form the United Church of Christ (UCC). The formation of the United Church of Christ provided an opportunity for Afro Christians to join with four other streams to create a new denomination. While they agreed to join, the decision was not one taken lightly.
Not all Congregationalists followed this route, however. The Conservative Congregational Christian Conference (CCCC), formed in 1948, bringing together churches sharing a common commitment to evangelical theology. The National Association of Congregational Christian Churches (NACCC) provided a home for congregations and individuals who opposed the 1957 merger for polity reasons by creating a "referendum council" through which individual churches reserved the right to modify any act by a national body.
In many ways, Congregational Christian churches are at the heart of the American Protestant tradition. Their numbers have declined over the course of the last two centuries, but their influence on American thought and social conscience are still strong. As pioneers in education, social justice, and Christian unity, they have indelibly shaped contemporary American society.
To learn more about the history of Congregationalism, find recommendations for further reading in our Congregational Christian History Bibliography.