- Congregationalism is a Protestant movement that grew out of the Reformation in England and evolved into several major denominations. It has always stressed a church polity that keeps power in the individual congregation.Congregationalism emerged in the 17th century as a branch of Puritanism. Most Puritans wanted to replace the episcopal organization of the Church of England with government by elders (lay ruling elders and clergy teaching elders) who would meet in presbyteries and synods, thus providing a more democratic and collective leadership to the church.A more radical critique began to emerge in the 16th century. In the 1580s Robert Browne (c. 1550-1633) argued for a church organized around autonomous congregations. Each congregation would start with a covenant agreement in which members joined themselves to God and then to one another. Members would then elect their own leaders: a pastor, one or more teachers, the elders, the deacons, and the widows, and convey to them the authority to act. Browne also developed procedures to receive new members and disfellowship recalcitrant members. Congregations would associate with other congregations through regional synods, whose power would be largely advisory.Congregationalists believed that it was possible for the entire Christian community to be reorganized along this pattern, but it was not until the Puritans landed in New England in the 1630s that they had a chance to put their program into operation. Here they worked out problems of organization, controversy, the status of nonchurch members, and the relationship with the state.As the Puritans came to power in England in the 1640s, Congregationalists seized the opportunity to state their case. Following the promulgation of the Westminster "Form of Presbyterian Church Government" in 1645, Congregationalists on both sides of the Atlantic moved to publish their alternative program for church governance while affirming their general acceptance of the Puritans' theological affirmations. In 1648, the New Englanders issued the Cambridge Platform and the British leadership the Savoy Declaration.These two documents have become the classic statements of the Congregational perspective.Following the restoration of the monarchy in England and the separation between church and state in the United States after the American Revolution, classical Congregationalism became a moot issue. The goal of a Congregationalist establishment relying on government support, with a single Christian congregation in each community, could not be achieved. Instead, Congregationalism evolved into a form of the Free Church operating as a minority in a religiously pluralistic culture. It retained its theological heritage as a would-be state church, most visibly demonstrated in its continued practice of infant BAPTISM.American Congregationalists experienced several mergers in the 20th century that eventually resulted in the United Church of Christ. The main branches of British Congregationalism merged into the United Reformed Church, though several groups, including the Scottish Congregational Church and the Union of Welsh independents, stayed out of the merger.Congregationalism made major contributions to the 19th-century Protestant missionary movement. it was the primary supporter of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions and the London Missionary SociETY (now the Council on World Missions). Through these two organizations, Congregational churches have emerged around the world. Most are now members of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, a reaffirmation of a shared Reformed theological heritage, though some of the more conservative Congregational churches now constitute the International Congregational Fellowship.Further reading:■ Jean-Jacques Bauswein and Lukas Vischner, eds. The Reformed Family Worldwide: A Survey of Reformed Churches, Theological Schools, and International Organizations (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1999)■ John Von Rohr, The Shaping of American Congregationalism, 1620-1957 (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1994)■ Williston Walker, ed. Creeds and Platforms of Congregationalism (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1991).
Encyclopedia of Protestantism. Gordon Melton. 2005.