Congregational churches (also Congregationalist churches; Congregationalism) are Protestant churches in the Reformed tradition practicing congregationalist church governance, in which each congregation independently and autonomously runs its own affairs.
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Congregationalism, as defined by the Pew Research Center, is estimated to represent 0.5 percent of the worldwide Protestant population; though their polity-related customs and other ideas influenced significant parts of Protestantism, as well as other Christian congregations. The report defines it very narrowly, encompassing mainly denominations in the United States and the United Kingdom, which can trace their history back to nonconforming Protestants, Puritans, Separatists, Independents, English religious groups coming out of the English Civil War, and other English dissenters not satisfied with the degree to which the Church of England had been reformed.
Congregationalist tradition has a presence in the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and various island nations in the Pacific region. It has been introduced either by immigrant dissenter Protestants or by missionary organization such as the London Missionary Society. A number of evangelical Congregational churches are members of the World Evangelical Congregational Fellowship.
In the United Kingdom, many Congregational churches claim their descent from Protestant denominations formed on a theory of union published by the theologian and English separatist Robert Browne in 1582. Other accounts trace these origins further back to the London Underground Church of the 1560s. Ideas of nonconforming Protestants during the Puritan Reformation of the Church of England laid foundation for these churches. In England, the early Congregationalists were called Separatists or Independents to distinguish them from the similarly Calvinistic Presbyterians, whose churches embrace a polity based on the governance of elders. Congregationalists also differed with the Reformed churches using episcopalian church governance, which is usually led by a bishop.
Congregationalism in the United States traces its origins to the Puritans of New England, who wrote the Cambridge Platform of 1648 to describe the autonomy of the church and its association with others. Within the United States, the model of Congregational churches was carried by migrating settlers from New England into New York, then into the Old North West, and further. With their insistence on independent local bodies, they became important in many social reform movements, including abolitionism, temperance, and women's suffrage. Modern Congregationalism in the United States is largely split into three bodies: the United Church of Christ, the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches and the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference, which is the most theologically conservative.
Congregationalists believe their model of church governance fulfills the description of the early church and allows people the most direct relationship with God.
Congregationalism is more easily identified as a movement than a single denomination, given its distinguishing commitment to the complete autonomy of the local congregation. The idea that each distinct congregation fully constitutes the visible Body of the church can, however, be traced to John Wycliffe and the Lollard movement, which followed Wycliffe's removal from teaching authority in the Roman Catholic Church.
In the reign of Elizabeth I, the puritan movement pressed for the abolition of all Catholic ceremonies remaining in the Church of England, such as clerical vestments, the wedding ring and the sign of the cross. From 1570, more radical puritans also pressed for presbyterian structural reform - replacing episcopal hierarchy with an egalitarian network of local ministers cooperating through regional synods.
The Congregationalists went further, saying that each congregation should be independent and appoint its own ministers by a majority vote, authority being vested not in the minister or the bishop but in the people.
It is not certain when or by whom this idea first developed. It may have been in the London Underground Church under Richard Fitz in the late 1560s and 1570s. The Congregational historian Albert Peel argued that it was but accepted that the evidence for a fully thought out congregational ecclesiology is not was not overwhelming.
Robert Browne (1550–1633) was the first person to set out explicit congregational principles. ‘The meetings together … of every whole church, and of the elders therein, is above the apostle, above the prophet, the evangelist, the pastor, the teacher, and every particular elder.’ ‘The voice of the whole people, guided by the elders and the forwardest, is said [in Scripture] to be the voice of God.’
Henry Barrow (c. 1550–1593), John Greenwood (died 1593), John Penry (1559–1593), William Brewster (c. 1566–1644), Thomas Jollie (1629–1703) and John Robinson (1576–1625) were notable people who established dissenting churches separate from the Church of England.
The underground churches in England and exiles from Holland provided about 35 out of the 102 passengers on the Mayflower, which sailed from London in July 1620. They became known in history as the Pilgrim Fathers. The early Congregationalists sought to separate themselves from the Anglican church in every possible way and even eschewed having church buildings. They met in homes for many years.
In 1639 William Wroth, then Rector of the parish church at Llanvaches in Monmouthshire, established the first Independent Church in Wales "according to the New England pattern", i.e. Congregational. The Tabernacle United Reformed Church at Llanvaches survives to this day.
During the English Civil War, those who supported the Parliamentary cause were invited by Parliament to discuss religious matters. The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) was officially claimed to be the statement of faith for both the Church of England (Anglican/Episcopal) and Church of Scotland (Presbyterian), which was politically expedient for those in the Presbyterian dominated English Parliament who approved of the Solemn League and Covenant (1643).
After the Second Civil War, the New Model Army which was dominated by Congregationalists (or Independents) seized control of the parliament with Pride's purge (1648), arranged for the trial and execution of Charles I in January 1649 and subsequently introduced a republican Commonwealth dominated by Independents such as Oliver Cromwell. This government lasted until 1660 when the monarch was restored and Episcopalism was re-established (see the Penal Laws and Great Ejection). In 1662, two years after the Restoration, two thousand Independent, Presbyterian and congregational ministers were evicted from their parishes as dissenters and not being in Holy Orders conferred by bishops. In 1658 (during the interregnum) the Congregationalists created their own version of the Westminster Confession, called the Savoy Declaration, which remains the principal subordinate standard of Congregationalism.
A summary of Congregationalism in Scotland see the paper presented to a joint meeting of the ministers of the United Reformed Church (Scottish Synod) and the Congregational Federation in Scotland by Rev'd A. Paterson is available online.
The two foundational tenets of Congregationalism are sola scriptura and the priesthood of believers. According to Congregationalist minister Charles Edward Jefferson, the priesthood of believers means that "Every believer is a priest and ... every seeking child of God is given directly wisdom, guidance, power." This belief leads Congregationalist Christians to embrace Congregationalist polity, which holds that the members of a local church have the right to decide their church's forms of worship, confessional statements, choose their own officers, and administer their own affairs without any outside interference.
The mission to Argentina was the second foreign field tended by German Congregationalists. The work in South America began in 1921 when four Argentine churches urgently requested that denominational recognition be given to George Geier, who was serving them. The Illinois Conference licensed Geier, who worked among Germans from Russia who were very similar to their kin in the United States and in Canada. The South American Germans from Russia had learned about Congregationalism in letters from relatives in the United States. In 1924 general missionary John Hoelzer, while in Argentina for a brief visit, organised six churches.
In 1977, most congregations of the Congregational Union of Australia merged with all Churches of the Methodist Church of Australasia and a majority of Churches of the Presbyterian Church of Australia to form the Uniting Church in Australia.
Those congregations that did not join the Uniting Church formed the Fellowship of Congregational Churches or continued as Presbyterians. Some more ecumenically minded Congregationalists left the Fellowship of Congregational Churches in 1995 and formed the Congregational Federation of Australia.
Congregationalists (called "Evangelicals" in Bulgaria; the word "Protestant" is not used) were among the first Protestant missionaries to the Ottoman Empire and to the Northwestern part of the European Ottoman Empire which is now Bulgaria, where their work to convert these Orthodox Christians was unhampered by the death penalty imposed by the Ottomans on Muslim converts to Christianity. These missionaries were significant contributors to the Bulgarian National Revival movement. Today, Protestantism in Bulgaria represents the third largest religious group, behind Orthodox and Muslim. Missionaries from the United States first arrived in 1857–58, sent to Istanbul by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). The ABCFM was proposed in 1810 by the Congregationalist graduates of Williams College, MA, and was chartered in 1812 to support missions by Congregationalists, Presbyterian (1812–1870), Dutch-Reformed (1819–1857) and other denominational members. The ABCFM focused its efforts on southern Bulgaria and the Methodist Church on the region north of the Balkan Mountains (Stara Planina, or "Old Mountains"). In 1857, Cyrus Hamlin and Charles Morse established three missionary centres in southern Bulgaria – in Odrin (Edirne, former capital city of the Ottoman Empire, in Turkey), Plovdiv and Stara Zagora. They were joined in 1859 by Russian-born naturalized America Frederic Flocken in 1859. American Presbyterian Minister Elias Riggs commissioned, supported and edited the work of Bulgarian monk Neofit Rilski to create a Bible translations into Bulgarian which was then distributed widely in Bulgaria in 1871 and thereafter. This effort was supported by Congregationalist missionary Albert Long, Konstantin Fotinov, Hristodul Sechan-Nikolov and Petko Slaveikov. Reportedly, 2,000 copies of the newly translated Bulgarian language New Testament were sold within the first two weeks.
Congregational churches were established in Bansko, Veliko Turnovo, and Svishtov between 1840 and 1878, followed by Sofia in 1899. By 1909, there were 19 Congregational churches, with a total congregation of 1,456 in southern Bulgaria offering normal Sunday services, Sunday schools for children, biblical instruction for adults; as well as women's groups and youth groups. Summer Bible schools were held annually from 1896 to 1948.
Congregationalists led by Dr James F. Clarke opened Bulgaria's first Protestant primary school for boys in Plovdiv in 1860, followed three years later by a primary school for girls in Stara Zagora. In 1871 the two schools were moved to Samokov and merged as the American College, now considered the oldest American educational institution outside the US. In 1928, new facilities were constructed in Sofia, and the Samokov operation transferred to the American College of Sofia (ACS), now operated at a very high level by the Sofia American Schools, Inc.
In 1874, a Bible College was opened in Ruse, Bulgaria for people wanting to become pastors. At the 1876 annual conference of missionaries, the beginning of organizational activity in the country was established. The evangelical churches of Bulgaria formed a united association in 1909.
The missionaries played a significant role in assisting the Bulgarians throw off "the Turkish Yoke", which included publishing the magazine Zornitsa (Зорница, "Dawn"), founded in 1864 by the initiative of Riggs and Long. Zornitsa became the most powerful and most widespread newspaper of the Bulgarian Renaissance. A small roadside marker on Bulgarian Highway 19 in the Rila Mountains, close to Gradevo commemorates the support given the Bulgarian Resistance by these early Congregationalist missionaries.
On 3 September 1901 Congregationalist missionaries came to world attention in the Miss Stone Affair when missionary Ellen Maria Stone, of Roxbury, Massachusetts, and her pregnant fellow missionary friend Macedonian-Bulgarian Katerina Stefanova–Tsilka, wife of an Albanian Protestant minister, were kidnapped while traveling between Bansko and Gorna Dzhumaya (now Blagoevgrad), by an Internal Macedonian-Adrianople Revolutionary Organization detachment led by the voivoda Yane Sandanski and the sub-voivodas Hristo Chernopeev and Krǎstyo Asenov and ransomed to provide funds for revolutionary activities. Eventually, a heavy ransom (14,000 Ottoman lira (about US$62,000 at 1902 gold prices or $5 million at 2012 gold prices) raised by public subscription in the USA was paid on 18 January 1902 in Bansko and the hostages (now including a newborn baby) were released on 2 February near Strumica—a full five months after being kidnapped. Widely covered by the media at the time, the event has been often dubbed "America's first modern hostage crisis".
The Bulgarian royal house, of Catholic German extraction, was unsympathetic to the American inspired Protestants, and this mood became worse when Bulgaria sided with Germany in WWI and WWII. Matters became much worse when the Bulgarian Communist Party took power in 1944. Like the Royal Family, it too saw Protestantism closely linked to the West and hence more politically dangerous than traditional Orthodox Christianity. This prompted repressive legislation in the form of "Regulations for the Organization and Administration of the Evangelical Churches in the People's Republic of Bulgaria" and resulted in the harshest government repression, possibly the worst in the entire Eastern Bloc, intended to extinguish Protestantism altogether. Mass arrests of pastors (and often their families), torture, long prison sentences (including four life sentences) and even disappearance were common. Similar tactics were used on parishioners. In fifteen highly publicized mock show-trials between 8 February and 8 March 1949, all the accused pastors confessed to a range of charges against them, including treason, spying (for both the US and Yugoslavia), black marketing, and various immoral acts. State appointed pastors were foist on surviving congregations. As late as the 1980s, imprisonment and exile were still employed to destroy the remaining Protestant churches. The Congregationalist magazine "Zornitsa" was banned; Bibles became unobtainable. As a result, the number of Congregationalists is small and estimated by Paul Mojzes in 1982 to number about 5,000, in 20 churches. (Total Protestants in Bulgaria were estimated in 1965 to have been between 10,000 and 20,000.) More recent estimates indicate enrollment in Protestant ("Evangelical" or "Gospel") churches of between 100,000 and 200,000, presumably reflecting the success of more recent missionary efforts of evangelical groups.
In Canada, the first foreign field, thirty-one churches that had been affiliated with the General Conference became part of the United Church of Canada when that denomination was founded in 1925 by the merger of the Canadian Congregationalist and Methodist churches, and two-thirds of the congregations of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. In 1988, a number of UCC congregations separated from the national church, which they felt was moving away theologically and in practice from Biblical Christianity. Many of the former UCC congregations banded together as the new Congregational Christian Churches in Canada.
The Congregational Christian Churches in Canada (or 4Cs) is an evangelical, Protestant, Christian denomination, headquartered in Brantford, Ontario, and a member of the World Evangelical Congregational Fellowship. The name "congregational" generally describes its preferred organizational style, which promotes local church autonomy and ownership, while fostering fellowship and accountability between churches at the National level.
The Congregational Union of Ireland was founded in 1829 and currently has around 26 member churches. In 1899 it absorbed the Irish Evangelical Society. One of its ministers, Robert McEvoy, is secretary of an evangelical and creationist pressure group, the Caleb Foundation.
The Congregational Christian Church of Samoa is one of the largest group of churches throughout the Pacific Region. It was founded in 1830 by the London Missionary Society missionary John Williams on the island of Savai'i in the village of Sapapali'i. As the church grew it established and continues to support theological colleges in Samoa and Fiji. There are over 100,000 members attending over 2,000 congregations throughout the world, most of which are located in Samoa, American Samoa, New Zealand, Australia and America. The Christian Congregational Church of Jamaica falls under the constitution of the Samoan Church.
Congregational churches were brought to the Cape Colony by British settlers.
In 1972, about three-quarters of English Congregational churches merged with the Presbyterian Church of England to form the United Reformed Church (URC). However, about 600 Congregational churches have continued in their historic independent tradition. Under the United Reformed Church Act 1972 that dealt with the financial and property issues arising from the merger between what had become by then the Congregational Church of England and Wales and the Presbyterian Church of England, certain assets were divided between the various parties.
In England, there are three main groups of continuing Congregationalists. These are the Congregational Federation, which has offices in Nottingham and Manchester, the Evangelical Fellowship of Congregational Churches, and about 100 Congregational churches that are loosely federated with other congregations in the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, or are unaffiliated.
In 1981, the United Reformed Church merged with the Re-formed Association of Churches of Christ and, in 2000, just over half of the churches in the Congregational Union of Scotland also joined the United Reformed Church (see the United Reformed Church Act 2000). The remainder of Congregational churches in Scotland joined the Congregational Federation.
Wales traditionally is the part which has the largest share of Congregationalists among the population, most Congregationalists being members of Undeb yr Annibynwyr Cymraeg (the Union of Welsh Independents), which is particularly important in Carmarthenshire and Brecknockshire.
The London Missionary Society was effectively the world mission arm of British Congregationalists. It sponsored missionaries including Eric Liddell and David Livingstone. As thinking developed, particularly in the context of decolonisation, and churches wanted to recognise the gifts of people of the South, the London Missionary Society transformed into the Council for World Mission.
In the United States, the Congregational tradition traces its origins mainly to Puritan settlers of colonial New England. Congregational churches have had an important impact on the political, religious and cultural history of the United States. Their practices concerning church governance influenced the early development of democratic institutions in New England, and many of the nation's oldest educational institutions, such as Harvard and Yale University, were founded to train Congregational clergy. In the 21st century, the Congregational tradition is represented by the United Church of Christ, the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches, and the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference.
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- Von Rohr, John. The Shaping of American Congregationalism 1620-1957 (1990).
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- Duffy, Eamon. The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, c.1400 to c.1580 (Cambridge, 1992)
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Older works by John Waddington
- Congregational Martyrs. London, 1861, intended to form part of a series of 'Historical Papers,' which, however, were not continued; 2nd ed. 1861
- Congregational Church History from the Reformation to 1662, London, 1862, awarded the bicentenary prize offered by the Congregational Union
- Surrey Congregational History, London, 1866, in which he dealt more particularly with the records of his own congregation.
- Congregational History, 5 vols., London, 1869–1880
- McConnell, Michael W. "Establishment and Disestablishment at the Founding, Part I: Establishment of Religion" William and Mary Law Review, Vol. 44, 2003, pp. 2105