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type of Protestant church organization in which each congregation, or local church, has free control of its own affairs. The underlying principle is that each local congregation has as its head Jesus alone and that the relations of the various congregations are those of fellow members in one common family of God. Congregationalism eliminated bishops and presbyteries.

History of the Movement

In Great Britain

The movement to which the name came to be applied began in the 16th and 17th cent. in England in a revolt against the Established Church. Robert BrowneBrowne, Robert,
c.1550–1633, English clergyman and leader of a group of early separatists popularly known as Brownists. Browne conceived of the church as a self-governing local body of experiential believers in Jesus.
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 published in 1582 the first theoretical exposition of Congregational principles and expressed the position of some of those separatistsseparatists,
in religion, those bodies of Christians who withdrew from the Church of England. They desired freedom from church and civil authority, control of each congregation by its membership, and changes in ritual. In the 16th cent.
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. Churches established on such lines were started very early in the 17th cent. in Gainsborough and Scrooby, but government opposition drove them into exile in Holland.

Not until the Protectorate did the Congregationalists make much progress. About that time the name IndependentsIndependents,
in religion, those bodies of Christians who claim freedom from ecclesiastical and civil authority for their individual churches. They hold that each congregation should have control of its own affairs.
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 was first introduced, a term long common in Great Britain (it is still used in Wales) but seldom used in America. In 1658, when the Savoy Synod met in London, over 100 churches were represented. With the Restoration came repression for the Independents, partly relieved by the Toleration Act of 1689.

A marked tendency among English Congregationalists in the 19th cent. was toward combination in larger fellowship. Churches of this denomination formed a union in Scotland in 1812 and in Ireland in 1829; in 1831 the Congregational Union of England and Wales was established. The Congregational Union and the Evangelical Union were united in 1896. Membership in Congregational churches in Great Britain declined in the 20th cent. Congregationalists have been active in ecumenical activities, and in 1972 most British Congregationalists and Presbyterians merged to form the United Reform Church.

In America

Congregationalism was carried to America in 1620 by the PilgrimsPilgrims,
in American history, the group of separatists and other individuals who were the founders of Plymouth Colony. The name Pilgrim Fathers is given to those members who made the first crossing on the Mayflower.
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, who were members of John Robinson's congregation in Holland, originally of Scrooby, England. In America, Congregationalism reached its greatest public influence and largest membership. In New England numerous communities were established based on Congregational-type religious principles. In 1648 in the Cambridge PlatformCambridge Platform,
declaration of principles of church government and discipline, forming in fact a constitution of the Congregational churches. It was adopted (1648) by a church synod at Cambridge, Mass., and remains the basis of the temporal government of the churches.
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 a summary of principles of church government and discipline was drawn up. Congregationalists took a leading part in the Great AwakeningGreat Awakening,
series of religious revivals that swept over the American colonies about the middle of the 18th cent. It resulted in doctrinal changes and influenced social and political thought. In New England it was started (1734) by the rousing preaching of Jonathan Edwards.
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 that, in New England, was started in 1734 by the preaching of Jonathan EdwardsEdwards, Jonathan,
1703–58, American theologian and metaphysician, b. East Windsor (then in Windsor), Conn. He was a precocious child, early interested in things scientific, intellectual, and spiritual.
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. As the country expanded, Congregational churches were established in the newly opened frontier regions.

In 1810 the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions began its work; in 1826 the American Home Missionary Society was formed. These were followed in 1846 by the American Missionary Association, primarily devoted to missionary work among African Americans and Native Americans. The early part of the 19th cent. brought the Unitarian secession, when over 100 churches left the main Congregational body.

Congregational churches began to meet in local and then in statewide conferences, out of which developed (1871) the National Council of the Congregational Churches of the United States. But each local church remained free to make its own declaration of faith and free to decide its own form of worship; in the conduct of the local church each member was granted an equal voice. The principal assistants of the pastor are the deacons. In education Congregationalists were always prominent, but the institutions of their founding—Harvard, Yale, Williams, Amherst, Oberlin, and many others—have generally been free from sectarianism.

The trend toward broader fellowship and larger cooperation was notably indicated in the merging in 1931 of the National Council of the Congregational Churches of the United States and the General Convention of the Christian Church (see Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)Christian Church (Disciples of Christ),
sometimes called Campbellites, a Protestant religious body founded early in the 19th cent. in the United States. Its primary thesis is that the Bible alone should form the basis for faith and conduct, each individual interpreting the Bible
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) to form the General Council of the Congregational and Christian Churches of the United States. A move to unite the Congregational Christian Churches with the Evangelical and Reformed Church was approved by the councils of the two denominations in 1957, forming the United Church of ChristUnited Church of Christ,
American Protestant denomination formed in 1957 by a merger of the General Council of Congregational Christian Churches (see Congregationalism) and the Evangelical and Reformed Church.
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. The National Association of Congregational Christian Churches was formed in 1955 by churches that chose not to join in the merger; it had about 70,000 members in 1997.


See W. Walker, The Creeds and Platforms of Congregationalism (1907, repr. 1960); A. A. Rouner, Jr., The Congregational Way of Life (1960); H. Davies, The English Free Churches (2d ed. 1963); M. L. Starkey, The Congregational Way (1966).

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(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Congregationalism is a form of church government as well as a denominational tradition. It refers to the fact that the power of the denomination lies in individual congregations rather than in a hierarchy of bishops or priests. Every congregation owns its own property, elects its own minister, and decides its own policies. It is democracy in its purest form, with each church member having one vote. Not even the minister can veto or act against the will of the majority of the congregation.

The concept was brought to the shores of New England by the first European settlers. In 1648, the Pilgrims of Plymouth Plantation and the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony agreed on certain principles of church governance in a statement called the Cambridge Platform. In those days, church membership was a prerequisite for voting in secular elections (see Half-way Covenant). Although Puritan Roger Williams (1600-1683), founder of the State of Rhode Island, felt the church had too much say over the politics of the community, it was a long time before the white meeting house on the town common no longer served as the place of town meeting, with its minister as town moderator.

The first Congregationalists were staunch Calvinists. They believed that God, through his predestined will, had brought them to this "New Jerusalem" to subdue the Indians, kill off the wolves, and cut down the forests so honest farmers could build stone walls and harvest their crops. Remembered for their "scarlet letters" and community stocks, they were a no-nonsense people who also built Harvard University and sent forth their worshipers on only a minute's notice to fight the British.

Over the years, as was the case for most Protestant churches, they split and formed offshoot denominations. But their democratic form of church government led to some uniquely difficult historical dilemmas.

The Trinitarian/Unitarian split following the Revolutionary War offers a good illustration. A spirit of independence permeated New England. A new liberal social consciousness was abroad. Part of this consciousness, popular with shopkeepers and schoolteachers alike, was what was called "natural religion" or "essential Christianity." "Progress" was the new watchword, and part of progress meant freedom from church dogma as well as freedom from taxation without representation.

Many of the founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson being only one example, were not Christians so much as they were Deists. They believed in God but didn't accept the Trinitarian definition of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit interceding in human lives. They perceived God in Unitarian terms, with one aspect, not three, and as something like the "Great Watchmaker" (see God) who had wound up the universe and now expected it to run on its own.

Picture, now, a typical church scenario: It's time to call a new minister. The church in question has an even one hundred members, all of whom have one vote. After much discussion and argument, the church finally decides, by a vote of fortynine to fifty-one, to call a preacher who was educated at conservative, Trinitarian Yale rather than liberal, Unitarian-leaning Harvard.

The people have voted, but there are still forty-nine closet Unitarians who are members of the church. And being stubborn Yankees, they will not quietly accept the decision of the majority. They might decide to build another church across the street and call the minister they voted for. Or they might decide to stay and fight a guerrilla war from within the ranks.

In an age of denominational organization, it was only a matter of time before churches started banding together in a formal way. The voluntary denomination known as Congregationalists, mostly in New England, began to morph and jockey for position in various ways. Some churches voted to stay independent of any denominational ties. Others joined together according to theological similarities. Groups such as the Conservative Christian Congregational Churches and the Congregational Christian Churches were formed. In 1957 the Congregational Christian Churches, a large group of predominantly liberal congregations especially concerned with what they considered key issues of social justice, voted to make an ecumenical attempt to undo the divisive aspect of the Protestant Reformation. Merging with the Evangelical and Reformed Church, another like-minded Protestant tradition, they formed the United Church of Christ (see United Church of Christ).

But again church polity raised some barriers. Theological talks of pulpit unity with a Lutheran denomination almost broke down when the structured Lutheran representatives asked, "All your churches are independent of one another. Who do we talk to?"

It is inevitable, given today's social pressure on growth and "bottom line" efficiency, that big churches tend to get bigger while small churches tend to struggle on, merge with other congregations, or simply grow old and die. Traditional Congregationalism is difficult to maintain. Although each church is independent, those who formalize ties necessarily have a central office or headquarters for mutual aid. The custom of paying, to denominational headquarters, what amounts to a "head tax" on each individual member is difficult for small churches to continue when they are desperately trying to maintain historic, old buildings according to modern building codes. The plaintive cry is heard often from the historic New England common, "Do we fix the steeple, build an access ramp, or give to the denomination's mission fund?"

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.


a system of Christian doctrines and ecclesiastical government in which each congregation is self-governing and maintains bonds of faith with other similar local congregations
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
References in periodicals archive ?
They include, besides Congregationalism and Charleston Protestant and Southern culture, the quite different religious forms of evangelicism, powerfully sweeping America in the Second Great Awakening through the first half of the nineteenth century.
In Gilead, Robinson taps into the deep resources of the Protestant tradition: the German Lutheranism of Bonhoeffer, the Swiss reformed faith of Barth, and the Congregationalism of Edwards, from which Ames descends.
(16) This may owe, in part, to Emerson's publicly distancing himself from Unitarianism, Congregationalism, and (at times) tradition itself while more openly embracing his more recent transatlantic influences; (17) it has also been amplified by the transatlantic turn in American studies, which often tends to overlook the contributions of writers nearer to his land and dearer to his thinking.
At the same time, however, the Concern movement's arguments for a more radical form of congregationalism did find expression, at least in scattered ways.
(32) Nicholas Ferencz has argued that a lack of consistently strong episcopal leadership resulted in rampant congregationalism in the early history of the Orthodox Church in America (see Nicholas Ferencz, American Orthodoxy and Parish Congregationalism, Gorgias Dissertations 18, Religion [Piscataway, N J; Gorgias Press, 2006], pp.
And though it may be difficult to prove that all of the emigrants to Massachusetts Bay were inclined to congregationalism before their departure, it is clear they found the congregational way appealing once they arrived.
Chapters 3 to 5 analyze the intra-puritan argument between the presbyterians and an emergent congregationalism. Presbyterians thought pure congregationalism would surrender the program of creating a godly society by basing it on little more than a "covenantal pledge to godly conduct" (43) within independent congregations free of synodal oversight.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries both Presbyterianism and Congregationalism were powerhouses in American religion and remained so until the twentieth century when most Congregational Churches repudiated their heritage and joined a new group, the United Church of Christ.
"This 'creeping Congregationalism' that I've heard about may not all be bad.
(54) Hugh Jackson, 'Religious Ideas and Practice in Australian Congregationalism 1870-1930', Part II, 441, 443.
Her paternal grandparents, Zebulon and Mary Morrill, espoused the theological, intellectual, and social reform tenets of Congregationalism. (4) Her older sister Hannah Frances Foster (Brown), the well-known Spiritualist, was, like Flora, an avid abolitionist and women's suffragist.
Within Congregationalism, Calvinism declined in influence and was largely overwhelmed by the influences of an evangelical piety which was, for much of Congregational history, largely cautious about rites and sacraments.

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