When the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620, they had endured months of hardship. What they accomplished might seem routine by today´s standards. But for their day it was something akin to our going to the moon. Yes, others had done it but only a hardy few and the journey was treacherous at best, especially for a bunch of non-sailors with families and all their earthly belongings. And, upon arrival, the real problems began.
Nevertheless, their commitment to personal and religious freedom enabled them to overcome all obstacles. Many were regarded as "separatists"simply Congregationalists who wanted the freedom to worship as they pleased.
Believing the Holy Spirit worked in them individually as well as any Church official, they felt able to decide spiritual matters for themselves.
They rejected episcopacy form of Church rule because they disagreed with the concept that bishops should rule their spiritual lives. Believing the Holy Spirit worked in them individually as well as any Church official, they felt able to decide spiritual matters for themselves. They then took the very radical step of doing so. Now, the congregation would decide matters of spiritual import. This had seldom ever been done before and they found themselves willing outcasts.
So, in 1609, one of the more radical among them, John Robinson (1575-1625) fled persecution in England and went to the Netherlands with a group of believers. William Ames, the first great Congregational theologian, also a fugitive from Church courts in England met with them.
Despite being welcomed in the Netherlands for over twelve years, they nevertheless, wanted their children to appreciate their English ancestry so many of them boarded the Mayflower to come to the New World where their native language would be spoken but without the interference of the English Church. As they floated in the Bay at Plymouth they again exercised their congregational philosophy and penned what would become a template for American democracy, known as the Mayflower Compact. This document set the precedent for a new nation that many would never experience past the first harsh winter.
Within twenty years, America´s shores were being overrun with European seeking new opportunities in a new land. More Congregationalists, otherwise known as Puritans, would arrive further north of Plymouth in Massachusetts Bay. Their desire was to establish a "theocracy" where, instead of man-made rules to guide them, Biblical standards would guide them. While not nearly as harsh or rigid as some historians would later suggest, they were strict and in some cases, were as intolerant as the Church and society they left behind. Among those who suffered under their leadership were Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson. As in England, some were banished, some were punished and still others were put to death for reasons that repulse us today.
As the 18th century continued, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1770) of Northampton, Massachusetts and considered by many as America´s greatest theologian played a leading role in what has become known as the First Great Awakening. He, along with George Whitfield, a friend of the Wesleys who started Methodism in England, wrote and preached diatribes against sin and the lifestyles that produced it. Only Christ, who stood in judgment, could meet the needs of sinners and save them from its dark and eternal consequences.
Imbued with a spirit of independence many Congregationalists were at the forefront of the American Revolution. This spirit and the political and practical abilities of these individuals influenced much of what America would become. Education, being extremely important to the early American Church inspired many to create some of the nation´s greatest schools and colleges. Congregationalists founded Harvard (1636), Yale (1707), Dartmouth in New Hampshire (1769) and others in order to train capable ministers.
John Eliot (1604-1690), Thomas and Jonathon Mayhew and David Brainerd spearheaded missionary work among the native population and translated the New Testament (1661), the Old Testament (1663) and a catechism (1653), the first book printed in a Native American language. Eventually, missionary efforts extended throughout the Colonies, into the western areas and to Hawaii where the entire nation were taught to read and write and laid down basic democratic principles to govern by.
Later, during the American Civil War, Congregationalists were again at the forefront of freedom offering contraband slaves an education that would otherwise be unavailable for decades.
Historically, Congregationalism had defined not only their form of Church rule (ecclesiology) but also their theology, which had been Trinitarian (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). During the 19th century, a Unitarian (God is one) split occurred that splintered most Congregational Churches in eastern Massachusetts from the original group.
In the early 20th century and beyond there were several merges that resulted in what is known today as the United Church of Christ. Others organized into smaller denominations that still practice Congregational rule. Many are still located in New England where their roots began.
At the local level, basic issues are dealt with. "Associations" meet on a wider geographical scale to discuss relevant matters. Associations are formed into "conferences" that defer to the “general synod” of national and international issues.
While Baptists and others practice congregational type rule, those who practice Congregationalism include the Congregational Christian Churches, Conservative Congregational Christian Conference and the United Church of Christ.
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