The Congregational Christian churches are rooted in a history of people that stretches back to the 17th century in England, when the Puritans objected to what was happening in the Church of England.
"The first Congregationalists were Independents, Puritans who believed each church should be a gathering of believers joined together under a covenant agreement, and with the power to choose their own minister," according to the Congregational Library.
"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."
Many churches, even those that are not Congregational churches, utilize a congregational style of government. Episcopal churches were ruled by bishops, while the Presbyterian churches were ruled by elders. Congregationalists sought their leadership from their congregations.
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The Congregational church maintains that the local church is answerable directly to God, not some man or organization. Congregational government is found in many Baptist and non-denominational churches.
Here are five events that led to the rise of Congregational churches in the United States:
1. Puritanism was dominant in America's first colonies and individuals could only become church members when a minister endorsed them. John Cotton, a leading Puritan pastor in England, came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1633. His writings were popular in England and he was responsible for writing "An Apologeticall Narration" that was submitted to the English Parliament and was considered a Congregationalism manifesto. According to the United Church of Christ,
"Thus, through Cotton's writing, New England affected the growth of Congregationalism in England. Quite the opposite of the vigorous and variable Puritans of England, many of the American Puritans become intolerant of alien ideas."
2. Another early voice of Congregational ideas and beliefs was that of Anne Hutchinson, who came to the colonies in 1634. She challenged doctrines and said that "anyone might receive the truth by direct revelation from God, and that the Bible was not its sole source. These ideas were greatly feared by the church because they could easily lead to irresponsible excesses," says the United Church of Christ. Her challenges of preachers and community norms became so disruptive that she was finally expelled from the colony.
She and her husband, along with their 15 children, moved to the Rhode Island Colony of Roger Williams, a part of the new country "where laws were passed to ensure jury trials, to end class discrimination, and to extend universal suffrage and religious tolerance. This democracy was short lived, for Rhode Island was soon annexed to the Bay Colony," reports the UCC.
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3. In the mid-1700s, people became critical of their ministers as part of the "Great Awakening." According to the Congregational Library, New England's Congregational churches split apart into New Lights and Old Lights. "The Old Lights, Congregationalists who wanted a religion answerable to the Age of Reason, were the forerunners of Unitarianism." Many prominent churches were lost to Unitarian beliefs, and in addition, the church faced law changes in the late 1700s that forced them to function on voluntary contributions.
4. Throughout time, Congregationalists sponsored social reform. They were active in issues addressing women's rights and abolitionism. "During the late 19th century, many Congregationalists, most notably pastor and writer Washington Gladden, were leaders in the Social Gospel movement," says the Congregational Library. "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."
5. Congregationalists were finally able to form their own denomination after a failed plan to unify with Presbyterians in 1871, they formed the National Council of Congregational Churches.
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