Congregationalism was a Christian movement that happened in England in the 16th and 17th centuries. It defined itself as a form of Protestantism but actually fell somewhere between Presbyterianism and a radical Protestantism of the Baptists and the Quakers.
In Congregationalism, each Church was considered independent and autonomous, in which the congregations would manage their own affairs. They were not answerable to any higher human authority. Consequently, it eliminated bishops and presbyteries.
The Congregationalist puritans believed in the priesthood of all individuals. They emphasized the rights of particular congregations and on freedom of conscience, which arose from their belief on the sovereignty of God.
History of the Congregationalists
What is a congregationalist Christian?
Congregationalists were first called Independents. Their organisations were first formed in Britain and the United States. They moved to other countries in the 20th century and formed united churches with other organizations.
The origin of Congregationalism lies in the 16th-century Separatist movement, which was also a Protestant movement. Robert Browne is believed to have been the founder of Congregationalism. His ideas were inspired by Separatism.
The Separatists wanted to abandon the Church of England because of its corruption. At that time, a lot of Separatists were being persecuted under the rule of Elizabeth I. A few even had to suffer martyrdom. Some fled to Holland to severe punishment.
Many of these exiles returned to England during the Long Parliament (1640 – 53) and joined the Congregational movement. The Congregationalists stated that each Congregation should have the right to appoint its own ministers by majority vote. That way the authority would be in the hands of not a minister or bishop, but the people.
Robert Browne was the first person to lay down the basic Congregational principles. Other important members to denounced the English church and established dissenting churches were Henry Barrow, John Greenwood, John Penry, William Brewster, Thomas Jollie and John Robinson.
These people established underground churches in England. The members of these churches and exiles from Holland formed the majority of the passengers of the Mayflower – the first English ship that carried the first English Puritans from London to the New World in 1620. They came to be known as the Pilgrim Fathers.
Congregationalist Beliefs and Doctrines
The Congregationalist Christians believed in a more mainline Evangelical Protestant church and worked throughout their lives to establish them in the English-speaking world. They emphasized on the free functioning of spirit, which connected them to the Quakers, and explains their reluctance in placing authority in the hands of creedal statements.
They produced their declarations of faith swiftly. The Savoy Declaration, the Cambridge Platform and the Kansas City Creed were the first ones to be made. Lengthy declarations were also issued by both the United Church of Christ and by the English Congregationalists.
They always stressed the importance of freedom. Even under the reign of Oliver Cromwell, they were far tolerant by the standard of time. They also worked for the establishment of the rights of minorities of England.
Each Congregation was a settled body with a well-defined constitution and offices. These offices were organised according to the New Testament’s understanding of the body of the Church.
The Congregationalists believed that any place that possesses the Bible can function as a church. It, however, also needs to have the sacraments and a properly called and appointed minister and deacons. They also believed that since the church is responsible to God for its life in that place, so it must have the freedom to interpret and obey God’s will for itself.
There is a little role assigned to Congregationalist deacons, as the Congregationalists believe in the contribution of every individual in their churches. The churches are usually supervised by a group of elders (sometimes called pastors or bishops) who are assisted by deacons.
They mostly carry out non-spiritual functions and are sometimes assigned to look after specific ministries. Successful service as a deacon can promote one to the position of an elder.
However, Congregationalism has always stressed on the importance of preaching. They believed that the Word of God, as given in the Scripture is considered as constitutive of the Church. The sacraments constituted by Christ were Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. They also did not make the sign of the cross during Baptism, to invoke the assistance of the saint. They believed, Jesus Christ was their only mediator.