a “conventicle” type of Christian fellowship, supplementary to attendance at the parish church. This, while far short of theoretic Congregationalism, was a prophecy of it. Congregationalism proper, as a theory of the organized Christian life contemplated in the New Testament, re-emerges only at the Reformation, with its wide recovery of Modern Congrega-
tionalism. such aspects of evangelic experience as acceptance with God and constant access to Him through the sole mediation of Christ. The practical corollary of this, “the Priesthood of Believers,” though grasped by Luther (cf. Lindsay, Hist. of the Reformation, i. 435 ff.) and continental reformers generally, was not fully carried out by them in church organization. This was due partly to a sense that only here and there was there a body of believers ripe for the congregational form of church-fellowship, which Luther himself regarded as the New Testament ideal (Dale, pp. 40-43), partly to fear of Anabaptism, the radical wing of the Reformation movement, which first strove to recover primitive Christianity apart altogether from traditional forms. In certain Anabaptist circles the primitive idea of a “covenant” between believers and God as conditioning all their life, especially one with another, was revived (Champlin Burrage, The Church-Covenant Idea, Philadelphia, 1904). Their local church life, as moulded by this idea (found even in the church constitution adopted by Hesse in 1526), was congregational in type. But Anabaptism was not to remain an abiding force on the continent; and though colonies of its exiles settled in England, they did not produce the Congregationalism which sprang up there under Elizabeth. This was continuous rather with the Lollard type of secret congregation existing in various places, especially in London and the adjacent counties, at the opening of the 16th century and later (e.g. the “Known Men” at Amersham and elsewhere, Dale, pp. 58 f. 61). Already in 1550 Strype refers to certain “sectaries” in Essex and Kent, as “the first that made separation from the Reformed Church of England, having gathered congregations of their own.” Then, during Mary’s reign, secret congregations met under the leadership of Protestant clergy, and, when these were lacking, even of laymen. But these “private assemblies of the professors in these hard times,” as Strype calls them, were congregational simply by accident. On Elizabeth’s accession they ceased to assemble, until it was plain that she did not intend a radical reformation. Then only did some of their members resume secret assembly, with a more definite view to conformity in all things to the New Testament type and that alone.
Still, the development of congregational churches proper was gradual, the result of constant study of “the Word of God” in the light of experience. The process can be traced most clearly in London. There, owing to measures taken in 1565–1566 to enforce clerical subscription to the authorized order of worship, especially touching vestments, certain persons of humble station began to assemble in houses “for preaching and ministering the sacraments” (Grindal’s Remains, lxi.). This led in June 1567 to the arrest of some fifteen out of a hundred men and women met in Plumbers’ Hall (ostensibly for a wedding), none of whom, to judge from the eight examined, was a minister. Probably they were not long kept in prison, for six of them were among a similar body of 77 persons “found together” in a private house on March 4, 1568, the leaders of whom were imprisoned, and liberated only after “one whole year,” early in May 1569 (ibid. pp. 316 ff.). Perhaps it was between 1567 and 1568 that they began to organize themselves more fully in conjunction with four or five of the suspended clergy, with elders and deacons of their own appointing (Grindal, Zurich Letters, lxxxii.; Remains, lxi.). This act of ordaining ministers, probably after the Genevan order—which they certainly used from May 1568—and their excommunication of certain deserters from their “church” (so Grindal), clearly mark the fact that this body of some 200 persons had now deliberately taken up a position outside the national church, as being themselves a “church” in a truer sense than any parish church, inasmuch as they conformed to the primitive pattern. Their ideal is embodied in a manifesto set forth about 1570 under the title The True Marks of Christ’s Church, &c., and signed by “Richard Fytz, Minister,” as being “the order of the Privy Church in London, which by the malice of Satan is falsely slandered.”
“The minds of them that by the strength and working of the Almighty, our Lord Jesus Christ, have set their hands and hearts to the pure, unmingled and sincere worshipping of God, according to his blessed and glorious Word in all things, only abolishing and abhorring all traditions and inventions of man whatsoever, in the same Religion and Service of our Lord God, knowing this always, that the true and afflicted Church of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ either hath, or else ever more continually under the cross striveth for to have,
“First and foremost, the Glorious word and Evangel preached, not in bondage and subjection [i.e. by episcopal licence], but freely and purely.
“Secondly, to have the Sacraments ministered purely, only and altogether according to the institution and good worde of the Lord Jesus, without any tradition or invention of man. “And last of all, to have not the filthy Canon law, but discipline only and altogether agreeable to the same heavenly and almighty worde of our good Lord, Jesus Christ.”
Here we have essential Congregationalism, formulated for the first time in England as the original and genuine Christian polity, and as such binding on those loyal to the Head of the Church. All turns, as we see from the petition addressed in 1571 to the queen by twenty-seven persons (the majority women, possibly wives in some cases of men in prison), upon the duty of separation with a view to purity of Christian fellowship (2 Cor. vi. 17 f.), and upon moral discipline “by the strength and sure warrant of the Lord’s good word, as in Matt. xviii. 15–18 (1 Cor. v.)” were it only in a church of “two or three” gathered in the Name. Whatever may be thought of their application of these principles, there is no mistaking the deeply religious aim of these separatists for conscience' sake, viz. the realizing of the Christian ideal in personal conduct, in a fellowship of souls alike devoted to the Highest; nor can it be doubted that the “mingled” communion of the parish churches made church “fellowship” in the apostolic sense a practical impossibility. This was confessed alike by the bishops (e.g. Whitgift) and by the Puritans, who maintained the paramount duty of remaining within the queen’s church and there working for the further reformation which they recognized as sadly needed by English religion. But the radical “Puritans” (the above documents in the State Paper Office are endorsed “Bishop of London: Puritans”) felt that this meant treason to the Headship of Christ in His Church; and that until the prince should set aside “the superstition and commandments of men,” and “send forth princes and ministers [like another Josiah], and give them the Book of the Lord, that they may bring home the people of God to the purity and truth of the apostolic Church,” they could do no other than themselves live after that divine ideal. They were not separated of their own choice, but by the word of God acting on their consciences.
“Reformation without tarrying for Anie” was the burden laid on the heart of the Congregational pioneers in 1567–1571; and it continued to press heavily on many, both “Separatists” and conforming “Puritans” (to use the nicknames used by foes), before it became written theory in Robert Browne’s work under that title, published at Middelburg in Holland in 1582 (see Browne, Robert). The story of the many attempts made in the interval by “forward” or advanced Puritans to secure vital religious fellowship within the queen’s Church, and of the few cases in which these shaded off into practical Separatism,
is still wrapped in some obscurity. But tentative efforts within
- Here in 1561 appeared A Confession of faith, made by common consent of divers reformed Churches beyond the seas; with an Exhortation to the Reformation of the Church. It advocated “the polity that our Saviour Jesus Christ hath established,” with “pastors, superintendes, deacons”; so that “all true pastors have equal power and authority . . . and for this cause, that no church ought to pretend any rule or lordship over other”; and none ought “to thrust himself into the government of the Church [as by ordination at large], but that it ought to be done by election.” See Burrage, The Church-Covenant Idea, p. 43.
- See, however, The Presbyterian Movement in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, as illustrated by the Minute Book of the Dedham Classis, 1582–1589 (Camden Society, 3rd series, vol. viii., 1905).