it involves not only the story of Nonconformity and the growth of religious liberty, but also the whole development of modern England. To sketch even in outline “The Evolution of Congregationalism” in correspondence with so complex an environment is here impossible. Only salient points can be indicated.
During the Protectorate, with its practical establishment of Presbyterians, Independents and Baptists, the position of Congregationalism was really anomalous, in so far as any of its pastors became parish ministers, and so received “public maintenance” and were expected to administer the sacraments to all and sundry. But the Restoration soon changed matters, and by forcing Presbyterians and Congregationalists alike into Nonconformity, placed the former, instead of the latter, in the anomalous position. In practice they became Independents, after trying in some cases to create voluntary presbyteries, like Baxter’s Associations, adopted partially in 1653–1660, in spite of repressive legislation. But though Presbyterians did not in many instances become Congregationalists also, until a later date, the two types of Puritanism were drawn closer together in the half-century after 1662. The approximation was mutual. Both had given up the strict jure divino theory of their polity as apostolic. The Congregationalism of the Savoy Declaration (Oct. 12, 1658), agreed on by representatives—the majority non-ministerial—from 120 churches, is one tempered by experience gained in Holland and New England, as well as in the Westminster Assembly. Hence when, after the Toleration Act of 1689, a serious attempt was made to draw the two types together on the basis of Heads of Agreement assented to by the United Ministers in and about London, formerly called Presbyterian and Congregational, the basis partook of both (much after the fashion of the New England Way), though on the whole it favoured Congregationalism (see Dale, pp. 474 ff.). In many trust-deeds of this date (which did not contain doctrinal clauses), and for long after, the phrase “Presbyterian or Independent” occurs. Yet the two gradually drifted apart again owing to doctrinal differences, emerging first on the Calvinistic doctrine of grace, such as broke up the joint “Merchants' Lecture” started in 1672 in Pinners' Hall, and next on Christology. In both cases the Congregationalists took the “high,” the Presbyterians the “moderate” view. These specific differences revealed different religious tendencies, the one type being more warmly Evangelical, the other more “rational” and congenial in temper with 18th-century Deism. The theological division was accentuated by the Salters' Hall Controversy (1717–1719), which, nominally touching religious liberty versus subscription, really involved differences as to Trinitarian doctrine. Ere long Arianism and Socinianism were general among English Presbyterians (see Unitarianism). Congregationalists, on the other hand, whether Independents or Baptists, remained on the whole Trinitarians, largely perhaps in virtue of their very polity, with its intimate relation between the piety of the people and that of the ministry. Yet the relation of Congregational polity to its religious ideal had already become less intimate and conscious than even half a century before: the system was held simply as one traditionally associated with a serious and unworldly piety. “Church privileges” meant to many only the sacred duty of electing their own ministry and a formal right of veto on the proposals of pastor and deacons. The fusion into one office of the functions of “elders” and “deacons” (still distinguished in the Savoy Declaration of 1658) was partly at least a symptom of the decay of the church-idea in its original fulness, a decay itself connected with the general decline in spiritual intensity which marked 18th-century religion, after the overstrain of the preceding age. Yet long before the Evangelical Revival proper, partial revivals of a warmer piety occurred in certain circles; and among the Independents in particular the new type of hymnody initiated by Isaac Watts (1707) helped not a little.
The Methodist movement touched all existing types of English religion, but none more than Congregationalism. While the “rational” Presbyterians were repelled by it as “enthusiasm,” the Independents had sufficient in common with its spirit to assimilate—after some distrust of its special ways and doctrines—its passion of Christlike pity for “those out of the way,” and so to take their share in the wider evangelization of the people and the Christian philanthropy which flowed from the new inspiration. For underneath obvious differences, like the Arminian theology of the Wesleys and the Presbyterian type of their organization, there was latent affinity between a “methodist society” and the original congregational idea of a church; and in practice Methodism, outside the actual control of the Wesleys, in various ways worked out into Congregationalism (see Mackennal, op. cit. pp. 156 ff., Dale, pp. 583 ff.). So was it in the long run with the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion, springing from Whitefield’s Calvinistic wing of the Revival, not to mention the congregational strain in some minor Methodist churches.
But whilst Congregationalism grew thereby in numbers and in a sense of mission to all sorts and conditions of men-lack of which was one of the disabilities due in part to its sectarian position before the law (see Mackennal, pp. 142 ff.)—it modified not only its Calvinism but also its old church ideal in the process. During most of the next century it inclined to an individualism untempered by a sense of mystic union with God and in Him with all men (see Dale, pp. 387 ff., for an estimate of these and other changes). It lost, however, its exclusive spirit. Its pulpit, which had always been the centre of power in the churches, has for a century or more taken a wider range of influence in a succession of notable preachers. Congregationalists generally have been to the fore in attempts to apply Christian principles to matters of social, municipal, national and international importance. They have been steady friends of foreign missions in the most catholic form (supporting the London Missionary Society, founded in 1795 on an inter-denominational basis), of temperance, popular education and international peace. Their weakness as a denomination has lain latterly in their very catholicity of sympathy. Thus it was left to the Oxford Revival, with its emphasis on certain aspects of the Church idea, to help to re-awaken in many Congregationalists a due feeling for specific church-fellowship, which was the main passion with their forefathers. Another influence making in the same direction, but in a different spirit, was the Broad Church ideal represented in various forms by Thomas Erskine of Linlathen, F. W. Robertson of Brighton and F. D. Maurice. In the last of these the conception of Christ’s Headship of the human race assumed a specially inspiring form. This conception, in a more definitely Biblical and Christian shape, attained forcible expression in the writings of R. W. Dale of Birmingham, the most influential Congregationalist in the closing decades of the 19th century, in whom lived afresh the high Congregationalism of the early Separatists.
Modern Congregationalism, as highly sensitive to the Zeitgeist and its solvent influence on dogma, shared for a time the critical and negative attitude produced by the first impact of a culture determined by the conception of development as applying to the whole realm of experience. But it has largely outgrown this, and is addressing itself to the progressive re-interpretation of Christianity, in an essentially constructive spirit. Similarly its ecclesiastical statesmen have been developing the full possibilities of its polity, to suit the demands of the time for coordinated effort. While its principle of congregational autonomy
has been gaining ground in the more centralized systems,
- For the distinction between “Gathered” and “Re-formed” churches in this connexion, see Dale, p. 376.
- A parallel is afforded by the history of Congregationalism in Scotland, which arose early in the 19th century through the evangelistic fervour of the Haldanes in an era of “moderatism”; also by the rise of the kindred Evangelical Union, shortly before the Disruption in 1843. These two movements coalesced in a single Congregational Union in 1897.
- Another disability, acutely felt by all Nonconformists, created by the act of 1662, viz. exclusion from the national centres of education, they strove earnestly to remedy by their academies, the story of which is sketched by Dale, pp. 499 ff., 559-561.
- The modern use of the term “chapel” seems to date only from Methodism (Mackennal, p. 165).