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CONGREGATIONALISM


J. Ogle, Congr. Churches of Dorset (1899); W. H. Summers, History of the Berks, S. Bucks, and S. Oxon. Cong. Churches (1905); and F. J. Powicke, History of the Cheshire Cong. Union, 1806—1906. The Victorian County Histories (Constable) may also be consulted. Important documents for Congregational Faith and Order, with historical introductions, are printed in Williston Walker’s Creeds and Platforms of Congregationalism (New York, 1893). A classic exposition of Congregational theory is contained in R. W. Dale’s Manual of Cong. Principles (1884).  (J. V. B.) 

In America.—The history of American Congregationalism during its early years is practically that of the origin of New England. It may be said to begin with the arrival in 1620 of a small company including William Brewster, elder of the refugee church in Leiden, which founded Plymouth in the modern Massachusetts in the winter of that year. Strictly speaking the members of this colony were Separatists, i.e. they belonged to that small body of British Independents who “separated” from the state church under the leadership of Richard Clifton or Clyfton (d. 1616), rector of Babworth, and Brewster, a layman of Scrooby in Nottinghamshire. By the end of ten years the Plymouth colony numbered about 300. About 1628 the religious troubles in England led to the emigration of a large number of Puritans; the colony of Massachusetts Bay was founded in 1628–1630 by settlers led by John Endecott and John Winthrop, and a church on congregational lines was founded at Salem in 1629, and another soon afterwards at Boston, which became the centre of the colony. The similarity between the two colonies led to a close relationship, and considerable reinforcements continued to arrive until 1640. Certain differences in opinion on franchise questions led to the founding of the colony of Connecticut in 1634–1636 by settlers led by Thomas Hooker (d. 1647), John Haynes (d. 1654), and others, and the colony of New Haven was founded in 1638 by a small company under John Davenport (1597–1670) and Theophilus Eaton (d. 1658). In 1643 these four congregational colonies formed a confederacy with a view to their common safety.

It has been calculated that in the period 1620–1640 upwards of 22,000 Puritan emigrants (the figures have been placed as high as 50,000) sailed from British and Dutch ports. The reasons that compelled their departure determined their quality; they were all men of rigorous consciences, who loved their fatherland much, but religion more, driven from home not by mercantile necessities or ambitions, but solely by their determination to be free to worship God. They were, as Milton said, “faithful and freeborn Englishmen and good Christians constrained to forsake their dearest home, their friends, and kindred, whom nothing but the wide ocean and the savage deserts of America could hide and shelter from the fury of the bishops.” Men so moved so to act could hardly be commonplace; and so among them we find characters strong and marked, with equal ability to rule and to obey, as William Bradford (1590–1657) and Brewster, Edward Winslow (1595–1655) and Miles Standish (1584–1656), John Winthrop (1588–1649) and Dr Samuel Fuller, and men so inflexible in their love of liberty and faith in man as Roger Williams and young Harry Vane. As were the people so were their ministers. Of these it is enough to name John Cotton, able both as a divine and as a statesman, potent in England by his expositions and apologies of the “New England way,” potent in America for his organizing and administrative power; Thomas Hooker, famed as an exponent and apologist of the “New England way”; John Eliot, famous as the “apostle of the Indians,” first of Protestant missionaries to the heathen; Richard Mather, whose influence and work were carried on by his distinguished son, and his still more distinguished grandson, Cotton Mather. The motives and circumstances of the emigrants determined their polity; they went out as churches and settled as church states. They were all Puritans, but not all Independents—indeed, at first only the men from Leiden were, and they were throughout more enlightened and tolerant than the men of the other settlements. Winthrop’s company were nonconformists but not separatists, esteemed it “an honour to call the Church of England, from whence we rise, our dear mother,” emigrated that they might be divided from her corruptions, not from herself. But the new conditions, backed by the special influence of the Plymouth settlement, were too much for them; they became Independent,—first, perhaps, of necessity, then of conviction and choice. Only so could they guard their ecclesiastical and their civil liberties. These, indeed, were at first formally as well as really identical. In 1631 the general court of the Massachusetts colony resolved, “that no man shall be admitted to the freedom of this body politic, but such as are members of some of the churches within the limits of the same.”

This lasted till 1664. In New Haven the same system prevailed from 1639 till 1665. Church and State, citizenship in the one and membership in the other, thus became identical, and the foundation was laid for those troubles and consequent severities that vexed and shamed the early history of Independency in New England, natural enough when all their circumstances are fairly considered, indefensible when we regard their idea of the relation of the civil power to the conscience and religion, but explicable when their church idea alone is regarded. And this latter was their own standpoint; their acts were more acts of church discipline than those of civil penalty.

The years following the settlement of the four colonies were occupied in the solution of problems in church and civil government and in the preparation for the proper training of ministers. The relation between membership of the church and membership of the civic community has been mentioned. The principal problem which divided the settlers was that known as the “Half Way Covenant,” which concerned the status of the children of original church members. The difficulty was that, according to the principles held by the founders of the churches, the admission to membership of a parent involved a similar status in the case of his children; on the other hand, no adult could be admitted unless the church as a whole was convinced that he was a man of proved Christian character. A compromise was arrived at by two assemblies, the first a convention of ministers held at Boston in 1657, the second a general synod of the churches of Massachusetts in 1662. As a result of these assemblies it was decided that those who had become members in childhood simply by virtue of their parents’ status could not subsequently join in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper nor record votes on ecclesiastical issues, unless they should approve themselves fit; they might, however, in their turn bring their children to baptism and hand on to them the degree of membership which they themselves had received from their own parents. This classification of the members into those who were in full communion and those who belonged only to the “Half Way Covenant” was vigorously attacked by Jonathan Edwards, but it was not abolished until the early years of the 19th century.

Of far greater importance not only to Congregationalism but also to the future of the American colonies was the care taken by the settlers to provide adequate training for their ministers. As early as 1636 they founded Harvard College, and in 1701 Yale College was established. The emphasis laid by the Congregationalists on this branch of their work has been characteristic of their successors both in America and in Great Britain. Ten years after the foundation of Harvard, missionary work among the Indians was undertaken by John Eliot and Thomas Mayhew. Eliot produced his Indian translation of the Scriptures in 1661–1663, and by about 1675 there were six Indian churches with some 4000 converts.

The enthusiasm which thus marked the early years of American Congregationalists rapidly cooled from one generation to another. It was not until 1734 that a new outburst of zeal was aroused by the “revivalist” work of Jonathan Edwards, followed in 1740–1742 by George Whitefield. This wave of enthusiasm spread from Northampton, Mass., till it swept New England. Unfortunately, however, the solid work achieved was accompanied by much superficial excitement among emotional persons for whom the so-called “Great Awakening” was merely a passing sensation. Moreover there was considerable controversy between the “Old Lights,” who regarded the “revival” as positively pernicious, and the “New Lights,” who approved it. Partly owing to its own faults and partly owing to the stress of

political excitement which followed it, the Edwardean revival