Many Congregational churches claim their descent from the original Congregational churches, a family of Protestant denominations formed on a theory of union published by the theologian Robert Browne in 1592 and arising from the Nonconformist religious movement in England during the Puritan reformation. In Great Britain, the early congregationalists were called separatists or independents to distinguish themselves from the similarly Calvinistic Presbyterians, and some congregationalists there still call themselves "Independents".
According to the congregationalist theory of the history of the Christian Church, the early disciples of Jesus had little or no organization. Congregationalists believe that in the centuries after the spread of Christianity, attempts to gain influence over all the churches were made by leaders in centers like Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, Byzantium, and Jerusalem. Typically, congregationalists view this supposed accumulation of power to be complete by the year AD 1000, with the bishop of Rome claiming authority over all Christendom, and many churches throughout the western part of Europe submitted to his authority. The churches of eastern Europe, all of Asia, and Egypt likewise had been gathered under a hierarchy of bishops, but retained their independence from the pope, according to this view.
Congregationalists sympathetically interpret various dissident movements among the western churches, that were suppressed throughout the Middle Ages. By the sixteenth century, political and cultural changes had created a climate in which the Roman church could no longer suppress the protests of men such as John Wycliffe, John Hus, Martin Luther, and John Calvin against church abuses. These reformers advocated a return to the simplicity and sincerity they saw described in the New Testament Church, which congregationalists believe is fulfilled in the congregationalist model of church governance.
There are difficulties in identifying a specific beginning because Congregationalism is more easily identified as a movement than a single denomination, given its distinguishing commitment to the complete autonomy of the local congregation. The idea that each distinct congregation fully constitutes the visible Body can, however, be traced to John Wyclif and the Lollard movement which followed after Wyclif was removed from teaching authority in the Roman Catholic Church.
The early Congregationalists shared with Anabaptist theology the ideal of a pure church, which made adult conversion experience important for full membership in the church, unlike other Reformed churches. As such, the Congregationalists were a reciprocal influence on the Baptists, differing from them in that they counted the children of believers in some sense members of the church unlike the Baptists, because of baptism.
In England, the Roman system of church government was taken over by the king, Henry VIII, who (because he wanted to legitimize his marriage to Anne Boleyn in 1533 after divorcing his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, without the blessing of the Pope in Rome) influenced Parliament to enact the 1st Act of Supremacy in 1534, which declared the reigning sovereign of England to be 'the only supreme head on earth of the Church in England', an act which is in effect to this day. Robert Browne, Henry Barrow, John Greenwood, John Penry, William Brewster, and John Robinson were notable people who, in defiance of royal command, established churches separate from the Church of England.
With the demise of the monarchy, the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) was officially declared the statement of faith for both the Church of England (Anglican) and Church of Scotland (Presbyterian). The Congregationalists created their own version of the Westminster Confession called the Savoy Declaration in 1658. The underground churches in England and exiles from Holland provided about 35 out of the 102 passengers on the Mayflower, which sailed from London in July 1620. They became known in history as the Pilgrim Fathers. The early Congregationalists sought to separate themselves from the Anglican church in every possible way and even forwent having church buildings. They met in one another's homes for many years.
The Pilgrims sought to establish at Plymouth Colony a Christian fellowship like that which gathered around Jesus Himself. Congregationalists include the Pilgrims of Plymouth, and the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which were organized in union by The Cambridge Platform in 1648. These settlers had John Cotton as their most influential leader, beginning in 1633. Cotton's writings persuaded the Calvinist theologian John Owen to separate from the Presbyterian church, after which he, among others, became very influential in the development of Congregationalist theology and ideas of church government. Jonathan Edwards, considered by some to be the most important theologian ever produced in America, was also a Congregationalist.
The history of Congregational churches in the United States is closely intertwined with that of American Presbyterianism, especially in New England where Congregationalist influence spilled over into the Presbyterian churches farther west. Some of the first colleges and universities in America, including Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Williams, Bowdoin, Middlebury, and Amherst, all were founded by the Congregationalists, as were later Carleton, Grinnell, Oberlin, Beloit, and Pomona.
Without higher courts to ensure doctrinal uniformity among the congregations, Congregationalists have been more diverse than other Reformed churches. Despite the efforts of Calvinists to maintain the dominance of their system, some Congregational churches, especially in the older settlements of New England, gradually developed sentiments toward Arminianism, Unitarianism, Deism, and transcendentalism. By the 1750s, several Congregational preachers were teaching the possibility of universal salvation, an issue that caused considerable conflict among its adherents on the one side and hard-line Calvinists and sympathizers of the First Great Awakening on the other. The first church in America with an openly Unitarian theology was established in Boston, Massachusetts in 1785 (although in a former Anglican parish) and by 1800, all but one Congregational church in Boston had Unitarian preachers teaching the strict unity of God, the subordinate nature of Christ, and salvation by character. Harvard University, founded by Congregationalists, itself became a source of Unitarian training. Eventually, the Unitarian churches, prompted by a controversy over a theological appointment to Harvard, separated from Congregationalism in 1825; most of its descendants now hold membership in the Unitarian Universalist Association, founded in the 1960s by a merger with the theologically-similar Universalists, another group dissenting from Calvinist orthodoxy.
Thus, the Congregational churches were at the same time the first example of the American theocratic ideal and also the seed-bed from which American liberal religion and society arose. Even still, many Congregationalists in the several successor denominations to the original tradition consider themselves to be Reformed first, whether of traditional or neo-orthodox persuasion.
In 1931 the Congregational Churches and the General Convention of the Christian Church, a body from the Restoration Movement tradition of the early 19th century, merged to form the Congregational Christian Churches. The Congregationalists were used to a more formal, less evangelistic form of worship than the Christian Church members, who mostly came from rural areas of the South and the Midwest. Both groups, however, held to local autonomy and eschewed binding creedal authority.
In the early 20th century:
In 1948, some adherents of these two streams of thought (primarily the latter one) started a new fellowship, the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference, the first major fellowship to organize outside of the mainstream Congregational body since 1825, when the Unitarians formally founded their own body.
In 1957, the General Council of Congregational Christian Churches in the U.S. merged with the Evangelical and Reformed Church to form the United Church of Christ. About 90% of the CC congregations affiliated with the General Council joined the United Church of Christ. However, some local churches abstained from the merger. Most of these congregations became members of either the CCCC (mentioned above) or the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches, which came into being as a result of failed protest efforts against the UCC merger, the arguments for which revolved around governance concerns rather than theology; Congregational Christian-heritage churches of all theological persuasions belong to this group, much like the UCC. Still other congregations, not many in number, chose not to affiliate with any particular association of churches, or only with regional or local ones.
The mission to Argentina was the second foreign field tended by German Congregationalists. The work in South America began in 1921, when four Argentine churches urgently requested that denominational recognition be given George Geier, who was serving them. The Illinois Conference licensed Geier, who worked among Russia Germans who were alike in every way to those in the United States and in Canada. The South American Germans from Russia had learned about Congregationalism in letters from relatives in the United States. In 1924 general missionary John Hoelzer, in Argentina for a brief visit, organized six churches.
In 1977, most congregations of the Congregational Union of Australia merged with all Churches of the Methodist Church of Australasia and a majority of Churches of the Presbyterian Church of Australia to form the Uniting Church in Australia. Those congregations that did not join the Uniting Church formed the Fellowship of Congregational Churches or continued as Presbyterians. Some more ecumenically minded Congregationalists left the Fellowship of Congregational Churches in 1995 and formed the Congregational Federation of Australia.
In Canada, the first foreign field, thirty-one churches that had been affiliated with the General Conference became part of the United Church of Canada when that denomination came into being. In 1925, the United Church of Canada was founded by the merger of the Canadian Congregationalist and Methodist churches, and two-thirds of the congregations of the Presbyterian Church of Canada (or in French, Église Presbyterienne du Canada). In 1988, a number of UCC congregations separated from the national church, which they felt was moving away theologically and in practice from Biblical Christianity. Many of the former UCC congregations banded together as the new Congregational Christian Churches in Canada.
The Congregational Union of Ireland was founded in the early 1800s and currently has 29 member churches.
In 1972, about three quarters of English Congregational churches merged with the Presbyterian Church of England to form the United Reformed Church (URC). However about six hundred Congregational churches have continued in their historic independent tradition. Under the Act of Parliament that authorised the merger between what had become by then the Congregational Church of England and Wales and the Presbyterian Church of England, certain assets were divided between the various parties.
In England there are three main groups of continuing Congregationalists. These are the Congregational Federation, which has offices in Nottingham, the Evangelical Fellowship of Congregational Churches, and about 100 Congregational churches that are loosely federated with other congregations in the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, or are unaffiliated.
In 1981, the URC merged with the Re-formed Association of Churches of Christ and, in 2000, just over half of the churches in the Congregational Union of Scotland also joined the URC. The remainder of Congregational churches in Scotland joined the Congregational Federation.
Wales traditionally is the part of Europe which has the largest share of Congregationalists among the population, most Congregationalists being members of Undeb yr Annibynwyr Cymraeg (the Union of Welsh Independents), which is particularly important in Carmarthenshire and Brecknockshire. Among its leaders up to the end of the 20th century was R Tudur Jones.
The Congregational Federation, Undeb yr Annibynwyr Cymraeg, and the URC enjoy good relations and share certain aspects of church life together including their joint involvement in the Council for World Mission.
As thinking developed, particularly in the context of decolonisation, and churches wanted to recognise the gifts of people of the South, the London Missionary Society transformed into the Council for World Mission - an organisation in which the United Reformed Church is no more important than the Church of South India (for example).
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