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The Congregationalists were the first Puritans to migrate to the American colonies. Known as Congregational or Congregationalist churches, they are Protestant churches in the Reformed tradition.

In Congregationalism, the local church is the final authority in matter of doctrine and practice. Regional and national assemblies provide a number of services to member churches, and may cooperate in missions, but they have little authority over congregations and pastors.

Congregational churches can trace their history back to the early independents in Elizabethan England who called or a congregational form of church government. However, there was little support for this in England at that time, so they were not able to organize as church bodies until they came to North America in the early 1600s.

In 1609, John Robinson fled England to escape persecution, settling first in the Netherlands, where he met William Ames, also a fugitive from England. Robinson built a congregation in the Netherlands. Although Robinson was not among them, thirty-five members of his congregation were on the Mayflower when it sailed for the New World, and were called Pilgrims. Deacon John Carver, Robinson's brother-in-law, was appointed governor, while William Brewster was the ruling elder. The Mayflower reached what is now Massachusetts in 1620. Other members of Robinson's church followed later.

Between 1630 and 1640, 20,000 more Puritans, mostly Congregationalists, found their way to Massachusetts Bay, where they established a theocratic government based on the Bible and Calvinist theology. Contrary to common belief, the New World was not a land of religious freedom. The new government was intolerant of religious dissent, as four Quakers learned when they were hanged on Boston Common in the 1660s.

The Congregationalists wanted the Church of England to become a Protestant Church, but with a Reformed theology and a congregational form of church government. They differed from the Presbyterians, who wanted to establish a collective leadership of lay and clergy elders, and from the independents, who argued for a separation of church and state. With the Anabaptists, they shared the belief that the church should consist of believers.

Over the next century the Congregationalists played a significant role in developing American religious and institutional life, founding Harvard in 1636, Yale in 1707, and Dartmouth in 1769. For more than a century, the Congregationalists controlled the religious realm in America. They fought witchcraft and Quakerism, but had trouble passing their faith on to successive generations.

The Congregationalists in New England were among the leaders of the American Revolution, but the establishment of the United States government brought a gradual end to Congregational dominance. The Congregationalists had been able to maintain unity despite disagreements over such issues as the role of man and God in salvation, and nontrinitarian theologies proposed by liberal within the church.

By the 1800s, the theological climate of the United States was less receptive to liberalism. The Second Great Awakening had brought about a more aggressive stance from theological conservatives. Congregational liberals became Unitarians.

A number of other independent congregations formed, coming together in loosely organized associations known simply as the Christian Church. Many of these associations later merged with the Congregationalists to form the General Council of the Congregationalist Christian Churches. In 1957, this body merged with the Evangelical Church and the Reformed Church to form the United Church of Christ, which is a much more liberal body. The UCC has become the leading body of liberal Protestants, and perhaps the most liberal of the larger Protestant churches.

Not all Congregational churches joined the UCC, and others withdrew in the years to follow. The Unitarians formed their own denomination, and a number of Congregational churches formed the Independent Fundamental Churches of America. Others include the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference, the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches, and the International Council of Community Churches. However, not every church that included "Congregational" in its name is related, in theology or history, to the Congregationalists referred to in this category. The Baptists, while sharing a congregational polity, developed separately and are listed in a separate category.

Topics in this category should relate to either of the church bodies named here or others, not named, which were once part of the Congregational body. While the Unitarians would fit this criteria, they have since merged with the Universalists, and will be listed in its own category or categories.

Categories

Conservative Congregational Christian Conference

National Association of Congregational Christian Churches

United Church of Christ

 

 

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