1902 Encyclopedia > Congregationalism


CONGREGATIONALISM, a designation assumed of late years by the religious denomination formerly known as Independents. This change of name has arisen from no radical alteration in the particular doctrinal or ecclesiastical opinions of that sect (see INDEPENDENTS), but in order to express more definitely the positive aspects of their church life and organization. The negative term Independent implied chiefly a renunciation "of the authority of pope, prelate, presbytery, prince, or parliament," and thus brought into prominence the antagonistic position of the churches so named towards National, Episcopal, and Presbyterian Churches. The word Congregational has been now almost universally substituted for it to indicate more clearly the brotherhood and fellowship maintained in their separate communities, the spiritual equality of every member, the right and the duty of all in the church to have a voice in its deliberations and decisions, the essential necessity for each society to originate its own outward forms of life. As one of the latest exponents of Congregationalism has said,1 "When the restraints of outward law are repudiated, it is necessary to insist with all the greater intensity on making the polity of the church the expression of its own highest life. Everything must be subordinated to this. The polity must come from within; it must not be imposed from without; it may recognize outward circumstances but must not be controlled by them. If the organization of the church is to be a vital growth, the life which it is to reveal is the life which the church has received, from Christ. Ecclesiastical statesmen have no right to construct various forms of polity to express the spirit and tendencies prevailing among different races of men, in different countries, and in different churches; the polity of the church must be created by the idea of the church." It is maintained that this conception of a church organization is entirely in harmony with the genius of the New Testament, and is better expressed by the word Congregational than Independent. In this sense it is applicable to other communities, in particular to the Baptists, who sometimes adopt it. Probably another reason for its employment has been the growing tendency towards outward union among churches that were mainly characterized by their isolation from each other. Independency was often regarded as a synonym for non-catholicity, and there was so strict a jealousy against all possible interference from without that close association or united action was exceedingly difficult, even amongst those whose doctrinal beliefs and ecclesiastical polity were the same. An endeavour has been made to overcome such obstacles common to co-operation without destroying or infringing the independence of the individual church, and the Congregationalists now have numerous missionary societies for home and foreign work, an association in every county, and a general Congregational Union for England and Wales. The last was established after much discussion in 1833, when a declaration of faith, church order, and discipline was adopted under these express conditions. "It is not intended that the following statement should be put forth with any authority, or as a standard to which assent should be required. Disallowing the utility of creeds and articles of religion as a bond of union, and protesting against subscription to any human formularies as a term of communion, Congregationalists are yet willing to declare, for general information, what is commonly believed among them, reserving to every one the most perfect liberty of conscience." In 1871 a revision of the constitution of the Union took place, when the "fundamental principle" of its existence was thus re-asserted. "The Union recognizes the right of every individual church to administer its affairs, free from external control, and shall nut, in any case, assume legislative authority or become a court of appeal." The objects it seeks to promote were then also more definitely stated in these words, "to uphold and extend evangelical religion primarily in connection with churches of the Congregational order; to promote Scriptural views of church fellowship and organization; to strengthen the fraternal relations of the Congregational churches, and facilitate co-operation in everything affecting their common interests; to maintain correspondence with the Congregational churches and other Christian communities throughout the world; to obtain statistics relating to Congregational churches at home and abroad; to assist in procuring perfect religious equality for all British subjects, and in

FOOTNOTES (page 268)

1 Ecclesia, A Second Series of Essays on Theological and Ecclesiastical Questions, p. 371.

promoting reforms bearing on their moral and social condition." The chairman is elected annually by the vote of the delegates from the churches present at the annual meeting. Unions of a similar character exist in Scotland, Ireland, and the colonies. In 1876 it was computed1 that the total of Congregational churches and branch churches in Great Britain and the colonies was 3895, with other preaching places, supplied mainly by lay agency, to the number of 1248. The ordained ministers, including the missionaries of the London Missionary Society, were 3205; there were 17 colleges, employing 52 professors and educating 430 students. The expenditure for missions at home and abroad, not calculating the amounts expended by individual churches throughout the world for special local missions, was £147,270. In 1875 the Congregationalists opened their Memorial Hall and Library, which is erected in London on the site of the old Fleet Prison, in commemoration of the heroism and spiritual fidelity of the two thousand clergymen who were ejected "from their homes and livings as ministers of Christ in the Church of England, under the stringent, inhuman, and unjust provisions of the Act of Uniformity." In that building the various societies of the Congregationalists now hold their meetings.

Congregationalism in the United States has, from the earliest period of its existence, recognized the principle that each Christian society, though complete in itself, is nevertheless related to all other churches of the same faith and order. The weakness and scattered condition of those little communities which followed the settlement of the Pilgrim Fathers threw them into close association, they assisted each other by friendly advice, and from that sprang the system of councils. These have now become important institutions exercising considerable influence. It is claimed that, though every church is "independent of all outward control," "a fraternal fellowship is yet to be maintained among these independent churches; and when insoluble difficulties arise, or specially important matters claim decision—as where a pastor is to be settled or dismissed, or a church itself is to adopt its creed and commence its organic life—it is proper that the advice of other churches should be sought and given in council; such action, however, in no case being anything more than a labour of fraternal suasion or self-justification."2 Increase Mather says, "It has ever been their declared judgment that, where there is want either of light or peace in a particular church, it is their duty to ask for counsel, with which neighbour churches ought to assist by sending their elders and other messengers to advise and help them in their difficulties; and that in momentous matters of common concernment particular churches should proceed with the concurrence of neighbour churches; so in the ordination of a pastor, much more in the deposing of one. Thus it has ever been in the churches of New England." Some writers contend that "Congregationalism differs from Independency by its recognition of this practical fellowship between the churches." The councils thus summoned are dissolved as soon as the business is settled, and should the church to which advice is offered be unwilling to accept and act upon it the other churches may consider the desirability of withdrawing from any further association with it. There are permanent councils in Connecticut, called "consociations," but they are not general in the States. In some of the county unions of England a committee is appointed annually, to which churches may appeal in any difficulty which they are unable to remove of themselves,—an approach towards the American system. Ac-

FOOTNOTES (page 269)

(1) See Congregational Year Book, 1877.

(2) Congregationalism: What it is, whence it is, and how it works, 3d ed., Boston, 1871

cording to a religious census taken by the Government there were in the United States in 1850, 1725 Congregational churches with 807,335 sittings; these had increased in 1870 to 2887 churches and 1,117,212 sittings. For the education of the ministry there are seven theological institutions. (W. B.)

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