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Historical Congregationalism

When King Henry VIII of England broke with Rome and made the Church of England subservient to the English crown, many of his subjects thought he had not gone far enough in reforming the church. These people, sometimes called Puritans, wanted a church that was thoroughly reformed in its worship, governance, and outlook.

Some of them tried to purify the English Church from within. Others, known as Separatists, left the state church and formed local groups of believers bound together by mutual covenants. 

One of these churches was gathered by covenant in the village of Scrooby in 1606. They met on Sundays in the home of the postmaster, William Brewster, for Bible study and prayer. Such gatherings were banned by British law, which demanded that all subjects of the king belong to the Church of England and no other. When the threat of persecution by English authorities became severe, the little church of Scrooby, led by its pastor John Robinson, fled to Holland.

After a few peaceful and prosperous years in Leiden, the Scrooby congregation made plans to establish a Separatist colony in America. Sailing on the Mayflower from the port of Plymouth, England, in 1620, the 102 voyagers arrived off Cape Cod in late autumn and landed in a harbor they named Plymouth. Before stepping ashore, they drafted an agreement as the basis for the civil government of their colony. This Mayflower Compact was the first written expression in history of a social contract, in which the people agree among themselves to form the state. It can be seen as a civil counterpart to the covenant by which they had formed their church in Scrooby.

These people have been called Pilgrims by later generations of Americans. Their first winter on American soil was very hard, claiming the lives of half the group. But under the leadership of able governors such as William Bradford, the colony at Plymouth soon prospered.

In 1629 and 1630, the Pilgrims of Plymouth were joined by a much larger migration of Puritans from England, who founded the city of Boston and other towns and villages which together made up the Massachusetts Bay Colony. These newcomers, led by Governor John Winthrop, were better financed and more numerous than the Pilgrims of Plymouth, and they soon dominated the civil and religious life of Massachusetts and the other New England colonies. Unlike the settlers of Plymouth, most of the Massachusetts Bay party were non-Separatists. They were Puritans who did not necessarily want to separate from the Church of England. Nevertheless, persecution at home had driven them to a physical, if not a spiritual, separation.

Most importantly, the non-Separating Puritans who came to Massachusetts formed their churches in the same way the Scrooby Separatists had formed theirs: by covenanting together, without the aid of king, bishop, or synod. Thus, in the decades that followed, New England became filled with Congregational churches. Boston eventually had several such churches, but each frontier settlement of any size had its own church. Each church hired its own pastor and ran its own affairs. Periodically, lay and clergy representatives of these churches would meet to discuss matters of common concern -- but any conclusions reached were advisory, not mandatory upon the churches. Only the congregation could decide matters for the local church.

The original Congregationalists were strict Calvinists, who espoused a covenantal theology and the doctrines of grace. Ensuing generations began to fall away from the particular tenets of this belief, until, in the early 1700s, New England was ripe for the first religious revival movement on American soil. This Great Awakening was led primarily by Jonathan Edwards of Northampton, Massachusetts, who worked with spiritual and intellectual distinction over the course of a long life to support the tenets of the original New England theology.

Also in the eighteenth century, the tradition of freedom and self-government started by the Congregationalists of New England fostered the spirit of independence which informed the American revolutionaries. Many small New England churches participated actively in the War of Independence. By the 1800s, as the effects of the Great Awakening began to recede, many were turning to more liberal theologies. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many of the Congregational churches in the United States, which had resisted the Unitarian impulse, eventually became more liberal in their theology, a trend which continues to influence many American churches.

The Congregational tradition remains cloudy to this day, and the expressions vary from congregation to congregregation. At Grace Fellowship we will seek to remain true to the original spirit of the Seperatists, a free, local gathering, always reforming, guided by the Word of God and continuing in historic orthodoxy.