Continuing this series on various religious bodies our workers will contact in their evangelism, we again call attention to our 1956 Book Club selection, A Guide to the Religions of America. We will now discuss a very interesting group of denominations—Congregationalism and a few other faiths whose roots were found in this body. These were originally of English Protestant heritage. (See chart on page 195 of A Guide to Religions.)
Congregationalists were one of the several groups within the Church of England during the controversial days of the early seventeenth century. There was then a considerable overlapping of ideas between the Puritans, Separatists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Nonconformists. It resulted in measures that necessitated migrations from England. However, the tie with the Church of England was broken when Charles II demanded strict conformity to the Book of Common Prayers. New England then offered a haven, an opportunity to remain within the church but away from the persecutions of the contending English bishops.
The recognized founder of Congregationalism was Robert Browne, a young Cambridge student who had learned the Anabaptist view in Holland. In 1580 he directed a group who became independent of the Anglican Church. Not being successful in maintaining a democratic church in England, these believers fled to Holland during the first decade of the seventeenth century. Later, fearing their children would lose their national and language identity, a large part of John Robinson's congregation set sail for America on the Mayflower. This was the beginning of American Congregationalism.
Congregationalists have been among the greatest creed makers in history. Each particular church group may write its own creed and ethical declarations. They consider themselves Catholic, but not in the sense of recognizing the sovereignty of the pope. Congregationalism flourished well on American soil. Their rugged past and the rigors of New England soon evidenced among them the need for civic adjustment and religious reform. It was during the Great Awakening in New England, under Edwards and Whitefield, that new strength was gained, which influenced the church's polity. Also the principles of separation of church and state had been germinating. These later became the basis for discussions that terminated in the American Revolution.
Out of the revival of the Great Awakening grew a dissatisfaction with mere traditionalism. Zealous elements recognized the time for the outpouring of the Spirit—and in Congregational ranks! Perhaps some of the fanatical demonstrations of the hour declared the day of freedom and democracy in religion. Free-thinking folk could feel at liberty to follow their own patterns of religion. This may explain a reason for some of these "new religions" on American soil. Again it helps us to understand why in our day some of these differing church groups are now seeking mergers, which, as far as Congregationalism itself is concerned, should be blending into a United Church of Christ in 1957.
Congregationalists are not dogmatic on doctrine. The brotherhood of man is stressed, also education and ethical religion. Neither the geography, or the certainty, or the quality and duration of heaven or hell bring a conflict to a Congregationalist. Scientific methods are applied to the Bible, but the 1ATord is reverenced. They are frequently referred to as an interdenominational group. They oppose religious isolationism and denominational exclusiveness. A Jewish rabbi and a Congregational minister will exchange pulpits.
Another point of interest is the fact that Congregationalists have the longest history of missionary activity among American church groups. Bible and missionary societies, work among the Indians, Eskimos, and slaves, are praiseworthy enterprises.
Admitting that Congregationalists have a good heritage, we feel, nevertheless, that their ethical teachings need to extend into important reforms for our day. And though they stand for the establishment of justice and human brotherhood, it is visionary. In fact, every evidence points to the collapse of this world. A reign of peace and equity will not be ushered in until after Christ returns. Bible prophecy makes this very clear. It also reveals that His coming is imminent. Again it must be remembered that the Congregationalism of its beginning is not that of our day. There is an admixture of Calvinism and Arminianism, which in some areas calls for a straight testimony on the perpetuity of God's law. Our Congregationalist friends need the certainty of the entire gospel.
The Unitarian believes in freedom to search out truth for himself. He regards all creeds as negative and is dedicated to human betterment through religion. It is typically Unitarian to stress a universal brotherhood, undivided by nation, race, or creed, and an allegiance to a united world community. The name Unitarian is not easily traced in history, but it was applied in Transylvania when a group pledged not to persecute one another. Later Unitarians became distinguished from Trinitarians.
Free to believe whatever persuades, the Unitarians have a concept of God that is mystical. Jesus is a great prophet. His helpful earthly ministry becomes man's pattern rather than an atoning sacrifice. The Bible is a source of revelation. Its inspiration is comparable to the Gettysburg Address. A Unitarian may believe what fits into his ideas regarding the afterlife. Eternal punishment, however, is rejected. He has a high regard for science as well as for the Bible. He believes that there should be strict honesty in arriving at truth. It is not necessary to profess to be a Christian when one becomes a Unitarian. Unitarians are excluded from the National Council of Churches, and that may explain some matters in this connection.
Ethically and spiritually, Unitarianism is like Judaism. Its ministers exchange pulpits with Jewish rabbis. There is also much common ground with the Quakers. Special services are observed, but sacraments are not. A great Unitarian leader of the nineteenth century, William Ellery Channing, stated: "I am a living member of the great family of all souls." He held that this was the bond of the "Church Universal" and that nothing could destroy such membership except "the death of goodness in his own breast." Another Unitarian principle refers to prayer: Prayer is for the benefit of the one who prays; it does not change God's heart.
Recognizing a congregational foun of church government, it is stressed that each member govern himself. Though there are officers in the church, the idea of a hierarchy is frowned upon. Democracy leads to spiritual and social security. Unitarians believe in education, but children are not to be "indoctrinated"; they should learn for themselves. Devoted to truth "at all costs," the church is not intolerant to differing religious views. Although not aggressive in evangelism, they welcome all who are ready to accept a free-mind principle. Unitarians do not see a need for converting the heathen. Though missions are regarded as an ecclesiastical imperialism, their Service Committee is exemplary in zeal to help refugees, and to lend substantial assistance in every type of disaster. In some areas Unitarians are growing rapidly.
Christians who are conscious of Christ's great commission would experience a decided conflict with the thinking of Unitarians. There is a lack of Bible certainty and of the efficacy of Christ's atoning blood. With them human salvation, not divine, is the way toward world betterment. The philanthropy of a man like Dr. Albert Schweitzer, recent Nobel Prize winner, is typically Unitarian. The Unitarian takes a casual interest in prophecy. But it is important that he should come not only to recognize the historical Christ, who will take over a peaceful kingdom, but also to accept His divine purpose for man, and in his own life. Redemption from sin must be emphasized. The prospect of leading Unitarians to know true Christian doctrine is not promising. Human reasoning is substituted for fundamental Christian faith.
(It should be noted that Unity as a religion is very different from Unitarianism. Unity's roots are in metaphysics, whereas Unitarianism grew out of Congregationalist thinking. Unity will be discussed later, along with Christian Science.)
Universalism should not be confused with Unitarianism. Without question, however, both are of much the same stock. Universalists contend that man, being created in God's image, can arrive at hying righteously. While not making claims to be the first church, they hold that there is good proof that many of the early Christians held Universalist beliefs. They claim an open mind to truth rather than staying within the covers of a single book, the Bible. Such fundamental Christian doctrines as the incarnation hold no special interest. Social reform and humanitarianism count! It is a liberal religion, and orthodox is not considered. Man's fall into sin is a "ghastly idea." They have confidence in man's inherent birthright. They hold that beliefs do not exist from revelation. Universalists believe that Christ lived and died to establish a kingdom of righteousness. Faith in God's love will bring all this about.
The year 1779 marked the first organized Universalist church in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Its members arrived in America from England in 1770. The genius of this group is its liberty. Complete emancipation from suffering, and moral betterment, are its ideals. "The Universalist Church is a very human institution, created solely for the purpose of enriching, enlarging, and fulfilling man's life." To this end it believes in an educated ministry. It led out in discussing America's great taxation questions and later vigorously opposed slavery.
Universalists have explicit confidence that man's inherently good traits will fit him eventually for a better world and that irrespective of his present environment man will conquer where he may now be meeting temporary defeat.
In conclusion, we may recognize much that is good and ethical in Universalism, but also more that is undoctrinal, and even heretical. The gospel worker would need to begin building absolute confidence in the God of an inspired revelation. Jesus is more than an ideal life; He must be our personal Saviour from sin. Man cannot save himself by good works; his Creator has provided the plan and means for his existence in this life and for eternity. The Book teaches that more will be lost than Universalism avows. But surely we must do all we can to save Universalists. It may not be a ready task, but the Advent hope has already touched the lives of Universalists, and it will continue to draw them to a resurrected and soon-coming Saviour.
L. C. K.
(Concluded next month)