Our Friends the Congregationalists

Our Friends the Congregationalists: Discussions on the Contemporary Religions of America—No. 6

In the year 1931 the Con­gregational and the Christian churches discovered that while they had been separated for many years, they were identical in their ideals and principles. A merger of the two bodies was then brought about, with a for­ward look toward soon merging with the Evan­gelical and Reformed Church. We can well un­derstand why the Congregationalists have given strong leadership for the union of churches in both the National and World Council of Churches.

IN THE year 1931 the Con­gregational and the Christian churches discovered that while they had been separated for many years, they were identical in their ideals and principles. A merger of the two bodies was then brought about, with a for­ward look toward soon merging with the Evan­gelical and Reformed Church. We can well un­derstand why the Congregationalists have given strong leadership for the union of churches in both the National and World Council of Churches.

Recent historians have proved that Robert Browne and other separatist leaders developed beliefs similar to the early Congregationalists, but that the two groups were then wholly dis­tinct. John Robinson was one of the early influ­ential leaders of Congregationalism. He was a separatist until he met the distinguished Con-gregationalist theologian, William Ames, and Henry Jacob, a pamphleteer and organizer. Both had fled British ecclesiastical pressure. They were instrumental in converting Robin­son from separatism to their faith.

For more than a decade Robinson's congrega­tion had enjoyed peace and freedom under the Dutch. In 1620 this group sailed on the historic Mayflower to found the American common­wealth. Their venture into the New World may have been slow and painful, but it is to this group that the United States owes its freedom of state, its schools, and its social and political life.

Between 1630 and 1640 the Puritans arrived in Massachusetts and numbered some twenty thousand. Some had come from England and some from the Netherlands, to establish on American soil an all-powerful theocratic government. Church and state then presented a stern intolerant regime, causing the banish­ment from their colony of Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams. Often Quakers and Bap­tists alike were in trouble until in 1689 the Act of Toleration brought relief.

Thomas Hooker in 1636 led a group of one hundred to what is now Hartford, Connecticut. He had drawn up a freeman's agreement that was later used as a model for the American Constitution. Many New England colonists had clashed views with Jonathan Edwards' rigid Calvinism. When the Great Awakening in 1734 brought the eloquent George Whitefield on the scene, Edwards' vigorous writings continued, to become a part of the American classics. Con­gregationalists had an active part in the Revo­lutionary War. They also contributed strength to higher education, missions, the formation of a national council, and a statement of beliefs. Great colleges were founded, such as Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Williams, Amherst, Bowdoin, and Middlebury. In 1953 there were forty-eight colleges and ten theological seminaries of Congregational origin.

Missions in America

Interest in missions began with the landing of the Pilgrims. Men like the Mayhews, David Brainerd, and John Eliot worked among the Indians, and printed the Bible and a catechism in their language for them. By 1674 there were four thousand "praying Indians" in New Eng­land. These were taught by native preachers.

The organization of the American Board for Home and Foreign Missions, with representa­tives from the Presbyterians, Dutch Reformed, and Associate Reformed churches, became an interdenominational project. At this time we should fit into the picture the famous "hay-stack" meeting at Williams College in Mas­sachusetts, when five young missionaries were first sent abroad. It was a noble beginning that soon sent another thirty to foreign fields. Per­haps the more history-making venture was the Christianizing of beautiful Hawaii. Congrega­tional influences and education taught a mixed-race people, and within a quarter of a century, the religion of the Bible. The secrets of racial harmony, understanding, and Christian help­fulness were learned from the Book. A whole nation was taught to read and to write. This laid a solid foundation for constitutional and democratic government, so that today Hawaii is marked as a great sociological experiment with due credit to the church.

Growth and Expansion

As the Congregationalists moved westward with the Presbyterians to save duplication of missionary effort, these two groups adopted a union plan. By 1850, however, the Presbyterians were stronger in the then-known West, but the Congregationalists were in the lead in New England. With the establishment of Unitarianism in 1825, the older Congregational churches in eastern Massachusetts, with one ex­ception in Boston, had gone Unitarian.

By 1871 Congregationalism had grown to the extent that there was need for a guiding body, which became known as the General Council of Congregational Christian Churches. It helped to unify the objectives of the churches func­tioning in this connection. Congregationalists have been adaptable. Their large youth work became the Christian Endeavor, an interna­tional society known all over the world, with decidedly interdenominational tendencies. It is claimed by them that Congregationalists re­main Puritans, having a passionate regard for truth. They have been called the world's great­est creed makers. While allowing freedom to each local congregation to make its own creed, and claiming affinity for Catholicism, they do not recognize the sovereignty of the pope, al­though admitting the Roman Catholic Church is one of the true branches of Christianity. They disclaim the Roman or Anglican apostolic succession per se, believing that the whole Church of Christ is the succession from the apostles. The humblest church member can dispense the richness of the grace of Christ as well as the greatest prelate. (See A Guide to the Religions of America, Simon and Schuster, N.Y.)

Equalities of Congregationalism

Congregationalists on American soil advo­cated woman's place in ministerial service. Today, however, only about 4 per cent of their ministers are women. The principle holds throughout that where women can give better service than men, according to New Testament usage they should be recognized, without dis­tinction in ecclesiastical status, and some who are "called" should be ordained for ministerial leadership. The example of the Congregation­alists in this practice has influenced a sector of Protestantism to the extent that woman's work in recent decades has been greatly dignified within the Protestant churches. This attitude on the part of church officials is drawing conse­crated womanhood into seminaries for theologi­cal training. Another branch of sendee points up her aptitude for clerical skills, so important today in the well-organized, large city church. From various indications there seems to be a growing emphasis on the need for consecrated, trained ministerial vocations for hospital and home visitation and counseling. These church vocations for young women of the future are already offering new challenges for Christian women interested in a church career.

But Congregationalism shows both liberal and conservative elements. Their Plymouth Rock heritage has characterized them as a peo­ple who were pious, hardy, and conservative; and they loved learning. Today Congregational ministers and Jewish rabbis exchange pulpits regularly in many cities, both servants of the church claiming the same ethical emphasis on the brotherhood of man. Congregationalists sincerely stress that fraternity with non-Chris­tians expresses true Christian belief.

Our Changing Times

Although Americans may trace some of the grass roots of their heritage in Congregational­ism, they recognize, nevertheless, various strange by-products, reactions, and paradoxes from the original pattern. Some may be justi­fied in thinking that the propositions of con­temporary movements indicate that America is fast losing its Protestant identity. This may be due to the fact that America has become the greatest national and racial melting pot of the world.

New England may be a good illustration of this, for the question is often asked: "Where is the typical New Englander of earlier times?" What happened to the people who first colo­nized its territory? Has not the Yankee turned over his farms to the whims of city vacationists who relax on his antique furniture? Are not his traditional landmarks now "shrines" to attract more tourists and sight-seers? Are his churches and colleges of yesteryear changing their reli­gious emphasis, and why? Have not the streams, hills, and shores of beautiful New England at­tracted other national and racial groups, and many who have long forgotten God, who in their wild frenzy for a higher standard of living have never caught the vision of the first Ameri­can colonists in their struggle for civil and re­ligious liberty?

While this area under our foregoing discus­sion was the first American home of the Congregationalists, is it not true that mankind is not yet Godlike? Despite the church's best ef­forts for brotherhood, there seems to be more deterioration than progress heavenward. Amer­ica needs a revival!

America's Eastern seaboard is fast becoming a chain of cities, many of them overcrowded. What a glorious opportunity for the church to evangelize, before the elements that are pressing in take over the Bible religion that should sur­vive. Bear in mind that "churchianity" is not Christianity, and that institutions built by those who call themselves Christians may serve the poor and heal the sick but may fail to actually save the lost.

Is not this the hour of opportunity for our Missionary Volunteers and for all welfare and socially-minded Christians to evangelize? Youth­ful voices should be raised against America's common foe—intemperance! This task requires more than preparing for a prize in an oratori­cal contest, meritorious as such an incentive is; indeed, it must embrace the call for conse­crated, zealous youth, with a true burden for souls. Let these fall into line and learn, so as not to miss the more important service in deal­ing with the problems of alcohol, narcotics, and tobacco—that of loving, intelligent, per­sonal evangelism. It must lead to a full sur­render of obedience to Christ our Master.

The church in any community must be more than a distributing center for food and clothing, a source of relief when calamities strike. Useful and basic as these ministries are, we must offer in each case the bread from heaven, the water of life, the robe of Christ's righteousness, and the eternal security of the new earth. Bible in­structors should do all they can to minister to bodily needs, but should never forget that their true calling is to save both body and soul. We dare not scatter our interests so broadly that we to whom this ministerial, soul-saving service is given will let other pressures consume our time so that soulsaving receives secondary at­tention. We should remember that this is our real work!

At the close of our discussion on Congrega­tionalism we would again refer to the far-visioned Congregationalist missionaries who un­der God performed miracles in their day. Let us refer to their noble work when we visit with Christians of this faith in our communities. It will produce a friendly atmosphere. It may also stimulate a new interest for another generation of Congregationalists to now help the "church universal" to complete the message of the ever­lasting gospel. Throughout the world we must make ready a people to meet our soon-coming Saviour. Many sincere Congregationalists will respond to such an invitation on the part of their Seventh-day Adventist neighbors.


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October 1961

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