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The retention by the Anglican State Church of the prelatical form of government and of many Catholic rites and ceremonies offensive to genuine Protestants resulted in the formation of innumerable Puritan factions, with varying degrees of radicalism. The violent measures adopted by Elizabeth and the Stuarts to enforce conformity caused the more timid and moderate of the Puritans to remain in communion with the State Church, though keeping up to the present day an incessant protest against "popish tendencies"; but the more advanced and daring of their leaders began to perceive that there was no place for them in a Church governed by a hierarchy and enslaved to the civil power. To many of them, Geneva was the realization of Christ's kingdom on earth, and, influenced by the example of neighbouring Scotland, they began to form churches on the model of Presbyterianism (q.v.). Many, however, who had withdrawn from the "tyranny" of the episcopate, were loath to submit to the dominion of presbyteries and formed themselves into religious communities acknowledging "no head, priest, prophet or king save Christ". These dissenters were known as "Independents" and in spite of fines, imprisonments, and the execution of at least five of their leaders, they increased steadily in numbers and influence, until they played a conspicuous part in the revolution that cost Charles I his crown and life. The earliest literary exponent of Independence was Robert Brown, from whom the dissenters were nicknamed Brownists. Brown was born in 1550, of a good family, in Rutlandshire, and studied at Cambridge. About 1580 he began to circulate pamphlets in which the State Church was denounced in unmeasured terms and the duty was inculcated of separating from communion with it. The godly were not to look to the State for the reform of the Church; they must set about it themselves on the Apostolic model. Brown defines the Church as a "company or number of Christians or believers, who, by a willing covenant made with their God, are under the government of God and Christ, and keep his laws in one holy communion". This new gospel attracted numerous adherents. A congregation was formed in Norwich which grew rapidly. Summoned before the bishop's court, Brown escaped the consequences of his zeal through the intervention of his powerful relation, Lord Burghley, and, with his followers, migrated to Holland, the common refuge of the persecuted reformers of all Europe. The Netherlands were soon flooded with refugees from England, and large congregations were established in the principal cities. The most flourishing Independent Church was that of Leyden under the direction of John Robinson. It was to this congregation that the "Pilgrim Fathers" belonged, who in 1620 set sail in the Mayflower for the New World.
The successful establishment of the New England colonies was an event of the utmost importance in the development of Congregationalism, a term preferred by the American Puritans to Independency and gradually adopted by their coreligionists in Great Britain. Not only was a safe haven now opened to the fugitives from persecution, but the example of orderly communities based entirely on congregational principles, "without pope, prelate, presbytery, prince or parliament", was a complete refutation of the charge advanced by Anglicans and Presbyterians that Independency meant anarchy and chaos, civil and religious. In the Massachusetts settlements, "the New England way", as it was termed, developed, not indeed without strifes and dissensions, but without external molestation. They formed, from the Puritan standpoint, the veritable kingdom of the saints; and the slightest expression of dissent from the Gospel was punished by the ministers was punished with scourging, exile, and even death. The importance of stamping out Nonconformity in the American colonies did not escape the vigilance of Archbishop Laud; he had concerted measures with Charles I for imposing the episcopacy upon them, when war broke out between the king and the Parliament. During the Civil War in England, though few in number compared with the Presbyterians, they grew in importance through the ability of their leaders, notably of Oliver Cromwell who gained for them the ascendency in the army and the Commonwealth. In the Westminster Assembly convened by the Long Parliament in 1643, Independency was ably represented by five ministers, Thomas Goodwin, Philip Nye, Jeremiah Burroughs, William Bridge and Sidrach Simpson, known as "The Five Dissenting Brethren", and ten or eleven laymen. They all took a prominent part in the debates of the Assembly, pleading strongly for toleration at the hands of the Presbyterian majority. They adopted the doctrinal articles of the Westminster Confession with slight modifications; but as there could be no basis of agreement between them and the Presbyterians regarding church government, a meeting of "elders and messengers" of "the Congregational churches" was held at the Savoy in 1658 and drew up the famous "Savoy Declaration", which was also accepted in New England and long remained as authoritative as such a document could be in a denomination which, theoretically, rejected all authority. From this Declaration we obtain a clear idea of the Congregationalist notion of the Church.
The elect are called individually by the Lord, but "those thus called (through the ministry of the word by His Spirit) he commandeth to walk together in particular Societies or Churches, for their mutual edification and the due performance of that Public Worship which He requireth of them in this world". Each of these particular churches is the Church in the full sense of the term and is not subject to any outside jurisdiction. The officers of the church, pastors, teachers, elders, and deacons, are "chosen by the common suffrage of the church itself, and solemnly set apart by fasting and prayer, with imposition of hands of the eldership of that church, if there be any before constituted therein"; the essence of the call consists in election by the Church. To preserve harmony, no person ought to be added to the Church without the consent of the Church itself. The Church has power to admonish and excommunicate disorderly members, but this power of censure "is to be exercised only towards particular members of each church as such". "In case of difficulties or differences, either in point of doctrine or administration, wherein either the churches in general are concerned, or any one church, in their peace, union, and edification, or any member or members of any church are injured in or by any proceeding in censures not agreeable to truth and order, it is according to the mind of Christ that many churches holding one communion together do by their messengers meet in a Synod or Council to consider and give their advice in or about that matter in difference, to be reported to all the churches concerned: Howbeit, these Synods so assembled are not entrusted with any church power properly so called, or with any jurisdiction over the churches themselves, to exercise any censures, either over any churches or persons, or to impose their determination on the churches or officers." If any person, for specified reasons, be dissatisfied with his church, "he, consulting with the church, or the officer or officers thereof, may peaceably depart from the communion of the church wherewith he hath so walked, to join himself to some other church". Finally it is stated that "churches gathered and walking according to the mind of Christ, judging other churches (though less pure) to be true churches, may receive unto occasional communion with them such members of these churches as are credibly testified to be godly and to live without offense".
Such are the main principles of Congregationalism regarding the constitution of the church; in doctrine the Congregational teachers were, for the most part, strictly Calvinistic. Independent ascendency came to an abrupt close at the death of Cromwell and the restoration of Charles II. The Presbyterians, who had seated the Stuart on his throne, might hope for his favour; there was slight prospect that he would tolerate the democratic tenets of Congregationalism. As a matter of fact Charles and his servile parliament persecuted both forms of dissent. A succession of severe edicts, the Corporation Act, 1661, the Act of Uniformity, 1662, the Conventicle Act, 1663, renewed, 1670, the Five-Mile Act, 1665, and the Test Act, 1673, made existence almost impossible to Nonconformists of all shades of belief. Yet in spite of persecution, they held out until the eighteenth century brought toleration and finally freedom. It is characteristic of the Puritans that, notwithstanding the sufferings they had undergone they spurned the indulgence offered by James II, because it tolerated popery; in fact, they were more zealous than the rest of the nation in driving James from the throne. The exclusion of Dissenters from the British universities created a serious problem for the Congregationalists as well as for the Catholics; to the sacrifices which these and other denominations out of communion with the State Church made for the maintenance of academies and colleges conducted according to their respective principles, England, like America, owes that great boon so essential to the well-being of civilized nations, freedom of education. During the eighteenth century, while the clergy of the Established Church, educated and maintained by the State, were notoriously incapable and apathetic, whatever there was of spiritual energy in the nation emanated from the denominational colleges.
The Congregational churches were at their best while the pressure of persecution served to cement them; this removed, the absence of organization left them an easy prey to the inroads of rationalism and infidelity. Before the end of the eighteenth century many of them lapsed into Unitarianism, alike in England and America. A new problem was thus forced upon them, viz. how to maintain the unity of the denomination without consciously violating their fundamental doctrine of the entire independence of each particular church. "A Congregational Union of England and Wales", formed in 1833 and revised in 1871, issued a "Declaration of the Faith, Church Order, and Discipline of the Congregational or Independent Dissenters", and provided for annual meetings and a president who should hold office for a year. American Congregationalism has always been of a more organic character. While persisting in emphasizing the complete independence of particular churches, it has made ample provision, at the expense of consistency, for holding the denomination together. No minister is admitted except upon approval of the clerical "association" to which he must belong. To be acknowledged as Congregationalist, a new community must be received into fellowship by the churches of its district. Should a church fall into serious error, or tolerate and uphold notorious scandals, the other churches may withdraw their fellowship, and it ceases to be recognized as Congregationalist. If a minister is found guilty of gross heresy or evil life, a council summoned to examine his case may, if necessary, withdraw from him the fellowship of the churches. The statements of Henry M. Dexter, D.D., the historian of his sect ("American Encyclopedia", s.v. "Congregationalism"), prove that there is a marked contrast between Congregational theory and practice. The Congregationalists have been very active in home and foreign mission work and possess eight theological seminaries in the United States, viz. Andover, Massachusetts; Atlanta, Georgia; Bangor, Maine; New Haven and Hartford, Connecticut; Oberlin, Ohio; Chicago, Illinois; and the Pacific, Berkeley, California. Since 1871 national councils, composed of delegates from all the States of the Union, are convened every third year. "The Congregational Handbook for 1907" gives the following statistics of the denomination in America: Churches 5931; ministers 5933; members 668,736. Included in this count are Cuba with 6 ministers and 636 members and Porto Rico with 3 ministers and 50 members. In England and Wales the statistics for 1907 were: sittings 1,801,447; communicants 498,953; ministers 3197; local preachers 5603. The efforts made in recent years to find a basis for some kind of corporate union between the Congregationalists, the Methodist Protestants, and the United Brethren in Christ have not been successful.
Walker, A History of the Congregational Churches in the United States (New York, 1894); Idem, The Creeds and Platforms of Congregationalism (ibid., 1893); Dexter, The Congregationalism of the last 300 years, as seen in its Literature (ibid., 1880). Each of these works contains a good bibliography.