Congregationalism, a form of church polity, or a system of ecclesiastical organization, management, and control. Its correlatives are Presbyterianism, Episcopacy, Papacy. Its essential peculiarity is that it maintains the independence of each particular congregation of Christians, and their sufficiency to perfect and preserve their own organization, to elect and inaugurate their own officers, and, with and through those officers, to perform all needful ecclesiastical acts. Like every other system of church order, it may be connected with any form of doctrine, and with any particular mode of worship. This polity in its general principle is adopted not only by those known as Congre-gationalists, but also by the Baptist denomination, and in this country by Unitarians and Universalists, and by some who hold the theological opinions of the Methodists. In the common, though more limited and strictly denominational sense in which it will be used in this article, the word Congregational designates a class of churches which hold in general that system of theology which was maintained by Augustine and Calvin, and which has been explained, advocated, and amended by the theologians of New England in their successive generations. - Congregationalists define a church to be an organization of professed believers, statedly meeting in one place, and united together by covenant for mutual watchfulness and edification, for the maintenance of divine worship and the observance of Christian ordinances.
There is no "Congregational church of the United States," but a collection of Congregational churches. Hence their efforts are not directed so much to "church extension" as to the multiplication and strengthening of churches. The definition given implies an organization, and not a mere accidental assembly, composed of believers in Christ, who profess to be converts, and who give credible evidence of piety by lives of holiness; they become members by election and by mutual covenant, for the sake primarily of the objects stated. Church members, in their individual capacity, are reasonably looked to as leaders in every good work; they are expected, as opportunity offers and conscience dictates, to cooperate in missionary, educational, and reformatory enterprises. In fact, these enterprises owe their chief strength and efficiency to the enlightened and conscientious support of Christians; yet a church in its organic constitution does not exist specifically for any such enterprise, and is seldom called upon as an organization to endorse or espouse specific measures of social, political, or moral reform extraneous to its own body.
There is some difference of opinion concerning the relation of the baptized children of Christian parents to the church; but the universal usage is to admit them to full communion only upon satisfactory evidence of their conversion and piety. A church thus defined is to be distinguished from the congregation, which includes all who meet in the same place, non-communicants as well as the church members; from the society, which is a legal term, denoting those especially incorporated for holding real estate and providing for the expenses of the church; and from the parish, a term nearly synonymous with the two preceding words, but sometimes also used to mark territorial limits. Hence also are derived such terms as church members, pew-owners, and parishioners. It is of course an object with every church to gather around it a congregation from which it may receive accessions to its ranks; but the society or parish organization is an unessential thing, and simply a matter of convenience. Congregationalists insist on the competence of each church to elect its own officers, to regulate its own concerns, to receive or reject candidates for membership, and to pronounce censure upon any one of the brotherhood who walks disorderly; and on its independence, in these matters, of all dictation from other churches, its allegiance being due to Christ alone.
Moreover, it is a principle of Congregationalism that in the administration of church affairs the brethren of the church have equal rights. Each male member of full age is entitled to vote on all matters affecting its interests. - The internal structure of a Congregational church is very simple. Its officers are a pastor or pastors and deacons, the latter elected from and by the church, and the former usually called from the same office in some other church, or selected from candidates for the ministry who have a general recommendation from those already in the pastoral office, and who have made trial of their gifts in the pulpit to the satisfaction of the congregation. In the election of a pastor, it is usual for the church to nominate to the society, and upon their concurrence an invitation is given to the candidate. Provision is made for his support, a revenue for this purpose being secured by subscription or by a tax, or by the rent of seats in the house of worship. Upon his acceptance he is inducted into office by a council, being ordained if he has never been set apart for the work of the ministry, but otherwise only installed.
It is usual also for churches to appoint a clerk to keep their records, and a committee of the brethren, who, in connection with the pastors and deacons, examine candidates for admission, inquire concerning cases of scandal, if any arise, and have a general oversight of the interests of the church. The pastor is the moderator of the church, the spiritual counsellor of its members, and its authorized teacher, who has entire control of the pulpit, administers the ordinances of baptism and the Lord's supper, and performs the marriage ceremony. The deacons are officially the almoners of the church charities, being specially charged with responsibility for the sick and needy, while, in consequence of their position and experience, they are naturally looked upon as the counsellors of the minister. Congregationalists hold to but one order or rank in the ministry, the deacons being only laymen. Licentiates are not ministers, but simply candidates for that work. Evangelists are ministers who preach and administer the ordinances, but who have no permanent place of labor. Missionaries are ministers who have been sent to destitute places, or to foreign lands, after ordination.
Ministers who are employed to preach to churches year by year, without the formalities of an installation, are sometimes called stated supplies. The use of the terms bishop and overseer, as designations of church officers, is not common in Congregational churches; but when they are employed, they denote simply the pastor of a church. The Baptists frequently designate their ministers as elders. In early times the New England churches made a distinction between the work of a pastor, a teacher, and a ruling elder, and these three officers formed a presbytery in every church, whose concurrence with the brotherhood was necessary for the consummation of every church act; but for a long time the pastor has been the sole representative of this presbytery, and the distinction is known only as a matter of history. The Congregational "ruling elder " is not to be confounded with the ruling elder of the Presbyterian church. The former was an ordained and ordaining minister, though he was not a professional preacher, and did not administer baptism and the Lord's supper. Congregationalists advocate and practise church discipline by means of admonition and rebuke, and an entire withdrawal of fellowship. This is done by the votes of the brethren, after patient waiting and a full hearing of facts.
Its design, so far as the offender is concerned, is to bear testimony against his fault, and to express to him the conviction of the church of his danger if he fails to acknowledge and forsake his sin. So far as the church is concerned, an act of excommunication frees its members from responsibility for him whom they disown. Excommunication is attended with no civil disabilities, and one who has been cut off may be restored to fellowship upon confession and repentance. - The liturgy of Congregational churches is as simple as their organization. The ordinary public service of the Sabbath provides for extemporaneous prayers, the singing of psalms and hymns, the reading of Scripture, and delivery of a sermon, written or unwritten. The order is modified when desirable, and the exercises close with the benediction. No audible responses are made as prayer is offered, but in theory it is accepted as the devout desire of each worshipper, while in song all may pour forth their hearts before God in vocal utterance. The custom in respect to posture during prayer and singing varies in different congregations. The most usual is to sit during prayer and stand during singing.
A form is used in the reception of members, in which usually their assent is asked to the covenant of the church and to the confession of faith adopted as the common expression of their views of Christian doctrine. Some Congregational churches have adopted a form of prayer for their own use in public worship, and congregational singing is now generally practised in churches of this order. - For the office of the ministry in the Congregational churches several things are requisite. A personal and experimental knowledge of divine truth is indispensable. To this must be added usually a liberal education and a familiarity with theological science. One having these qualifications, and desirous of becoming a preacher, may, upon examination by an association, be recommended to the churches as a candidate. If any church then elects him as pastor, and he accepts the invitation, a council is called to examine and ordain him. The services at ordination are performed by the ministers invited to the council, and include not only devotional exercises, but a special sermon; the ordaining prayer, in whicb the candidate is solemnly set apart for his office with the laying on of the hands of other ministers; the charge, in which he is reminded of the duties of his office; and the right hand of fellowship, which is given him in the name of the ministers and churches, with their Christian salutations. - "Without admitting any right of churches to exercise authority and control over each other, Congrega-tionalists seek to strengthen bonds of love and fellowship between all the churches of Christ, and especially between those of the same faith and order.
Neighboring churches may be regarded as so many Christian families, having common sympathies and aims, desirous of promoting each other's welfare, ready to assist and advise as occasion may require, at liberty to suspend intercourse as a last resort, but not authorized to dictate measures or prescribe laws for each other. This mutual fellowship finds expression in various ways. The pastors of neighboring churches frequently exchange pulpits for a Sabbath; membership in one church is recognized as a ground of invitation to communion with others; church members changing their residence are dismissed and commended by letter to other churches which they desire to join, and thus their connection is transferred from one organization to another. The censures pronounced by a church are also respected by those in fellowship with it. Any church may call a council by letters addressed to neighboring churches, to give advice. This step is customary at the settlement and dismissal of pastors, and at the organization of a church; and a council thus convened, consisting of a pastor and a delegate from each church invited, is regarded as a representative of all the churches.
A member thinking himself aggrieved by church action has a right to demand a council, and to designate half the churches to be invited; if his request is refused, he may call an ex parte council. Such councils dissolve when their business is ended. Occasionally, councils are more permanent bodies, and are called consociations, and sometimes conventions. Such bodies, however, should not be confounded with presbyteries, from which they differ both in their structure and in their powers. A presbytery is composed of representatives from church sessions; a consociation, of delegates from the churches directly. A church may at any time withdraw from a consociation without impairing its standing. The powers of a consociation are delegated and defined by the churches, and may at any time be curtailed or withdrawn, or the body itself may be dissolved without affecting the existence of the churches connected with it. In the Congregational system the particular church is the source of all ecclesiastical power and privilege. Sometimes neighboring churches unite in conferences for religious services and for reports of benevolent operations.
Associations are in general composed of ministers, who meet for personal improvement and intercourse, and also to examine the credentials and attainments of candidates for the ministry, and recommend them to the churches. Sometimes associations include also a delegation from the churches, but without having authority in ecclesiastical matters. The general associations are organizations, made up of representatives from the local associations, meeting annually, but not infringing upon the independence of the churches. They may recommend, but cannot speak authoritatively. Occasionally larger synods or conventions have been held, as at Cambridge, Mass., in 1648, at Saybrook, Conn., in 1708, and at Albany in 1852, for the purpose of promoting harmony and unity by the preparation of a platform of church discipline and a formal confession of faith, or of inaugurating measures for the development of Christian power throughout the country. Thus Congregation-alists hold to the communion of churches, as a cardinal principle; they recognize "one holy catholic church, the communion of saints; " they believe that no organization exists for itself alone, and that all are complete in one head, which is Christ, to whose authority all are subject.
They are not independent in the sense of having no fellowship with each other. " Those devout and studious men in England, who reduced to practice the conclusion that churches in modern times, like those in the apostolic age, should be quite independent of lords or commons, or of king or Caesar, and equally independent of a supposed national church unknown in the New Testament and to the early ages of ecclesiastical history, were at first called Independents; and in England the psedobaptist churches, independent of the state, and independent of any existing or imaginary church of England, have always been distinguished by that name." In America different circumstances have led to the general use of the term Congregationalists. - The doctrines taught in the Congregational churches profess to be in accordance with the Scriptures, and correspond in general with those taught in the articles of the Church of England, and with the confession and catechisms compiled by the assembly at Westminster in 1643. It is customary for each church to have a summary of tenets in which its members are agreed, and to which the assent of candidates for membership is expected.
These summaries differ in minuteness and in phraseology, and from time to time may be modified to meet prevalent forms of error, and bear testimony to the truth. Inasmuch as the inspired word of God is received as the only perfect standard of belief and rule of duty, church creeds have not usually been employed to exclude from communion the real subjects of experimental religion. They are intended to express, "not denomi-nationalism, but catholicity." Many of the churches of New England were constituted without particular creeds, and candidates for admission added to the relation of their religious experience either a confession of faith of their own composing, or an intimation of some received confession to which they adhered. Congregational churches are psedo-baptist, recognizing the right of Christian parents to present their children for baptism, which is regarded as the counterpart of circumcision and the seal of God's covenant with Abraham. While the principles of Congrega-tionalists allow them to recognize other local churches not conforming exactly to their faith and order, they do not hesitate to appeal to Scripture in support of their own customs.
There they claim to find evidences of a popular church'government, analogous to that in the Jewish synagogues; distinct local churches, instead of one national or provincial church, e. g., the seven churches of Asia Minor; the right exercised in those churches of electing officers and teachers, as an apostle, Acts i.; deacons, Acts vi., 2 Cor. viii. 19; elders, Acts xiv. 23; also the right of administering ecclesiastical discipline, Matt, xviii. 15-18, 1 Cor. v. 3-5, 2 Cor. ii. 6-11, etc.; and an identity of bishops with presbyters, Acts xx. 17, 28. They find confirmation of their views, not only in the history of the apostolic churches, but in the course of events in the next century, according to the concessions of ecclesiastical historians of other denominations, such as Waddington, Mosheim, Neander, and Gieseler. - The influence of Congregationalism has entered most fully into the development of our national history, especially in New England and the northwest. The Congregationalists, while claiming Scriptural warrant for their polity, do not feel themselves troubled in making the admission that the discovery and practical use of their principles is of recent date.
Relying on present evidences of life and truth in churches, they do not feel themselves bound to trace the visible links by which the ordinances have been transmitted to them since the apostolic days. In their view each local church exists really and rightfully, not because it existed in a previous generation, but because it holds to the head, which is Christ, and is composed of men renewed and sanctified. He who would trace their history should go back 300 years, and examine the state of things in the established church of England when Queen Elizabeth's accession to the throne made her the supreme head of the church. The Puritan party in that church grew up out of an unwillingness to conform to usages which they esteemed idolatrous, such as the wearing of the surplice, the use of the sign of the cross, and kneeling at the communion. Persecution followed. Some of the Puritans disowned the church entirely, and became separatists; others adhered to it, protesting against its errors, and were simply nonconformists.
Of the former class was Robert Brown, who in 1586 propounded a theory of church government, more radical and exclusive than that which was afterward advocated by John Robinson, who is generally esteemed the father of modern Congregationalism. Before the close of the century the Brownists were numbered by thousands. In 1602 "several religious people" in the north of England, driven by their troubles "to see further into these things by the light of the word of God," determined to " shake off this yoke of anti-Christian bondage, and, as the Lord's free people, join themselves by covenant into a church state, to walk in all his ways, made known or to be made known to them, according to their best endeavors, whatever it cost them;" and, added Gov. Bradford nearly 30 years after, with touching simplicity, "that it cost them something, this ensuing history will declare." Over a portion of this church, which had been divided for the convenience of its scattered membership, Robinson was pastor, and in 1608 he went with it to Holland. There they remained several years, until it became evident that a return to England was hopeless, and that Holland was not the place for their permanent home; and having great hope of advancing the kingdom of Christ by coming to this western world, they prepared for another removal.
The church was again divided; the pastor remained temporarily with the majority in Leyden, and the colony took with them their elder, William Brewster, it being agreed that those who went first should be an absolute church of themselves as well as those who stayed. This young church, receiving Robinson's benediction at Delft Haven in 1620, was transported in the Mayflower to Plymouth, where the colonists, having first organized themselves as a civil body politic, landed, Dec. 21, literally "a church without a bishop, and a state without a king." Robinson died in 1625, before he could join them in America. This was the first church in New England. The first church formed in New England was that gathered at Salem, Aug. 6, 1629. The first settlers of Massachusetts Bay had apparently no intention at the outset of separating from the church of England, and their ministers were persons who had been episcopally ordained; but once in America, there was, as Robinson bad predicted, but slight difference between the nonconformists and the Plymouth pilgrims. The same thing is true of the settlers of the Connecticut and New Haven colonies, who sought to be free, not from the Anglican church, but from its errors and corruptions.
Notwithstanding the hardships involved in the planting and training of Christian churches in this new land, the Congregational-ists who remained in England were even less favorably situated for extending their views of church polity. The civil commotions in the middle of the 17th century, and the persecutions and ridicule it encountered in the reign of Charles II., checked the growth of the system in its youth, while the distinctions of society and the disabilities resting on dissenters from the established religion have been a perpetual incubus upon it. - The Congregational ministry has been filled by well educated men. The earliest of them were graduates of the English universities. Some of them were men of rare attainments and scholarship. Harvard college was established at an early day, with special reference to the wants of the churches. Before 1640, 77 clergymen had left the pastoral office in England for the work of the ministry in New England, and 14 more, pursuing a course of theological study, had come here to complete it, and to enter the ministry.
In 1665 the commissioners of Charles II. reported of the people of Connecticut, " that they had a scholar to their minister in every town or village." The Congregational churches of Connecticut down to the year 1832 had had 947 ministers, of whom all but 33 were regular graduates of some college. Among eminent men of this denomination it is sufficient to mention the names of John Milton, John Owen, Howe, Watts, Doddridge, J. Pye Smith, Harris, and Wardlaw; and in this country, the Mathers, the Edwardses, Shepard, Bellamy, Hopkins, Emmons, Dwight, Stuart, and Taylor. - The Congregationalists generally have carried their liberality so far as to neglect in great measure the extension of their polity in its pure form. Multitudes of them have gone into other ecclesiastical connections, by an easy transfer, in changing their residence, and particularly in emigrating westward. The Presbyterian family of churches has been greatly indebted to this largeness of spirit and lack of denominational zeal. The present century has been distinguished for large and efficient plans of benevolent action.
In many of these the Congregationalists have taken the lead, furnishing men and means without grudging. - The "Congregational Year Book," published by the Congregational union of England and Wales, contains lists of churches connected with county associations, and an alphabetical list of Independent ministers in Great Britain and the colonies. In the summary reported for 1872, it is stated that the number of county associations and unions throughout the British empire, and in the foreign missions conducted by British missionaries in Madagascar, was 75 (40 in England, 16 in Wales, 8 in Scotland, 1 in Ireland, 9 in colonies, 1 in Madagascar); of pastors, 2,716; of ministers without pastoral charges, 603; of churches, 3,609. There were 29 colleges and institutes, with 567 students. The number of periodicals conducted by Congregationalists in the British empire was 4 annual, 2 quarterly, 21 monthly, and 3 weekly, in the English language, and 10 periodicals in Welsh. The British Congregationalists, like other evangelical dissenters in England, do much for the support of the London missionary society, which in the year 1871-'2 disbursed £113,213,' of the British and foreign Bible society, of the religious tract society, and of other similar institutions.
The most important among the strictly Congregational societies are the home missionary society, established in 1819, the receipts of which in 1871-2 were £6,591; the Irish evangelical society and Congregational home mission, established in 1814 (income, £2,902); and the Colonial missionary society, established in 1836 (income, £2,900). In France there is a "Union of Evangelical Churches," which embraces Congregational as well as Presbyterian societies (numbering 45 in 1872), but the former are in a large majority. There were also 9 Independent churches unconnected with the union, and 19 churches supplied by the evangelical society of France. In Switzerland there are evangelical free churches of the same order in the cantons of Geneva, Bern, Vaud, and Neufchatel; and in Belgium there are 15 churches of this class. According to the "Congregational Quarterly" for January, 1873, there were in 1872 in the United States 2,487 Congregational churches, 318,916 church members, and 371,110 pupils in Sunday schools.
Besides a large number of colleges in whose administration this denomination takes an active part, it has theological seminaries at Andover, Bangor, New Haven, Hartford, Oberlin, Chicago, and Oakland, Cal. Congregationalists were formerly associated with the New School Presbyterians in the American board of commissioners for foreign missions; but the union has of late been dissolved, and the board is now under the exclusive control of the Congregational churches. Its receipts for the year ending October, 1872, were $428,693. It sustains 16 missions, with 77 stations, 445 out stations, 173 churches, and 9,019 church members. The American home missionary society had an income of $294,566, and the American missionary society of $330,-146. The periodicals published in the interest of Congregationalism embrace 4 quarterlies and 7 weeklies, besides several Welsh publications. - The writers and authorities upon this subject are numerous. Among more recent ones, in whose volumes will be found abundant references to the older, we mention Davidson on the "Ecclesiastical Polity of the New Testament;" Uhden on the " New England Theocracy" (written from a German standpoint and translated by Mrs. H. C. Conant); Clark's "Congregational Churches of Massachusetts;" Felt's "Ecclesiastical History of New England;" Cumming's "Dictionary of Congregational Usages and Principles;" Sawyer's "Organic Christianity of the Church of God;" Coleman's "Primitive Church;" Wellman's " Church Polity of the Pilgrims;" and Sprague's "Annals of the American Pulpit," vols. i. and ii.