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Some Congregational churches trace their descent from the original Congregational Church, a family of Protestant denominations formed on a theory of union published by Robert Brown in 1592 and arising from the Nonconformist religious movement in England during the Puritan reformation. In Great Britain, the early congregationalists were called separatists or independents, and some congregationalists there still call themselves "Independents".
There are difficulties in identifying a specific beginning because Congregationalism is more easily identified as a movement than a single denomination, given its distinguishing commitment to the complete autonomy of the local congregation. The idea that each distinct congregation fully constitutes the visible Church can, however, be traced to John Wyclif and the Lollard movement which followed after Wyclif was removed from teaching authority in the Roman Catholic Church. The early Congregationalists shared with Anabaptist theology the ideal of a pure church, which made adult conversion experience important for full membership in the church, unlike other Reformed churches. As such, the Congregationalists were a reciprocal influence on the Baptists, differing from them in that they counted the children of believers in some sense members of the church unlike the Baptists, because of baptism.
Congregationalists include the Pilgrims of Plymouth and the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which were organized in union by the Cambridge Platform in 1648. These settlers had John Cotton as their most influential leader, beginning in 1633. Cotton's writings persuaded the Calvinist theologian John Owen to separate from the Presbyterian church, after which he became very influential in the development of Congregationalist theology and ideas of church government. Jonathan Edwards, considered by some to be the most important theologian ever produced in America, was also a Congregationalist.
The history of Congregational churches in the United States is closely intertwined with that of the Presbyterian church, especially in New England where Congregationalist influence spilled over into the Presbyterian church. The first colleges and universities in America, including Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Williams, Bowdoin, Middlebury and Amherst, all were founded by the Congregationalists.
Without higher courts to ensure doctrinal uniformity among the congregations, Congregationalists have been more diverse than other Reformed churches. Despite the efforts of Calvinists to maintain the dominance of their system, the Congregationalist churches, especially in New England, gradually gave way to the influences of Arminianism, Unitarianism, and transcendentalism. Thus, the Congregationalist churches were at the same time the first example of the American theocratic ideal and also the seed-bed from which American liberal religion and society arose.
Later mergers with other groups
In 1925, the Congregationalists in Canada merged with Canadian Methodist and Presbyterian churches to form the United Church of Canada. In 1988, a newer Congregational Christian Churches in Canada was formed, containing a number of ex-United Church of Canada congregations, and independent "congregationalist" groups.
In 1972, many English Congregationalists merged with the Presbyterian Church of England to form the United Reformed Church, (URC. However many hundreds of Congregational churches have continued in their historic tradition. Under the relevant Act of Parliament that authorised the merger between what had become by then the Congregational Church of England and Wales and the Presbyterian Church of England, certain assets were divided between the various parties.
In England there are three main groups of continuing Congregationalists. These are The Congregational Federation, which has offices in Nottingham, the Evangelical Fellowship of Congregational Churches, and about 100 Congregational churches that are unaffiliated.
In 1981, the URC merged with the Re-formed Churches of Christ and, in 2000, just over half of the churches in the Congregational Union of Scotland also joined the URC. The remainder of Congregational churches in Scotland joined the Congregational Federation.
The Congregational Federation, the Undeb Annibynwyr Cymru, and the URC enjoy good relations and share certain aspects of church life together including their joint involvement in the Council for World Mission.
Some local churches did not follow the 1957 UCC merger and continue today as the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches.
- United Church of Christ website
- National Association of Congregational Christian Churches website
- Congregational Federaion (UK)
- International Fellowship of Congregational Churches
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