Our Living Theological Heritage:
Congregationalism

Barbara Brown Zikmund
President,
Hartford Seminary

March 24, 1993

The UCC as a denomination has a unique heritage, a unique living heritage that comes from many different streams of the history of the Christian church. It pulls together a number of different traditions. I will talk about some of the things out of the Congregational legacy, but before I do that, I want to place it in a broader context in terms of the other parts of what we now call the UCC. In the history of contemporary Amcricarrreligious denominational expression, the UCC is the only place where all of the various traditions come together. That is both a big problem and a tremendous benefit because in the Evangelical and Reformed traditions which come out of the continental European Germanic and Swiss experience of the 16th century reformation, we have a very different tradition-one rooted in Zwingli and parts of Calvinism which Congregationalism looks to in different ways. It is also fed by Lutheran tradition, Evangelical and Reformed. The Reformed part is one legacy and the Evangelical part is another legacy that came from Germans who came to the U.S. in the mid-19th century and brought with them another century of European history and their own understanding of faith filtered through Luther.

Then we also have in our congregational heritage this anomaly of the Christian connection or Christian denomination. I remember, I grew up in a Congregational Church in Detroit, Michigan, and we were called congregational Christians. I always thought that meant congregationalists were Christian, but I came to find out when I got into history that was not what it meant. What it meant was that the congregational Christian churches were an amalgum of the traditions that took the legacy of Congregationalism which you are part of in New England, but also the legacy of the Christian.

The Christians were a strange mixture of American frontier revivalism and were adamant that they wouldn’t have any labels but just be Christians. We weren’t going to get bogged down in the way we organized or structured our churches. We weren’t going to have a big apparatus or denominational bureaucracy. We don’t hear much about them because they didn’t leave much. We hear stories about them having meetings, taking minutes and .then destroying them in the fire. They did that intentionally because they didn’t want anyone saying that we did things this way or that this is the precedent that we must follow; that when Christians gather, they are under the leadership of Christ and that is sufficient. So that very small group, scattered around New England and the frontier areas of the south and midwest, decided by the mid-19th century that they needed to connect with something. Since the congregationalists were an open group and accepting of diversity, in 1931 the National Council of the Congregational Church combined with the Christian churches to be known as the Congregational-Christian Churches. In order to form the United Church of Christ, both traditions were reflected. The Evangelical and Reformed churches, having a more “churchly” tradition, took one national vote that brought all member churches into the UCC. However, in the Congregational Church, with its philosophy of the autonomy of each individual congregation, each congregation had to vote to become part of the U.C.C. All this is a backdrop for what I want to share with you about Congregationalism.

I invite you to become more self conscious about your heritage as Congregationalists and to become more aware of some of the unique contributions of this Congregational tradition, as a historian of American religious life and the United church of christ in particular, I invite you to think with me for a few moments about the strengths of the history of this church and its roots in New England Congregationalism. I believe that certain legacies from our Congregational past can continue to strengthen this church and this nation. I name five legacies:

First, Congregationalism has a unique ecclesiology. That is to say that Congregationalists have a very special way of defining the church as the gathered community of believers. The church is not a building. Indeed this church has had four or five different buildings in its history. The church is not its leadership, the pastor, the clergy in general, or some person in authority (like the Pope). For Congregationalists the church is first and foremost the gathered community of believers. It exists when believing Christians come together to be God’s people. It does not require state establishment, or even ordained leaders in order to be the church. Where two or three Christians gather in covenant, there is the church. The covenant is the most important theological statement among early Congregationalists. Covenant theology not only speaks of God’s covenant with God’s people. But the “covenant” is the means whereby believers are united, tied together, in the church. The covenant is like the twine which binds together a bundle of arrows. One arrow (one believer) can be broken. But when gathered together each strengthens the other. I understand that the covenant of this church is that of the Salem Covenant of 1629:

We covenant with the Lord and one with another and doe bynd our selves in the presence of God, to walke together in all his waies, according as he is pleased to reveal himself unto us in his blessed word of truth.

This brings me to a second legacy from Congregationalism — its openness to new revelation. The covenants of Congregational churches were never closed creedal statements of conviction, as much as they were human promises to God and to each other to stay together in the search for God’s truth. Early Congregationalists saw themselves as pilgrims on a faith journey with and toward God. Although they took scripture and the discipline of prayer very seriously, they were confident that God would not forsake faithful people. The parting words of Pastor John Robinson to the Pilgrim congregation in Leyden as the people set sail for the new world in 1620 — “God has still more light to shed on His Holy Word,” — have become a touchstone of Congregationalism. From the very beginning Congregationalists saw themselves as waiting for the Holy Spirit promised in the first chapter of the book of Acts-even as they took seriously their responsibilities in the real world.

Third, as Congregationalists rely upon each other and value the shared responsibility of believers in the gathered community, Congregationalists have always insisted that their fellowship in Christ was not a democracy. Early leaders regularly reminded the faithful that “The church needs to respect the crown rights of the redeemer.”

For whenever the people gathered or acted, they did so under Christ.

To our modern ears this sounds narrow and even fundamentalist. Yet early Congregationalism was wary of democracy. In fact to be free to do what the majority willed, they condemned as “mob rule.” By contrast, when the people gathered in congregational meeting, early Congregationalists had faith that God in Christ through the Holy Spirit would inform their decisions, leading the church, as one Puritan writer put it, to choose “not those it wants, but those whom Christ has fitted.” Decisions were trustworthy when Christ was in the midst of the people.

This is why in Congregationalism there is no such thing as a “proxy vote,” or an “absentee ballot.” It is impossible for individuals separated from the gathered community to know how to vote. This is why in the United Church of Christ today we do not instruct delegates to Annual Conferences or General Synods on how they should vote. Rather, we trust that they will be the Church of Jesus Christ when they are gathered in that place, choosing not what they want, but what Christ would have them do.

One other thing needs to be said about this Congregational view of the church as the gathered community of believers in covenant with each other under the headship of Christ. That is that the church lives in its worship and its meetings. In fact, early Congregationalists made no distinction between worship and meeting — one flowed into the other, each built a common life. With our modern management mentality sometimes we try to organize and even eliminate congregational meetings, because (we say) there is no business. For true Congregationalists, however, there is always business, because we are forever called to strengthen the lives of the gathered saints. It is no accident that New England Congregationalists called their churches “meetinghouses.”

A fourth legacy from our Congregational heritage was slow to emerge, but eventually it made an important contribution to contemporary political life. Here I am referring to the basic American belief in the separation of church and state.

In much of human history, people have assumed that religious commitment and political loyalty had to be combined. In fact we know that early colonial Congregationalism created a “church state” in its effort to escape from the “state church” of England. As time went on, however, Congregationalists came to realize that the only lasting way to keep the church free from political control was to guarantee separation of church and state. Eventually out of this Congregational zeal for ecclesiastical freedom came political protection for all religious organizations, societies, and practices. For Congregationalism, because the political forces were always so important the church needed to be free to support and to critique the powers and principalities.

Finally, fifth, although Congregationalism thrives on the unique independence of local congregations, over the past three hundred years Congregationalists, particularly those in Connecticut, learned that isolated churches perish. From the earliest days Congregational churches came together in councils, consociations and synods. They regulated and disciplined their leadership. They shared mission projects. They clarified their thinking about faith and practice. They were careful to protect local autonomy against what some have called “presbyterianizing” tendencies, even as they developed stronger and stronger commitments to the wider church. The ultimate expression of this sense of responsibility to the global Christian community found its expression in the creation of the United Church of Christ over 35 years ago. It continues to inform the ecumenical and interfaith witness of many local congregations.

Congregationalism is an organic tradition. It changes over time and it is difficult to capture. Sometimes it is clear about limits and focused on its calling, reaching out into new modes of church life and thought. At other times it is narrow and defensive, protecting its local autonomy and unwilling to risk anything. Historically we usually say that the Cambridge Platform is the best formulation of “Congregational” principles in the early period (1648) and the Kansas City Statement of Faith (1913), is the most complete expression of modern Congregationalism.

Let us read it together:

We believe in God the Father, infinite in wisdom, goodness and love, and in Jesus Christ, his Son, our Lord and Savior, who for us and our salvation lived and died and rose again and liveth evermore, and in the Holy Spirit, who taketh of the things of Christ and revealeth them to us, renewing, comforting, and inspiring the souls of men.

We are united in striving to know the will of God as taught in the holy Scriptures, and in our purpose to walk in the ways of the Lord, made known or to be made known to us.

We hold it to be the mission of the Church of Christ to proclaim the gospel to all mankind, exalting the worship of the one true God, and laboring for the progress of knowledge, the promotion of justice, the reign of peace, and realization of human brotherhood.

Depending, as did our fathers, upon the continued guidance of the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth, we work and pray for the transformation of the world into the kingdom of God, and we look with faith for the triumph of righteousness, and the life everlasting.

Kansas City Statement of Faith, 1913

What do you see in it? How are the themes which I mentioned reflected? What things are unspoken?

Certainly one thing which must be said is that the very masculine language of the 1913 Statement is not something which is acceptable in these times. Nevertheless, in the midst of the language there are some important principles affirmed:

Congregationalists were/are trinitarian. Congregationalists were/are grounded in the work of the Holy Spirit. Congregationalists were/are serious about the authority of scripture. Congregationalists were/are on a journey, a pilgrimage, trying to walk in God’s ways, guided by the past and the promise of the future. Congregationalists care about the world and the here and now-worshipping God, laboring for progress in knowledge, promoting justice, the reign of peace and the realization of human community. Finally, Congregationalists are optimists. They/we lean on the Holy Spirit to lead them into all truth-praying for social and political change and looking with faith for the triumph of righteousness, and the life everlasting. For its times this Kansas City Statement of Faith was a progressive and highly respected articulation of the Congregational legacy.

In the early 1960’s most Congregational churches became part of the United Church of Christ. In that “merger” some principles of historic Congregationalism were softened. The calling to a more diverse and ecumenical church tempered earlier perspectives, but the essence of Congregationalism continues in the UCC.

— its covenantal understanding of the gathered community of
believers

— its openness to walk together in search of God’s revelation

— its conviction that Christ is the head of the church

— its belief in the separation of church and state

— its sense of obligation to the wider church