19.05.2018 Author: Psychologist Pavel Khoroshutin

Congregationalism (Congregational Church) is a radical movement of English Calvinism that claimed the independence of every local community (congregation). 

The head of the Congregational Church was Oliver Cromwell.

Congregationalism emerged around 1580 after the separation from the Presbyterians. Some historians consider the Congregational Church to be one of the two movements of the Independents (English religious movements). The Independents believed that the church should be led by local communities, not higher regional or federal structures. Congregationalists were not eager to leave the Anglican Church, which had adopted some Calvinism ideas at that time. However there were also more radical Independents who wanted to secede from the Church of England, such as Baptists.

Congregationalists believed that there was no need for either an ecumenical or nationwide church since they are strongholds of bureaucracy and corruption. The Independents, who emerged from the Puritans, abandoned the church organization of the Presbyterian synods, considering it to be a dictatorship similar to the dictatorship of the Pope or Anglican bishops.

Nowadays, there are 3 million Congregationalists. Most of them live in the United States (over 0.6 million, including followers of similar churches).


Inner structure

The Independents do not recognize that the laity and clergy are different from each other. Therefore, they have no hierarchy. The local church (congregation) elects the clergy.

The church is led by an elder (an elected preacher or priest). There are deacons in the Congregational Church too and all members of the clergy are elected by the members of the community. Both men and women can be ordained.

Each of the congregations has equal rights and is completely autonomous. Communities interact with each other through synods (associations), which are made up of elders and other clerics. Synods smooth out inconsistencies in the faith and rituals among communities and contribute to the creation of friendly and honest relations between them. An assembly is held every year, attended by representatives of local churches and this assembly elects a chairman from among the clergy or people.

Congregations unite voluntarily at regional, national and international levels. Since the early 20th century, The Congregational churches have become less and less independent (in the United States in particular) which make them become similar to Presbyterians.

Features of doctrine

Congregationalists are close to Calvinists in many ways. They preach unconditional predestination and the Monergist interpretation of salvation (according to which a person is saved only through the action of grace). There are different groups among the Independents, for example, the more radical are called Quakers, millenarians, waiters, and others.

The Savoy Declaration of 1658 is the main religious document of the Congregationalists. It is considered a moderate version of the Calvinist Westminster Confession.

Congregationalists believe that faith is the personal interaction of an individual with God. Those who want to join the Congregational Church do not need to know the sacred texts. It will be wrong to say that the Congregationalists do not have a single denomination. Yet Congregationalism brings together liberals (and even representatives of the Unitary movement), conservatives, and those who adhere to Evangelical principles.

Congregationalists recognize two sacraments: Baptism and Holy Communion. At the same time, Baptism is not a necessary condition for becoming a Congregationalist; one just needs to declare faith in Christ as God and Saviour. Any believer can attend Holy Communion in a congregational church which it is held 1-2 times a month.

The Congregational cult is simple and similar to that of the Calvinist churches. Preaching is very important for Congregationalists. The form of worship is an independent choice of each local church.

Early congregationalism

The Independents represented the interests of the English nobility i.e. the Gentry. Many of the Independent leaders were formerly Presbyterian ministers. The Congregational Movement was founded by Robert Browne, an English Protestant, theologian, and preacher. He wrote a pamphlet against Anglicanism, published in 1582, which became the basis for the Brownist movement.

At the beginning of the 17th century, the name Independents was established, but separation from the official church at that time was regarded as a crime. Therefore, the persecution of the Independents began. In 1583, two representatives of Harrison and Browne’s ideas, Greenwood and Barrow were executed, although their views were more extreme than those of Browne.

The Independents spread their doctrine rapidly in the late 16th century, but due to persecution in the early 17th century, most of them took refuge in the Netherlands. There, the well-known Robinson, founded an Independent community in Leiden. John Smyth and Thomas Halvis established the first Baptist church there in 1609.

Early congregationalism

The movement in the 17th century.

In 1616 in London, Henry Jacob, on his return to England from Holland, founded a community of Independents, and in order to establish even more of their communities, the Independents sailed to America four years later. The English government were persecuting them, so they escaped overseas for survival. Mostly they were honest, conscientious, pious and energetic people. Although they were laughed at because of their diligence and originality, at the same time, people had regard for the Independents as they were strong and united.

Among the expatriated Independents there were famous personalities including Roger Williams, one of the early adherents of religious freedom, John Cotton, and the politician Henry Wayne, who, upon his return, played an important role in the English Revolution.

Oliver Cromwell became the head of the Independents, and this allowed their party to become more influential during the years of the English Commonwealth (English Republic).

The desire to create religiously independent communities arose from the idea of the collegiality of the church, which should be governed not by the state, but by members of the communities. The so-called Separatists believed that Christians themselves should unite and create churches. They adhered to republican and democratic political views. John Milton, a famous poet, politician, and philosopher was one of this group.

In the Westminster Assembly of the Divines dated July 1, 1643, the Presbyterian majority was opposed by confident and energetic Independents. They fought for the principle of freedom of conscience against attempts to claim the Presbyterianism as the divine formation. They felt this would just replace the despotism of the Anglican bishops with the despotism of the Presbyterian synods. After the Restoration of the monarchy, many Acts that limited the religious freedom and rights of Independents were adopted such as the Uniformity Act of 1662, the Assemblies Act of 1664, the Five Miles Act of 1665 etc. Each of these threatened the Independents with severe punishments. It was not until 1689, under William III, that the state recognized the Independents and supported them. The Independents helped in spreading education among ordinary people, particularly in America.

Nowadays, Congregationalists can easily converge and form alliances with other Protestant religions such as Presbyterians, Methodists and Reformers.