History Behind the Story #7: The Congregationalist Church in New England
Who were they? The Puritans. What was their creed? To make themselves The City Upon a Hill.
As a Southern girl, I was largely unacquainted with the Congregational/Congregationalist Church, for most of my life until learning about it in a Religious Studies class during college. And of course, once someone clued me in that the older name for the church was “Puritan,” the pieces fell into place. According to Sara Georgini, who authored Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family, Puritans turned into Congregationalists by the 18th Century, and there was a bend toward Unitarianism among the more liberal wing by the 19th Century, although Congregationalism remained its own strain.
So I had two denominational choices from which to choose (Unitarianism or Congregationalism) when carving out the background of my historical protagonist, John Thomas Haley. John and Abigail Adams, who are (fictional, of course!) ancestors of John Thomas, were Unitarians. Ultimately, I chose the Congregationalist wing because, having been raised in churches that believe in a Trinity, I didn’t want to misrepresent the Unitarians, who did not quite believe in a traditional Trinity.
This strain of Protestantism today is considered one of the more liberal churches in America, so, at first, the connection back to the Puritans was odd for me, until I really thought about it and realized that the Puritans have always been “progressive” during their eras throughout the generations. From breaking away from the Church of England to the abolition movement during the Civil War, it seems like you can always trace New England’s most famous voices back to a Puritan heritage.
So, how did they get their start in New England? Basically, the Puritans wanted to purify the practices of both the Catholic Church and The Church of England during the 16th and 17th Century. They were part of the Reformation movement that sought greater purity within the church. Their beliefs were “codified” in the Savoy Declaration in 1658, with the full title of: A Declaration of the Faith and Order owned and practiced in the Congregational Churches in England. For a more thorough look into the Reformation movement and the beliefs and ideas swirling around Europe during the Martin Luther era, see my post entitled History Behind the Story #1: French Huguenots in South Carolina.
The Puritans were dissenters from the Church of England and ended up having to worship on the down-low because dissenting was Not Allowed. Also, Puritans in Holland were being persecuted. Hence, the Mayflower. You’ve all heard of the Mayflower, I presume. English and Dutch Puritans made up a big chunk of the people who sailed for the colonies and eventually landed at Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts after trying to land initially in Virginia. And it’s crazy to think of that moment, of the serendipity of events, and the impact they would have 250 years later during the American Civil War. But more on that next week!
The Mayflower Compact was signed before they disembarked, and if you read the text of it, it shows already these New Englanders’ commitment to order, peace, democracy, and religion. It feels like you could almost draw a straight line in history from the Mayflower Compact to the Massachusetts Colony’s extreme chafing under British dominion in the days leading up to the Revolutionary War.
Now, keep in mind that these “Pilgrims” were a particularly devout strain of Puritans called “Separatists,” who believed that they could not worship or find full expression for their beliefs by reforming any other church but needed to be a separate body from any existing church. Each local church in New England ruled itself and was not answerable to a higher denominational structure. However, Congregationalism became the “state church” in the colonies where Puritans predominated, in which taxpayers supported ministers and only church members could vote in elections. This led to some pretty restrictive practices since authority can so easily be abused. And, of course, this kind of compulsory society was unsustainable just a generation or two out.
Luckily for the Congregationalists, though, was the emergence of the First Great Awakening. You all remember “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God?” Yeah, I bet you do! (*Shudders*) Jonathan Edwards was a Congregational minister. While ensuring the continuance of the Congregationalists, the First Great Awakening did lead to a split between the “Old Lights” and “New Lights” of the Church, but the depths of that chasm are beyond the scope of this post.
Not surprisingly, most Congregationalists sided with the Patriots during the American Revolution. I’ve noticed a tendency to confuse the Congregationalists with the Quakers, who were pacifists. However, Congregationalists were not pacifists and fought in the Revolution. (This was why I could craft the storyline of John Thomas building a career in the Navy later on in the antebellum period, and have his family be very much behind that career.)
Right from the beginning, Congregationalists were dedicated to education. They founded Harvard very quickly after landing in the colonies, and Yale was very much supported by the Congregational Church. Both seem to have placed an emphasis on training pastors and building a literate ministry in the early years. In order to give a nod to John Thomas’s Puritan roots, I had John Thomas’s brother-in-law, Jonathan, attend Harvard before entering the ministry.
In addition to higher education, there was an emphasis placed on the education of children. While reading David McCullough’s biography of John Adams, I was struck by the fact that one of John Adams’s first jobs while he was still a bachelor was teaching at a co-ed school. He noted that one of his sharpest pupils was a little girl. That admission alone would have been revolutionary in most places. And then, fast-forward a hundred years, and we see New Englanders pouring into the South after the Civil War to found schools for former slaves– men, women, and children. They had a strong commitment to the ideal that education was necessary both for advancement in the secular world and as Christians.
So, who were some famous New Englanders with Puritan roots? To name just a few:
-Louisa May Alcott (You may know that she was actually raised as a Transcendentalist, a movement which grew out of the Unitarian movement.)
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
-Harriet Beecher Stowe
-Henry Ward Beecher
Something that turned out to be really neat was that, while Shannon’s Huguenot roots which turned into Presbyterianism and John Thomas’s Puritan roots which turned into Congregationalism felt poles apart, they both arose out of Reformation Era movements. Therefore, while their ancestors came from different countries and sects, both had a history of rebellion, of familial persecution, of commitment to faith, and of an unwavering confidence of beliefs. Likely the foundation for both attraction and turmoil!
Stop by next time for a look at how these roots and principles led to one of the strongest abolitionist movements in the world!
Image Credit: https://www.historicaltheology.org.
 I am using the term “denominational” in a way the Congregationalists probably wouldn’t have themselves. Rather, they saw each church as independent and autonomous from larger denominational ties.
 The Congregationalist Church wasn’t disestablished as the official church of Connecticut until 1818, of New Hampshire until 1819, and of Massachusetts until 1820! The Congregationalist Church in Massachusetts still received state funding until 1833, when, after the shift toward Unitarianism, the state constitution was amended to eliminate church taxes.
 There was even a Congregational-Presbyterian Union in the early 1800’s in which churches could hire pastors from either denomination, joint committees of Congregationalists and Presbyterians were formed, and there were even colleges born out of the union. This was largely due to the fact that in lesser-populated areas, it was difficult to get numbers or ministers for either denomination. Of course, the Union broke down due to theological and ideological divides, a major one being slavery.