At the beginning of the 21st century, there were about 2.4 million Congregationalists worldwide (congregationalism, britannica.com). There are about 802 thousand members of the United Church of Christ in the U.S.A. (2020 Statistical Report, ucc.org). The top states for UCC membership: Pennsylvania; Illinois; Ohio; Massachusetts; and Connecticut. The top states by congregations: Pennsylvania; Massachusetts; Ohio; Illinois; and California (ibid).
Congregational Churches have their history in the English independent and separatist movement, in the sixteenth century. They believed that the local church should be left to govern itself. Some fled persecution in England for Leiden, Holland. They were among the Pilgrims of the Mayflower. The Pilgrims of the Plymouth Plantation (1620) and the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony (1629) acknowledged their essential unity in the Cambridge Platform of 1648. Both Harvard (1636) and Yale (1707) were founded by Congregationalists.
The Congregationalists were Calvinists like the Presbyterians. From 1801-1852, the two denominations worked together in missionary activities under a Plan of Union. “One of the reasons for the breakdown of the arrangement… was the growing liberalism of congregationalism, which become more and more pronounced as the century went on” (Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 4, p. 1129 © 1979). Mergers have occurred over recent years. In 1931, the Congregational Church and the Christian Connection (James O’Kelly) merged. In 1957, Congregational Christian Churches merged with the Evangelical and Reformed Church to form the United Church of Christ. Not all Congregational Churches have accepted these mergers. The National Association of Congregational Christian Churches was formed in 1955 in response to the pending formation of the United Church of Christ. These churches believed that the new denomination would create unwieldy bureaucracies and hinder the freedom of local churches. These churches are more independent and self-directing than those of the UCC and tend to hold more liberal positions in doctrine and practice” (What is a Congregational Church/Congregationalism? gotquestions.org). “The third group is the conservative Congregational Christian Conference which was formed in 1948 in opposition to the liberal theology making inroads in other congregational churches” (ibid, see also Congregationalists: The Story, Puritan to Progressive, Read To Harvest, YouTube).
[The following works were among the works consulted in presenting this material: Encyclopedia Britannica; Frank S. Mead and Samuel S. Hill, Handbook of Denominations; The Congregational Christian Tradition, congregationallibrary.org; Congregational Church in the United States, familysearch.org].
Beliefs and Practices
Congregational Churches believe that the Bible is to be the rule of faith (Our Statement of Faith, fccmiddleboro.org).
They do not require that one accept a formal creed. This is true of Congregational Churches (What It Means to Be a Member of a Congregational Church by Henry David Gray, ccclamasa.com). This is true of the United Church of Christ Beliefs by Jack Zavada, learnreligion.com).
2. Continuing Revelation/New Light
The United Churches of Christ believes in continuing revelation. Parkview United Church of Christ of White Bear Lake, MN says, “Basic beliefs of the United Church of Christ… 1. God is still speaking. “’Never put a period where God has put a comma’ – Gracie Allen. We believe that revelation did not stop with the closing of the canon at the Council of Trent in 1546. We believe that our faith is based on a biblical interpretation that includes new revelations and learning in science, art, music, literature, psychology, and the social sciences and other sources of knowledge that continue to evolve and change over time” (mnparkviewucc.org).
There are two sacraments in Congregational Churches. These are baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 4, p. 1130). These are generally regarded as symbolic (Sacraments, uccholyoke.org).
“Infants are baptized, normally by sprinkling” (Britannica, ibid). The United Congregational Church of Holyoke, MA says, “Baptism is a rite of entry into the faith offered to persons of any age” (sacraments, uccholyoke.org). It is seen as “an identity claimed for the person… rather than a guarantee of protection” (ibid).
5. The Lord’s Supper
The Lord’s Supper is normally celebrated once or twice per month (Britannica, ibid). Most receive it as symbolic. However, each are welcome to bring their own understanding to it” (sacraments, uccholyoke.org).
Congregational Churches are Calvinistic. “The English historian, Bernard Manning, once described their traditional position as ‘decentralized Calvinism’” (Britannica, Vol. 4, p. 1129).
The United Church of Christ (UCC) “has joined with other faith groups to protect women’s equal and fair access to abortion” (Reproductive Justice, ucc.org).
The UCC says, “Who ever [sic] you are, where ever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here!” (LGBTQ Ministries, ucc.org).
9. Politics and Social Justice
The UCC has been involved in many political issues. They have called for gun control reform (Gun Violence, ucc.org). They are an accredited NGO with the UN. They say, “Our presence at the UN today focuses on a few key areas: global peace with justice, gender justice, racial justice, climate justice and global health issues like HIV/AIDS” (UCC at the United Nations, ucc.org).
Congregational Churches are so named for their organizational structure. “Each UCC setting speaks only for itself and not on behalf of every UCC congregation” (Witness for Justice, Liberation, Freedom, Equity, and Justice for All by Velda Love, ucc.org). First United Church of Christ of Northfield, MN writes, “The local church is the basic unit of the United Church of Christ. That means that our congregation has a great deal of independence and autonomy in the conduct of our ministry. We own our building, call our own ministers, and are responsible for the ways we worship and work… In our tradition (to quote our constitution) ‘The government of the church is vested in its members, who exercise the right of full and final control of all its affairs. Each January, the whole congregation gathers to review and oversee the life of the church. We elect officers, pass a budget for our local expenses, and conduct such other business as may come before the meeting. Special congregational meetings are called from time to time, usually by request of the church council, to vote on particular matters” (How Our Church is Organized, firstucc.org). The exact form of government in the local church seems to be left up to the local church.
There is a General Synod of the UCC. “Because of the UCC’s polity the General Synod speaks ‘to, but not for’ the UCC. Thus, resolutions may call upon, urge, affirm, support, invite, recommend, request, ask, and encourage various settings of the church, but may not direct them” (Resolution Process Overview, generalsynod.org).