A Congregational church is one in which the congregation independently and autonomously runs its own affairs. The First Congregational Church, Williamstown is independent, and yet belongs to the United Church of Christ, which offers support, but doesn’t tell us how to run our church. For more information on how we are organized, go to Governance on the menu at the top of this page.
A bit of history:
The Congregational Church tradition, of independent local governance, can be traced back to a family of Protestant denominations formed on a theory of union published by the theologian Robert Browne in 1592. These arose from the Nonconformist religious movement during the Puritan reformation of the Church of England. In Great Britain, the early congregationalists were called separatists or independents to distinguish them from the similarly Calvinistic Presbyterians. Some congregationalists in Britain still call themselves Independent.
Congregationalism was carried to America in 1620 by the Pilgrims, who were members of John Robinson’s congregation in Holland, originally of Scrooby, England. In America, Congregationalism reached its greatest public influence and largest membership. In 1648 in the Cambridge Platform, a summary of principles of church government and discipline, was drawn up. Congregationalists took a leading part in the Great Awakening that, in New England, was started in 1734 by the preaching of Jonathan Edwards. In 1750, the General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony stipulated that a new community must “settle a learned and orthodox minister in said township within five years in order to legalize ownership of land.” As a result, congregational churches (the most common type of church in Massachusetts) were widely established in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and the other New England provinces.
The model of Congregational churches was carried by migrating settlers from New England into New York and the Old Northwest regions that now includes Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Illinois. With their insistence on independent local bodies, they became important in many social reform movements, including Abolitionism and women’s suffrage.
During the Second Great Awakening, in August of 1806, a group of 5 students took refuge from a thunderstorm to pray, and spoke of a desire to become missionaries. The Haystack Prayer Meeting was held here in Williamstown, Massachusetts, a few hundred yards north of our building. Within four years of that gathering, some of its members established the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). In 1812 the first missionaries were sent to India. During the 19th century, other missionaries were sent to China, Hawaii, and other nations in southeast Asia, establishing hospitals and schools at its mission stations. Many of these missionaries undertook translation of the Bible into native languages, and some created written languages where none had existed before. Thousands of missionaries were sent to Asia, and they taught numerous indigenous peoples.
In the nineteenth century, Congregational churches began to gather in local and then in statewide conferences, out of which developed (1871) the National Council of the Congregational Churches of the United States. But each local church remained free to make its own declaration of faith and free to decide its own form of worship; in the conduct of the local church each member was granted an equal voice. The principal assistants of the pastor are the deacons. In education Congregationalists were always prominent, but the institutions of their founding—Harvard, Yale, Williams, Amherst, Oberlin, Beloit, and many others—have generally been free from sectarianism.
Modern congregationalism in the U.S. is split into three bodies: the United Church of Christ, with churches across the country but focused on the Northeast and Midwest; the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches, with churches mostly in the Northeast and Midwest; and the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference, an evangelical group. There are other examples of congregational churches who remain unaffiliated with any of these groups.