from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica
The term Congregationalist dates from 1642 when it was applied to the followers of Robert Brown, who about 1580 had formulated a new belief in independent groups or conregations governing themselves and following their individual convictions. This development grew directly out of the controversies surrounding the Reformation. The tenets and habits were closely allied to the Baptists and Disciples. The sect was never large and first came to Canada about 1820. There were churches scattered throughout the province.
Infant baptism was practised but was not obligatory; there was open communion for believers. At the time of the formation of the United Church of Canada, all churches in the denomination were merged in that body.
Congregationalism, the name given to that type of church organization in which the autonomy of the local church, or body of persons want to assemble in Christian fellowship, is fundamental. Varied as are the forms which this idea has assumed under varying conditions of time and place, it remains distinctive enough to constitute one of the three main types of ecclesiastical polity, the others being Episcopacy and Presbyterianism.
Episcopacy in the proper sense, i.e. diocesan Episcopacy, represents the principle of official rule in a monarchical form:
Presbyterianism stands for the rule of an official aristocracy, exercising collective control through an ascending series of ecclesiastical courts.
In contrast to both of these, which in different ways express the principle of clerical or official authority, Congregationalism represents the principle of democracy in religion. It regards church authority as inhering, according to the very genius of the Gospel, in each local body of believers, as a miniature realization of the whole Church, which can itself have only an ideal corporate being on earth. But while in practice it is religious democracy, in theory it claims to be the most immediate form of theocracy, God Himself being regarded as ruling His people directly through Christ as Head of the Church, whether Catholic or local.
So viewed, Congregationalism is essentially a high church “theory", as distinct from a high clerical one. It springs from the religious principle that each body of believers in actual church-fellowship must be free of all external human control, in order the more fully to obey the will of God as conveyed to conscience by His Spirit. Here responsibility and privilege are correlatives. This, the negative aspect of the congregational idea, has emerged at certain stages of its history as Independency.
Its positive side, with its sense of the wider fellowship of “the Brotherhood”, has expressed itself in varying degrees at different times, according as conditions were favourable or the reverse. But catholicity of feeling is inherent in the congregational idea of the church, inasmuch as it knows no valid use of the term intermediate between the local unit of habitual Christian fellowship and the church universal. On such a theory confusion between full Catholicity and loyalty to some partial expression of it is minimized, and the feeling for Christians as such, everywhere and under whatever name, is kept pure.
The Congregationalism of the Apostolic Church was, to begin with, part of its heritage from Judaism. In the record of Christ’s own teaching the term “church “ occurs only twice, once in the universal sense, as the true or Messianic “Israel of God”, and once in the local sense corresponding to the Jewish synagogue.
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Last Updated: July 14, 2004