Congregational Church - American EducationA New England derivative of Puritanism that vests all church authority in the congregation of each church. From their first arrival in the colonies, Congregational churches were deeply involved in education because of their unique practice of naming two ministers to each congregation—a pastor in charge of church activities and a teacher to deliver sermons and catechize children. Congregationalists were responsible for erecting the first schools in the American colonies. In 1647, they enacted the Massachusetts Bay Colony School Act, which required every town with 50 householders or more to open a PETTY SCHOOL and every town with 100 families or householders to open a grammar school. The law set a standard that spread throughout the colonies.
Congregationalism contrasts with Episcopalianism and Presbyterianism less in the area of creed than in church organization. All authority in the Congregational Church rests with each congregation, which has full authority to appoint its own minister and to admit or expel members. Episcopalians, on the other hand, place church authority in the hands of an order of bishops, while Presbyterians have a hierarchal structure which rises from the local congregation to the presbytery, the synod and the general assembly, with each ascending body made up of representatives from the bodies beneath.
The origins of Congregationalism go back to late 16th-century England, where Robert Browne charged Church of England leaders with corruption and urged true Christians to separate and form autonomous congregations. Called Separatists, his followers eventually took their beliefs to New England, where they founded their first church in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1629; by mid-century Separatists were the dominant element of the settler population. Although scornful of central church authority, New England Congregationalists were conservatives and remained so into the 20th century. Grounded in the belief that all are born tainted with the original sin of Adam and Eve, Congregational teachers introduced the pedagogical use of whips and ferrules to “beat the devil” out of children, whose incorrect answers in class were the result of “Satan’s darts.”
Congregationalists restricted church membership to those adults who experienced a personal conversion or spiritual communion with God that resulted in a commitment to serve God. The “puritanical” nature of the church beliefs, however, produced dissenters who formed or joined a variety of other Protestant denominations. UNITARIANS disputed the existence of the Trinity; Baptists argued that infants were born innocent of all sin; PRESBYTERIANS and Anglicans (see Church of England) insisted that churches be placed under the authority of trained theologians.
At Harvard College, dissent with Unitarians over the question of the Trinity sent conservative Congregationalists storming out of Cambridge to New Haven, Connecticut, where they established rival Yale College, in 1701.
Conservative Congregationalists founded Yale in Branford, Connecticut, in 1701 as a divinity school to provide Connecticut churches with ministers. Originally called the Collegiate School, it was moved to New Haven in 1716 and renamed in 1718 after its benefactor, Elihu Yale.
In the early 1800s, the Congregationalists split into Unitarian Congregationalists (or, simply, Unitarians) and the conservative Standing Order. Later, as the American population moved westward, liberal Congregationalists cooperated with other Protestant denominations in a variety of missionary and educational efforts. In time, through mergers and assimilation, Congregationalism per se ceased to exist. Although individual, autonomous Congregational churches still trace their origins to the colonial period, the majority of Congregational churches are now part of the United Church of Christ.