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English Speaking Protestantism


Doctrines Based on the Reformed or Calvinist tradition which believes in the trinity, the final authority of scripture, salvation by faith alone, and observes two sacraments, baptism and the Lord's Supper. Calvinism emphasises the absolute authority of God, and claims that only an elect group who are predestined from the beginning of time can achieve salvation and that the elect can do nothing to save themselves without divine aid. The classic statement of these beliefs is in The Westminster Confession of 1647. Today most Reformed churches have adopted a more moderate Calvinism which gives the individual more power to choose to be saved. There is also a tendency to believe that only convinced Christians should be full members of the Church. The most unique aspect of Congregationalism is in its ideas on church government, that power rests with the individual congregation rather than with a church hierarchy. Individual churches choose their own minister and regulate their own internal discipline and any external authority can only offer advice. This freedom means that Congregationalist churches have a tendency to be unstable and tend to split.

History Radical Protestants in the late 16th century were unhappy with the impurities in the established Church. Some extremists decided that to stay within the Church risked spiritual pollution and left to set up independent congregations. These radicals were known as Separatists or Brownists after one of their principle thinkers, Robert Browne. Some Separatist churches, persecuted in Britain, fled to Holland where men like John Robinson developed the idea that individual churches should consist of committed Christians free from any external secular or clerical authority. It was these principles which the Pilgrim Fathers took across the Atlantic when they founded Plymouth Colony in New England in 1620.
Meanwhile in England many Puritans ministers remained within the Church, ministering to "inner congregations" of committed lay Puritans. When Archbishop Laud turned the Church in an anti-Calvinist and ritualistic direction some of these Puritans left in the Great Migration to New England in the 1630s. There ministers like John Cotton formulated a Congregational system, influenced by Separatists at Plymouth. However, New England Congregationalism was based on close co-operation with the Puritan controlled colony authorities and heresy was not tolerated as Baptists and Quakers learned. In Britain the out break of Civil War lead to the formation of a group of English Congregationalists or Independents, who were influenced both by the Separatists and the New England way, and hostile to those Puritans who advocated Presbyterian style church government.
After the Civil Wars New England Congregationalism was forced to accept toleration by the Crown. In the 1740s the increasingly hidebound church was rocked by the Great Awakening, when Jonathan Edwards, the most famous Congregationalist theologian, helped trigger off a set of mass revivals, which led to a set of local schisms. In the nineteenth century the Congregationalists increasingly were overshadowed by the numbers of the Methodist and Baptist churches. Today many Congregationalist churches have merged into other churches of the Reformed tradition. The Congregationalist name is carried on mainly by churches created by American/British Congregational missions or by conservative splinter groups which refused to compromise their independence by merger.

Symbols  Congregational churches were originally in an austere Protestant style and tried to avoid symbolism. But as time passed and Congregationalism became more middle-class the churches became more ornate and ceremonial. Theologically it remains a central tenant that the sacrament of the Lord's supper is purely symbolic with no supernatural elements.

Adherents In the UK the Congregational Federation has 11,923 adherents and the Union of Welsh Independents has 45,462 adherents (Whitaker, 1995, 424, 428). In the US the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference has 30,387 adherents and the Congregational Christian Conference has 90,000 (World Almanac, 1995, 729). The United Congregational Church of South Africa has 234,451 adherents (Europa Pub. Ltd. 1995, II:2782).

Main Centre
 The organisation has no headquarters as such since individual churches operate autonomously.