Birthday of Congregationalism?

Dan Graves, MSL

Birthday of Congregationalism?

Does your church have a congregational government? If local members make its decisions rather than an outside bishop or presbytery, then your form of church government is congregational. It is one of the most common ways that Protestants govern their churches throughout the world today.

When did congregationalism begin? There are several suggestions. Some writers say the earliest churches planted by the apostles were run by local congregations. However, most historians look at it as arising within a tide of democratic ideals in the sixteenth century which it fed and to which it contributed. They often point to this day, June 19, 1567 as a red letter day in its origin.

This was the day that Richard Fitz and several others were arrested in Plumber's Hall, London. To understand why, we need to remind ourselves of conditions of that day. Many Englishmen and women were unhappy with the Church of England. According to some it went too far in reform. According to others, not far enough. Some of this last group called for purifying the church. They were called Puritans. Others wished to separate themselves entirely from the Church of England. They became known as Separatists.

Around 1550 small, secret congregations of Separatists sprang up. One was led by Richard Fitz and John Robinson (who later played a key role as leader of the Pilgrim Fathers who came to America). Their movements are hard to trace.

The Separatists really surfaced when they established what they called a "Privye" or private church, one that would not answer to English bishops or to Rome or any other religious authority. In short, it would be governed by its own pastor and members. This put them on a collision course with the queen who was head of the Church of England and personally liked the color, splendor and ritual of worship that the Puritans and Separatists detested.

One particular band of Separatists, reported as a hundred strong, rented Plumber's Hall to celebrate a wedding. Before the nuptials were fairly under way, the sheriff broke up the meeting.

He and his men arrested Richard Fitz, a deacon and others. Many of these Plumber's Hall Separatists spent time in prison for illegal religious activities. We know from a petition later put forth by the Separatists that Fitz and several others paid for their religious views with their lives.

Bibliography:

  1. Dale, R. W. History of English Congregationalism. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1907; especially pp. 92 - 95.
  2. Dexter, Henry Martyn. The Congregationalism of the Last 300 Years as Seen in its Literature. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1970; p. 114 - 115.
  3. Gregg, Frank Moody. The Founding of a Nation; the story of the Pilgrim fathers, their voyage on the Mayflower, their early struggles, hardships and dangers, and the beginnings of American democracy, as told in the journals of Francis Beaumont, cavalier. Cleveland: Arthur H. Clark Co., 1915. Source of the image.
  4. Jones, R. Tudur. Congregationalism in England, 1662 - 1962. London: Independent Press, 1962; p. 14.
  5. Various internet sites.

Last updated May, 2007.

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