The name “Congregational” church derives from the fact that each of these local congregations have full authority. They believe that the congregation is fully capable to govern and minister among themselves through congregational votes. This movement began with those who, for instance, escaped the religious authorities in England. They felt that the Church of England needed to be purified. They were known as Puritans. They believed that the church government needed to be reformed (as well as worship). The Puritans illegally met in homes to pray and study the Bible. By law, they could not meet without a priest or bishop being present. This greatly displease religious and political authorities in England. The Puritans were also known as “separatists.”
John Robinson led one of these separatist groups. In 1609, they (John and his 100 member congregation) fled to the Netherlands due to growing persecution. John Robinson met another England escapee in the Netherlands, named William Ames. Through Ames, Robinson converted to Congregationalism. Robinson and his large congregation set sail to the American colonies in 1620 on the Mayflower. Each member made a covenant with one another as believers and new citizens to the Americas. It was a spiritual and political covenant in which we see the beginning of democratic government. This covenant is known as the Mayflower Compact. Although the original document is lost, a transcription it reads:
“In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God of Great Britain, France and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, etc.
Having undertaken, for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith and Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the First Colony in the Northern Parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, Covenant and Combine ourselves together into a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape Cod, the 11th of November, in the year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France and Ireland the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domini 1620.”
The Massachusetts Bay Colony was established in 1629 as a result of Puritans immigrating into America. this caused the Congregational church to spread quickly. In the 1800s, this denomination suffered a major theological split over the doctrine of the Trinity. Conservatice Congregationalists strongly held the Trinity, whereas liberal Congregationalists held Unitarianism (unity of God). A preacher by the name of William Emery Channing preached a famous sermon entitled, “Christian Unitarianism”. He explained that the Trinity is a foolish and irrational idea. The sermon was published and printed 7 times. This also became a popular pamphlet and affirmed the unitarian view that authority is not in the past in Scripture, but in the “living voice” of experience and reason. This caused major division. Although the major split, Congregational churches have survived and have grown throughout the years.
source: “The Complete Guide to Christian Denominations” by Ron Rhodes