The United Reformed Church History Society tells the story of English-speaking Congregationalists, English Presbyterians, and Churches of Christ all over the UK. We began uniting in 1972, but our traditions and our story go back to the sixteenth century.
Congregationalism in England and Wales
Congregationalists believe that the church is a community of Christian believers who commit themselves to nurture each other in the faith and who are able to make decisions on faith and order without reference to any external bodies, whether ecclesial or secular. “Congregationalism” is the polity developed by Congregationalists.
Congregationalists claim that their polity can be discerned in the New Testament and derives from the Reformation emphasis on the priesthood of all believers. Nevertheless, Congregationalism emerged gradually, finding its roots among English Puritans who believed that further reform was required in the national church. Robert Browne (1550-1633), who gathered a church of professing Christian believers at Norwich in 1581, is often considered to be the first to give voice to a Separatist or Independent ecclesiology. Those who shared his thinking were frequently referred to as Brownists. Nevertheless, his ideas were deemed seditious and he subsequently retracted them.
Around 1606, Independent churches were gathered on the border of Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire, by John Smyth (c.1570-1612) at Gainsborough, John Robinson (1576-1625) at Scrooby and Richard Bernard (1568-1641) at Worksop. Given their apparent opposition to the polity favoured by the ecclesial and political establishment, these early Independents lived in constant danger of persecution and sought refuge first in the Netherlands and then in the New World. In England, Independency and Congregationalism had the nature of Dissent: those who practised the polity did so in part because they held the form of the state church to be unbiblical. In New England, the Congregationalist majority assumed that the state should sponsor and support religious orthodoxy. Congregationalism there constituted the established religion, at least, in Massachusetts, until 1834. The first Independent church in Wales was inaugurated by William Wroth (1576-1641) at Llanfaches, Monmouthshire, in 1639, followed quickly by churches in Cardiff, Swansea and Wrexham.
During the following two decades, which witnessed the turmoil of the Civil Wars and the relative toleration of the Commonwealth period, Independents came to the fore. Around two hundred Congregationalists met at the Savoy Palace in London in 1658 and their meeting resulted in the publication of the classic statement of Congregationalism, namely the Savoy Declaration. While the Calvinist theology of the Westminster Confession (1647) was included virtually verbatim, the Savoy Declaration replaced the Presbyterian ecclesiology of the Westminster divines with a Congregational polity. The rule of the local church, when the covenanted members come together in church meeting, is paramount. Alongside this the separate responsibilities of the church and the state are upheld, though the latter was charged with supporting and encouraging the former and helping to maintain orthodox teaching.
However, by this time the Independents were no longer in the ascendent in the Commonwealth and Oliver Cromwell, perhaps their greatest supporter, was dead. When the monarchy was restored in 1660 most Independents realised that an ecclesiastical settlement in which they were included was unlikely. From 1662 they were formally and legally excluded from the ecclesiastical and civil establishment as well as from the universities.
During the eighteenth century, Independent churches were reinvigorated as a result of the Evangelical Revival and the spiritual life nurtured by divines such as Philip Doddridge (1702-1751) and Isaac Watts (1674-1748). Their churches grew and their theology, always a brand of Calvinism, was modified. The nineteenth century witnessed significant growth as Congregationalism benefitted from the philanthropy of some of its prominent members such as the businessmen Titus Salt (1803-1876), Thomas Wilson (1764-1843) and his son Joshua (1795-1874). The latter two were particularly effective through the offices of the Congregational Union of England and Wales, which was formed in 1831. Welsh-speaking Congregationalists formed the Union of Welsh Independents in 1872. Neither Union held any specific authority over the local church or had decision-making power. They were inaugurated in order to offer mutual support and advice, though the centralising of resources, especially financial ones, inevitably gave them more significance and influence.
During the twentieth century, many Congregationalists were committed to the ecumenical quest for denominational union. Prominent among them was John Huxtable (1912-1990), the last General Secretary of the Union. He was at the helm when proposals were brought forward for the churches that were part of the Union to covenant together and become the Congregational Church in England and Wales. This happened in 1966, though the legal relationship of local congregations to the new “church” did not change. It was the Congregational Church in England and Wales which voted with the Presbyterian Church of England to form the United Reformed Church in 1972.
There were continuing Congregationalists after the 1972 union, some of whom formed the Congregational Federation, others inaugurated the Evangelical Fellowship of Congregational Churches while others remained independent.
Alan Argent, The Transformation of Congregationalism: 1900-2000 (Nottingham: Congregational Federation, 2013).
W. Dale, A Manual of Congregational Principles (Oswestry: Quinta Press, 1996 ).
Tudur Jones, Congregationalism in England, 1662-1962 (London: Independent Press, 1962).
R. Tudur Jones, Congregationalism in Wales, ed. Robert Pope (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2004).
Congregationalism in Scotland
The Congregational churches in Scotland often came out of a mixture of socio-political-church reform of the late 18 and early 19 centuries. They reacted against the moribund nature of the Church of Scotland of their time and soon became active in mission and adult education. They adopted a Congregational polity in relation to church governance. On the whole, they maintained a tendency towards Calvinism. The Evangelical Union came about initially through the work of James Morison (hence the term ‘Morisonianism’) primarily in relation to doctrines of salvation. They too adopted a Congregational polity, probably through a mixture of practical geographical realities and a response to their treatment by church courts and structures. The non/anti Calvinist stance of the Evangelical Union was a source of disagreement with many Congregationalists – Congregational Union students were expelled for Morisonian tendencies but also some Congregational Union churches moved to the Evangelical Union. After prolonged negotiations and with a general movement of Scottish Congregationalism away from Calvinism, the Unions (and their related colleges) united in 1896, and the new Congregational Union continued its movement away from Calvinism. Some Evangelical Union churches continued to use the abbreviation EU in their church names as Congregational Churches, and some (even those now in the United Reformed Church) are still be popularly known as the EU!
Harry Escott, A History of Scottish Congregationalism (Glasgow:Congregational Union of Scotland, 1960).
Churches of Christ
The first conference of Churches of Christ in Great Britain and Ireland was held in Edinburgh in 1842, and from 1847 to 1981 such Conferences were held annually with the exception of 1940. The churches were distinguished by a commitment to the restoration of New Testament Christianity, and were influenced by the writings of Alexander Campbell, who took a leading part in the formation of the group known as Christian Churches or Disciples of Christ in the USA. Christian Unity was described as the “lode-star” of the movement. Believer’s baptism by immersion was the means of entry into membership, and Holy Communion – the Lord’s Supper – was celebrated weekly.
Each congregation was autonomous, ministry being exercised by elders and deacons, elected from within, but ministers, who had undergone a period of training were placed with churches or groups of churches as time went by. Overseas Missions were established in Thailand, India and Malawi.
In 1981 the majority of the Churches of Christ in Great Britain became part of the United Reformed Church.
David M. Thompson, Let sects and parties fall (London: Berean Press, 1980).
Presbyterianism in England had its beginnings in the reign of Elizabeth I, where many of the Puritans were Presbyterians. In 1572 a Presbytery was known to exist in Wandsworth, although the same should not lead readers to assume it was identical to a modern Presbytery. During the civil wars and the commonwealth Presbyterianism was as near the national organised church as anything else in England, reasonably well organised locally, and with a few Presbyteries beginning to meet in some areas such as Nottingham.
Come the restoration in 1660 Presbyterians, along with all other non-Episcopal clergy, were ejected, and persecuted until toleration in 1689. After toleration, Presbyterianism fell into decline in England, partly because of the lack of organised structure beyond the local church. Many congregations drifted into Unitarianism, and others into Congregationalism because there was no-one else to be Presbyterian with. Orthodox Presbyterianism clung on by the skin of its teeth in London, Northumberland, Cumberland, and only a handful of other places. By the nineteenth century, many Scots, Welsh, and Irish protestants were moving into England, and these “reinforcements” invigorated and renewed English Presbyterianism in the same way that Irish Roman Catholic immigration did for English Roman Catholicism.
The Presbyterian Church in England, totally separate from all Scottish links, was formed in 1844, and the different strands of Presbyterianism in England all united into the Presbyterian Church of England in 1876. In 1972, the Presbyterian Church of England united with the Congregational Church in England and Wales to form the United Reformed Church.
David Cornick, Under God’s Good Hand (London: United Reformed Church, 1998).