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Our congregationalist heritage

Unitarian Universalists have held fast to one aspect of their Puritan roots: congregational polity.
By Alice Blair Wesley
Summer 2008 5.15.08

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The Rev. Richard Mather (Boston Athenaeum)

The Rev. Richard Mather (1596–1669), a principal drafter of the Cambridge Platform and minister of First Parish Church in Dorchester, Massachusetts. (Boston Athenaeum)

Dozens of the oldest member congregations of our Unitarian Universalist Association were founded by the Pilgrim and Puritan settlers of colonial New England. Although we long ago rejected several doctrines dear to them, we American Unitarian Universalists steadfastly keep a precious part of our Puritan inheritance: their “congregational polity.”

The Pilgrims in 1620 and the 20,000 or so Puritans who came here in the Great Migration of the 1630s were primarily concerned with a theology of organization: how churches ought to be organized, who in these churches should have authority, and why. They invented, or rather reinvented, what we call congregational polity, that doctrine of the church that insists that each congregation is to be governed by its own members.

Puritans had tried for decades to reform the Church of England. Persecuted and punished by bishops for holding what we would call study groups and conferences, they eventually concluded that something had gone terribly awry in church history. They studied carefully the “record books” of the church, the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. From these they learned that, from the days of Sarah and Abraham, the spirit of love has always been the “substance” of a church.

In 1646 reformers in England published the Westminster Confession. New Englanders disagreed with its prescription of a presbyterial model of governance. The New England churches convened a synod in Cambridge, Massachusetts, resulting in the Cambridge Platform of 1648, which explained and justified how congregational churches are constituted and work. The UUA’s Skinner House Books has just published a new edition of this important work.

According to the Platform, the proper “form” of a church follows from “the second commandment,” as Jesus expressed it: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matt. 22:39). To join a church is to enter a covenant to walk with other members in the spirit of neighborly love. The goal of everything gathered members do is “edification,” or mutual learning and teaching concerning the many and complex ways of love. Members of a congregation and their elected officers are a complete church; they need no higher authorities in church affairs. Reasoning together in the spirit of love, they can discern whither love leads.

For our founders, the autonomy of each congregation did not imply either self-sufficiency or isolation from other congregations. They were to be a community of independent churches, giving and taking counsel and helping each other in other ways.

Our founders surely didn’t get everything right organizationally. Early congregationalists thought it perfectly reasonable that magistrates, as they had in England, should coerce all landowning citizens to pay the parish tax, a practice their Unitarian heirs fought to maintain into the 1830s. They also assumed that tiered levels of privilege and authority were natural and that acquired status should be respected in perpetuity. Ministers and elected lay leaders, unless they did something awful, tended to stay in office for decades. Sadly, this long-held pattern led to complacency and resistance to change among nineteenth-century Unitarians in matters affecting growth.

Thank goodness, even so, for our Puritan heritage. By their lights, the Bible is mainly about the free and covenanted social practice of love. Its ancient stories set them on the road to a revolutionary type of religious community and politics. Refusing to embrace any creed, their members entered simply and beautifully phrased covenants to “walk together” in the divine spirit of love, as best they could see to do. Their church practice in time led to today’s Unitarian Universalist religious communities, in which individuals may differ in a variety of ways and yet continue to walk together freely in the spirit of love.


Adapted with permission from the introduction to The Cambridge Platform: Contemporary Reader’s Edition, ed. by Peter Hughes (Skinner House, 2008). See sidebar for links to related resources.

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