Wednesday, October 28, 2020

An Essential Starting Point For Congregational Polity in the United States

Embarkation of the Pilgrims, Robert Walter Weir, 1857
The Cambridge Platform of 1648 is often thought of as the 'gold standard of congregational polity, as one historian has put it (McKanan, 2017). The extent to which that is true is, in my opinion, somewhat limited. While it did establish the groundwork for the congregational polity of what would be the churches of Standing Order in New England, and that ecclesiology would be transmitted through the generations to the Congregationalist and Unitarian traditions, many of the particularities are far from relevant to Unitarian Universalism today.

The Puritans who settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony brought with them the germinal seeds of thought which came to fruition in the Platform, although at the time of their emigration they certainly did not foresee with any clearness the course of action which they would be led to pursue. With perhaps a few exceptions, they had not belonged to any of the feeble and scattered groups of Independents in England, whose views were based on the writings of Henry Barrowe, published about 1590, for which the author had been most unjustly executed in 1593. Still less did the Puritans agree with the Separatists, of whom the most famous today are the group which had escaped to Holland and had thence emigrated to Plymouth. The Puritans when they left England did so as members of the Church of England, although of that party within the church unwilling to conform to what they considered "corruptions" in its form of worship and of government. (Foote, 1947)

Although there was suspicion among the Puritans towards the 'Separatists' (known to us as 'the Pilgrims'), they soon found them to be good neighbors and sharing a like faith. The status of 'Separatist' had little practical significance in the colonies. At the same time, they found that they would need a document to established the parameters of their life as a community of churches in the New World. Some challenges consequent to their ecclesiology presented themselves from the outset, as they organized into churches.

The conviction of the Puritans that the right to call and to ordain a minister belonged to the church members confronted them with a problem as soon as their new churches were gathered. All the ministers who had come with them from England had been duly ordained in the Church of England. The question arose whether that ordination was valid in the new world or whether re-ordination was required before they took charge of their new parishes. That depended on the conception of authority which ordination conferred. The doctrine of the priesthood which the Church of England had inherited from the Church of Rome taught that ordination conferred a mystical and indelible character on the priest which for ever set him apart from the rest of mankind and qualified him to serve in his priestly capacity wherever occasion called. But this was one of the "corruptions" which the Puritans sought to leave behind them. They disliked the implications of the word "priest," and used the word "minister" instead. They had come to believe in the representative character of the ministry, that a minister should be ordained only to serve the congregation which had called him, and that he held ministerial status only in that parish while he served it. They compared the ordination of a minister over a parish to the solemn installation of a civil magistrate in office. 

In the late 1990s I attended an undergraduate ministry preparation program at a conservative Christian university. The professors tended to range from theologically conservative to fundamentalist (there is a difference, though only by shades), and there was a certain Lockean ethos about the place. Memorably, one of my professors, then in his 70s, announced in no uncertain terms to the class that he was a 'stone-cold rationalist.' By this he didn't mean that he understood and accepted the role of the scientific method or any of the results of scientific research. In fact, he was definitely a Creationist (whether 'Old Earth' or 'Young Earth,' I don't recall). Instead, he was affirming that he used 'reason' to understand the canonical Bible and logic out its meaning. In practice, it meant that in his case he'd built up a reputation as a religious debater, and was particularly fond of tearing into Pentecostal beliefs in physical healing and the like. In one debate he challenged his opponent to go with him down to the funeral home to raise the dead, and invitation that was sadly declined.

This is what I see happening with the Puritans, setting a tone for the Protestant religious culture in the United States. The two extremes would turn out to be fundamentalism and liberalism, and yet both grasped on to 'reason' as a core conviction. More 'mystical' ideas would find their way in with the Great Awakenings (both I and II), and with Roman Catholic immigrants (held with deep suspicion well into the 20th century). Transcendentalism in the 19th century and Pentecostalism in the 20th would also run contrary to this foundational belief in reason. Among the Puritans, one way that this rational attitude was manifest was in rejection of belief in apostolic succession and holy orders. They simplified calling and ordination to a mechanical voting process.

This doctrine seemed to require the emigrant ministers to renounce the ordination which they had previously received in the Church of England, which most of them, if not all, were reluctant to do. They met this dilemma with a compromise. On August 27, 1630, when the Reverend John Wilson was chosen "teacher" of the newly organized First Church in Boston, Governor Winthrop wrote, "We, of the congregation, . . . used imposition of hands, but with this protestation by all, that it was only as a sign of election and confirmation, not of any intent that Mr. Wilson should renounce his ministry he received in England." This solution of their problem, which seems to have been followed in the case of other ministers in a similar situation, was analogous to the later Congregational practice of installing in a parish a minister who had previously been ordained as the minister of another church. (Foote, 1947)

From the beginning there was compromise. The priests of the Church of England weren't ready to renounce their holy orders, and the churches needed ministers. It turns out that making a change in polity didn't necessitate a change in theology or individual beliefs about the nature of ordained ministry. It's interesting to me, as well, that Foote notes here the parallel with the 'Congregational practice' or installing ministers in parishes who were ordained elsewhere before. The practice continues among Unitarian Universalists as well.

The Cambridge Platform of 1648 was the first formal constitution outlining the principles of government and discipline for the churches of New England. It was the result of a Synod, although the document was written by Richard Mather, who used many materials from John Cotton. (McKanan, 2017)

There are just a few areas I'd like to focus on within the document itself. Namely, the stated purpose of the church, the use of covenant, and the organization of the church.

A Congregational church is by the institution of Christ a part of the militant visible church consisting of a company of saints by calling united into one body by a holy covenant for the public worship of God and the mutual edification one of another in the fellowship of the Lord Jesus (Cambridge Platform)

Keep in mind that when it says 'Congregational church' the thought isn't of a denomination, per se, but of a church following congregational polity. The Puritans believed that this was the best and only God-ordained method of organization. That said, the affirmation is that Christ himself instituted this form of government for Christians active and gathering on earth (the meaning of 'militant'), that a 'holy covenant' is central to their life together, and that the purpose of the church is to worship God and to build up one another as disciples of Christ. I'm not quite certain what to make of the absence of the actual mission of the church, the 'Great Commission' to make disciples of all nations, from this statement. While they certainly believed and preached that salvation is only through Jesus and that it is necessary to come to belief and have an experience of conversion, it seems their focus was more on getting up and running as a local expression of the church universal.

Particular churches cannot be distinguished from another but by their forms Ephesus is not Smyrna nor Pergamus Thyatira but each one a distinct of itself having officers of their own which had not charge of others virtues of their own for which are not praised corruptions of their own for which others are not blamed (Cambridge Platform)

The point is that the church in each location is distinct from all others, having its own character due to its unique members and their covenant. Evidently, 'form' is meant to indicate 'written covenant,' as the Platform goes on to explain.

This form is the visible covenant agreement or consent whereby they give up themselves unto the Lord to the observing of the ordinances of Christ together in the same society which is usually called the church covenant For we see not otherwise how members can have church power one over another mutually The comparing of each particular church unto a city and unto a spouse seemeth to conclude not only a form but that that form is by way of covenant The covenant as it was that which made the family of Abraham and children of Israel to be a church and people unto God so it is that which now makes the several societies of Gentile believers to be churches in these days. (Cambridge Platform)

What caught my eye in this portion is 'how members can have church power one over another mutually.' Power is a fraught topic in every type of organization, and in an acute sense within religious organizations. Who has the power? In the congregational system the ideal is that power is shared by all within the organization, 'mutually.' In practice I've observed that even when this is the theory, there is always an informal hierarchy. This pecking order can easily result in abuse, making any promise of mutuality rather thin.

As I've indicated, the Puritans saw their congregational polity as ordained by God, as outlined in the Bible, and they express it as such using the language of permanency.

The parts of church government are all of them exactly described in the word of God being parts or means of instituted worship according to the second commandment and therefore to continue one and the same unto the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ as a kingdom that cannot be shaken until he shall deliver it up unto God even the Father So that it is not left in the power of men officers churches or any state in the world to add or diminish or alter any thing in least measure therein. (Cambridge Platform)

This patternistic way of thinking became endemic in many Protestant traditions in the United States that didn't have direct links to historic congregationalism. The Stone-Campbell Movement (Christian Churches, Churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ), for example, have had this in their DNA since the tradition came together in the 1800s. While the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the independent Christian Churches have loosened in this regard over the years, the a cappella Churches of Christ have managed to split into scores of tiny sub-sects over the 20th and into the 21st century over such matters as whether they should have Sunday Schools, support mission work and charitable organizations, or whether there should be one loaf and one cup in communion or many of both. It gets so silly that there is even a sub-grouping of a few churches that believe there must be one loaf and that pieces should be pinched off as it is passed. Believing that the Bible is absolute, has all the instructions, and can be understood definitively through 'reason' can has schismatic consequences for a religious tradition.

These officers were either extraordinary or ordinary extraordinary as apostles prophets evangelists ordinary as elders and deacons The apostles prophets and evangelists as they were called extraordinarily by Christ so their office ended with themselves whence it is that Paul directing Timothy how to carry along church administrations giveth no direction about the choice or course of apostles prophets or evangelists but only of elders and deacons and when Paul was to take his last leave of the church of Ephesus he committed the care of feeding the church to no other but unto the elders of that church The like charge doth Peter commit to the elders. (Cambridge Platform)

The de-spiritualizing of the Christian faith, which I indicated earlier in this essay, can be seen in the foregoing section. Although the New Testament contains lists of church leaders that include roles involving the miraculous, the Puritans set these aside and affirmed only the non-miraculous. They claim that this is because those 'offices' were 'extraordinary' in that Christ called them. This is an inference made from the writings of the New Testament, not a concept having direct support in them. In no place does it say that apostles, prophets, and evangelists can only be called and sent out by Jesus, presumably in person, and that these roles ended after a generation in the early church. I can't help but suspect that the Puritans, not seeing evidence of genuine miracles, wanting to distance themselves from the Roman Catholic faith (which affirmed miracles and claimed apostolic authority), were incentivized to find this explanation convenient.

While there is no doubt that Unitarian Universalism owes its congregational polity to the Puritans, and that the Cambridge Platform was a significant formalization of that system of church government, in the details there is a great divergence. An appreciation for 'covenant' only resurged in recent decades, perhaps in parallel to the rediscovery of the concept within the United Church of Christ, and an emphasis upon it by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) as it restructured in the 1960s. Further, within Unitarian Universalism the covenants do not bind people to specific beliefs (progressive 'values' might well serve as a substitute). Lastly, the UU covenants are not made between a local church and God, but rather solely among the people of a congregation. 

Thus I question the use of the term 'gold standard' to refer to the place of the Cambridge Platform within Unitarian Universalism. It might be better to think of it simply as a seminal document, and a very significant starting point, leading to what we have today.


Foote, H. (1947). The Significance and Influence of the Cambridge Platform of 1648. Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 69, 81-101. Retrieved October 28, 2020, from

McKanan, D. (2017). A Documentary History of Unitarian Universalism (Vol. 1). Boston, MA: Skinner House Books.

The Cambridge Platform of Church Discipline: Adopted in 1648; And, The Confession of Faith, Adopted in 1680. Perkins & Whipple, 1850