Some Historical Roots of Congregationalism
A comprehensive study of congregationalism, not simply as a denominational stream but as a conviction about church life that has been found in numerous Christian communities, would doubtless require a series of volumes. In what follows, I have taken my cue from Geoffrey F. Nuttall's brilliant study of congregationalism in the historical period between 1640 and 1660. This present study, however, broadens the time frame to include congregationalist witness in the Reformation period as well as congregationalism among the most significant body of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Baptists, the Particular Baptists. Essential to the Particular Baptist vision in these two centuries was a view of church government that they shared with their Congregationalist brethren, a view that they believed best reflected the scriptural teaching.
The massacre of St. Bartholomew's Day (August 24, 1572) and the weeks following, when thousands of French Protestants were slaughtered in cold blood, comprised a tragedy of immeasurable proportions. The slaughter decapitated the French Protestant community and radicalized those who survived. And in the long run it was detrimental to the well-being of the French nation.
Among the victims in Paris were the chief supporters of Jean Morély (ca. 1524-ca.1594), one of the earliest known advocates of congregationalism, whose Traicté de la discipline et police Chrestienne (A Treatise on Christian Discipline and Polity) had created a firestorm of controversy within the French Reformed community since its publication at Lyons ten years earlier. Morély was a member of the nobility. Some of his humanist education had been in Zurich, where he was probably converted between 1546 and 1548. After a brief stay at Wittenberg, where he studied under the German reformer Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560), he completed his theological studies at Lausanne, where he became acquainted with Pierre Viret (1511-71), a close friend of John Calvin (1509-64). Between the early 1550s and 1561, Morély split his residence between Paris and Geneva, and in the latter city he completed his treatise on church government. He apparently showed it first to Calvin, but the French reformer was too involved in directing church planting and missions in France to read it. Around 1561, Morély moved to Lyons, where Viret was pastoring. The latter gave Morély's manuscript a cursory read but did not study it closely enough to see any problems with its arguments. Morély thus went ahead in 1562 and had it printed in an elegant 350-page edition. He dedicated it to Viret and presented it to the national assembly of the French Reformed Church, which was held in Orleans that year. The book was a bombshell.
Traicté de la discipline is divided into four books. In the first Morély argued for the necessity of church discipline. He was concerned that the Reformed churches of his day had significantly inferior moral and lifestyle standards in comparison to the early church (la primitive Église). But how was one to recover the moral ethos of the early church? Morély argued that churches needed to recover the type of governance that marked those halcyon days in the church's history, namely, "democratic government" (gouvernement Democratique), where authority is vested in the hands of the congregation. Unlike today, the term democracy and its cognates were freighted with deep-seated negative connotations in the sixteenth century. Centuries of political reflection about the ideal type of government in late Antiquity and the medieval era led to the consensus that a monarchical arrangement was best. As a result there was an instinctive rejection of any type of governance that gave the people a major role in decision making. Such governance was regarded as little better than anarchy, lacking both a permanent body of law and administrators for that legal framework. Morély sought to circumvent this instinctive dislike by insisting that the church government he had in mind was not a true or "pure" democracy in the ancient sense because there was a body of law—to be found in the Scriptures—and a body of administration, namely, the pastors and elders of the local church. He further defined the local church as that "union of truly blessed souls chosen in Jesus Christ from eternity for eternal life, who assemble for the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments, who are a part and image of the universal church."
Book 2 focused on the church's implementation of discipline as it related to excommunication and heresy. To whom has Christ given the authority to receive new members into the local church, or expel them if necessary? Morély is clear: such decisions are ultimately the responsibility of the local church. Pastors and elders must then execute decisions that come from the congregation. On this point Pierre Viret took a similar stand to Morély, but during the controversy sparked by Morély's ideas, Viret kept his views to himself. To have done otherwise would have meant conflict with his closest friends, including Calvin in Geneva. If the powers of reception and excommunication belong ultimately to the congregation, then it follows, as Morély argued in book 3, that the congregation also has the power to elect its own officers, pastors, elders, and deacons. And for scriptural proof Morély turned to the election of Matthias in Acts 1 and the election of Stephen in Acts 6. The "voice of the church" elects its leaders. The final book looks at a variety of ecclesiological issues: the role of ministerial meetings and synods, how the church should take care of the poor, the need for formal theological education, and the importance of catechizing.
Morély's book was printed in March 1562. A few weeks later, at the national synod of the French Reformed churches held in Orleans, it was condemned for its "wicked doctrine," doctrine that would subvert the Reformed cause in France if implemented. Morély was asked to appear before the company of pastors in Geneva to give an account of his views. When he eventually did in July 1563, he offered to recant his views only if they were rejected publicly by the three recognized leaders of the French Reformation, namely, Calvin, Viret, and Guillaume Farel (1489-1565). Viret, as mentioned, sympathized with Morély, while Calvin refused to enter the discussion lest he undermine the synodal decision already made by the French elders at Orleans. The Genevan consistory, therefore, continued to press Morély to abandon his congregationalism. His response, Luther-like, was to refuse unless he was shown to be wrong by the Scriptures. In the face of such obstinacy, the consistory believed it had no choice but to condemn Morély as a schismatic and excommunicate him.
Morély left Geneva for Paris, where he soon acquired an influential circle of friends, including Odet de Coligny (1517-71), the Protestant cardinal of Châtillon; Jeanne d'Albret (1528-72), the queen of Navarre; and the philosopher Pierre Ramus (1515-72). But his book was deemed serious enough that during the 1560s his main opponents proved to be Théodore de Bèza (1519-1605), Calvin's lieutenant and theological heir in Geneva, and Antoine de la Roche Chandieu (1534-91), leader of the Protestant cause in Paris, who wrote a harsh rejoinder to Morély, La confirmation de la discipline ecclésiastique observée ès églises réformées du royaume de France (The Confirmation of the Church Discipline Observed in the Reformed Churches of the Kingdom of France). The essence of Chandieu's argument was that excommunication and church discipline, the determination of orthodoxy, and the election and dismissal of church officers were entirely within the purview of the ministerial consistory, not that of the gathered community. Bèza, on the other hand, undertook a letter-writing campaign to destroy Morély's support and reputation. In a lengthy letter to the Swiss German reformer Heinrich Bullinger (1504-75), for example, Bèza focused on Morély's use of the term democracy. Bèza accused Morély of calling the French Reformed churches an "oligarchy" or "tyranny" and told Bullinger that if Morély had his way, he would undermine these churches by means of a "most troublesome and most seditious democracy." Bullinger admitted he had actually never heard of Morély but concluded from what Bèza told him that he must be a dreadful Anabaptist! Morély's conduct in this early controversy over church government, in turn, was far from blameless. In a letter to a Reformed pastor in Orleans, he called Bèza "this new Antichrist." Little wonder that when Bèza discovered this, he told Morély point-blank in a final letter to him: "It is you who have violated the virginity of the French churches."
Although Morély did not perish with many of those who supported him in the St. Bartholomew's Day massacres, the debate between him and Chandieu and Bèza was over, and the latters' presbyterian position had won the day. After the horrific savagery of 1572, Morély fled to England, where he lived until his death around 1594. Further research is needed to see what influence Morély's ideas may have had on English Separatists in the 1580s. But whatever the outcome of such research, Morély still needs to be recognized as a key pioneer of the way of congregationalism.
The Reformation came to England during the reign of Henry VIII (r. 1509-47), although it was not until the reign of his son Edward VI (r. 1547-53) and his daughter Elizabeth I (r. 1559-1603) that it gained a firm foothold. Elizabeth's ascension to the throne affirmed that England would firmly fall into the Protestant orbit. The question that arose, though, was to what extent the Elizabethan state church would be reformed. Elizabeth was content with a church that was "Calvinistic in theology, [but] Erastian in Church order and government [i.e., the state was ascendant over the church in these areas], and largely mediaeval in liturgy." As a response to this "settledness" in the Church of England, the Puritan movement arose.
Initially Puritanism sought to thoroughly reform the Elizabethan church after the model of the churches in Protestant Switzerland, especially those in Geneva and Zurich. These continental churches were attempting to include in the church's worship only that which was explicitly commanded by Scripture. For instance, John Calvin declared that "nothing pleases God but what he himself has commanded us in his Word" concerning a church's worship. As Douglas Kelly has noted, this concern with proper worship arose out of the fact that Puritanism was a revival movement. In his words:
They [i.e., the Puritans] were so concerned with worship because they were so concerned with God. Puritanism budded during a revival movement, an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which gave them an immediate sense of the nearness, the holiness, the beauty and the grace of the Triune God. . . . Everything less than God was secondary to knowing and serving Him aright. Worship was first; even the most legitimate concerns were second. If worship was of such supreme significance, what could matter more than to do it in a way that would please God?
As the sixteenth century wore on, though, the goal of fully reforming the English state church seemed no closer. Consequently, in the latter part of that century, a number of Puritans concluded that the Church of England would never be fully reformed and decided to separate from the state church and organize their own congregations. These Puritans were known as Separatists, and they argued for what was essentially a congregationalist form of church government.
One of their earliest leaders was Robert Browne (c.1550-1633), who in a tract entitled A Treatise of Reformation Without Tarrying for Anie (1582), provided the "clarion-call" of the Separatist movement. In this influential tract Browne set forth the views that became, over the course of the next century, common property of all the theological children of the English Separatists, including the Independents or Congregationalists and the Baptists. First of all, Browne conceded the right of civil authorities to rule and to govern. However, he drew a distinct line between their powers in society at large and their power with regard to local churches. As citizens of the state, the individual members of these churches were to be subject to civil authorities. However, he emphasized, these authorities had no right "to compel religion, to plant Churches by power, and to force a submission to ecclesiastical government by laws and penalties."
Then Browne conceived of the local church as a "gathered" church, a company of Christians who had covenanted together to live under the rule of Christ, the risen Lord, who made his will known through his Word and Spirit. Finally, the pastors and elders of the church ultimately received their authority and office from God, but they were to be appointed to their office by "due consent and agreement of the church . . . according to the number of the most which agree."
Although Browne later recanted these views under torture in England, he had started a movement that could not be held in check. Browne's mantle fell to three men in particular—John Greenwood (c. 1560-93), Henry Barrow (c. 1550-93), and John Penry (1559-93)—all of whom were hanged in 1593 for what was regarded by the state as an act of civil disobedience, namely secession from the established church. When Penry was being examined by the state authorities, he was adamant that a true church was "a company of those whom the Word calleth Saints, which do not only profess in word that they know God, but also are subject unto his Laws and Ordinance indeed." This was a veiled criticism of the idea of a parish church whose membership consisted of everyone who lived within the geographic boundaries of the parish. One gets a sense of how committed these men were to their understanding of the Bible from words spoken by Penry shortly before his execution. He affirmed that "imprisonment, judgments, yea, death itself, are not meet weapons to convince men's consciences, grounded on the word of God."
Before their deaths, the preaching and writings of these three men led a significant number in London to adopt Separatist principles. The English Baptist historian Barrie White has noted, "For many it was but a short step from impatient Puritanism within the established Church to convinced Separatism outside it." To curb the growth of these Separatists, state and ecclesiastical authorities passed a law in April 1593 requiring everyone over the age of sixteen to attend their local parish church. Failure to do so for an entire month meant imprisonment. If a person still refused to conform three months following his or her release, the person was given a choice of exile or death. The Elizabethan church and state hoped to rid itself of the Separatist problem by sending the recalcitrant into exile.
Understandably, when faced with a choice of death or exile, most Separatists chose the latter and initially emigrated to Holland. From there a number of them sailed across the Atlantic in 1620 heading for Virginia. Blown off course, they landed after sixty-six days at sea at Plymouth in Cape Cod Bay. In 1691, Plymouth Plantation was absorbed into another Congregationalist colony, Massachusetts.