History of the United Church of Christ, part 1: Congregationalists

My contributor bio describes me as a liberal/progressive Christian and pastor at the United Church of Christ. But that church name can easily be confused – and often is – with the more conservative Church of Christ.

So what’s the difference, if there is any? I thought it might be helpful to sketch the history of my denomination, the UNITED Church of Christ, and remove some of the confusion.

Because the United Church of Christ (UCC, from now on) is the result of the merger of two previous groups, I’m going to follow one thread in this article and the other in a future one.

The Congregational Meeting House in Blue Hill, Maine, built 1794, burned 1844. Detail from Morning View of Blue Hill Village, 1824 by Reverend Jonathan Fisher (American, 1768-1847)

The Congregational Meeting House in Blue Hill, Maine, built 1794, burned 1844. Detail from Morning View of Blue Hill Village, 1824 by Reverend Jonathan Fisher (American, 1768-1847)

Various parts of the UCC are represented throughout American history. The oldest is the Congregationalist group. Congregationalist churches are found across New England – the picturesque white-steepled “church on the green” – through the upper Midwest and along the West Coast.

The Pilgrims and Puritans of early New England were Congregationalists. Their beliefs were similar to other Christians, but they were strongly committed to the complete independence of each local church. Hence, the name “Congregational” rather than “Episcopal,” for instance, (referring to a bishop, which Congregationalists don’t have).

Congregationalists supported the American Revolution and human equality; they approved the first African-American male pastor (1785) and the first female pastor (1853), and supported the first African-American female author (1773) in this country. They founded the first U.S. college, Harvard, and opened Dartmouth to Native Americans and Oberlin to women and African-Americans.

Congregationalists were leaders in the anti-slavery movement.  They published the first anti-slavery pamphlet (1700), supported the Africans who mutinied on the slave ship Amistad (1839) and sponsored schools and colleges for freed slaves after the Civil War.

Shortly after the Revolution ended, several diverse groups grew disenchanted with the divisions and labels in Christianity. Methodists in Virginia, Baptists in Vermont and Presbyterians in Kentucky all became convinced that God desired the unity of all Christians and the abandonment of doctrinal differences.

These various groups referred to themselves only as Christians, and they often corresponded with each other, though official relationships and organizations were usually temporary and limited.  Like the Congregationalists, they believed fiercely in the independence of each local church.

These Christians were particularly strong in the Midwest, the South and onto the American frontier. Eventually, they developed into three groups: the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) represented locally by First Christian, Broadway Christian, and others; the independent Churches of Christ like Fairview Road Church of Christ; and the General Convention of Christian Churches, which merged with the Congregationalists in 1931.

This new Congregational Christian denomination would merge again in 1957 to form the UCC. In the 1990s, another “Christian” ancestor, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) would begin working closely with the UCC, first on world mission projects and then on wider cooperative work.

What brought these two groups together? The basics of a shared faith, for one thing – more than simple belief in Jesus and the Bible or commitment to local church independence, Congregationalists and Christians believed that faith should be demonstrated in one’s character and actions.

For the Congregationalists, often situated in stable towns and cities and well-educated, this took the form of missionary ventures around the world and participation in the Social Gospel movement which sought to solve social problems with Christian values. For the Christians, heavily represented in newly settled areas, this often meant programs to develop and support families, promote morality, and offer compassion to the needy.

So some of this country’s earliest European settlers and one of its earliest home-grown religious movements spread across the continent and joined forces to work together.  But that’s not the end of the UCC story.

In his next article, Steve Swope will share the other part of the UCC story. 

5 Responses to “History of the United Church of Christ, part 1: Congregationalists”

  1. Betsy Murphy

    Great post, Steve! What I’ve found interesting is the strange looks people give you when you point out to them that the ‘Puritans’ are actually among the most liberal of Protestant denominations today, at least in terms of being pro-choice and sexual orientation neutral. Congregationalists were leaders in attempting to assure that ‘popular sovereignty’ would result in a Free Kansas. This .pdf from the University of Kansas Dept. of Religion was quite interesting IMHO: http://web.ku.edu/~ksreligion/docs/history/congregationalists_and_unitarians.pdf

  2. Steve Swope

    Thanks, Betsy! Yes, there’s definitely a disconnect between the colonial Puritans and their contemporary descendants. I suspect some of it is a legacy of being part of the “establishment.” We in the UCC (and its forebears) didn’t think we needed to promote or publicize ourselves.

    Interesting link, too. Really, it’s amazing sometimes how involved the UCC has been in formative moments of American history.

  3. Nabihah Maqbool

    This was very informative for me Steve! I’m looking forward to your next posts on the topic.

  4. Steve Swope

    Thanks, Nabihah! Just a teaser – the “other side” of the UCC will look quite different, but it’s closely connected to Missouri.

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