Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Used in three interrelated ways, this term emphasizes the role of the laity within the church (as contrasted to the "ordained," set-apart clergy). It is especially important to understanding religion in America, although it is characteristic of Western religious traditions in general.

One use of congregationalism is to refer to the American religious denomination once called the Congregational Church, now formally titled (since a 1950s merger with the Evangelical and Reformed Church) the United Church of Christ (UCC). This body is the inheritor of the established church of New England formed through a Puritan-Pilgrim alliance in the early seventeenth century, shortly after immigration from England. (The name "Congregational Church" is still used in England; in Canada, most Congregational churches merged into the United Church of Canada in the 1920s.) New England Congregationalism spawned a number of offshoots, including Unitarianism.

The name "Congregational Church" is taken from the fact that this denomination theoretically vests authority in the local congregation ; that is, it has a congregational polity (other forms of polity, or organization, are "presbyterian" and "episcopal," although neither of these polities has had the same impact on American religious life as congregationalism, and in U.S. practice both are modified by congregationalism). In strict usage, the local congregation is "the church." It "calls" (hires) its own minister (and can "fire" him or her as well). It also decides acceptable forms of doctrinal profession, liturgy, and so on, and decides on what forms of "fellowship" it will accept with other churches—for example, whether it will allow members who belong to a different congregation to come to receive various sacramental ministrations, particularly the Holy Communion, and the terms on which it will allow members of some other congregation to join its congregation. The congregation also normally owns the property on which any facilities it uses are located (e.g., the worship building, education facilities, offices).

As a form of polity, congregationalism descends from the Jewish synagogue tradition (from the Greek for "a gathering together") in which, in Orthodox practice, a synagogue is created whenever 10 men gather together for prayer. In its modern usage, however, which is quintessentially American, congregationalism has come to symbolize a greater principle—namely, religious voluntarism . The upshot of American religio-political ideology is that religion is an entirely voluntary activity: One not only may go to whatever church one chooses, but one may also go or stay home whenever one chooses, and one does not have to go to any church at all. Thus, the church is largely seen as serving the "needs" of its congregation, rather than the reverse. By establishing the voluntary basis of financial support for the church, furthermore, the role of the congregation is considerably more magnified than it is even in other countries where "freedom of religion" is the norm. In this sense, all American churches are congregationalist in a radical way: Unless a church has been extremely well endowed by prior generations, if the congregation leaves, the church must be closed. (This is very different, for example, from Scandinavian churches, where state support ensures that a regular program of activities will go on, even though only a tiny percentage of the population attends church; by the same token, some Scandinavians, and others, will find the American religious practice of passing of an offering—"collection"—plate or basket during worship offensive.)

Steeped in the Pilgrim myth, the voluntaristic principle that is inherent in congregationalism colors all American religion, not simply the Congregational Church or even Protestantism or even Judeo-Christianity. American Buddhist, Islamic, Roman Catholic, and national Orthodox groups must all adjust to aspects of this organizational worldview to survive. Americans can and do worship as well as vote with their feet and their pocketbooks. A degree of accommodation to this aspect of the "American way of life" is inherent in all religious practice. By the same token, Americans are more likely to see "religion," positively or negatively, as a congregational activity ("belonging to a church," or sometimes "organized religion"), and in recent usage distinguish this from personal religiosity by referring to the latter as spirituality .

See also Parish, Public Religion

William H. Swatos, Jr .


J. P. Wind and J. W. Lewis, American Congregations , 2 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

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