Congregationalism's Biggest Mistake
At the time of the American Revolution, Congregationalism was the largest religion in the new United States. A few years before the War, Ezra Stiles, who would later be Yale President, gave an address on what would today be called church growth. Stiles had collected much information on religious congregations at the time, and could be called America's first religious statistician. He predicted that by 1850 there could be seven million Congregationalists! The number never reached even one and a half million.
Library Board Member and historian Richard Taylor is also a church statistician, having served three years as President of the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies and on the committees for both the 2000 and 2010 Religious Congregations and Membership studies. In a lecture given as part of our Brown Bag Lunch series, he explored what went wrong with Stiles' predictions, and how Congregationalism lost its prominence and "market share".
Rev. Taylor has generously agreed to make the text and audio recording of his presentation available to all of our patrons. We hope that you find it as interesting as we did.
Congregationalism's Biggest Mistake:
Reasons Why There Aren't Seven Million Congregationalists
Congregational Library Brown Bag Paper, October 21, 2009
by Richard H. Taylor
Just a few months short of two hundred and fifty years ago, the Rev. Ezra Stiles, the thirty-two year old pastor of the Second Congregational Church in Newport, Rhode Island gave the annual address to the "Reverend Convention of the Congregational Clergy in the Colony of Rhode Island." In print Stiles' "address" amounts to 128 pages plus an appendix. I intend to be a little bit briefer today.
In preparation for his address Stiles had become America's first real religious statistician. Through correspondence and other contacts he had made a list of every religious congregation in New England, including town, denomination, and the name of the pastor or pastors, if any. This list was printed as an appendix to the address. While the address begins with a lengthy theological discussion, it later uses the data he collected to construct tables and predictions. Some of it had the look of a scientific or mathematic paper, a seeming joining of religion and science. In some ways it is an early attempt at a study of the sociology of religion. The charts and lists were part of its uniqueness. It became a popular book of the time, and certainly played a role in Stiles election eighteen years later as the President of Yale.
The details of Stiles' data, the breadth of his topics, and the erudition of his words brought interest to the book. But perhaps the clincher in its popularity was its primary prediction. Comparing data between nations, noting historic influence on religious continuity, and examining population growth in New England, Stiles estimated that by 1860 there would be seven million Congregationalists in America. He reached this number without even adding in the possibility of conversions among new immigrants. That positive estimate was probably a welcome encouragement to every evangelical Congregational preacher. They were at the start of something big. No wonder they bought the book. The problem is that in fact Congregationalism never, not even in the twentieth century, reached as much as one and a half million members. Seven million Congregationalists? How could he be so wrong?
There are many reasons why Stiles went astray. He was flawed in his population and demographic theories, missing the birth rate decline in healthy populations, and not understanding how populations disperse over newly opening frontiers. At one point he presents a table to explain the Hebrew population when in Egypt. He estimates that when Moses was born that there were between 35,000 and 72,000 Jews in Egypt. By the time of the Exodus, led by the same man Moses, he estimates the Jewish population at between 2,290,000 and 4,580,000. Now I know the Jewish mothers were strong, and the midwives could not stop the birth of the male children, but at a time of Egyptian persecution these numbers are fantastical at best.
But in my view, Stiles biggest mistake was his love for the religious establishment of New England. Indeed Stiles titled the address "A Discourse on the Christian Union." His main thesis was the church establishment in New England meant that a broad theological basis was allowed in the various established Congregational parishes. Some churches were pro-revival, some anti; some had tinges of Arminianism, some were strict Calvinists. Yet each parish still had one church, a broad Congregationalism. By maintaining this broad platform — Christian Union — he believed Congregationalism's future was assured.
So based on that thesis, he figured out the state of religion in 1760. He figured out how many Episcopalians, Baptists, and Quakers there were in New England. In most towns this was based on how many people had filed not to pay taxes for the Congregational minister. He even added in how many Moravians and Jews there were in Newport. He figured all these denominations totaled less than 51,000 people. Then by one foul swoop he announced everyone else was a Congregationalist! That made 440,000 Congregationalists in 1760. That made the average Congregational church, even including small rural towns, 854 people. Start with a number like that, and no wonder you get to seven million!
Now I could give you some more fun remarks about Stiles' paper. But his faith that the religious establishment could hold the community together reveals a faith in conformity and magisterial power that had already begun to fail. It is interesting that Stiles was giving his address in Bristol, a town that had been in the Plymouth Colony with a religious establishment until just thirteen years earlier. Now, cut off from its tax support, the Bristol Church was facing strong Episcopal competition. And Stiles himself was a minister in Newport, probably the most religiously diverse, and least Congregational of all New England towns, and yet he was still proclaiming the long-term success of the establishment.
In fact, I believe, the establishment had already become the most significant challenge to Congregational origins, and was already confining the denomination to a marginalized future. Let me get at that by restating some of the issues of New England's Puritan roots:
Puritanism was born in the controversial and heated atmosphere of Tudor England. While Henry VIII's new Church of England was technically Calvinist through the thirty-nine articles, its life was anything but pure. The Medieval practice of sometimes having practically uneducated people in the priesthood continued. Henry had sold monastery lands. These often included the authority to appoint the local parish priest. The wealthy and politically connected sometimes used this power to appoint political hacks or allies. Since many pastoral positions had endowments or glebe land to provide salaries, many second sons of nobility were appointed pastors to get the livings. Often one person would get several livings and never show up in any of them. Other such "pastors" were often drunk and wild in their own lives. The bishops were appointed by the King, and part of the House of Lords. Elizabeth also squelched all moves to set up presbyteries or synods, which were seen as a challenge to the bishops' authority.
Puritans then decided to purify the country from the bottom up. Bibles and Calvin's books were more readily made available. And pious young men were recruited and educated for a preaching and conversion oriented ministry. Crucial to early New England Puritanism was their understanding of the Church, particularly around issues of authority. If the bishops and some clergy were corrupt, and presbyteries and synods illegal, then cadres of lay people could be marshaled to the cause. Puritan clergy like John Cotton trained and empowered lay leaders. A new participatory church began to develop, and took root in New England. If, however, lay people were to lead, then it had to be more than people who were baptized as babies or could recite an old creed. The idea of "visible saints," gave full church membership to those who could relate the experience of the work of God in their lives, were sound in doctrine, and pious in life. These people were Calvinists who believed in sin. They knew this was not a perfect system. But it surely produced a more outwardly pious power in the Church than had been the case under people like Henry VIII. Puritan churches were to be governed by people of faith: faithful in self-understanding, doctrine, and piety.
But this concept then also had to be reconciled with the relation of Christianity to a nation as a whole. Individual lay led congregations could very easily deteriorate into small isolated cults of the self-centered. Outwardly driven, Puritans still sought a redeemed nation. They expected everyone to attend worship and hear the Word. They called for a national leadership that would call people to devotion and holy living. When they got to New England, they wanted pious magistrates. Therefore the Massachusetts Bay Company, the largest Puritan Colony by far, expanded the vote to wider and wider constituencies, but required that all voters must be church members. Like just about all other Europeans of their time, they saw a relation of faith to governance. But instead of having a case where the secular powers ruled the church, they sought to create a system where "visible saints," so identified by their local congregation, governed the state.
The New Haven Colony also insisted on church membership in order to vote. While Connecticut and Plymouth were less specific, the same pattern of church members filling the key governmental posts developed.
The early Puritan settlers had hoped to pay for clergy from free will offerings. However, as the wilderness was being cleared, cabins built, lands adjusted to farming, and currency lacking, offerings didn't work. The way this was then worked out was that each organized town would build a meetinghouse and assess all residents to raise a settlement and provide for the pastor. The town and church were separate organizations with separate officers. Nevertheless theoretically all the voters, and particularly the chosen magistrates were people whose piety had to be attested to by the church. Later, as town populations increased, towns were divided into regions, each with their own church, and a parallel governmental organization called a parish, society, or precinct. While each local church was autonomous, the magistrates could call occasional Synods to recommend solutions to thorny issues. Some of these, like the Cambridge Synod of 1648, had lasting influence. New England's experiment with this Puritan system thrived while the Civil War and then Cromwell's Commonwealth ruled back home in England.
But with the restoration of the Stuarts in 1660, New England's experiment was threatened. Charles II abolished the New Haven Colony, and threatened Massachusetts. Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, most of Long Island, and parts of Maine were taken away from New England and given to Charles' brother James. In theory Charles wanted Anglican parishes begun in New England, and voting rights for royal agents in the colonies. For the first time in New England history he sent in British military forces. Charles however was distracted. Early on war broke out with Holland. At home he had to deal with both a plague and the great fire of London. In New England, King Philip's War, the most bloody and destructive war ever — by proportion of population killed — broke out in the 1670s. Finally, in the late 1670s Charles removed Massachusetts' control of New Hampshire, and sought to establish Anglicanism there. Things really came to a head in 1685 when Charles was succeeded by his brother James II as the new King. Edmund Andros, a friend of James, was appointed head of a new Dominion of New England based in Boston, and designed to include all of New England, New York, and New Jersey. Andros seized the Old South meetinghouse in Boston and began Anglican worship. He abolished all the democratic legislative bodies in all the colonies, and established one-man rule. It was expected that he would invalidate all clergy who did not conform to the Anglican Church, and many believed that he would rescind all New England land titles, and force people to repurchase their property, with much of it to be confiscated or reclaimed only with bribes. Fear spread through New England. When word reached Boston that James had been overthrown by the "Glorious Revolution" that brought William of Orange and Mary to power, New Englanders revolted and arrested and imprisoned Andros.
Boston minister and sometime Harvard President Increase Mather was sent to England to negotiate with the new regime. The emotional frenzy in the colonies was incredible. It is right at this time that the witch hysteria reached fever pitch. Mather returned in 1691 with what he considered the best compromise that New England could get from the crown. Massachusetts got a new charter. The Governor would now be a royal appointee, and he got to pick the upper house of the legislature. All men, twenty-one years of age and older, who owned a certain amount of land, were given the vote. The limit of the franchise to church members was abolished. The British Toleration Act was to be in place here as in England. Anglicans, Baptists, and Quakers, were free to worship as they chose, and could file papers to be excluded from the tax to support the Puritan town ministers. New Hampshire was made permanently a separate colony, and also given a royal Governor. Plymouth Colony was abolished. What the Puritans got out of this compromise, was that the democratic lower house would remain, land titles would be valid, and each town was still able to tax the majority of the population for the support of the Puritan clergy. Eventually the royal, often Anglican Governor, brought with him a cadre of British officials, bureaucrats, and a resident army. As many of these bought lands, a whole class of voters was created who had no interest in Puritan religion.
To me this is the crucial turning point in New England history. Instead of a faithful, pious leadership governing the Colonies, they were now back to royal appointees, just like in Tudor England. The government had become secularized. More to the point, the rising tide of secular voters, as long as the society or parish plan remained, got to vote on calling the town minister, and setting the minister's compensation, and deciding when how and if to fix the meeting house. This is the time when the clergy should have realized that they were now working for the secular, money interests in their town. In hindsight, this is when they should have dropped the tax support and gone over to contributions.
But the clergy at the time did not see what was happening. Many had strong relations with their towns and good salaries. All town officers were church members. Laws required everyone's attendance at worship. The ministers fully expected to maintain their influence. Plus the Indian Wars, the years of Andros, the witch hysteria, and so much more, probably had most people desiring a period of peace. And Increase Mather, one of their most esteemed leaders said the compromise was the best they could get.
But it isn't that they were completely unaware. Mather's own son, Cotton Mather, finished a new book on Congregational order, Ratio Disciplinae, in 1701, but couldn't get it published to 1726. Cotton noted that the Churches needed to cherish their Gospel prerogative to select their own pastor. But he noted that many town inhabitants who were not church members had "a disposition to supersede [the church] and overrule it." He noted, "The churches which have recovered the exercise of this right from the oppression of man... ought to keep the precepts and the favors of the Lord, and not easily part with what He has given them. To introduce a practice in the choice of a pastor, which being followed, may soon bring a pastor to be chosen for a church which few, yes none, of the church have ever voted for, would be to betray, and even destroy, a most valuable right, that such a society has a claim unto, and many evil consequences are to be expected from it."
Following the new charter of 1691 almost immediate conflict broke out between the so called "country party," the people in the lower house of the legislature representing the Puritan rural towns, and the powerful forces engineered by the King's Governor. The controversies raged for decades.
But the new Massachusetts charter hid much of the power it would have over the New England churches. And the Anglican forces back home that set out to extinguish the American Calvinist non-conformists. In colonies that were only newly being settled, and in those with mixed religious populations, immediate steps were taken by royal authorities to establish Anglicanism and restrict Puritanism. An Anglican establishment was set in place in Maryland in 1692, in 1693 in parts of New York, and in 1698 in the Carolinas. The latter move quickly ended a Puritan migration to that area. The New York act of 1693 appeared at first to be rather weak. But by 1702 royal Governors in that colony interpreted the law as giving them power to seize Puritan meetinghouses and convert them to Anglican worship. Eight meetinghouses in Westchester and Long Island were seized. In 1702 Anglican clergy in New Jersey also sought establishment in that colony. On a parallel front, wealthy forces in Britain in 1701 chartered the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts to send missionaries to the colonies. Hundreds of well-subsidized Anglican clergy poured into the American colonies in the next seven decades, more often to seek conversions in Calvinist towns than to reach out to un-served areas.
The new Anglican assault on non-conformists at home and abroad had led London Presbyterians and Congregationalists to cooperate to defend their rights. In 1700 Solomon Stoddard, the pastor of the largest church in western Massachusetts wrote a book calling for stronger interconnections among the New England churches. In 1702 Cotton Mather published a call for stronger ministerial associations that could act with some degree of unity and definition. Key New England leaders began a letter writing campaign among all the English-speaking Calvinists in the colonies calling for unity to meet the new Anglican challenges. In 1704 the Massachusetts Convention of Congregational Ministers sent out a circular along the same lines. The next year representatives from five ministerial associations met in Boston and adopted the "Proposals of 1705," a plan to have all Congregational clergy join associations, to have these join in general associations in each colony, and also involve lay representatives in local consociations to respond to "gross disorders" in the churches. These proposals were then endorsed by the Massachusetts Convention with leadership given by Benjamin Colman and Cotton Mather. In order to make a more formal proposal for change, Puritans expected that would have to be done by a formally called and widely representative Synod. The Cambridge Platform had been written in the days of the Puritan ascendancy and said that during times of tension the magistrates could call a Synod. But the magistrates were now appointed by the Anglican Queen. Governor Joseph Dudley simply refused to allow a Synod to meet. The price for maintaining the parish system was that the Congregational churches of Massachusetts could no longer meet! Still the letter campaign to do something went on. In 1706 Jedediah Andrews the Harvard trained New Englander who was pastor of the First Church in Philadelphia joined with Scotch-Irish in the area to form a loosely knit presbytery. Influenced by letters from New England, most of the Puritan churches in the Middle Atlantic area soon united in the new presbytery. Realizing that Massachusetts was not about to act, Connecticut Governor Gurdon Saltonstall called a Synod at Saybrook in 1708 that adopted the Saybrook Platform, establishing a more detailed version of the Proposals of 1705 for Connecticut. This divided Congregationalism into two polities. While Connecticut had some aspects of Presbyterianism, Massachusetts Congregational churches were so independent that their lay people were not even permitted to meet with each other in a synod.
Despite the fact that the 1705 Proposals were endorsed by the Massachusetts Convention and the five ministerial associations, and opposed by the Governor, Cotton Mather later said that they had been opposed by "some very considerable persons among the Ministers, as well as of the Brethren..." he did not say whom. In 1713, John Wise, a pastor in Essex County, wrote a book defending the radically unconnected polity that the Governor had forced on the churches, as if it was what Congregationalists had always wanted. Yet in 1715 some Massachusetts clergy again began to agitate with the legislature for a Synod. This time a minister came out in opposition, who probably was the one referred to by Cotton Mather. It was his own father Increase, who probably felt he did not want to see his charter compromise upset. This time also, the New England Yearly Meeting of Friends, well structured in all their monthly, quarterly, and yearly meetings, did all they could to keep the Congregationalists from meeting. The next year Increase published a book underscoring his position.
Increase died in 1723. In 1725 Cotton took the lead in calling for a synod. He noted the "great and Visible Decay of Piety" in the land and sought to "recover And Establish the Faith and order of the Gospel." This time the governmental opposition was triggered by the Rev. Timothy Cutler, the well-funded SPG missionary who had erected a large Georgian Anglican Church a few blocks from Mather’s congregation. After this attempt, Massachusetts Congregationalists gave up on the dream of a synod.
What happened to the Congregational churches after the changes of 1691? They lost their ability to meet and strategize together in synods. Their congregations had been divided into three polities: the forced independency of Massachusetts, consociated Congregationalism in Connecticut, and an alliance with Scotch-Irish Presbyterians in the middle colonies.
But the reality in town after town also changed. Around 1700 the crown had given up the royal monopoly of the slave trade. Many New England port towns now became the centers of the vicious and cruel trade. Puritan caps on profits and laws against usury were obliterated by the royally controlled authorities. Rampant materialism and greed began to impact town after town. And the wealthy, property owning, money-grubbing secularists and government officials who never joined the church had incredible power at town and parish meetings. They had influence over the choice of ministers, their settlements and salaries, and the maintenance of meetinghouses. They could endorse spiritual leaders ready to look the other way over certain evils. Ministers came to have two constituencies. One was the church, the religiously experiential, pious people, who kept up a prayer life, and read their Bibles. The other was the society or parish that could have a profound effect on the minister's living and the maintenance of their families.
By the time the Great Awakening broke out in the 1730s and 1740s, many of the lower classes were willing to report that the clergy paid them no attention, did not seek to meet their needs, and catered primarily to the upper classes. The Strict Congregational and Baptist churches that broke away from the established churches revealed the first wave of this growing chasm. This had already been going on for decades when Stiles wrote. Yet Stiles did not see it. He saw the shy often frightened or despised poor who continued to attend the established churches, and the elitist non-members who controlled the finances of the parish as united in one "Christian Union." That was hardly the case.
The American Revolution and the Bill of Rights, with its freedom of religion clause did not change the parish system in New England. But they did reveal a deep and strong dislike for establishment religion in the new nation. All of the Anglican establishments in the colonies were almost immediately stamped out. Thomas Jefferson prided himself in his writing of the Virginia statute on religious liberty. Minorities in New England began to be more vocal in their opposition to the Congregational clergy who were often seen as the public voice of the Federalist party. New religious movements swept through New England: the Methodists, the Universalists, and the Christians, each in turn reaching constituencies of people who said they were not being served by the parish financed, money controlled preachers.
Wouldn't Ezra Stiles have been surprised when the people of his home state of Connecticut voted in 1817 that they no longer wanted a Congregational establishment? The same thing happened in New Hampshire. When Maine was separated from Massachusetts, the establishment went with it.
Massachusetts tried to hold out the longest, but there Cotton Mather's fears about the power of non-church members in the parishes finally came to a head. Near the start of the nineteenth century many Massachusetts parishes not only kept turning down pastoral candidates elected by the churches, they then proceeded to elect their own pastors, and excluded the church's chosen pastor from the meeting house. The local fights often don't show very much piety on either side. Finally, many churches gave up, taking their records and communion ware and leaving. But even the ownership of the communion ware led to court suits. The case in Dedham Massachusetts reached the state's top courts in 1819. The famed Dedham case ruled that "Where the majority of the members of a Congregational church separate from the majority of the parish, the members who remain, although a minority, constitute the church in such parish, and retain the rights and property belonging thereto. As to all civil purposes, the secession of the whole church from the parish would be an extinction of the church; and it is competent to the members of the parish to institute a new church, or to engraft one upon the old stock, should any remain; and this new church would succeed to all the rights of the old in relation to the parish." In other words the church does not exist without a society or parish. Even if one hundred percent of the church members leave, they are not even entitled to the record books in which they listed their members and recorded their minutes! Can you imagine the Puritans who sought a pure church over against the corrupt Tudor and Stuart churches responding to this? Churches don't even exist. There is only the government! Eventually about sixty to eighty Massachusetts churches had their property seized by their parish.
The Dedham case, of course, eventually threw most Trinitarian Congregationalists onto the other side of the establishment debate. The official requirement for parishes in every town was ended in 1833. In places where for now the church and parish agreed, designs had to be made to save or guarantee the property for the church. One might think that this would be the end of the story. But after a hundred and forty years of telling churches how to operate, the New England governments would not give up. The most equitable plan would seem to have been to allow free churches to determine their own membership, and let the membership be recognized as holding their property. But that was not to be. You see, churches admitted in to membership people who did not hold any real property, people under the age of twenty-one, and — oh my gosh — women! Of course, none of those people could hold property rights! So the states required that the parish or society system be continued in a privatized form. Recognized men over twenty-one could form societies or parishes, little corporations that would hold property in trust for a given type of religion: Calvinistic, Trinitarian, Orthodox, Congregational, etc.. The same format could be provided for other churches with congregational forms such as Unitarian, Baptist, Universalist, or Christian. Most of the old Congregational churches in New England had been organized under the name the "Church of Christ in such and such a town." Those approving the charters ruled that a charter for a Church of Christ was too general to imply any denomination. Congregations, or at least the societies holding the property, must have more specific denominational names.
In addition states sometimes determined how often these groups would meet, what officers they would have — none Biblical — and so forth. Many statutes required that any male over twenty-one who donated a certain amount of money for church purposes in a year — even one dollar — must have a vote in the Society. Large businesses often bought pews in many meetinghouses in town, which looked like a generous act of charity to promote religion. Actually these gifts gave them votes to help shut-up any radical minister whose ideas they disapproved of. Some societies were allowed to have private memberships where people applying to join could be blackballed or rejected.
Now, true, just as the ministers in the country towns in 1691, thought that things would stay the same, so many Yankee churches, once they had a new private corporation obligated to support their denomination's beliefs thought things would work out well.
For Congregationalists, the fact that Connecticut had adopted the Saybrook Platform in 1708 meant that their churches were already strongly connected. They were able to plan missionary strategies for the emerging frontier, and respond to the organizational changes in the home state. Only one Connecticut church was taken over by its parish. But the completely unconnected Massachusetts churches battled over polity issues, having become accustomed to a non-covenanted independence. They also had to create some type of a connection to each other, at the same time they were trying to protect church assets in new private parishes. There was little energy to engage in missionizing the growing American frontier. What had been the largest religion in America in 1776 was completely unprepared for the new American western movement, and as it squabbled over structure, it saw its proportion of Christian membership in the country shrink and shrink. Seven million was no longer even dreamed of.
Unfortunately the critical period for the opening of the American west took place while the town parishes of New England still existed. While there was an evangelical desire to reach out to new settlements, New England clergy knew that their tax-supported polity could not be exported. Young clergy going west were advised by their elders to join the Presbyterians. Congregationalism was not conceived of separate from the establishment.
During these years a combined missionary strategy was undertaken with the Presbyterians, both domestic and foreign. While it produced many good results, it eventually broke apart over debates about autonomy. During the nineteenth century most Americans were widely celebrative of their new liberties. Presbyterians claimed that they were the originators of American democracy because they involved everyone, and like the Constitutional government had a series of superior courts rising from session to presbytery to synod to General Assembly. Congregationalists on the other hand said they were a more participatory democracy, similar to an autonomous local New England town meeting. They said that the Mayflower Compact, where people formed governments by covenant, was the model for the Declaration of Independence and the preamble to the Constitution. Presbyterians responded that the Congregationalists were not free democracy people. Their churches had attached to them societies where the unconverted rich and powerful elite could dictate to the churches.
And that is exactly what happened in many post-establishment churches and societies. Families wanted new Sunday School spaces; societies held the finances tight and allowed none. Many Sunday Schools then organized independent of the churches. Women wanted more money for missions. Powerful businessmen saw that as frivolous, and the women started their own cent societies, often with the approval of the deacons. Churches liked radical anti-slavery ministers, societies cut their salaries.
Noted Congregational historian Henry Martyn Dexter summarized the issues this way: "The parish system is not found in the New Testament... Parishes are not a natural suggestion or normal outgrowth of the Congregational system. That system seeks to gather all through regeneration, baptism, and confession of faith into local churches, and to lay upon them therein all Christian duty, and stimulate them therein to the performance of all Christian labor. There is no intrinsic tendency in it toward any such division of responsibility with a secular coexistent body (especially if it be controllable by unregenerate minds) as a parish is... The parish system tends to relieve churches of the pressure divinely put upon them in all their temporalities. The divine plan seems to contemplate a brotherhood... and that all necessary expenses be shared among all those members in fair proportion to the ability of each. The parish tends to take part of this responsibility off of the church, in order that it may be shared among those who are not in full, [or] in vital sympathy with the church and its great work."
Also, there was not any defining national Congregational system. Some new Congregational churches, particularly in the west away from New England laws, organized churches without societies. Ministers moving from one part of the country to another could not figure out who was in charge. Churches wanted some advice on this, but there was not even a national Congregational denomination to respond. After 1691 they had become used to not having synods!
Finally in 1871 a denomination, the National Council of Congregational Churches was formed. Its first meeting was mostly taken up with its own identity, how often would it meet, who would be its officers, how would delegates be apportioned, and so forth. Only at the second meeting, in 1874, could issues from the wider church be addressed. Societies came up right away. The Council voted to appoint a committee to report at the next Council to "inquire into the facts... whether the best interests of Congregationalism do not require the disuse of the society (or parish) system, in which the ministry are made largely dependent for their temporal support upon the pecuniary subscriptions of those who lack vital sympathy with practical godliness: and whether it be not the duty of the churches, as such, to assume the responsibility of seeing that those who labor in the gospel live of the gospel." That fact that this passed so readily indicates that the fears of Cotton Mather continued to live in the church connected to private societies as had been the case with the former established societies. Of course, whatever the Council recommended could have no final power in thousands of autonomous churches. And there was also the issue of the way the state laws read, particularly in New England. Massachusetts, for one, would simply not allow the membership of a church to be co-extensive with a corporation holding property. Interestingly, the state requirements for religious corporations worked more smoothly for episcopally governed, even Catholic land titles, than for congregationally governed churches. The Puritans dreamed of piety ruling the state. The corporate financial divisions of the secular state had come to dictate to the churches.
There was also a wider angle to this debate. Similar to local churches, many Congregational sponsored mission boards were controlled by virtual societies: small self-perpetuating corporations. These boards could do what they wanted without having to respond to the representatives of the churches. This is one of the reasons why the Presbyterians abandoned cooperation with the Congregationalists. The argument over the independence of mission boards has continued in the United Church of Christ even down to the present day. A. Hastings Ross argued, as far back as 1890, that, "Voluntary and close corporations make individuals, and not churches, the units and organs of power, and are repugnant therefore to the constitutive principle of our polity."
The 1870s resolutions came before the final all out battles over societies. The cause for women's suffrage was just rising. The slow movement of state laws about making women members of corporations, particularly in New England, was coupled with a powerful resistance among those who ruled the parishes. Evidence suggests that most societies were slow to women the vote. In the mean time a large articulate educated population of women grew up in the churches and at Mount Holyoke, Wellesley, and Smith. The women were strong advocates, and often marshaled majorities in church meetings.
But the women's way to gain a foothold in the churches required not only majorities in churches, but acceptance in societies, and the changing of state laws in states that had not yet allowed women's suffrage. So many battlefields slowed progress. In Michigan in the first decade of the twentieth century, the churches got the legislature to pass an act that provided that where any Congregational church in the state was connected to a society, the church — by vote — could abolish the society and take over all of its assets. Almost immediately societies in Michigan disappeared. The state, however, felt that it still had power to tell these newly recognized churches, the names that some of their officers must hold, the size of specific boards, minimum and maximum, and so forth.
Few states had as helpful legislation as Michigan. However, most eventually allowed women to be members of corporations, and after 1920 the focus was clearly on local parishes and congregations. Most individual churches and societies have had to debate and harangue until finally a merger was achieved, and in the vast majority of cases, churches and societies have now been united, with a few exceptions. But depending upon who held what powers in the negotiations, specific rules have been built into many church constitutions. Trustees often can still control originally undesignated funds no matter what the democratic will of the church says. Most churches maintain an informal version of the gender bias enforced in the nineteenth century, where men dominate trustees, while women are designated to mission and children’s work. Most Congregational churches will tell young confirmands that they are going through a process that will make them full adult members of a church at confirmation. Some congregations even elect young people to all church boards and committees. Even after the church's desire to include, though, some by-laws, and many state charters, still say that people must be twenty-one and over to vote on hiring a minister, setting the minister's salary, or voting on any budget issue. State laws still impinge on local congregations setting the non-Biblical names of boards, and giving them authority directed elsewhere in most Biblically based religious polities.
By the time H. Richard Niebuhr wrote The Social Sources of Denominationalism (1929) Congregationalism had become a religion of the upper and middle classes. A tradition that began as an inclusive community for all people, where piety and faith ruled had become an alliance with the powers that be, including the sitting President, Calvin Coolidge.
Puritanism was designed to be a religion where churches were made up of pious, religiously experienced Christians. The existence of parishes and societies limited the role of the religious and turned their churches into vehicles for the wealthy and powerful.
Early New England imagined a country governed by the pious. The charter of 1691 and following events gave the State power over religious congregations, some of which still exists. Why can't congregational churches organize on their own principles with Gospel named officers of their own choosing, and members approved by their own Gospel standards, and still control their assets?
Early New England envisioned a polity where churches consulted with each other in synods during times of stress and questioning. The desire to retain their establishment society privileges forced on them an inordinate independency that destroyed their ability to function on behalf of the Gospel.
Ezra Stiles' dream of a Christian Union in New England was broken by the very human quests for money, power, and influence.
-  Stiles, Ezra, A Discourse on the Christian Union: The Substance of which was delivered before the Reverend Convention of the Congregational Clergy In the Colony of Rhode Island Assembled in Bristol April 23, 1760. (Boston, N. E., Edes & Gill, 1761).
-  Mather, Cotton, Ratio Disciplinae, pp.15-17, quoted in "The Parish System," a report in the minutes of the 1877 meeting of the National Council of Congregational Churches, pp.214-215.
-  Ibid.
-  Quoted in Silverman, Kenneth, The Life and Times of Cotton Mather, (Columbia University Press, New York, 1985), p. 375.
-  Quoted in "The Parish System", ob.cit., pp.219-220.
-  Dexter, Henry M., in "The Parish System," ob.cit., pp.257-258.
-  Ross, A. Hastings, "Voluntary Societies and Congregational Churches," in The Bibliotheca Sacra, Vol. XLVII, #188, Oct. 1890, p.547.