Under the doctrine of Congregationalism, local church congregations govern themselves as autonomous units. Most of these congregations today affiliate themselves with the United Church of Christ, which has approximately one million members.
Congregationalism had a great part to play in the early history of the United States, especially in New England. The so-called Pilgrim Fathers who landed at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts in 1620 and the Puritans who followed them were the forerunners of the Congregationalists. Congregationalists founded many of America’s first universities, including several of New England most prestigious: Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Amherst, Bowdoin, Middlebury, and Williams. Over the course of American history, Congregationalists have been associated with liberal social views: calling for abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage and temperance in earlier times, and active in the civil rights, gay rights, women’s rights and abortion rights movements in more recent times.
Given the loose structure of these individual congregations, practice and theology varies. In general, however, Congregationalists recognize the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion and the Holy Trinity, but not the virgin birth of Jesus Christ or a strictly defined heaven and hell. They approach the Bible not as a work to take literally, but as a resource for inspiration and interpretation.
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