Way Back When
by Margaret Morabito, Church Historian
Early Church Polity 1600s-1800s
First Congregational Church
United Church of Christ
6 PAYSON HILL ROAD
RINDGE, NH 03461
Polity is the overall operational and governing system of a church. Stemming from the early Puritan years, Congregational polity saw each local church as independent and autonomous. Lay members had leadership and decision-making roles with regard to organization and management. The local clergy served in a shared governing role with the people of the congregation, but the people had the last word. In addition, rather than being ordered to adhere to a specific system from men in positions above us, the earliest Church was subject to rules from the Scriptures and God.
Let’s look back to the 1600s for a few minutes.
In the early 1600s, John Cotton, known as the father of New England Congregationalism, preached about church government and lay-clerical relations. He preached the principle of free consent, which stated that no formal church decisions were to be made without the consent of the laity (non-clergy members). This concept was also a libertarian political principle in New England. History tells us that Congregational church polity framed the political system of the day and its influences have been felt ever since. Colonists held strong beliefs that the government got its validity from the consent of the people and that governors were to be elected by the people. Political leaders were accountable to the people, and there should be a set of checks to limit the abuse of authority. These were also basic principles in our early Rindge Congregational Church, and we see them in action even today.
With regard to higher Church authority, such as Papal authority or authority from a ruling monarch, the earliest Congregational churches were subject to no man, but rather to the Scriptures and God. Back in the 1600s, the benchmark against which all Church decisions were made was whether or not the proposed decision followed the Word of God. If it did, then it could be approved and implemented. If not, then it did not matter what the laity or the clergy said; it would not be implemented. Today, we remind ourselves, “What would Jesus do?” Congregationalists have asked this question for hundreds of years. Our written by-laws to this day state that we are to be in covenant with Jesus Christ and with each other to walk in God’s ways, just as it was in the beginning of the New England Congregational Church.
From a day to day operational perspective, since the 1760s, the Rindge Congregational Church has had committees of lay people who performed different tasks. In prior Way Back When articles, we have discussed some committees, such as the Dog-Removal Committee, the Tithing Men, the Pastoral Search Committee, the Excommunication Committee, the Deacons, the Pew Committee, the Pew Committee Monitoring Committee, the Preparation for Revolutionary War Committee, the Church Singers Input Committee, and the Preparation for the Second Meeting House Committee.
We also had a Standing Committee for about 100 years. In the earliest years, the Standing Committee served specific tasks, as needed, and then was disbanded after the tasks were completed. On February 10, 1786, our church chose a Standing Committee to serve for an unlimited duration. From 1786 to 1793, this committee was comprised of Deacon Lovejoy, Deacon Towne, Deacon Jewett, Barnabas Barker, Ephraim Hunt, Samuel Page, and David Adams. Then, on February 1, 1793, the definition of the Standing Committee was revised to become more of a membership committee, focusing their duties on looking into qualifications of new members and on looking for improper conduct among members. We have the names of 28 members of the Standing Committee who served from 1793 to 1873. As with the deacons, members of this committee served until their deaths.
Committees come and go. Over time, we have continued to follow church polity of the early years by making our own independent and autonomous organizational and management decisions through popular consent. This is seen even today in the proposal to change the way that things have been done. This freedom to change is our inheritance from way back when.
(Sources consulted are Stearn’s History of Rindge, New Hampshire 1736-1874; Tenacious of Their Liberties: The Congregationalists in Colonial Massachusetts, and the Rindge Historical Society.)