Congregationalism is a form of Protestant Christianity which asserts the principle that a local congregation is completely autonomous under God and therefore should not submit to any outside, human authorities such as a regional or national synod of elders (as in Presbyterianism) or a bishop (as in Episcopalianism). Baptists also practice this form of church government, but they are not referred to under the term Congregationalists (or its synonym Independents). Congregationalists are those who practice this form of polity while also maintaining the practice of infant baptism.
Because Congregationalism occupies a much humbler place in the configuration of Christianity today, it is easy to forget its prominence and significance in Victorian England. Likewise Congregationalism was not as numerically significant in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Although Congregationalists were important in the heady, turbulent days of the mid-seventeenth century -- claiming no less an adherent than the Protector, Oliver Cromwell himself -- the largest body at that time of what would become known in the Victorian period as "Old Dissent" was the Presbyterians. ("Old Dissent" refers to English denominations outside the Church of England which can trace their history back to the seventeenth century; "New Dissent" refers to the denominations which were founded in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a result of the Methodist movement.) By the Victorian period, however, the Congregationalists were the largest body of Old Dissent. The English Presbyterians had largely mutated into Unitarians and had atrophied. The Quakers were kept small by their exacting rules, notably their insistence that members who married non-Quakers be expelled. The Congregationalists and the Baptists, however, filled their sails with the new wind of the Spirit that came with the Evangelical Revival, and grew dramatically. The Congregationalists went from 229 local churches in England and Wales in 1718 to 3,244 in 1851. Moreover, Congregationalist and Baptist growth was clearly surpassing population growth. They went from 2.28% of the population in 1718 to 7.70% in 1851.
Therefore, in the Victorian era some of the most respected Evangelical ministers (such as J. A. James) and some of the most popular preachers (such as Thomas Binney) were Congregationalists. One of the finest English Victorian theologians outside the Church of England, R. W. Dale, was also a Congregationalist. As a quirk of fate or divine providence would have it, however, the best known Congregationalists happened to hail from Presbyterian-dominated Scotland: the great theologian, P. T. Forsyth (who made his real mark in the early decades of the twentieth century), and, most of all, the larger-than-life missionary and explorer, David Livingstone.
One example of the way that Congregationalists were at the forefront of the advance of Dissenters in Victorian society is that they were the first denomination outside the church establishment to found an Oxbridge college (Mansfield College, Oxford, founded in 1886). Nevertheless, there was an irony in the success of Congregationalists in the Victorian age. Their revitalization was due in no small part to their having learned from the Methodists, and one of the lessons they had learned was that greater results could be had by greater co-operation and central planning. Thus the story of Victorian Congregationalism is one in which more and more decisions were not being taken independently at the local, congregational level, but rather by various wider Congregational bodies, most notably, the Congregational Union of England and Wales which was founded in 1831.
Binfield, Clyde. So Down to Prayers: Studies in English Nonconformity, 1780-1920. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1977.
Dale, R. W. . History of English Congregationalism, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1906.
Jones, R. Tudur . Congregationalism in England, 1662-1962. London: Independent Press, 1962.
Peel, Albert. These Hundred Years: A History of the Congregational Union of England and Wales, 1831-1931. London: Congregational Union, 1931.
Watts, Michael R. The Dissenters Volume II: The Expansion of Evangelical Nonconformity 1791-1859. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.
Added 30 October 2000