When did Congregational Protestants change from being conservative to ultra-liberal?

I’m a die-hard Catholic with an interest in Christianity as a whole.

One of the interesting (to me, anyway) branches of Protestantism is the Congregational branch. If I’m not mistaken; the Congregationalists of today are the descendants of the Puritans that settled in New England way back in the 1600s.

Back then; the Puritans were staunchly conservative and their restrictions on social and personal behavior would make even the most conservative and traditional Catholic cringe. They were THE power in many New England towns and the pastor of the local congregation was by far the most influential man in town.

Fast forward about 400 years or so… and look at them now… Gay marriage. Abortion. Divorce. Female preachers. Basically an “I’m okay you’re okay God doesn’t care what you do as long as you’re a good person and don’t hurt anyone else” theology.

The stodgy old elders of that denomination MUST be rolling over in their graves.

Here’s my question; what the heck happened??? And WHEN did it happen??? If you brought back some of those cranky old guys from ye olde Mass Bay Colony in a time machine - they wouldn’t recognize their congregations.

So much change in just four centuries… What happened?

Good question. I would say man want their own way and an increasingly low view of Scripture and Christan history

They were built on shifting sand rather than the rock of Peter.

Four centuries is a pretty long time–at least for Protestants:p

To sketch the basics:

In the eighteenth century many Congregationalists were affected by the Enlightenment and became very rationalistic. Most of these, however, became Unitarians.

More significantly, the evangelical movement within New England Congregationalism gave rise to the “New Light” Congregationalists, who became dominant in the denomination by the early 19th century. While these guys were very conservative by our standards (think Jonathan Edwards), they emphasized experience and not just doctrine, and they were very interested in social reform. Then in the early 19th century the “New Haven” theology developed which watered down Calvinism, still in the interests of evangelicalism. Congregationalists became increasingly involved in social reforms such as the abolitionist movement. Two institutions that embodied this social emphasis were Oberlin College in Ohio and Berea College in Kentucky (which is very near where I now live). Both of these institutions, not coincidentally, are very liberal today.

Another influential 19th-century Congregationalist figure was Horace Bushnell, important in two ways. First, he argued that the Bible was more like a book of poetry than a book of systematic theology or philosophy–its truths spoke to the imagination rather than in strictly propositional terms. He also argued that conversion experiences were not necessary and that the children of Christians should never remember a time when they were not Christians. I think he was basically right on both these points, particularly the first, but arguably his ideas helped to break up further the legacy of the Puritans.

Finally, the Congregationalists, like other large Protestant denominations, were very influenced by German theology and higher criticism, and came to stress the “Social Gospel” above traditional Calvinism (even in its watered down “New Haven”) form. So by the early 20th century they were pretty liberal, though of course some of the stances today on issues such as homosexuality would have still seemed shocking.

Contemporary UCC Congregationalists may seem very different from their spiritual ancestors, but there are some common threads:

  1. The emphasis on local autonomy and freedom over against any kind of hierarchy

  2. The suspicion of tradition and the conviction, in the words of the John Robinson (the pastor of the congregation of English exiles that would become the “Pilgrim Fathers,” that “God has yet more light to break forth from His Holy Word.” Sure, some of that “more light” would startle Pastor Robinson, but the principle remains dear.

  3. The commitment to social reform and a willingness to take positions that may seem radical to others in society.

Now I don’t say all of this because I agree with the UCC approach to things. But I do think it’s unfair simply to characterize it as “anything goes.” I am playing the organ this month for Union Church in Berea (originally the church of Berea College), which is non-denominational but has two UCC pastors. While I disagree with a lot of things about this church, I can see that they are passionate about what they see as the inclusive message of the Gospel, and that they are succeeding in bringing the message of God’s love and grace to people who have been wounded by more conservative churches. I can’t just write them off as apostates, as no doubt many folks on this forum would do:shrug:

Final note: one truly shameful thing about the contemporary UCC is that they can’t seem to see that opposition to abortion is in direct continuity with their heritage of social reform:mad:


We could probably add in:
What about the Franciscans?
What happened with the Jesuits?
Where did the Leadership Conference of Religious Women walk away from the teachings of the Catholic Church?

Add on the Old Catholics, Polish National Catholics, Brazilian Catholic Apostolic Church.

Peter, Francis, Poor Clare and Ignatius of Loyola must be turning over in their graves…

Just saying;)

Edwin did an amazing job of outlining the logical and charitable reasons for the shift.

The ‘strident’ Lutheran diagnosis would be that a new-found prosperity lead them away from God.

When all is going well in your life - new income and prosperity - you can sometimes draw inward into a new-gospel that doesn’t depend as much on God.

For myself, I can see it in our various communions - the wealthier and satisfied seem to no longer need to depend on God.

In my experience Jesuits are either the very worst the church has to offer or the very best with no ground in between. I don’t count them out of the good fight not by a long shot.

Yes. I hope all orders come to (back to) a strong orthodox faith. My reply was obviously filled with sarcasm bacause unfortunately all bodies of faith have groups who walk away. I just dislike generalizations which A) seem to group all Protestants together as though they are one singular cohesive body, and B) fail to recognize a church as large as the Roman branch will have just as many difficulties.

I think it is a natural progression of commuities of faith that they are begun by faithful people for varying reasons and as the institution gets farther away from the original leaders it “drifts” until some circumstance brings them back. This is not limited to ecclesiastical bodies either, universities and charities are also known for this mission drift away from the original ideology.


I think the general pattern may have started with the “Half-Way Covenant” of 1662, which allowed the unconverted to be partial church members. While this allowed a greater portion of the, by that time, less pious New England population to have membership in the church and bolstered Congregationalist influence within society, it arguably began the process of watering down commitment among church members.

In part, the stress on conversion during the Great Awakening can be seen as an attempt to reinforce the necessity of convinced believers as members of the church.

Yeah, this sounds like the classic declension narrative.


A beauty-waning and distressed widow,
Even in the afternoon of her best days,
Made prize and purchase of his wanton eye,
Seduced the pitch and height of his degree
To base declension and loathed bigamy.

Agreed. I could have started there, but chose not to in part because I’m not sure it’s quite as significant as has often been claimed. Not sure really means not sure, not convinced that it isn’t:p. From my perspective, the Puritans wrote themselves into an impossible corner in the first place.


How so?

It sounds to me that they swung from one far extreme to the other like a pendulum. Interestingly, Islam is far more legalistic and strict than the most conservative Protestant fundamentalist. But most liberals will bend over backwards to defend Islam.

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