A number of Puritans were “Independents” and met separately from the Anglican Church as some Puritans sought greater reform of the Church of England from within, as a part of the organisation. However, there were those who felt that proper reform of the Anglican Church would not or could not happen and therefore they “dissented” from the Church and sought to be “separate”. These were the first or earliest “Dissenters” or “Separatists” under Elizabeth I. This group was also called “Nonconformists” but the term they preferred for themselves was “Independents”
Horningsham Congregational Church was built in 1566 and is the earliest such church still in use today (see picture above). In 1567, Richard Fitz, a leader of the Separatists since 1550 pastored a church of 100 in London which taught and practiced truly reformed principles:
- The church consists of “true believers” all of whom are priests and not dependent on “ordained” clergy as such to mediate for them with God (c.f. Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox churches).
- Christ alone was head of the church which was dangerously disconcerting to Queen Elizabeth as her father King Henry VIII had claimed that title as perpetual for the British monarchy.
In 1567 Richard Fitz was arrested along with many others who wanted to fully dissociate from the Church of England – which was illegal at the time. They were put to death for “illegal religious activities” by the Church of England. Jones, R. Tudur. Congregationalism in England, 1662 – 1962. London: Independent Press, 1962; p. 14.
Following on from this, Robert Browne began preaching in 1571 and was imprisoned in 1581 for a short time by Elizabeth. Like many Dissenters – Browne fled the wrath of Queen Elizabeth for Holland where his followers were called “Brownists” and are considered some of the earlist dissenters. He would write, “A Treatise of Reformation without Tarying for Anie” which became his chief work along with “A Booke which sheweth the life and manners of all True Christians”.
These books laid down principles for future Congregationalists and would have an impact on Christianity on the whole. It influenced Henry Barrowe, John Greenwood, and John Penry as Barrowe expounded further on Browne and Greenwood and Penry had his work printed and distributed. It cost them all imprisonment and execution under Elizabeth I in 1593.
Prior to this, Browne would return to Anglicanism despite his influence and organization for Independents and wrote “A Reproofe of certaine schismatical persons and their doctrine touching the hearing and preaching of the workd of God (c.1587) as a scathing response to Barrowe and Greenwood. It could be said that this was to distance himself from them and perhaps it saved Browne’s own skin.
This persecution at the hands of the Anglican church did little to diminish or dissuade Congregational establishment and growth as in 1658 delegates from over 100 churches met at the Savoy in London & created two historically important documents to Congregationalism – a “Congregationalist” version of Westminster:
a. “The Savoy Declaration of Faith and Order”
b. “The Institution of Churches and Order Appointed in them by Jesus Christ”
Famous Congregationalists over the years include John Owen, Thomas Goodwin, John Bunyan, Oliver Cromwell, John Milton, Isaac Watts, and Jonathan Edwards. Congregationalist organisations today can be found under the following acronyms: UCC, NACCC, FIEC in UK and in America – The Congregational Federation and EFCC.