Readers looking for a general understanding of the Congregational tradition have many options to choose from. The following paragraphs explain a few of the more accessible sources for the curious, but busy, lay historian. Please review the (still incomplete) bibliography of recent books, articles, and dissertations on various aspects of Congregationalism, as well as a few timeless classics. Additionally, there is our Historical Overview page for further explanations.
The best historical overview is John Von Rohr's The Shaping of American Congregationalism, 1620-1957 (Pilgrim Press, 1992), which discusses changes in theology, polity and worship for the entire period from the landing of the Pilgrims to the forming of the United Church of Christ in 1957. But the true standard work remains Williston Walker's Creeds and Platforms of Congregationalism, first published in 1893 and most recently reissued by Pilgrim Press in 1991. That edition includes Douglas Horton's introduction to the 1960 reprint, new material on the 1931 Congregational-Christian merger and an insightful new introduction by Elizabeth Nordbeck. The contents — which lean heavily toward seventeenth-century church documents — are not light reading, but as classic statements of an emerging Congregational identity, they are "must perusal" for any reasonably serious student of the tradition.
The Living Theological Heritage Series (Pilgrim Press, 1995-2004) provides another window for thoughtful browsing into the Congregational tradition. Though much of the historical texts and commentary deals with the other denominations that merged to form the United Church of Christ in 1957, there is plenty of material on Congregationalism in volumes 3, 4, 5 and 6.
Volume 3, on Colonial and National Beginnings, offers a diverse array of material: the Dedham Church Covenant of 1638, excerpts from the trial transcript of heretic Anne Hutchinson, a fiery sermon supporting the Revolutionary War, and some of the important documents dealing with the Unitarian Controversy of the early nineteenth century.
Volume 4, entitled Consolidation and Expansion, shows Congregationalism "coming of age": following the western frontier into Illinois, Iowa, and California, confronting issues of women's rights with Antoinette Brown's call to preach in 1853, and beginning to formulate its own tradition of hymns, creeds, and social concern.
Volume 5 in the series picks up themes of Outreach and Diversity, and includes documents that show all four denominations in the United Church of Christ developing their characteristic commitments for missionary and educational work, humanitarian concern, and social witness.
Volume 6, Growing Toward Unity, contains a huge variety of documents — letters, sermons, creeds, hymns, and controversial manifestos — from the denominational mergers that created the General Council of Congregational and Christian Churches in 1931, the Evangelical and Reformed in 1934, and the United Church of Christ in 1957.
Readers interested in understanding where Congregationalism fits into the broader picture of American religion have even more possibilities to choose from. The standard reference work is, in many ways, still Sidney Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (Yale, 1972). The more visually inclined could also spend happy hours perusing the maps, charts, and graphs in Edwin Gaustad and Philip Barlow's New Historical Atlas of Religion in America (Oxford 2000). But those more theologically inclined might also want to dip into two more recent books that provide fascinating insight into an age dominated by influential Congregational thinkers: Mark Noll's America's God, From Jonathan Edward to Abraham Lincoln (Oxford 2002) and E. Brooks Holifield, Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War (Yale 2003).
All of these, of course, can only scratch the surface on much deeper subjects. Those frustrated by the sketchiness of my suggestions may consult the bibliographic link to a longer list of books dealing with Congregational history, though of course, that list could easily continue on for many more pages as well. It goes without saying that all of these books (and more) are waiting patiently on the shelves in the Congregational Library. Pay us a visit, or send us an email. We'd be glad to help with questions or ideas.