It’s nearly impossible to talk about the early Massachusetts Bay Colony without mentioning the Congregational Way. In Massachusetts, the ordained clergy and colonial magistrates worked together to ensure that order and Christian standards prevailed. Like England and the rest of Europe, it never occurred to the people of Massachusetts Bay that religion ought to be a personal choice. Rulers had always guided and regulated their people’s religious practices.
The Puritans were reformers, committed to purifying the Church of England. One of their most radical and far-reaching ideas was their conviction that each congregation should be independent, joined together in a covenant of believers. Each member was responsible to every other member under the covenant they’d signed on joining. This became the system of “mutual watch,” wherein individual church members were under a religious obligation to keep their neighbors on the straight and narrow. And the church membership decided everything, including the selection of a minister and disposition of finances.
Thus, there was no authority over the local church; individual churches weren’t overseen and regulated by the hierarchy of bishops and archbishops they knew in England. This was, in part, an adaptation to the sheer physical distance between the colony and England, which meant the church hierarchy was too far away to effectively oversee them. But there were times when conflicts and other problems became too big for a local church to handle. They had to figure out a way to regulate themselves and each other.
What they came up with were “associations.” Local churches conferred with others in nearby towns in deciding theological and other issues, such as who was qualified for ministry, how to appropriately discipline church members, and so on. This was basically an extension of “mutual watch.”
In 1648 the clergy of Massachusetts Bay met to standardize church practices. The document they came up with was called The Cambridge Platform. It spelled out procedures for ordaining ministers, accepting new members and appropriate ways for churches to cooperate with each other.
The Congregational Way is still functioning in the institutional polity of churches directly descended from the Puritans – the United Church of Christ, the Unitarians, and the National Association of Continuing Congregationalists.
Some have pointed to the Congregational Way as the beginning of American democracy. It probably didn’t seem very democratic unless you were a white, male Congregational landowner. But at the same time it was more democratic than other institutions in that era. Under the Congregational Way ordinary citizens had the power to make decisions about property and finances, to choose their own leaders, and even to dismiss those leaders when they disagreed with them. And this approach to church governance impacted their way of governing themselves in their towns, in their colonies, and in the association of states that eventually became the United States.