"We do Give up ourselves to one another"
Puritans, the New World’s first Congregationalists, have an unfortunate reputation of being censorious busybodies. The term “church discipline” may reinforce that notion, but the ultimate goal of disciplinary actions was not so much to punish as to draw wayward church members back into the fold—for the spiritual health of the individual and for the cohesion of the church community.
For Congregationalists, especially early Congregationalists, the church community (the congregation) as a whole had authority to monitor itself. As such, it organized itself, for this and other purposes, according to what we would today call “democratic principles.” When persons were admitted as members of a church, they agreed to hold themselves and their fellow congregants to certain standards of behavior.
Church members took their responsibility toward one another seriously and approached those who had trespassed against them privately first. Church members who had violated these standards would be called before the congregation to answer publicly for their transgressions only after other attempts at private reconciliation had failed.
Church authorities, who adjudicated infractions independently of secular authorities, imposed consequences that were spiritual rather than civic in nature and commensurate with the offense: admonition, suspension from communion, request for public confession, or even excommunication. The scriptural basis for this practice came from Matthew 18:17: “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church,” i.e., the congregation.
All church members could be involved in the administration of church discipline, and accused members submitted themselves voluntarily to their judgment. Even members who were excommunicated were presented with opportunities for reconciliation and readmittance. Church discipline, in short, was a process of repair.
Disciplinary cases are routinely reported in Congregational church records, as well as in the proceedings of ecclesiastical councils, who resolved conflicts when the church community was unable to do so. The substance of these cases ranges from the quotidian to the salacious, although lurid details are cloaked, often in Latin, to protect the reputation of the accused. That “cloaking” signals the primary intent of church discipline: how do we come together and function as a community? a question that we are still grappling with today. What is our responsibility to one another? How do we behave toward those who have done our community harm? How can they make amends? How can we welcome them back into our midst?
Congregational church discipline was not uniform. Practices varied region to region and even congregation to congregation, and those practices changed over time. Church officers gained greater authority, and regional associations and councils were consulted more frequently in disciplinary matters.
The examples in this exhibit are not intended to be comprehensive; rather, this exhibit illustrates how the practice of church discipline developed and how individual congregations approached it. The history of Congregational church governance, which underpins the practice and development of church discipline, is complex. A list of suggested readings, which will provide additional detail and context, follows the conclusion of this exhibit.
Opposite: Portrait of Richard Mather.
This manuscript is a draft of what would be known as the Cambridge Platform. Primarily authored by ministers Richard Mather and John Cotton, the Platform is a foundational document describing the system of government by which the Congregational churches in New England operated. Among other reasons, Mather and Cotton wrote this for Congregationalists to distinguish themselves from Presbyterians, by giving authority to church members rather than to church elders alone.
Congregational polity is defined by autonomous church governance and voluntary associations of churches. This means that practices such as church discipline will vary from congregation to congregation. The Cambridge Platform defends this as the only form of church government recognized in the Bible. It emphasizes that each member of the church enters into a covenant by mutual consent of both the individual and the congregation, a pre-existing practice that the Platform codified.
The Platform outlines who can become a member of a church and how membership is gained, and it enumerates the rights and responsibilities given to the congregation. The congregation has the authority to choose the officers of the church, such as the minister, to admit new members, and to publicly censure, excommunicate, and restore fellowship to church members determined to have broken their covenant with the church.
Chapter 14 of the Cambridge Platform deals specifically with the congregation’s role in censure and excommunication. It describes how issues should be resolved—privately, if the offense is private, or publicly in front of the church, but only if the offense is public or if private resolution of a dispute has been unsuccessful. It exhorts congregants to treat an offender even-handedly because the goal of admonishment is repentance and because even “the best of us have much need of forgiveness from the Lord.”
Opposite: A Platform of Church Discipline, 1648
While the Cambridge Platform, written in 1648, defined Congregational polity for centuries to come, it was the local churches, independent as they were, to put into practice the ideas the Platform set forth through the creation and adoption of a church covenant. The church covenant was “like the cement that holds the materials of the [local church] together or the compact that binds together a body politic” (von Rohr, 1992, p. 92). Covenants were created at the establishment of a church in New England, and the founding members of the church signed the covenant.
That is not to say that the covenant was set in stone; very often churches revised their covenants as circumstances, beliefs, and traditions changed with time. The earliest extant covenant of the First Congregational Church in Natick, Massachusetts, shown here, was recorded in the church record book in 1729. Given the church’s establishment in 1651, earlier versions of the covenant must have existed.
The church was originally established by a congregation of “praying Indians” led by John Elliot. For a while, English colonists and Native Americans worshiped together at the First Congregational Church. However, by 1729, the congregation was shifting towards becoming a majority white congregation. The demographic shift in the congregation did lead to tensions, and possibly factored into the 1729 revision of the covenant. Later versions of the covenant were produced too, with one appearing in the church record book for the years 1802-1833, after the church had formally split along racial lines.
The church covenant detailed the responsibilities each member held to themselves and to others within the church community. Covenants defined many of the church processes that members agreed to follow, including the church disciplinary process. Explicit in Natick’s 1729 covenant was the relationship and responsibility between members in the church disciplinary process.
“We do Give up ourselves to one another…freely Covenanting & Binding ourselves to walk together as a Right ordered Church of Christ…Promising in Brotherly Love to Watch over one another’s Souls faithfully; to be Watched over by one another; & to maintain & Submit to the Government & Discipline of Christ in his Church.”
Members of the church, not a bishop or elder, were responsible for one another’s souls, and the disciplinary process reflected this promise.
When covenant obligations were neglected, the disobedient church member was put on notice. If private attempts to correct the violator’s behavior were unsuccessful, that individual would be formally ordered to appear before the congregation. This document is an example of just such a summons, issued to Daniel Gale of the First Parish Church of Dover, New Hampshire, for his failure to attend services regularly.
The content of the summons indicates several things about Gale’s case. First, the matter was handled publicly only after repeated private interventions had failed. Second, church attendance was a community activity—the summons refers to it as “being in communion” with the rest of the congregation. And third, church membership carried with it certain obligations. In asking Gale to resume attending services, the summons “invited [him] to return to his duty.”
Failing to live up to his obligations meant that Gale had broken his covenant with the church. The breaking of the covenant was seen as a threat to both the individual and the community.
It is difficult to determine what happened after Daniel Gale received the summons, or if he even received it, given that the summons is included in the church’s records rather than Gale’s personal papers. The records of the disciplinary hearing are not included with the rest of the church’s records, so we do not know whether Gale responded to the summons or continued to flout his obligations. That the summons is undated complicates things, as well. With a date, one would be able examine church record books to see if Gale continued to be listed as a church member after the summons was issued, indicating he had made amends.
As “The Case of the Pastor of Wrentham” demonstrates, disputes between a pastor and his congregation clearly indicated that the people, not their chosen leader, were in charge of church discipline. The pastor, Reverend David Avery, wrote out the details of the case from his perspective and sent them to David Howell, Esq., an outsider to the case, for “his judgment and advice.”
As Avery described it, a certain faction of his congregation had been opposed to his pastorate from the start due to some theological differences. Specifically, the church members believed that the pastor’s approach to church discipline was much too strict, and they came to him multiple times to ask for more flexibility.
Avery, for his part, defended himself by explaining that he had made his position on church discipline clear even before he was called to pastor the church. He believed his approach was firmly grounded in scripture, namely Matthew 18:17, and was not open to changing it. Ultimately, the situation devolved to the point that some members of the congregation accused Avery of “denying the divinity of Christ” and demanded proof that he did not. They brought a disciplinary case against him and Reverend Avery was removed as pastor of the church.
Reverend Avery’s case is an interesting illustration of where authority rests within a congregation and the variety of approaches a congregation can take in regard to carrying out church discipline. While the church leaders—which may include the pastor—often adjudicated disciplinary cases and brought their decision to the congregation for a vote, the pastor and other church elders were not above reproach. In disputes with the minister of a church, an opposing faction might form and call the minister to answer for his perceived misdeeds before the church.
As with other disputes, there should be an attempt to resolve things within the church first, but if that was unsuccessful, outside opinions might be solicited, as Rev. Avery did in sending his account to Mr. Howell, or by convening an ecclesiastical council, a group of representatives from neighboring churches that issues a strong (but non-binding) recommendation. This process is described in greater detail in the section about eccelsiastical councils below.
Opposite: The Case of the Pastor in Wrentham, 1794
As time passed, some churches sought to codify their disciplinary practices, as in Guidelines for Use in Disciplinary Cases, prepared by the Salem Tabernacle Church in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. They were written in the form of questions and answers—something like an early FAQ. The exact context in which this document was created is not clear.
The guidelines addressed questions about how church members should interact with someone who had been brought up for a disciplinary case before the church. Should they be presumed guilty or innocent? How should church members act toward a person who had been accused versus a person who had been found guilty? What were the role of witnesses in the proceedings and was corroboration necessary for every statement?
The questions posed addressed practical concerns, such as how a case might be prosecuted or defended. The questions also reflected the values of the community, many of which will look familiar to us today.
The guidelines endorse an even-handed approach. The accused should be presumed innocent. Church members should present a united front and avoid discussing a case with the accused before a judgment is rendered. Church members should take external circumstances into account when interacting with someone who had been found guilty, depending on what the person did. Some transgressions were so grave they might require excommunication from the church while others would merit more leniency, but reintegration was always possible provided the guilty party earnestly repented.
The next section of our exhibition explores how the rules churches formulated, such as The Guidelines for Use in Disciplinary Cases, were actually applied within communities. We have divided the cases we highlight in what follows into two interrelated categories: cases that focus on creating and maintaining a cohesive community of believers; and those that focus on the spiritual health of the congregation. While these two categories may appear similar, there is a distinction to be made.
Disciplinary cases concerning the spiritual health of the community cover behaviors that damage or threaten the shared beliefs and responsibilities of the congregation, such as absence from Sunday services or the public espousal of beliefs that contradict established Biblical tradition. In contrast, cases concerning community cohesion involve disputes between individual members that had escalated to the point where congregational intervention was needed to prevent division within the body as a whole. The concrete examples that follow will further explore these two types of cases.
Opposite: Bennington, Vt. First Church
The disciplinary case against John Spelman, a member of the Church of Christ in Granville, Massachusetts, concerns a promise he made to pay Hannah Austin of Durham, Massachusetts, £5 4s 6d (five pounds, four shillings and sixpence, about $1,500 in today’s currency). Spelman claimed that he had reneged on his pledge because of complications involving an intermediary, “Mr Smith,” who had apparently offered a surety on the transaction. Spelman argued that he “had a right to Brake his Promise for he had Reason to fear that Smith would be wronged out of the money if he Secured it by a Note before it was Setled at Durham.”
Although the financial issues were far from insignificant, the church committee adjudicating the matter took particular exception to Spelman’s claim that he “had a right” to break his promise, an assertion of individual prerogative that ran counter to the community’s need for cohesion.
Emphasizing the sacrosanct nature of a man’s word, the committee went on to present a biblical argument to support its judgment. “He is under the oath of God to Love & obey the truth therefore it is the Carracter of a Good Man he Speaketh the truth in his heart & though he Sweareth to his own hurt he Changeth not Psalms 15:2-4.”
Ultimately the committee ruled that it would consider Spelman absolved as long as he “receed from that Prinsable of his having a right to Breake his Promise as not being Justified by the word of God.” He was also ordered to pay the money owed. It is important to note that the committee, like others of its kind, sought resolution by a confession of misdeeds and mutual forgiveness among the parties involved rather than by administering punishment.
Mehetabel Adams’s disciplinary case involved a heated dispute between herself and Asa Seymour. Each lodged formal complaints against the other in 1821. Adams’s alleged behavior included an array of verbal insults leveled at fellow townspeople, characterized as “indecent and unbecoming” and “passionate and abusive” language. Seymour also alleged that Adams “did injure the property of William Peters, and [torn] Morgan by directing her daughter to chase their [torn] through the streets, and by suffering her gese to lie in their pastures.”
(Unfortunately, the page is torn, rendering certain details unreadable; we can only speculate what Adams’s daughter chased through the streets - perhaps more ‘gese’ or other livestock.)
For Adams’s part, she accused Seymour of a similar set of behaviors, including: “Being angry at Mr Howe and accusing him of lying,” “wounding the feelings of Mrs Rachel Cooley by insolent conversation,” “neglecting to pay a sum of money which he justly owes me,” and “telling Mr. Williams & his wife that I said they were both infamous lyars,” among other complaints.
In the Congregational tradition, dispute resolution through consensus-building was the ideal outcome. In keeping with this, the church committee reviewing the case appears to have persuaded both parties, in private, to mutually renounce their quarrel.
“Before we came to any decision on the articles of Complaint the parties met and made as it then appeared an amicable settlement and have since signed certificates requesting that there should be no further proceedings on sd Complaints.”
Both Seymour and Adams signed to the following: “I Consider that all past greivaces and Causes of Complaint amicably settled us Between us and I Do not feel particularly agrieved any at any other of the Members of the Church.” They were thereafter reinstated as church members in regular standing.
Church discipline was not experienced equitably by all social groups, as women and people of color found themselves more scrutinized than white men. Part of that unequal experience was the common 18th century understanding that women, Native Americans, and African Americans were seen as more susceptible to sin than white men. In general, women and people of color found themselves at a disadvantage in most aspects of church life.
Richard Boles (2020) notes “The disadvantages of affiliation for blacks and Indians included exclusion from the pulpit and leadership positions, implicit support for systems of exploitation, being treated as inferior or subservient, and greater white supervision over their behavior” (p. 56). These ideas can be seen in action with the case of Flora (sometimes written as Flory), a member of the Fourth Church in Ipswich, Massachusetts, also known as the "new" Chebacco church. Evangelical revivalists formed the church during the First Great Awakening of the 1730s-1740s, and counted four enslaved persons among its first twenty-two full members. One of these was a woman named Flora, enslaved in the household of Thomas Choate.
Flora addressed a formal confession of sins to the congregation. In the confession, she requests forgiveness for largely undefined transgressions, although phrasing such as “wantonness and concupiscence” suggest some of the transgressions may have been sexual in nature. This type of confession was not unusual during the 18th century, when many individuals and couples publicly admitted to breach of the seventh commandment, or sex outside of marriage.
More remarkably, there is evidence that Flora may have engaged in lay preaching during the mid-century religious revivals (Seeman, 1999). She confessed that she had exercised “Great Freedom to utter the same before men, & also after freedom in persuading sinners to repent [sins?] and live.” In the confession, Flora seems particularly concerned that her actions could have negatively impacted the revival movement by supplying fodder to its critics: “to make such settle down in their opposition (as being in the right) that have all along appeared against the work of God.”
Separate records reveal the Fourth Church’s follow-up to Flora’s confession and reconfirm her status as a member in good standing with the church community. “That Flora Negro having made a Satisfactory acknowledgement or Confession to the Church for her Folly is now restored to our Charity and Fellowship and to her Prevelidges in the Church again.”
Church discipline did not just focus on conflicts between individuals, it was also about God’s chosen community doing everything it could to maintain spiritual health. The community was only as strong as its weakest spiritual link, and the disciplinary process was used to strengthen these links. Censure was the tool used “for purging out the leaven which may infect the whole lump…and for preventing the wrath of God that may justly fall upon the church if they should suffer his covenant” (Hughes, 2008, p. 44). When members of the community engaged in actions which negatively impacted God’s chosen, a “spiritual wound” was inflicted and needed to be repaired.
This document reported on individuals who did not attend church regularly in 1760 and 1761 and provided the reasons they gave in their defense. In the first case, Thomas Gillet gave the four reasons he withdrew from church services. The church held multiple meetings before choosing a committee which would “if Possible to give Satisfaction why the [Church] did thus & thus Settle those articles.”
The church committee examined each of the four issues raised by Gillet. The “spiritual wound” left open by his absence was not something the church took lightly. The church initially admitted fault in Gillet’s charge that it had not received accounts of religious experiences from new members. After additional meetings, it reversed course, saying the church was not to blame and its methods lined up with the customs of other churches.
This is fascinating because after the admission, part of the spiritual wound would come from the church itself, and Gillet was not the only person who had similar complaints. The church committee likely grappled with such an admission and sought the advice of other churches, reaching the conclusion that it had done nothing wrong. Gillet was eventually admonished for his absence, which can be viewed as the medicine for healing the “spiritual wound” he caused. The record stops there, and it is not known if Gillet ever returned to the church.
While the previous case focused on one’s physical presence in the church community, the present case focuses on the importance of shared beliefs. This 1792-1793 case is also from Granville, Massachusetts. Joseph More was accused by his neighbors of causing a “spiritual wound” by sowing discord in the community with his beliefs. He was accused of saying “that many things recorded in that holy Book the Bible were not given by divine inspiration, that it has many contradictions in it, and that many things in it are no more than mere human Traditions.” More’s statements were a direct attack on the shared beliefs of the Congregational community and alarmed many of those who heard him.
These accusations ended when a neighbor explained how More’s beliefs harmed God’s community and opened a “spiritual wound.” The neighbor stated, “I am afraid that my brother is deceived in these things and that his communications upon these Subjects have a tendency to corrupt good manners, to corrupt the faith of the Gospel.” More then appeared before the committee and admitted to all of the charges.
The meeting’s record explored in-depth how harmful More’s beliefs on the Bible were for the spiritual health of God’s community. As this was such a problematic doctrinal admission, it is likely the committee in charge wanted to give a point-by-point rebuttal to More’s ideas. The records end with More’s suspension from church privileges and an admonishment to mend the “spiritual wound.” There is no additional information on More, so it is unknown if he returned to church after his admonishment.
Issues of attendance and doctrine were not the only types of “spiritual wounds” that could be inflicted on God’s chosen community. The community also confronted external forces which could hurt its spiritual health. This document is a confession from Heman and Ruth Swift who, in 1837, allowed two of their children to attend a traveling circus in the town of Bennington, Vermont.
It was important for the community to raise children with the same commitment to God that was expected from their parents. From the perspective of the church and community, this case was prosecuted to address concerns that two parents may have failed their duty to properly foster the congregation’s next generation.
The Bennington confession is shorter than similar documents, and we have little knowledge on the proceedings leading to the confession. A particular line gets to the heart of the matter for the church. Heman and Ruth state that they had failed God’s community “through our failure to interpose for its prevention, in the manner which [we?] became Christian parents.” Since children were learning and unable to fully grasp the duties required to be members of the community, parents needed to be vigilant in their teachings and actions.
It is important to remember that these disciplinary cases came from a place of repentance and healing, not just condemnation. The church’s “motivation was the return of both the church member and the church to greater spiritual health in the sight of God” (von Rohr, 1992, 41). With their confession, Heman and Ruth admitted their fault, sought forgiveness, and pledged they would return to a place where they would be able to provide their children the tools necessary to ensure their place as members of God’s community.
God’s chosen community was aware of myriad situations which might inflict “spiritual wounds.” Community members did not just live for their own salvation, they also actively played a role in the salvation of their neighbors. When a problem arose that damaged the spirit, the community worked tirelessly through the disciplinary process, as espoused in the Cambridge Platform and locally instituted through the covenant, to prevent any lasting damage to its spiritual health.
Opposite: Heman and Ruth Swift confession, 1837
Congregational communities took their charge to “detect and deal with those faults in members’ behavior that could seriously compromise the church’s standing before God” seriously (von Rohr, 1992, p. 40). However, at times, even in cases of church discipline, the congregation would look to the wider Congregational community for advice, guidance, and mediation. Some issues, such as disciplinary cases involving ministers or deep splits over polity and governance, could become so contentious within a congregation that a practicable resolution became impossible without outside intervention. When intervention was necessary, an ecclesiastical council was typically formed.
The call for an ecclesiastical council arose from within the church, either by a vote of the church or through an appeal from members of the church. The call would be sent to neighboring communities and responses to the call would be returned by the future delegates of the council. Ecclesiastical council delegates were typically ministers, though lay elders and deacons also participated. Ecclesiastical councils were not solely involved in church disciplinary matters; they were also involved in important matters such as the ordination of new ministers. But, as the volume of such records in our collections indicate, ecclesiastical councils, as well as ministerial associations, were often gathered to mediate disputes and pass judgments over crises within a congregation.
Disputes which involved ministers, cases questioning the integrity of a church’s disciplinary process, or divisive splits in opinion or belief within the congregation over polity and church governance were the most likely to end up before an ecclesiastical council. Delegates on the council acted as arbitrators, and often gathered evidence, testimony, and documents from the parties involved in disputes. While these councils lacked power to enforce their advice, owing to the independence of Congregational churches, in practice council guidance was accepted as the final judgment in a dispute.
The results of a council that met in Granville, Massachusetts, on October 15, 1776, elegantly provides in writing the reasoning behind the creation of ecclesiastical councils: “in various cases it is the duty of a [Church] to ask the advice and council of Neighboring [Churches] to which they ought to conform when agreeable to the word of God” (Ecclesiastical council results, 1776 October 15).
The call for an ecclesiastical council rose from within the church, as this record of a church vote demonstrates. In the 1770s, the First Church of Christ in Granville called a series of ecclesiastical councils as members of the church were divided over the adoption of a new church constitution. The recorded vote does not state the exact reason for why an ecclesiastical council was desired, only that the council would “advise us under our present circumstances.”
The document recorded the votes of church members, 21 supported the call while 7 opposed it, and proposed a list of churches to which the call would be sent. The calls would have been sent by letter to the churches on the proposed list and most likely it would have been the ministers of those churches to respond to the call and meet on the designated day for the ecclesiastical council.
Much as the church disciplinary system was intended to heal the church community, the ecclesiastical council system was intended to help smooth over discord that might occur in a community when the normal church processes failed to bring harmony. A dispute between Benjamin Spofford and Aaron Perley, both of Boxford, Massachusetts, illustrates this well. The dispute began years before an ecclesiastical council resolved the case in 1824.
Perley and Spofford each kept sheep in adjacent meadows divided by a wooden fence. One day in 1817, Perley took in what he thought was a stray sheep. Spofford claimed the sheep was his and vociferously charged Perley with “stealing or embezzling [Spofford’s] property.” The dispute lasted for years, with members of both the town and congregation taking one side or the other, and resulted in the excommunication of Spofford from the First Congregational Church in Boxford in 1823.
Excommunication was not the final step in the disciplinary process though, and, as this case illustrates, excommunication could be appealed. Late in 1823, Spofford and his allies organized a call to an ecclesiastical council “to take into consideration the subject of [Spofford’s] suspension and excommunication from [the First Congregational Church], by which proceedings he considers himself to be aggrieved and oppressed, and to give him their advice.” The 1823 ecclesiastical council, after reviewing records produced by the church, determined that the church had not mishandled the disciplinary procedures and absolved Isaac Briggs, the pastor at Boxford, from any procedural wrongdoings.
Evidently the parties were not wholly satisfied with this result as a final ecclesiastical council was called in 1824 at the behest of both Briggs and Spofford (Ecclesiastical council result in the case of Spofford versus Perley, 1824). The large report compiled by the council shows how serious it was in bringing the years-long conflict to an end. The council results, while not always flattering for the church and its disciplinary process, concluded that Spofford’s behavior following the initial accusations of theft was problematic and that the church and Briggs did not commit any wrongdoing in connection with Spofford’s excommunication. The historical record concludes with this ecclesiastical council result, suggesting its advice finally brought the Boxford community’s discord to an end.
The church members, not solely the minister, were responsible for church discipline. Over time, this power was largely given to church elders who arbitrated disputes and recommended disciplinary actions. The elders’ recommendations would then be presented to the church members and put to a vote. This divide between the minister and lay members on church matters, such as church discipline, was important.
Ministers who crossed the lines of their duties and inappropriately interfered in church disciplinary matters could quickly find themselves in trouble with the congregation. Such is what happened to Caleb Barnum, minister of the West Parish Church of Wrentham, Massachusetts. His interference in a disciplinary matter concluded with an ecclesiastical council recommendation that he be dismissed from his pastoral duties.
The historical record does not include all of the supporting documents, only the results of the ecclesiastical council held on October 29, 1767. From that document we can glean some of the particulars of the case. Much like the dispute between Benjamin Spofford and Aaron Perley in Boxford, this case began with a dispute between two members of the West Parish Church over a crop of cranberries. Barnum offered to pay the injured party the damages owed over the cranberries if he would drop the matter before the church. This interference in the matter became the basis of the church community’s dispute with the pastor and was regarded as proof that Barnum favored the alleged guilty party.
The matter was brought to neighboring churches for the advice of an ecclesiastical council. Though conflicts might be contentious, this document makes clear that the ecclesiastical council would act as an impartial mediator with the wellbeing of both parties at the forefront of their deliberations; the council wrote that they met and deliberated “with Deep Concern for the happiness and welfare of Both Pastor and people.” The council results ended with a recommendation for the dismissal of Caleb Barnum from his pastoral duties at the West Parish Church and a prayer “to part with a Spirit of forgiveness and good will towards each other.”
During the early eighteenth century, Congregational ministers began to form regional and state-level associations. As acceptance of ministerial associations, synods, and councils expanded during the eighteenth century, the scope and size of ministerial associations also expanded.
In Massachusetts, these voluntary associations were formed as much to foster fraternal bonds among ministers as they were to provide ecclesiastical advice to member ministers and their churches. Their primary “activities involved mutual counsel in dealing with problems of discipline in their churches, mutual instruction in matters of biblical interpretation and the faith, and sharing with one another their experiences of prayer and devotional life” (von Rohr, 1992, p. 160).
With the adoption of the Saybrook Platform in 1708, ministerial associations in Connecticut were vested with significant control over local churches, akin to the Presbyterian system of governance, in addition to their role as a vehicle for fellowship among ministers.
Much as church communities used the church disciplinary process to support the community’s spiritual health, and ecclesiastical councils brought together neighboring communities of Congregationalists to provide advice and support to local churches, ministers’ associations worked to provide support, and admonishment, to a community of ministers. This is well illustrated in this 1837 letter from the Hampden Association of Ministers to Roger Harrison.
Harrison had been the minister of the Church of Christ in Tolland, Massachusetts, from 1798 until 1822, when he retired. Harrison remained in Tolland until his death in 1853 and retained his membership in the Hampden Association of Ministers. As this letter states, members of the association pledged “to admonish each other” and “to receive friendly admonition on the subject of christian practice and ministerial fidelity.” The letter goes on to do just that.
The letter charges Harrison with failure to keep the Sabbath holy, failure to join a temperance society, unchristian public behavior, and a failure to “contribute to support the gospel, and to aid the benevolent societies.” Though he was no longer an active minister, the ministers in the Hampden Association saw a need to admonish one of their own, not out of malice, but out of a sense of duty to foster a healthy spiritual community.
Congregational discipline, in its myriad forms, was not about humiliation, malice, or shame. Rather, the various forms of Congregational discipline were born out of a sincere desire to nurture the spiritual health of the earthly church community. The communal importance of church discipline explains why so much ink was used to record church disciplinary matters.
The selection of documents within this exhibit is only a fraction of the disciplinary-related documents in our digitized collections, let alone our paper archival records. Search further and you will find disciplinary records in the forms of recorded testimony, committee reports, meeting minutes, personal and official correspondence, confessions, and the stories of everyday people navigating life within their community.
We still struggle to answer questions such as, “what is our responsibility to one another?” and “how do we make amends to a community we’ve harmed?” These documents show us how communities in the past grappled with these difficult questions and illustrate the important roles of forgiveness and repentance in bridging community divisions.
We hope you have gained a better understanding of the unique genre that is Congregational disciplinary records, and that you will explore more of these records on your own time. You might find new angles of inquiry from which to interrogate these records. Look for how gender norms and racism affected the church disciplinary process for women and marginalized peoples in conscious and unconscious ways. Investigate more closely how church discipline, in its form and procedure, changed over time and in reaction to larger discussions of polity and spirituality. Study the distinct regional differences that existed between Massachusetts and its neighboring colonies/states regarding ecclesiastical control.
There are countless angles from which you can study these fascinating records, and we hope you take the opportunity to do so. If you are interested in learning more about Congregational church discipline, you will find a list of resources for further exploration on the following page or reach out to the library staff with questions.
Beard, A. F. (1876). Church purity and discipline. In Essays read before the General Association of New York. (pp. 47-66). Masters and Stone. 9.3 2030
Boles, R. (2020). Dividing the faith: The rise of segregated churches in the early American North. New York University Press. 126.96.36.1992
Bremer, F. J. (2012). Building a new Jerusalem: John Davenport, a Puritan in three worlds. Yale University Press. D27.27B
Bremer, F. J. (2015). Lay empowerment and the development of Puritanism. Palgrave Macmillan. 9.1.154
Cooper, J. F. (1999). Tenacious of their liberties: The Congregationalists in colonial Massachusetts. Oxford University Press. 9.3.274
Hall, D. D. (2011). A reforming people: Puritanism and the transformation of public life in New England. Alfred A. Knopf. 7.2.300
Hughs, P. (Ed.). (2008). The Cambridge platform: A contemporary reader’s edition. Skinner House Books. 9.3.311
Juster, S. (1994). Disorderly women: Sexual politics & Evangelicalism in revolutionary New England. Cornell University Press. 188.8.131.52
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Opposite: Portrait of Williston Walker