The Fellowship of Congregational Churches (FCC) is a small group of evangelical Churches found in five Australian states but mostly in NSW, being what could be regarded as the remnant of the Congregational Church in Australia. In 1977, most Congregational churches in Australia belonging to the Congregational Union, joined the Uniting Church. Only 27 churches in NSW, and smaller numbers in other states, chose to remain out of the Uniting Church and continue as Congregational churches. Therefore, the FCC is now almost 40 years old.
However the history of the Congregational church has an unbroken lineage back to the 16th Century and the Reformation in England. As men studied the Word of God, they came under the conviction of the Holy Spirit that the authoritative guide concerning spiritual things was Scripture alone. Many were also convinced that the church and the state should be separate entities. And so, when Queen Elizabeth the First proclaimed herself to be Supreme Governor of the church, as a reaction, the Puritans, who insisted on the purity of God’s Word and on the church being separate from the state, came into being.
From these Puritans came the first Congregationalists, those who stood for the authority of God’s Word and the independence or autonomy of the local church. Congregationalists were first known as Independents or Separatists. They declared, “every company of Christian men and women, regularly organised for mutual fellowship .. is a church, and stands in immediate relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ .. is responsible to Him alone, and is under the solemn obligation to allow no human authority .. no Pope or bishop or council, assembly or synod .. to come between Christ and itself.”
The outstanding principle was the principle of the gathered church. They said, “the church should consist only of those men and women who had consciously dedicated themselves to Christ and his service,” as distinct from those who wanted to include all members of society in the church. It was this high and serious concept of church membership that distinguished the Congregationalists.
The Puritans tried to reform the Church of England, but in vain. In doing so, many were persecuted, imprisoned and even executed. It is said the biggest Congregational churches at that time were in London prisons.
Robert Browne, who is regarded by many as the ‘Father of Congregationalism,’ born around 1550, was on fire to declare far and wide his revolutionary ideas about the true nature and glory of the Christian church. He held secret meetings, where with fiery eloquence, he expounded his doctrine of the church and attacked the bishops and the clergy of the established church. He was arrested in April 1581 and imprisoned.
He was later released but continued his activities so he was arrested again. He wrote many tracts and even found himself in confrontation with other Puritans because while they wanted to reform the church, many wanted to stay within the law. But for Robert Browne, it was reformation at once and at any cost.
As a consequence, Browne had to leave England and he moved to Holland for a time, resulting in the Congregational church taking root in Amsterdam. When he eventually returned to England he was arrested and imprisoned another 32 times.
Many other Congregational preachers were imprisoned and some were executed for taking a stand against the Church of England including three very godly men, Henry Barrowe, John Greenwood and John Penry, a Welshman who was more an evangelist than church reformer. He was very concerned for the spiritual needs of Welsh people. Many regard Penry as the secret author of the Martin Marprelate Tracts. These were a series of tracts that lampooned and satirised the bishops.
It was the execution of godly men such as these that began such a reaction among English men and women that eventually the Act of Toleration was passed, allowing freedom of worship for English people.
Therefore, the Congregational church dates back to the 16th Century Reformation, being one of the earliest Protestant denominations. It has a rich heritage that has produced many famous churchmen.
Perhaps the best known Congregationalist is the pastor and author, John Bunyan who wrote the classic, ‘Pilgrims Progress’. John Owen, perhaps the greatest English theologian, was a Congregationalist. He began as a Presbyterian but became a convinced Congregationalist. He was one of the delegates who helped draw up the Declaration of the Faith and Order Owned and Practised in the Congregational Churches in England in 1658. Congregationalists refer to that document as the Savoy Declaration.
Jonathon Edwards was a great 18th Century Congregational preacher who was instrumental in the Great Awakening in New England, America. Isaac Watts, who wrote so many great hymns of the faith was a Congregationalist.
Congregationalism, while having its beginnings in England, did not stay there. Congregationalists were involved in the beginnings of the London Missionary Society and were the major influence for much of its existence. LMS missionaries were the first to bring the gospel to the South Pacific Islands. David Livingstone and Robert Moffat were well known Congregational missionaries.
In more recent times, Congregational preachers have included Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Congregational evangelists such as Lionel B. Fletcher who impacted their generation for Christ. We have a campsite at Hazelbrook in the Blue Mountains NSW, that bears his name.
Even today, Congregationalists around the world are making their mark including David Wells, an American theologian, David Bryant of prayer concert fame. We have a wonderful heritage of Congregational men and women who have stood for the truth of the gospel while also proclaiming the autonomy of the local church.
While the first Congregationalists came to Australia in 1798, the first Congregational church wasn’t formally established until 1822 in Tasmania by a layman, Henry Hopkins, who was distressed by the sad state of church life in the colony. This led to the calling of Rev. Frederick Miller from England in 1832.
The first recognised Congregational Church in NSW issued a call to the Rev. Charles Price, who began in 1833. Other States followed; South Australia – 1837, Victoria – 1838, Western Australia – 1845 and Queensland – 1858.
But, unfortunately, as with many denominations, liberalism, modernism and growing materialism influenced many in the Congregational church. Sadly, many Congregationalists turned from their heritage, away from the truth of Scripture, from the authority of God’s word and in doing so, lost their spiritual fervour and their missionary zeal. Consequently, many churches went into decline. This didn’t only occur in Congregational churches and so, partly due to this general decline, talks began in the 1930’s about the union of Congregationalists, Methodists and Presbyterians.
It wasn’t until 1977 that the Uniting Church came into being. For Congregational churches, it was up to each local church to decide what they would do. Each church voted whether to join the Uniting Church or remain as a Congregational church. Only 27 churches in NSW did not join the Uniting Church and they did so on theological grounds, the basic reason being that the document that formed the ‘Basis of Union,’ was considered weak in some areas, particularly regarding salvation and Scripture. For example, it did not clearly identify the Bible as God’s inerrant and infallible Word.
Most of the Congregational Churches in NSW who did not join the Uniting Church, then formed the Fellowship of Congregational Churches. Since 1977, some of our smaller churches have closed. But others have joined us, including churches in Queensland, Tasmania, South Australia and Victoria.
We remain a small body of churches, but we are a Fellowship that stands for Congregational principles and the purity of the Word of God. And like the remnant of God’s people that was preserved when Israel lost its land and was exiled, we believe God has preserved us for a purpose.