Unitarian roots in North America stretch back to Puritan New England. Many of the original Puritan congregations, the oldest Protestant churches in the United States, are now Unitarian Universalist communities. Although Unitarian Universalists reject much of the theology of our Puritan ancestors, we continue to use their system of governance, called congregational polity. Congregational polity views each congregation as autonomous and its members bound to one another by voluntary agreement called covenant. Congregational polity was first articulated in the 1648 Cambridge Platform.
The Cambridge Platform was written in Cambridge, Massachusetts as a statement of religious freedom and a declaration of ecclesiastical independence from the Church of England. It was written during the English Civil War, a time of enormous social, economic, and political turmoil in Great Britain. Charles I had been executed and Oliver Cromwell and the English Parliament had replaced the English monarchy. As part of a movement to bring order and stability to England under the Puritan Cromwell regime, 109 "divines" and 24 Members of Parliament met in 1648 to determine the theology and system of governance of the Church of England, of which the Puritan churches in New England were members. The resulting Westminster Confession called for a presbyterian system of governance, whereby authority over the local congregation rests with a council made up of representatives drawn from all congregations. The New England Puritans disagreed strongly with the Westminster Confession. They believed each religious community should be self-governing and that religious authority lay with the members of the congregation, not an external body. The New England Puritans gathered in 1648 to reject the confession. When they articulated the principle of congregational polity in the Cambridge Platform, they effectively seceded from the English Church. The physical distance between the New England Puritans and the English Puritans was so great that the English government, with its limited resources, could do little to prevent the succession of the New England churches.
Though written in a time of turmoil, the Cambridge Platform has stood the test of time. In its particulars, the document no longer accurately describes either the governance or the theology of modern Unitarian Universalist communities, but the principle of congregational autonomy and self-governance it articulates and the movement for religious freedom it represents still profoundly influence on how we organize our congregations today.