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Mission, Vision & Covenant: The Historical Context

From the earliest days of recorded history in the Western world, there are stories of vision, mission, and covenant as foundational parts of religious community. These stories have been told in song, dance, and language, and they are the story of community—individual stories woven into an intricate collective narrative that shows the identity of the community. Each story may be appreciated on its own but gains in power when seen in its larger context. An understanding of the significance of vision, mission, and covenant work today is increased by knowledge of the role of covenants in early New England congregational life, and of patterns of religious life in Europe before that. It is a story that involves risk, missions accomplished and failed, covenants made and broken.

The universal aspects of vision, mission, and covenant may be seen throughout Western religious culture. The story of the people of Israel is a record of God’s covenant with a community. It is celebrated in various events:

  • the saving of Noah, his family, and the animals during the Flood (Genesis 6–8);
  • the covenant with Abraham when God gave Abraham the land of Canaan, and when God renewed the covenant after asking for Isaac’s sacrifice (Genesis 17, 22);
  • the delivery of the Ten Commandments to Moses (Exodus 19–20);
  • the deliverance of the people from Egyptian bondage at the Exodus (Exodus 11–14).
  • After the fall of the temple and exile from the promised land, the prophet Jeremiah speaks of a new covenant: “See, the days are coming . . . when I will ma ke a new covenant with the House of Israel. . . . Deep within them I will plant my Law, writing it on their hearts” (Jeremiah 31).

The early Christian community saw itself as part of a continuing covenant, restored through the life and teachings of Jesus. The covenant that was rooted in the history of Israel was seen both as fulfilled by the life of Jesus and as the basis for the existence of the Christian mission. For Christians, Jesus was the one who came to save them and to provide them with life everlasting, thus fulfilling the earlier covenants. This created for them a new covenant and a new mission—God would save them, and it would be their responsibility to spread God’s word to save others. Later theologians such as John Calvin and Augustine spoke of the Christian life as a “covenant of grace” and as the “saving acts” of God in history. Covenant as a way of being with one another was also made real in the work of Benedict when he formulated his “Rule for Monasteries.” Created in the sixth century, this document spelled out all the details of how the monks should live together, and monasteries and other religious communities today still use it virtually as it was originally written.

The Enlightenment was a broad movement of scientific and naturalistic thought that often emphasized the human role in redemption, the importance of reason, and a view of human progress in history. Eighteenth-century thinkers such as Descartes,
Voltaire, Pascal, Rousseau, and Hume sought to create general laws based on human experience and observation, experimentation, and mental deduction. They believed that if they could just uncover and understand these human laws, they
could create systems of laws and codes of conduct that would enhance civilization and the ability of humankind to get along.

The strands of the biblical covenant and the work of the Enlightenment thinkers were combined in our North American  immigrant ancestors. The early European immigrants based their new congregations not on specified creeds but on means of
covenants reminiscent of those of the biblical days. The Cambridge Platform was created in 1648 specifically to settle differences and strengthen relationships among local congregations in New England. The platform held that “there is no greater
Church than a Congregation” and that each congregation would be autonomous because of this fact. Yet at the same time, the platform also stated that there were duties and responsibilities that congregations owed to one another: care, consultation, admonition, participation, recommendation, and relief. For more discussion on this subject, refer to the document Interdependence: Renewing Congregational Polity, by the Commission on Appraisal (1995). 

The organizing principle of such covenants was to make churches out of collections of individuals, to establish community. Coming from a European context where people were not always allowed religious freedom, congregation founders wanted to create a way of living that was different and respectful of others. This orientation was, in effect, a paradigm shift—a change from one way of being with each other to a different one, where the rules and regulations that governed interaction were
substantially changed. 

This shift in behavior and consciousness was done with reliance upon God, but also in light of reason and the value of human life as part of the underlying assumption. For example, the 1629 Salem Covenant used the following language:

We Covenant with the Lord and one with another, and doe bynd ourselves in the presence of God, to walke together in all his waies, according as he is pleased to reveale himself unto us in his Blessed word of truth.

Stepping outside of our tradition’s direct European roots, the universal aspects of covenant can also be found in Eastern traditions. For example, in the early period of the Buddhist community, the Buddha could have remained in his enlightened (or
awakened) state and have had no further concern for the transient world. But out of compassion for others, he decided to devote himself to proclaiming the dharma (the truth that he had discovered through his awakening). In so doing, he began to
attract disciples who wished to be instructed in “the way” or “path” of which he spoke. The community of the Buddha, therefore, became organized around a commitment to the way of life and shared vision of how to overcome suffering. They
created a shared assumption of how life was organized and of how they would interact with one another—ways that were based on the models that preceded them.

From the 2005 UUA resource: Vision, Mission and Covenant (PDF, 97 pages): Creating a Future Together

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The regional Congregational Life staff are congregations' local connection to the UUA. All of the program Congregational Life staff have expertise in most aspects of congregational life and each also has a few program areas of expertise. See the...

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Covenant words by James Vila Blake on parchment paper

A Short History of Covenant

Created for the 2013 General Assembly theme of Covenant