In 1637, the settlers in what was to become the town of Dedham, Massachusetts, wanted to start a church. The problem was, the roughly 30 families didn't know each other, and, therefore, didn't know what sort of church to begin. As newcomers to the American wilderness, they had had time only to set up enough government to apportion land, build and equip homes, and begin the work of farming. Religiously, they were strangers. However, the exigencies of survival and the religious call of their hearts imposed the need for them to come together.
To that end, they began a yearlong series of cottage meetings, each organized around discussion of a particular question. We might think that in order to know each other's religious views and needs these New England ancestors might choose topics like salvation, damnation, predestination or morality. But they did not. What they mostly discussed were matters of civil organization, for in their understanding, the church would reflect the ethic of the larger society, and what they longed for was sincere religious association based in love and founded in freedom.
In the England they had left behind, these meetings would have been illegal. The bishops of the English churches had begun to crack down on the ministers, scholars, and lay people who looked at the lessons of the Bible stories in a political and social light. Discontent grew, not with church theology so much as with the ecclesiastical structure that dictated every facet of local church affairs. The idea of a free church took shape among the people—a church whose individual congregations were controlled by no outside authority.
This was the sort of church the small group in Dedham, Massachusetts, decided to build. It was a church much like its neighbors, and much like the other churches that would be built in New England in the coming decades, a radically lay-led church gathered by mutual consent rather than by mutual belief, founded in covenant rather than creed, and governed by the congregation itself.
Make no mistake, this group did not hold widely varying theological beliefs that would have made it unable to exist as a creedal church, but their belief that churches should be self-governing organizations gathered in the spirit of mutual love was paramount. This basis for gathering and governing a church by congregational determination was described ten years after the founding of the Dedham church in a document known commonly as the Cambridge Platform (or, more formally, as A Platform of Church Discipline Gathered Out of the Word of God and Agreed Upon by the Elders and Messengers of the Churches Assembled in the Synod at Cambridge in New England).
The Cambridge Platform defined congregational polity. Based in the Calvinist theology of the Puritans, it set out a structure for churches founded on New Testament descriptions of early churches. It defined matters of church officers, ministry, membership, and cooperation between churches. Although changes in practice were being made as early as the second generation, the Cambridge Platform remains a defining document for the denominations, including Unitarian Universalism, that continue to practice congregational polity. Of the 65 congregations that voted to ratify the Platform in 1648, 21 are members of the Unitarian Universalist Association today.