Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Building Bridges: A World Religions Program for 8th-9th Grades

Alternate Activity 2: Congregationalism

Activity time: 30 minutes

Materials for Activity

Preparation for Activity

  • Copies of Handout 2 for all participants.
  • Prepare table, timer, newsprint and markers in the room.

Description of Activity

Youth hear brief history of Congregational churches in the United States and debate Calvinist and Universalist doctrine.

Share with participants the following:

In 1534, King Henry VIII broke with the Pope and created the Church of England. He was not, however, advocating religious freedom. His motives were personal (divorce) and political (consolidating all power under his monarchy). English people who wanted change in the Anglican Church-which resembled the Roman Catholic Church from which it broke-soon began holding worship secretly. This was against the law, and became more and more dangerous. Eventually one group moved to Holland and in 1620 sailed to the British colony in America so they could worship as they chose. These immigrants are known as the Puritans-they sought to "purify" the Church of many of its trappings-and the churches they founded were congregational in organization.

Congregational churches maintained that every church could govern itself free of any higher authority, could hire its own clergy, and could worship according to their own beliefs. In their new settlements in what would become Massachusetts, the Puritans did not extend religious freedom to others, but punished, executed, and banished dissenters.

These early congregational churches founded by the Puritans followed a harsh Calvinist theology. Ask if anyone is familiar with Calvinism. Then explain that Calvinist theology is based on five fundamental beliefs (write on newsprint, making first letter larger to spell TULIP down left side of the paper). These five tenets of Calvinism are:

  • Total Inherited Depravity. The entire human race is depraved, in a state of irredeemable trespass and sin because of Adam and Eve's sin. Humans cannot save themselves. In pure Calvinism, babies are depraved at birth.
  • Unconditional Election. (Also known as "predestination.") Because humans are born with sin, they cannot choose to follow God. God therefore chooses who will be saved and who will suffer eternal damnation. People's behavior does not determine their salvation; the choice was made before their birth.
  • Limited Atonement. Since God chose who will be saved, Christ died only for those destined for salvation. All other people are still damned.
  • Irresistible Grace. Being naturally depraved, human beings cannot follow God by choice. However, if a person is one of God's chosen, they cannot overcome or resist the power of God no matter what they may want.
  • Perseverance of the Saints. Since people are inherently evil, they can only be saved if God elects them. If God has chosen someone, though, they cannot be "unsaved," no matter what they do.

Ask, what do you think of Calvinist doctrine?

Share that between 1620 and 1800, members of Congregational churches gradually turned toward more liberal theology. In the early 1800s, many of the oldest churches in the colonies became Unitarian, and many others kept the name Congregational, remained Trinitarian, but moved to a less literal interpretation of the Bible and a more hopeful view of humankind. The liberal movement continued, and in 1957, many (but not all) Congregational churches merged with the Evangelical and Reform Church to create the United Church of Christ one of the most liberal of mainstream Christian denominations. (In fact, the United Church of Christ worked with the Unitarian Universalist Association to create the Our Whole Lives sexuality education curriculum.)

Meanwhile, Universalist theology was emerging in the United States in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. There were Universalist ministers, mostly itinerants who roved the rural countryside preaching the love of God in contrast to the Calvinist view of God. When John Murray arrived to preach in the first Universalist Church on American soil, there were still Calvinist Congregational churches that would have thought most everything he had to say was blasphemous.

Universalism spread West to California and throughout the South, reaching peak membership around the time of the Civil War. It is estimated Universalism was the fifth largest religion in the United States at that time. Its belief in a loving, forgiving God, a chance for everyone to achieve salvation, and the core teachings of Jesus as a guide to a moral life, were very attractive messages. People who believed a Calvinist theology were alarmed by Universalism-especially the concept of universal salvation. How could society control people's behavior if they thought they could do terrible things and still go to heaven? It is interesting to note that today Christians who preach universal salvation are under attack by more fundamentalist Christians whose theology is related to Calvinism.

By 1961, the two liberal religious movements, Universalism and Unitarianism, had moved close enough together to merge into our present Unitarian Universalist Association. Both Unitarian and Universalist (as well as Trinitarian Congregational) churches were independent in organization, government and worship from any higher authority. Only the members of an individual church could make decisions about the life of that church. This is called "congregational polity," a freedom Unitarian Universalist churches still exercise today. However, Unitarian Universalism today looks far different from when both religions first were preached in this country.

Distribute Handout 2, Calvinism versus Historic Universalism. Make sure youth understand the beliefs in the handout represent historical Universalism of the 18th and 19th centuries, not Unitarian Universalism as practiced today. Allow the youth to choose a "side" to defend in a mock debate. If there is difficulty deciding, count off in twos to divide the group in half. Invite the defenders of Calvinism to sit together; and the defenders of Universalism to do the same. Use a table with the groups sitting on opposite sides if everyone will fit. Tell youth they will be allowed a three minute opening statement, then two points will be chosen by each side to debate. Suggest they select the ones they feel most strongly about or can most vigorously support.

Allow the participants a few minutes to consult together and choose an opening speaker. Flip a coin to decide which side goes first. After opening statements, ask the group that spoke second to present their first point for two minutes. Then the other group responds, also in two minutes. The responding group then chooses a point to present, and so on.

After all points have been debated, allow each group a final two-minute statement.

At the conclusion of the debate, ask participants if they thought either side "won." Why or why not? What was the strongest point made? What would they have liked the chance to say? Did they wish they knew more about the Bible so they could quote passages to support their points?

Invite everyone to help reset the room.