American Congregationalism is a direct descendent of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Puritanism, which began as a protest movement in England's national Anglican Church. Congregational churches have been active in Georgia since the eighteenth century, but their numbers remain relatively low across the state.
The major source of American Congregationalism, however, resulted from a group of English and Dutch nonseparatist Congregationalists who sailed to America in 1620 to escape religious persecution in their home countries. Known as pilgrims, the Congregationalists founded a colony at Plymouth, in present-day Massachusetts, and paved the way for others to follow. In 1630 a group of Congregationalists, largely from England's Devon, Dorset, and Somersetshire counties, landed at Plymouth and subsequently founded the colony of Dorchester in Massachusetts. These were the ancestors of immigrants who later formed the Midway settlement in Georgia, thirty miles south of Savannah.
In 1695, prior to their arrival in Georgia, the Puritans from Dorchester settled in coastal South Carolina. There they made a living cultivating rice and tobacco, and within one generation they became the largest slaveholders along the Ashley River. Slavery was initially banned in the Georgia colony,
The Midway Congregational Church, one of the oldest Congregational churches in Georgia, was founded in Midway in 1754. The current building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, dates from 1792 and was rebuilt after the British burned the original church in 1778, during the Revolutionary War (1775-83). Midway Congregational Church played a significant role in the early history of colonial Georgia. While the still-young colony was hesitant to support the revolutionary cause, the Georgia Puritans independently took part in the Second Continental Congress by sending Lyman Hall, a Midway resident, to represent them. Hall and Button Gwinnett, also from Midway, were two of the three Georgia signers of the Declaration of Independence.
During the war, AMA missionaries followed the advance of the Union army and set up elementary and vocational schools for freed slaves. After the war, schools such as Atlanta University (later Clark Atlanta University) in Atlanta; Talladega College in Talladega, Alabama; Tougaloo College in Tougaloo, Mississippi; and Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, were established to meet the higher education needs of freedmen and -women, as well as to train ministers for the growing number of African American Congregational churches. In the late nineteenth century Congregationalists focused on the need for educational institutions in the Appalachian South. Piedmont College in Demorest, one such school, was established in 1897 and soon formed an alliance with the Congregational tradition that continues to this day.
Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries
As in the previous century, Congregationalism's influence in Georgia and the South in the twentieth century was felt primarily in its social action, rather than in its numbers. The denomination's leaders were deeply influenced by the Social Gospel movement and were strong advocates of the labor, women's rights, and civil rights movements. In 1961 Andrew Young, previously a Congregational minister, was chosen to administer the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's citizen education workshops, which were funded in part by the AMA. Midway's Dorchester Academy, previously an AMA school, was chosen as the site for the program,
In 1957 the United Church of Christ (UCC) was formed from the merger of Congregational Christian churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church. The UCC remains the largest ecclesiastical body of the Congregational heritage. In 1955 the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches (NACCC) was created predominantly from churches choosing not to join the UCC. The Conservative Congregational Christian Conference (CCCC), established before the UCC union, chose not to join the UCC.
Congregationalism remains a prominent national voice in Protestant progressivism. As with many mainline Protestant denominations, its membership saw a decline in the second half of the twentieth century, and the number of Congregational churches in Georgia remains very small. As of 2007 there were nineteen UCC congregations and six NACCC congregations in Georgia. The CCCC did not have a presence in the state.
Mary C. Lane, History of Piedmont College, 1897-1990 (Demorest, Ga.: Piedmont College Press, 1993).
James Stacy, History and Published Records of the Midway Congregational Church, Liberty County, Georgia (Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Company, 1979).
Allen P. Tankersley, "Midway District: A Study of Puritanism in Colonial Georgia," Georgia Historical Quarterly 32 (fall 1948): 149-57.
John von Rohr, The Shaping of American Congregationalism, 1620-1957 (Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim Press, 1992).
David S. Williams, From Mounds to Megachurches: Georgia’s Religious Heritage (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008).
J. William T. Youngs, The Congregationalists (New York: Greenwood Press, 1990).
Gene Ruffin, Gwinnett University Center
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