Introduction: structure as a test of truth or falsehood
Written by Elizabeth C. Nordbeck
On October 28 and 29, 1998, scholars, antiquarians, and representatives from the "inheriting bodies" of historic Congregationalism gathered in Cambridge, Massachusetts to celebrate the 350th anniversary of one of the most enduring documents in American religious history: the Cambridge Platform.
Nearly eighteen months earlier, a self-appointed planning committee of interested persons had begun meeting together to consider holding such an event. Like many planning committees, this one initially had no funds and no budget, but it did have great passion for the subject. Its members were able to list a number of good reasons for publicly revisiting the Cambridge Platform in the 350th year of its adoption. Most obviously, the Platform is important for the study of American Puritanism—quite possibly the most thoroughly researched and painstakingly nuanced arena of American historiography. It is important in the development of New England culture and more broadly in the history of American democratic institutions. Today the Cambridge Platform is a document that is central in the history, polity, and life of four different inheriting religious bodies. 1 Above all, however, the Cambridge Platform is a critically important document about governance—and as our Puritan forebears understood well, the way human beings govern themselves matters.
Governance—the structures people set up to manage themselves in church or state—is a visible testimony to what people say they believe. Sooner or later structures of governance are also likely to be a test of the truth or falsehood of the beliefs that produced them. This means two things, at least: one is that we dare not ignore the inherited forms our contemporary church and civil institutions take; we had better learn about them from history. The other is that forms and structures, even enduring ones like congregational polity, arise out of particular social contexts, and new occasions and duties may—indeed, should—change and challenge inherited forms in ways that are both subtle and overt. Particularly for those who claim a heritage as part of the Reformed church, always reforming, it is critical to recognize that any structure adopted in order to further God's purposes must always hold itself open to the possibility of alteration and change.
And so it was that, with these thoughts in mind, the committee decided (despite the absence of funds) to plan a celebration that would explore the transient and the permanent in the Cambridge Platform. Over the next year the event took shape: financial support did eventually materialize, and all who were invited to participate agreed.
In the end, as Charles Hambrick-Stowe points out in the essay published here, there was a vast difference between the 350th anniversary celebration of 1998 and the tercentenary celebration of 1948. In the latter event, it was the Cambridge Platform's secular and political implications that speakers lifted up. In 1998, it was the Platform's ecclesial implications on which participants focused. This difference speaks volumes about the dramatic cultural changes that have taken place in the last half of the twentieth century.
But within the family of Congregationalists, ecclesiastical changes have been no less dramatic. In 1948, there were two, not four bodies that shared the mantle of historic Congregationalism, Unitarians and Congregational Christians. 2 In that year the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference was just forming; it, too, celebrated an anniversary in 1998. The United Church of Christ was still only a gleam in the eye of Douglas Horton and other founders. Unitarians and Universalists were thirteen years away from casting their lots together. No one yet imagined a National Association of Congregational Christian Churches. In the half-century since 1948, new bodies have come into being and new relationships have resulted among the many local churches that inherited the mantle of historic Congregationalism. Not only this, but the theological and governmental distinctions among these inheritors have become clearer, and perhaps harder to bridge.
At the end of the twentieth century what Congregationalists share, mainly, is a common heritage, of which the Cambridge Platform is a significant part. And yet, as the following essays from the 350th anniversary celebration testify, that heritage is immensely powerful, immensely compelling and still capable of shaping the present and future. It is true, as C. Conrad Wright pointed out in one of the event's many workshops, that not all parts of the Cambridge Platform have had equal staying power. It is also true that, like the Bible itself, certain parts of the Cambridge Platform have apparently had more staying power for some of us than have other parts. This, then, is the document Congregationalists share and celebrate as heritage: compelling, complex, both enduring and ephemeral.
It is our hope that the essays in this special issue of the Bulletin of the Congregational Library will make clear to readers, both now and in decades to come, that the legacy of the Cambridge Platform is by no means moribund and that, as Francis Bremer writes, so long as the Platform provides a context for the nurture of real faith, it will live as the Puritans wished it to.
The Rev. Elizabeth C. Nordbeck, who served as moderator of the Cambridge Platform celebration, is dean of the faculty and vice president for academic affairs, Andover Newton Theological School, Newton Centre, Massachusetts.
1. "Different" is the operative word. It is an indication of the groups' theological diversity that the leadership of the four inheriting traditions met together for the first time at this 350th anniversary celebration.
2. In 1931, Congregationalists had merged with a small body that called itself simply "Christian," thus forming the Congregational Christian churches.