Congregationalism traces its history back to the time of the Reformation. It began in Wales, as in England, during the reign of Elizabeth I. Its main thinker was a Cambridge Scholar, Robert Browne. Although Elizabeth's Government was relatively tolerant, it disliked the freedom of this new doctrine. Many Congregationalists were forced into exile and others were martyred. The most celebrated Welsh martyr is John Penry, who is thought to have been the author of the satirical Marprelate Letters.
In the reign of James I some of the exiles, who had fled to Holland, decided to found a new Christian community. They set sail in a small ship, the Mayflower, and landed in Massachusetts, where they braved many privations. They established a settlement, and they later became known as the Pilgrim Fathers.
Throughout the reigns of James and Charles I Congregationalism, with its close relations, the Baptist Churches, and the other historic Puritan creed, Presbyterianism, experienced steady growth. In Wales its main strength was in the East and South. As in England it appealed particularly to merchants and small independent craftsmen, and was strongest in the towns. In the Civil War, the Puritan Denominations provided the backbone of Parliamentary support and a Congregationalist, Oliver Cromwell, became one of the greatest leaders England has ever had. (He was of Welsh descent, the family name having been changed from Williams).
This era too provided two very great Congregational poets, John Bunyan and John Milton, whose best known works are respectively Pilgrim's Progress and Paradise Lost.
Fierce persecutions followed the restoration of Charles II. Many Ministers were ejected from their Churches and punished if they attempted to preach. Non-conformists were fined and imprisoned if they failed to attend Anglican services. Nevertheless, Congregationalism not only held its own, but grew. Its exclusion from the old Universities led to the foundation of dissenting academies, which taught new and exciting subjects, particularly some of the sciences. One person who benefited from such an education was Isaac Watts, who almost single-handedly changed Church music, giving us many of the hymns that we know today.
In Wales, Congregationalism grew with the revivals of the late 18th century, and this growth continued throughout the 19th century and on to the Revival of 1904. Many Chapels were built in the industrial areas as well as in the traditional towns and villages. Like their English colleagues they had a strong social conscience and were involved in movements for social reform. In many places they were the centres of the social life of the community and provided for many of its educational needs as well as for its spiritual care.
With the growth of the British Empire, Congregationalists, like their compatriots, travelled the world. They felt great compassion for peoples in other lands and tried to bring them spiritual and material help. There were many great Congregational Missionaries, many of whom gave their lives for Christ. Amongst the best known were John Williams in the South Pacific, David Livingstone in Africa and Gladys Aylwood in China. The London Missionary Society continues to this day in its new guise as the Council for World Mission.
The Priesthood of all Believers encourages Congregationalists to open their Communion Table to everyone who loves the Lord Jesus Christ. Naturally therefore they have been happy to work with Christians of other traditions and have played a prominent part in the Ecumenical movement. In the mid 20th century, there was a strong movement for the union of the Congregational Church in England and Wales with the Presbyterian Church of England. This resulted, in 1972, in the formation of the United Reformed Church (URC). However, a large number of Congregational Churches believed that the true road to unity lay not in uniformity, but in a mutual rejoicing in our diversity. Most of these Churches came together, in the same year, to form the Congregational Federation.
It was fitting that the Federation's first President was a woman who was not ordained - Lady Stansgate. She embodied much of the ethos of Congregationalism, believing as it does in the equality of all God's people, regardless of gender, race, etc. The second President was the Reverend Elsie Chamberlain. She had been the first ever female Forces Chaplain and had been a noted and popular broadcaster. Congregationalism was the first denomination to ordain women. Since the Federation's foundation two Presidents have come from Wales. They are the Pastor Len Inman and Rev. Christopher Gillham.
Whilst the Federation has suffered some decline in membership, it remains buoyant and confident. The unique quality of Congregationalism, which allows each local Church to develop its own mission in a way suited to its community, gives it a flexibility to face the challenges of the new Millennium, ever confident that as it seeks to do the will of God it will succeed.