This article was found in the October 1952 issue of Progress, the monthly magazine of the Romford Congregational Church
Being the ninth imaginary letter from an imaginary uncle to imaginary twins.
Dear Jack and Betty,
We come now to the last few years of the 18th century and the first 30 or so of the 19th. Up to now each Independent Church had been a little unit of its own, its horizon mainly limited to the particular locality in which it was situated. It had little or no contact with and not much knowledge of other Independent Churches.
The first step in doing something together was the formation of the London Missionary Society (affectionately known to us as the L.M.S.) in the year 1795. While Independent Churches formed the backbone of its support among its sponsors were many other Evangelical Churches. This was in itself a big step forward and it had the result of showing clearly that together Independent Churches could do things it was impossible to do alone.
In the early 19th century Independents began to realise that there was a real and desperate need for Home as well as Foreign missions. Local churches near enough to be able to work together formed small associations from which itinerant preachers and evangelists were sent out to spread the gospel. A first these associations were nothing more than a "getting together" of a few ministers but gradually over the years they became more ambitious until finally they blossomed out into full County Unions. In the first 20 years of the 19th century many large County Unions came into existence and did grand work for the extension of Congregationalism in their particular County.
Naturally as the years went by there grew up a demand for a larger Union. One that would combine all the county unions into one for the Country. There were many reasons for the growth of this demand, among them being:-
(a) The growth of the Wesleyan Methodists, who, tightly controlled from a central office, were able to produce convincing statistics of their strength and membership - something which the Independent Churches were unable to do;
(b) the fact that many itinerant preachers sent out by local or County Unions were having a very difficult time. They experienced hostility and opposition, sometimes very bitter, from Anglican Churches, and this brought Independent Churches more and more together in sympathy and fellowship;
(c) the outstanding success of the L.M.S. which by now was well established and showing Independents what could be done by getting together.
But there were great objections to a full union from many of the Independents themselves. One of the strongest arguments against Union was that they were independent and that by joining together they would lose their independency and become merely another "sect". Many attempts were made, many schemes drawn up but all came to nothing. But the movement for Union was too strong to be resisted indefinitely; indeed in the long run it was inevitable. In the year 1832 it became an accomplished fact when the first Congregational Union of England and Wales was formed. Its constitution was very carefully drawn up. Under each Church retained its independency to govern its own affairs, appoint its own ministers and worship as it desired. The powers of the Union were very strictly limited to matters that concerned the Churches as a whole. One of the safeguards was that the Union was not to become a legislative authority or a court of appeal.
During the last 100 years various amendments to the Constitution have been made. In the main these have tended to give more power and authority to the Union, but through all the years independency of the local churches has been jealously safeguarded.
I will try and tell you a little of the work of the Union in my next letter.