I stumbled across a site that listed the signers of the Declaration of Independence and their respective denominations. I noted quite a number of the signers as Congregationalists. What is a congregationalist and what are their beliefs?
Congregationalism has it roots going back to the days of Queen Elizabeth the first. There was an attempt to reform the Church of England, but it was realized that it was a hopeless task, so groups of people broke away to establish churches that followed the New Testament pattern more closely. These people were labeled "Separatists," and as the movement took root it organized itself into the Puritans. Congregationalists were considered to be the more radical wing of the Puritan movement. It was the persecution of the Separatists, Puritans, Congregationalists, etc. which drove this movement over to the Americas in the early 1600's.
The main characteristic of Congregationalists was that each church is autonomous and independent. "A Congregational church is not founded by any denominational structure, and has no loyalty or duty to any religious body, but is a group of Christians, believing in Christ's promise that where two or three are gathered together in his name there he will be in their midst, and is therefore a church" ["What is so special about Congregationalism?"]. Despite this claim Congregationalist in their history have gone through several periods of organizing, division, and mergers. The Unitarians and the United Churches of Christ are two examples of denominations who formed as splits from Congregationalists. The Congregationalist Christian Church is an example of the merger of Congregationalists and the Christian Church. "Each Congregational church is complete in its own right, and national bodies of Congregational churches are called Associations, or Unions" ["What is so special about Congregationalism?"]. This is one reason it is hard to pin down Congregationalist beliefs because while they join associations, they repudiate them in theory at the same time. A Congregational Church is formed by members entering into a formal covenant with each other to worship together. "Most of these are affiliated with the United Church of Christ, the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches, or the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference" ["What is a Congregational Church / Congregationalism?"].
Congregational churches also reject creeds and, thus call themselves "free" churches. ["Congregational Church Beliefs", First Congregational Church of Royal Oak]. This has come to mean that members of Congregational churches are free to believe whatever they wish, within certain boundaries. "Members have the individual responsibility to discover what God expects of them as they live out their faith day to day. On matters of religious freedom, we impose no creedal barriers, and ask only that the love of God and humanity, and a discipleship to Jesus Christ, bind our members" ["Congregational Church Beliefs", First Congregational Church of Royal Oak]. Thus, tolerance for variations in beliefs is an essential part of Congregationalism. This is almost ironic considering its roots in Puritanism, which was noted for its intolerance for any deviation of belief from what it saw as the pure form of Christianity. Congregationalism of today is far different from Congregationalism during the time of the Revolution.
Decisions for the direction of each church is done by voting. "We operate under established bylaws, elected boards and committee representatives and make decisions on important church issues through a direct vote or through elected representatives" ["Congregational Church Beliefs", First Congregational Church of Royal Oak]. This also gives the Congregationalists their name. The churches are governed by their congregation.
The United Churches of Christ is by far the most liberal wing of the Congregationalists. "Because of their firm adherence to the autonomy of the local church, the denomination cannot impose doctrine onto individual churches. Likewise, because of the belief in freedom of individual conscience, the local church has a hard time imposing doctrine on its members" ["What is a Congregational Church / Congregationalism?"]. Basically anything and everything goes among the United Churches of Christ.
The National Association of Congregational Christian Churches is slightly more restrained that the United Churches of Christ, but not by much. The churches in this association tend to be more independent and self-directed.
The Conservative Congregational Christian Conference was started in protest of the ultra-liberal associations. The conference tries to take stands on biblical principles, but because of the strong belief in congregational and individual freedom, it does not seek to enforce the conference decisions on those belonging to it.
The root problem with Congregationalists is a lack of belief that anyone can be held accountable to a standard of doctrine. "If anyone teaches otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, useless wranglings of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. From such withdraw yourself" (I Timothy 6:3-5). The result is a group that says one thing, such as congregational autonomy, while simultaneously doing something different, such as forming into associations of congregations. In the end, it becomes an association of people who have no common beliefs and who are reluctant to impose any required belief on anyone.