Our Calvinist Roots

Reposted from Once Upon a Time in Needham

As anyone who walks into the Congregational Church of Needham or even drives by the church’s sign on Great Plain Avenue knows, the church is an Open and Affirming Congregation.

What does that mean?

It means that whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome there.

It wasn’t always that way.

The archives are full of reminders that the Congregational Church of Needham’s current open acceptance is the product of more than 150 years of theological evolution.  The documents in the archives bear silent witness to the fact that the Congregational Church is in the middle of a long spiritual journey.

The Church’s Calvinist Roots

Josiah Noyes, MD (1801-1871)

The Congregational Church of Needham began when Dr. Josiah Noyes, his wife Elizabeth, and a group of rather traditional Congregationalists broke with the First Parish in Needham in protest over the First Parish adopting Unitarian views. When we think of a split between Unitarian and Trinitarian theologies, we generally think of heated arguments over the basic idea of God. Is God a single entity as Unitarians believe, or is God one person with three aspects—a Father, a Son, and a Holy Spirit—all equal in divinity and substance?

This disagreement over the nature of God may have been the last straw, but I suspect that the first Unitarian view adopted by the First Parish may actually have been the rejection of predestination—the Calvinist idea that from the beginning of time certain souls were given to Christ absolutely, while the rest of us were left to persist in sin.

Predestination left little room for evangelizing. Those who were destined to be saved would inevitably make their way to the Church, and anyone who didn’t was clearly destined to a life of sin anyway, so why bother?

The Founding Principles: Unitarianism No, Evangelism Maybe

Judging from the Congregational Church’s first set of by-laws, its founders broke with the First Parish sometime after they had begun to question the doctrine of predestination and before they fully adopted the idea of a Unitarian God.

Consider the opening words of the founders’ Statement of Ecclesiastical Polity:

“It is a duty which the followers of Christ owe to themselves and the Great Head of the Church to unite in fellowship with one another for sustaining and enjoying the divine institutions at home, and sending the blessings of the Gospel abroad, that believers may be edified, Zion enlarged and God glorified.”

“Sending the blessings of the Gospel abroad” sounds like a clear embrace of evangelism. And then there’s the little matter of the name adopted for the new church: The Evangelical Congregational Church of Needham.

Game. Set. Match. The founders were evangelists who had denounced the question of predestination.

But if that’s true, what are we to make of Article 9 of the 1859 Confession of Faith, which explicitly describes a split between those “who were given to Christ” and “all others who persist in sin and become vessels of wrath fitted to destruction”?

That sounds more like predestination. And that makes you wonder how firm the Founders’ commitment to evangelism really was.

Our founders weren’t the only ones torn between spreading the Word of God to others and primarily attending to their own—and their families’—salvation. Most Congregationalist Churches at the time were wrestling with the very same question.

But don’t worry. The church’s founding members did not spend the formative years of the church wandering the streets of Needham in a state of hopeless confusion. Consider Article 3 of the 1859 Statement of Faith:

“…the Godhead is the foundation for three personal distinctions, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, the same in substance and equal in every divine attribute.”

When it came to the question of the Trinity, Dr. Noyes and the other founding members were perfectly clear.

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About Shala Howell

I spent two decades helping companies like Bell Labs, Juniper Networks, and a genetic testing company that was later acquired by CVS translate some of the world’s most complicated concepts into actionable, understandable English. Now I'm working on a much harder problem -- fostering children’s curiosity and engagement in the scientific, artistic, and linguistic world that surrounds them. The first book in my Caterpickles Parenting Series, What’s That, Mom?, focuses on how to use public art to nurture children’s curiosity in the world around them. My next book, Did Dinosaurs Have Belly Buttons?, is currently planned for release in 2018. In the meantime, you can find me blogging about life with a very curious Ten-Year-Old at Caterpickles.com, chatting about books and the writing life at BostonWriters.blog, and tweeting about books, writing, science, & things that make me smile at @shalahowell.
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