Cambridge Platform

Cambridge Platform
   The Cambridge Platform was a presentation of the Congregational form of church polity developed by Puritan leaders in Massachusetts toward the end of their first generation, and published in 1648. As New England Puritanism spread and new churches and towns were established, England was in the throes of political and religious revolution. Reformed Protestants not unlike the New Englanders had overturned the episcopal polity of the Church of England, and the Westminster Assembly had issued the several documents that largely define Presbyterianism in the English-speaking world. While the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) is the most well known of these documents, of almost equal significance was the "Form of Presbyterian Church Government" of 1645.
   The New England Puritans had little problem with the Westminster Confession, as they were fully in accord with its Calvinist theology. However, they rejected the vision of a church led by elders (presbyters) gathered in presbyteries and synods with legislative power. True, they were not Baptists, and they did in fact support the idea of an exclusive church aligned with the state with hegemony on religious teaching in any given location - that was their practice in New England. But for them, as they affirmed in the platform, the focus of church government was in the local congregation, with ultimate authority resting in the vote of a majority of members. When a local problem could not be resolved, the congregation could seek guidance from a pan-congregational assembly.
   The Cambridge Platform recognized the office of ruling elder (lay leaders who handle temporal affairs), who had the authority to ordain ministers. such elders, and other officers who might be designated, operated with the guidance of the congregation, who could vote them out of office.
   The Cambridge Platform also recognized the need for local congregations to have communion with other congregations, but it also stated that pan-congregational synods were not absolutely necessary to the existence of the church; they only become necessary due to the iniquity of humans. The platform concluded that synods should not exercise ecclesial authority or jurisdiction over local churches. Any gathering of ruling and preaching (ministerial) elders carried weight, but its decisions would not become operative in the local church unless the membership approved them.
   The Cambridge Platform called for the state to align itself with the church and see to certain religious matters. The civil authority was to "restrain and punish" any "Idolatry, blasphemy, heresy, venting corrupt and pernicious opinions . . . profanation of the Lord's Day, disturbing the peaceable administration and exercise of the worship and holy things of God."
   This form of church government worked in New England through the colonial period and for several decades after the formation of the United States. It was modified in Connecticut in 1708 (the saybrook Platform) to allow for some pan-congregational associations, a step toward Presbyterian-ism. The system finally fell apart in the early 19th century, when all connections to the government were severed, and the state ceased to uphold the hegemony of the Congregational Church. At that point, the congregational system evolved into a form of free church polity similar to that operating among the Baptists. Having lost the state's backing, Congregationalists lost many churches to Unitari-anism, which captured congregations where its non-Trinitarian theology was accepted by a majority of members.
   Further reading:
   ■ The Cambridge Platform: A New Edition of the Historic Puritan Congregational Church Order, ed. by Darrell Todd Maurina (Lawrence, Mich.: Reformed Tract Publication Committee, 3rd corrected printing, 1993)
   ■ Perry Miller, Errand into the Wilderness (New York: Harper & Row, 1964)
   ■ Williston Walker, The Creeds and Platforms of Congregationalism (New York: Scribner, 1893, rev. ed., New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1991).

Encyclopedia of Protestantism. . 2005.

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