Here at the Congregational Library, where the Congregational Christian Historical Society has long been housed in a building owned by the American Congregational Association, it's a little hard to imagine that 75 years ago, that the very name "Congregational" was up for grabs. But in fact, the denomination seriously considered changing its brand name.
The setting explains some of the story. In June 1934 the merger between the Congregationalists and the smaller "Christian" denomination was only a few years old. The two had united in 1931, a much larger body of Congregationalists (some 5700 churches) and a smaller one of Christians (1300). Everyone was on best behavior as two sets of committees and councils and task forces began to combine into a single entity.
Unfortunately, to the slight consternation of some, the new denomination’s original name was the General Council of the Congregational and Christian Churches -- a very long name that also suggested a distinction between Congregationalism and historic Christianity. According to the minutes for the 1934 denominational meeting in Oberlin, Ohio, the Executive Committee was "requested to canvass the field for a shorter name for the church and recommended a new designation for the same at the next biennial session." The name "Pilgrim Church" was put into consideration.
Some semi-serious discussion ensued. A Connecticut woman, writing to the Advance in September 1934, suggested "Fellowship Church" instead of "Pilgrim", as it might have more appeal outside of New England. In 1936, the Georgia delegation to the General Council meeting in South Hadley, Massachusetts, raised the possibility of "The United Christian Church (Congregational and Christian)", with the understanding that "the parenthetical part of the title would be dropped and the name stand as in the first line." This is not the origin of the UCC, but it is interesting that in 1957 the Congregational Christian and Evangelical and Reformed Churches very nearly did just that.
But the General Council as a whole was less interested in following up on the name question -- with an economic depression and a looming world war on the doorstep, enthusiasm for the project declined. At their next meeting in 1936, they declared themselves unable to find any denominational title they could all agree upon -- perhaps not the best state of affairs for a newly-launched merger, but certainly an understandable one.
So why is this small and inconclusive story important? I think it tells something interesting about Congregationalism, and its surprisingly loose connection with its own past and its own traditions. For all of the conversations we try to generate around here about the importance of history, especially as a source of church vitality, one bottom line reality we face is that most modern-day heirs of the Congregational Way don’t draw much identity from their past. It’s not surprising that Congregationalists were one of the last to form a historical society—a full century after the Presbyterians organized theirs in 1852.
And so the question continues: how will modern-day Congregationalists develop a meaningful connection with their past?