The Cambridge Platform was a doctrinal statement for the Puritan Congregational churches in colonial New England. It was drawn up in August, 1648 by a synod of ministers from Massachusetts and Connecticut, which met pursuant to a request of the Massachusetts General Court. The New England authorities desired a formal statement of polity and a confession of faith because of the current Presbyterian ascendancy in England and the activities of local Presbyterians such as Dr. Robert Child.
The declaration endorsed the Westminster Confession of the Church of England—except with regard to ecclesiastical organization, instead upholding the existing local Congregational form of church governance followed by the pilgrims and Puritans. "There is no greater church than a congregation which may ordinarily meet in one place" it says, indicating that the congregation itself is the highest level of ecclesiastical authority. The Cambridge Platform remained the standard formulation in Massachusetts through the 18th century and in Connecticut until the Saybrook Platform of 1708.
It makes a clear distinction between the power of the state and that of the congregation. While a civil magistrate is obliged to follow a Christian life, and while the magistrate does have the power to convene a church synod for the purposes of admonishing a church or removing it from the communion of churches, the civil magistrate should have no power within the governance of the church itself, nor compel people to attend. The platform is at pains to say that church government stands in no opposition to civil government. However, this separation of church and state is vastly different from what one finds by the 19th century in America. For example, the platform urges that "idolatry, heresy, blasphemy... open contempt of the word preached, profanation of the Lord's Day... and the like are to be restrained and punished by civil authority."
The document is heavily footnoted with 308 scriptural references—the authors wished to show how their understanding of a congregation mirrored that of the family of Sarah and Abraham who they considered the first free church Following that model, the free church is understood to arise out of a covenant. The covenant defines who the members can be, what they are to do, how they are to relate with one another, and that the union of actual local people in that covenant creates the autonomous church.
The Platform is separated into 17 chapters:
- Of the form of church government; and that it is one, immutable, and prescribed in the word.
- Of the nature of the catholic church in general, and in special of a particular visible church.
- Of the matter of the visible church, both in respect of quality and quantity.
- Of the form of the visible church, and of church covenant.
- Of the first subject of church power; or, to whom church power doth first belong.
- Of the officers of the church, and especially of pastors and teachers.
- Of ruling elders and deacons.
- Of the election of church officers.
- Of ordination, and imposition of hands.
- Of the power of the church and its presbytery.
- Of the maintenance of church officers.
- Of admission of members into the church.
- Of church members, their removal from one church to another, and of recommendation and dismission.
- Of excommunication, and other censures.
- Of the communion of churches one with another.
- Of synods.
- Of the civil magistrate's power in matters ecclesiastical.
The preface takes pains to respect the Westminster Confession of 1646 in all ways except with regard to governance—there are just three chapters of the Westminster Confession that are being disagreed with. It also urges that it is not in any way advocating any schism, change, or revolution in governance among the churches of England.
Boundaries of the Church
The church itself is defined as: "a company of saints by calling, united into one body by a holy covenant, for the public worship of God, and the mutual edification of one another in the fellowship of the Lord Jesus".
Chapter 7 establishes Elders, who attend to the boundaries of the church—admitting members to fellowship, excommunicating offenders, be guides and leaders in church administration, admonish the flock when needed—and deacons, who care only for the temporal goods of the church, handling money, paying the ministers and the poor. A third category is included in this officers section, namely that "ancient widows... minister to the church in giving attendance to the sick and to give succor to them and others in the like necessities."
The church body, by vote, has the power to install officers and to depose them. The platform specifies that no higher ecclesiastical authority, nor any civil authority, has the power to choose officers.
Membership requires "a personal and public confession and declaring of God's manner of working upon the soul".
The platform defines and establishes a congregational polity—meaning that churches are independent both of any higher ecclesiastical authority, and of one another. It affirms that authority to choose officers, admit members, admonish or expel members, or restore those who have been expelled rests in the gathered members of each congregation.
Though distinct and without authority over one another, the platform affirms that there is to be a community of churches in relationship with one another. When an internal dispute cannot be resolved within a church, that church, at its own request, could convene a council of nearby churches to hear the dispute and offer non-binding advice which church members could then vote to act on, or not. Six ways of showing the communion of churches are identified:
- taking thought for each other's welfare
- consulting on any topic of cause where another church has more familiarity or information about a topic
- admonishing another church, even to the point of convening a synod of neighboring churches and ceasing communion with the offending church
- allowing members of one church to fully participate and receive communion in another church
- sending letters of recommendation when a member goes to a new church, due to a seasonal or permanent relocation
- financial support for poor churches
The document has real ramifications for the polity of some denominations today. For example, the congregations of the United Church of Christ and Unitarian Universalist churches, and other modern-day descendants of the Puritan churches, continue to claim congregational polity as their local church organization, but have created large denominational administrations to maintain ministerial oversight and promote intradenominational communication. When some Churches of the Standing Order in New England became Unitarian following the Unitarian Controversy, they kept a congregational polity. That polity continued to deeply influence the polity and organization of the American Unitarian Association, and, in turn, that of the Unitarian Universalist Association—an organization that, while radically different theologically than the signers of the 1648 document, nonetheless shares a great deal of the same polity.
Source: Dictionary of American History by James Truslow Adams, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1940
- Cambridge platform, chapter 3, article 5
- Cambridge platform, XVII.9
- "The Cambridge Platform, contemporary readers edition", Peter Hughes, editor, p iix
- https://archive.org/details/cambridgeplatfo00cong The Cambridge Platform of Church Discipline, Gathered out of the Word of God, and Agreed Upon by the Elders and Messengers of the Churches Assembled in Synod, 1648. by Congregational Churches in Massachusetts. Cambridge Synod, 1648; published 1850 Boston
- Cambridge platform, chapter 2 article 5
- Cambridge platform, VII.7
- Cambridge platform, XII.5
- Cambridge platform, X.5
- Cambridge platform, chapter xv