Under Oliver Cromwell, Congregationalists gained legitimacy in England. Several, in fact, sat in the Westminster Assembly in the 1640s. Though they generally accepted the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), many Congregationalists were concerned about the Presbyterian form of church governance and determined they needed a confession of faith that reflected their polity.
In September 1658, approximately 200 representatives of 100 Free churches (that is, those that were independent of the established church) gathered at the Savoy Palace in London to compose and adopt their own confession of faith. Being Congregational, many church laymen attended this gathering. There were also several well-known theologians who participated, including Thomas Goodwin and John Owen.
On October 12, 1658, the confession was completed, and the Savoy Declaration, otherwise titled “A Declaration of the Faith and Order Owned and Practiced in the Congregational Churches in England,” became the first English statement of Free and Congregationalist church doctrine and polity. The declaration affirmed Congregationalists’ unity with the broader Christian and Reformed faith, addressed misconceptions about the Free churches, and outlined their differences with the established church in matters of church governance. Still today, the Savoy Declaration provides a beautiful standard for confessional Congregationalist churches and may even serve as a healthy confessional model for nondenominational Reformed evangelicals.
The Savoy Declaration is divided into three sections.
To begin, the Savoy authors addressed the purpose of confessions and what agreement among Christians reveals of God’s work. They acknowledged the divisions among Christians and churches but found the greatest offense in the errors of the Roman Catholic Church. Non-Congregationalists in England had accused the Free churches of being “the sink of all heresies and schisms.” So one of the strong commitments of Savoy was to show that they were “solidly committed to Reformation teachings and to provide a standard of doctrine by which local congregations could test their ministerial candidates.”
Still today, the Savoy Declaration provides a beautiful standard for confessional Congregationalist churches.
The Congregationalists labored to show they weren’t aberrant or schismatics but followed the faith once for all entrusted to the saints. They made clear that their differences in church polity didn’t necessarily mean a difference in common faith. Rather, they wrote, these are “differences between fellow-servants.”
The Congregationalists’ prayer at the conclusion of the preface reflects their commitment to truth, unity, humility, and teachability: “Our prayer unto God is, That whereto we have already attained, we all may walk by the same rule, and that wherein we are otherwise minded, God would reveal it to us in his due time.”
2. Confession of Faith
In the confession of faith, the Savoy authors generally followed the Westminster Confession but made clear their document was not a legal instrument. The Savoy Declaration was essentially the Congregationalist version of the Westminster Confession, with the major differences being the substitution of the autonomy of the local church for the presbytery of elders and the ways the declaration addressed matters of authority and discipline.
The Savoy authors modified the Westminster Confession’s statement “On Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience,” rejecting the power of civil authorities to make judgments for local churches, specifically the authority to punish heresy. There was also a major difference in “Of the Church,” which is both included in the confession of faith and has its own articulation in the third section. (See a full comparison between the Westminster Confession, the Second London Baptist Confession, and the Savoy Declaration.)
3. Church Polity and Discipline
In this section, the Savoy authors spelled out their unique view of church governance explicitly. They declared all necessary authority resides in each individual church under the headship of Jesus Christ, and they repudiated the institution of a wider organization or association. This is the heart of Free-church congregationalism. As one source states, “The Savoy Declaration was designed to encourage agreement on important matters between churches; but, true to the nature of Congregational polity, it was not intended to be a legal or corporate instrument, as was the Westminster Confession.”
Has Traditionalism Kept Us from Confessional Faith?
The churches that originally used the Savoy Declaration as their confession have decreased in numbers and influence today. Most adopted liberal theology and updated their confessional documents to distance themselves from the days of John Owen. They’ve abandoned the faith of their forebears.
But what about today’s evangelicals? Many of these non-denominational churches—and also some within evangelical denominations—have have affinity with the old Congregationalists. There’s been a resurgence in Reformed soteriology in our day, but like the churches that adopted Savoy, many of us aren’t Presbyterian in our ecclesiology. What keeps evangelical congregationalists from taking up the grand Savoy Declaration today?
Perhaps some of us fear traditionalism. I grew up with a creed and catechism, but I left that part of my Christian life behind when I departed for college. During those early years of growth in my faith, only the Bible (solo rather than sola Scriptura actually) was emphasized, and I began to think that what I’d recited as a child was a cold, dead replacement for the warmth of God’s Word.
As I’ve grown older and studied the Scriptures, theology, and church history, my appreciation for the creeds and confessions has grown as well. I now see what creeds and confessions are meant to express and accomplish in the life of a believer. They aren’t meant to replace the Scriptures but to give a systematic explanation of the Scriptures. I now find nourishment in reciting them, both corporately and devotionally as a supplement to my Bible reading.
Why Evangelicals Need Savoy Today
As evangelicals, we must remember what Jaroslav Pelikan wrote: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. . . . It is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.” It’s true that creeds and confessions can be confessed in a rote and abstract way. There’s a danger when a confession replaces Scripture. Moreover, there’s no guarantee an individual who memorizes and repeats truths in a confession has experienced new life in Christ; affirming a confession doesn’t make one a Christian. But there are strengths in the old confessions as well.
As I’ve grown older and studied the Scriptures, theology, and church history, my appreciation for the creeds and confessions has grown as well.
When used rightly, creeds and declarations like Savoy “facilitate public confession, form a succinct basis of teaching, safeguard pure doctrine, and constitute an appropriate focus for the church’s fellowship in faith.”
Non-denominational American evangelicals in particular would benefit from a confessional standard that affirms their congregational polity and free-church independence from government interference (i.e., the autonomy of the local church) but that was birthed out of a healthy interdependency and prayer for unity (see John 17; cf. Eph. 2:11–22; 4:1–6). Savoy is just that kind of model.
This article is part of a developing series on classic Reformed confessions that also includes the Belgic Confession (1561), the Thirty-nine Articles (1571), the Westminster Confession of Faith (1648), and the Second London Baptist Confession (1689).