The History and Heritages of the United Church of Christ
The United Church of Christ came into being in 1957 through the union of two Protestant denominations: The Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Christian Churches. Both of these were themselves the result of a union of two earlier denominations. Thus, the United Church of Christ brings together the people, congregations, and heritages of four distinct history traditions in our country: Congregational, Reformed, Evangelical, and Christian.
The Congregational Churches were one of the oldest and most historic denominations in American Christianity. Congregationalists can trace their heritage all the way back to the Pilgrims and Puritans that settled in New England in the 1600s. The Congregationalist Puritans originated in England in the 1500s under the influence of Reformed thinkers from continental Europe like John Calvin and Ulrish Zwingli, and were part of the same movement that Presbyterians trace their heritage to as well. Here in the United States, Congregationalists formed the dominant religion across most of New England until into the 20th century, and Congregational churches were formed all across the Midwest and West whenever New Englanders migrated. Congregationalists started some of our country’s most well-known educational institutions such as Harvard Yale, Dartmouth, Oberlin, Carleton, Beloit, and others. Many of these started out as schools for training Congregationalist ministers.
Congregationalists were also early activists in the movement to abolish slavery prior to the Civil War, and had a key role in freeing the captives of the famous Amistad ship. They united with the Christian Churches in 1931. (As you can probably figure out, our church’s name comes from the Congregational heritage within the broader United Church of Christ.)
The Reformed Church in the United States was another of America’s earliest denominations, made up of some of the earliest German immigrants to Pennsylvania in the late 1600s and early 1700s. Also part of the larger Reformed family – like the Dutch Reformed, the Presbyterians, and the Congregationalists – the German Reformed Church remained separated from these other bodies because of language barriers, and because their faith and organizational systems were less strict than many of their fellow Reformed counterparts. During the Revolutionary War, the Liberty Bell was hidden in the floorboards of Old Zion Reformed Church in Allentown, Pennsylvania. By the early 1800s, the German Reformed Church was an important force in the theological and liturgical debates of the era, and held fast to a vision of the faith that honored the history of Christian tradition and the communal nature of the church, in the face of the individualistic and revivalistic forms of Christianity popular at the time. This “evangelical catholic” vision of the church made them open to dialog with other church bodies, and in 1934 they united with the Evangelical Synod of North America.
The Evangelical Synod of North America was also a predominantly German denomination, but newer to the American scene and of a somewhat different religious heritage than the Reformed Church in the U.S. As the history goes, in 1817 in northern Germany, the leader of the province known as Prussia ordered the Lutheran churches and the Reformed churches in his territory to unite. While some of the stricter, more conservative leaders (especially on the Lutheran side) objected to this action, the union movement spread through other parts of Germany over the following years. Because these unions brought together the two major branches of Protestant Christianity in Germany, the newly United Churches were simply called “Evangelische,” or “Evangelical,” since this is the word used in German for Protestant. As people from Germany began immigrating to the Midwest region of the United States in the mid-1800s, to places like St. Louis, Chicago, southern Michigan, Wisconsin, and even Texas, they brought this united Evangelical faith with them, and started forming Evangelical congregations. By the 1870s, the different groupings of German Evangelical congregations were gathered together into the Evangelical Synod of North America. The German Evangelicals were known for the extensive work they did in providing social services in these up-and-coming parts of our country, including hospitals, orphanages, and retirement communities. This group, which identified with both the Lutheran and Reformed traditions, began efforts at uniting with other groups in the early1900s. Many of the Lutheran synods of that era viewed the Evangelical Synod as “not Lutheran enough,” and so in 1934, the Evangelical Synod united with the Reformed Church in the U.S.
The Christian Churches were a uniquely American-born group that formed on the frontier (Kentucky, rural New York and Vermont, and the Carolinas) in the early- to mid-1800s. Frustrated by what they perceived as the organizational and doctrinal rigidness of some of the major denominations of that times (primarily Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist), the founders of the Christian Churches began forming communities that claimed “no creed but Christ.” They believed strongly in the autonomy of the local congregation to determine its direction, ministry, and other aspects of being a church. The Christian Churches typically practiced only “believer’s Baptism” and usually observed the Lord’s Supper (a.k.a. Holy Communion) every Sunday. Because the Christian Churches were not strongly connected with one another through denominational structures, the movement formed into a number of smaller groups, which included the grouping of Christian Churches that united with the Congregational Churches in 1931, and also included the grouping of churches that developed into the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) denomination.