Editor's note: This is the second in a two-part series on the history of the United Church of Christ. Read part 1 here.
In my last article, I introduced the United Church of Christ (UCC), a liberal Christian denomination with roots in our country’s earliest history. I’ve already shared the story of the UCC’s Congregationalist and Christian ancestors, who united in 1931. But that’s only half the tale.
Many early Americans spoke German, particularly in the Middle Atlantic colonies, and supported a number of German-language newspapers – though it’s not true that German missed becoming the official language of the new nation by one vote.
Several German-speaking artisans were part of the first English settlement in Jamestown, Virginia, but German immigration grew substantially in the late 1600’s; entire communities often relocated together.
Those who identified as Reformed Christians (instead of Lutheran) were particularly numerous in and around Pennsylvania, and most were supporters of the American Revolution. When British troops threatened Philadelphia in 1777, the Liberty Bell was hidden under the floor boards of Zion Reformed Church in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Reformed Christians from Hungary began migrating to America, and they became a language-minority within the German Reformed denomination. Their numbers increased especially in the years after World War II and the Hungarian Revolt of 1956.
Meanwhile, a second significant wave of German immigration occurred in the mid-1800’s. These new arrivals often headed for the Midwest; their descendants are well-represented in Missouri – their first congregation was gathered at Femme Osage in 1833 – and they played a noticeable part in the Civil War in this area as Union supporters.
Because many of these immigrants had been members of a united church (part Lutheran, part Reformed) in Germany, they formed the German Evangelical Church here. That’s the background of the congregation I serve, Columbia UCC (formerly located near MU and known as The Chapel until 1965).
These German Evangelicals are not related to modern “evangelical” Christians like Rick Warren, Jim Wallis, or Brian McLaren, but they included Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), author of the Serenity Prayer and one of President Obama’s favorite religious writers.
Both German groups – Reformed and Evangelical – founded colleges and religious schools to train their leaders. They also developed hospitals and charitable organizations to aid orphans, the disabled and the elderly.
While more formally organized than the independent-minded Congregationalists and Christians, their sense of mutual respect and common faith was stronger than their institutional structure. In 1934 they merged as the Evangelical & Reformed Church.
Almost immediately, leaders in this new denomination began informal discussions with Congregational Christian leaders, and by 1941, formal talks had been initiated. It would take 16 years for a merger to be accomplished, however.
While leaders of the two new bodies had strong personal relationships and a shared desire to provide the most effective example to improve society, they did not take full account of their differences.
Chief among these were the more structured organization of the Evangelical & Reformed versus the Congregationalists’ suspicion of any hierarchy, and the Congregationalists’ lack of formal doctrine versus the more uniform theology among the Evangelical & Reformed.
Ultimately, however, the desire for a common witness and the commitment to unity in Christ overcame the obstacles and led to formal merger in 1957 and the creation of the United Church of Christ, now numbering more than one million members in more than 5,200 churches, in every one of the 50 states.
Since 1957, the UCC has been involved in action for civil rights, migrant farm worker issues, equality and choice for women, environmentalism, and LGBT rights, including marriage equality and the ordination of LGBT persons as ministers.
Like our ancestors, we still have our differences; UCC churches and members hold diverse views on theology, politics and social issues. And we’re still influenced by the Congregationalist and Christian sense of local church independence.
When our national office makes a policy statement, it’s not something that local churches are required to accept. Instead, it’s more of an educational document; we say that such statements “speak TO the local church, not FOR it.”
Like our name, that can be confusing. So when people have questions about the UCC, I always recommend that they actually visit a church, to find out how this particular group of people puts the message of Jesus into practice.
Because whether it’s first-century Christianity, the American frontier or a Midwestern university town in the twenty-first century, what really matters is how we live out our faith in the midst of, and for the sake of, our community.