United Church of Christ history, part 2: Evangelical & Reformed

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.

World map.

World map.

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.

Steve Swope

About Steve Swope

Steve Swope is pastor at the United Church of Christ in Columbia. Steve is a liberal/progressive Christian committed to recognizing and supporting diversity in modern faith and society.

4 Responses to “United Church of Christ history, part 2: Evangelical & Reformed”

  1. Kris Katarian

    It’s interesting to know the history of churches, and helps explain why many have similar names despite mergers and splits. When I was growing up in a more southern state, there was a Church of Christ in our town. I attended a service with a friend, and was surprised that they didn’t use musical instruments. It had to do with something in the Bible, but I don’t know/remember what it was. Is your church the same way?

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  2. Steve Swope

    Hi, Kris! You’ve just identified another of the differences between “Church of Christ” and “UNITED Church of Christ.” The “Church of Christ” (non-instrumental) you visited is distantly/historically related to our “Christian Churches” ancestor I wrote about in Part 1; it split off from the group that joined with the Congregationalists.

    The connection/relation is that the “Church of Christ” and “Christian Churches” congregations all wanted to go “back to basics” in their practices – nothing that wasn’t rooted in the Bible. Hence, no “party” names like Lutheran or Methodist. And for some, no musical instruments that weren’t listed in the Bible – so no pipe organs or pianos, and some said “let’s just be safe and not use any instruments.” However, they did develop some wonderful traditions of a cappela singing!

    Since most of our heritage (except for that “Christian Church” part – and we incorporate the more “liberal” wing) is rooted in European traditions, our ancestors were okay with instruments. I’ve heard of Congregationalist churches in colonial New England that would use a string bass to accompany singing, for instance.

    So yes, it can be confusing! In fact, at the time of our 1957 merger, there were some who didn’t want the name “United Church of Christ” because they suspected the very confusion you experienced.

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  3. Kris Katarian

    I remember a man standing in front of the congregation who would hum a note so everyone knew where to start. I didn’t know the hymns; they weren’t the same ones we sang in the Methodist church. Interesting experience, but I really felt like a fish out of water.

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