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History of the United Church of Christ

The United Church of Christ (UCC) is one of the newest denominations in the United States, but it also claims some of the deepest and most diverse roots in Protestantism. The earliest roots of the UCC date back to the Protestant Reformation and the principles and ideas that it fostered. Each of the individual strands of the church are filled with both the sense of unity as a purpose for the church, and the use of covenant as a binding element for members and individual churches. These contributing strands are the Congregational Church, the Reformed Church, the Evangelical Church, and the Christian Church. As the members of these churches discovered their common ground, they created unions with one another, first as the Congregational Christian Church and the Evangelical and Reformed Church, and then as the United Church of Christ.

The Congregational Church resulted from the union of the Pilgrims and the Puritans in the mid-seventeenth century. These two groups, both from England originally, came to America with different ideas about how to respond to their common disagreements with the Church of England. The Pilgrims, at first known as Separatists, believed that the only way to deal with the problems in the Church was to separate completely and form an entirely new church. The Puritans, on the other hand, believed that reform, or purification, could occur from within the church through changes in structure and authority. Both of these groups eventually journeyed to the “new world,” the Pilgrims settling in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and the Puritans settling in the Massachusetts Bay, under the leadership of John Winthrop, and in Salem, Massachusetts with John Endecott. Over time, not only did the two Puritan churches unite, but the Pilgrims and Puritans recognized that without the Church of England in America, their differences of opinion regarding the Church no longer existed, and, lacking these differences, their remaining beliefs that Christ was the sole Head of the Church, and that the local church congregation should be autonomous united them.

The Reformed Church, originally known as the German Reformed Church, came to America in the first wave of German immigrants in the early 1700’s. Having brought with them only the Bible and the Heidelberg Catechism as guides for establishing their churches, they settled in Pennsylvania. With no pastors to lead them in worship at first, they enlisted the aid of a schoolmaster, John Philip Boehm, who traveled extensively, ministering to and supporting the small independent churches. In 1747, Michael Schlatter, who had been sent from the Reformed Church in Holland, successfully united the individual churches into the Coetus of the Reformed Ministerium of the Congregations in Pennsylvania. The churches found comfort in the union, which provided them with a mutual identity as well as an established authority for faith and practice. The Reformed Church stressed the importance of the Bible as a fundamental guide for living, and supplemented it with the Heidelberg Catechism. They were also concerned with fostering greater inclusiveness for both existing and future members, dropping the “German” designation from their name, and conducting services in English to accommodate individuals who either were not German, or who had been born in America and had not learned the language.

The Evangelical strand of the UCC began in Prussia when King Frederick William III ordered that the Reformed and Lutheran Churches unite to form the Evangelical Church of the Prussian Union in 1817. Members of this church, like the Reformed Church, left Germany for America, settling in the St. Louis area and forming the German Evangelical Church Society of the West. They too, brought only their beliefs and hopes with them, being led in worship at first by lay ministers. Eventually, the church changed their name to the German Evangelical Synod of North America, claiming Luther’s affirmation of ‘Christ alone! Faith alone! The Bible alone!’ as their guiding principles and articles of faith, and establishing a foundation that would later make possible unions with the Reformed Church and the Congregational Christian Church. The theology of the Evangelical Synod of North America can be characterized by three primary beliefs: 1. Pietism between orthodoxy and rationalism; 2. No creed but Jesus Christ crucified; 3. The motto of Eden Seminary: ‘In essentials unity, in non-essentials freedom, in all things charity.’

The Christian Church is the only strand of the United Church of Christ without European roots, although they existed as a church prior to the establishment of the Evangelical Church of the Prussian Union. The Christian Church was actually the result of a previous union, in which three individual groups had broken away from existing churches, each in an effort to simplify the church, claiming that the Bible was a sufficient guide for faith and practice. One of these groups was led by James O’Kelly, and had broken away from the Methodist Church in Virginia; another, led by Dr. Abner Jones, objected to the strict Calvinism of the Congregational and Baptist Churches in Vermont; and the third was led by the Rev. Barton W. Stone and the Rev. David Purviance, whose members left the Presbyterian Synod in Kentucky. Each of these individual groups shared a similar belief about the church, and all agreed that because Christian character would be the only requirement for membership in their church, the only label for themselves as a church was “Christian.” These three Christian Churches eventually united with a minimal degree of organizational structure, calling themselves the “Christian Connection.” Because of their belief in unity and Christian character, the Christian church was one of the earliest churches in America to be truly integrated. Race, skin color, ancestry and language meant far less to the members of the Christian Connection than their foundational beliefs, and their commitment to be united as faithful followers of Christ.

A spirit of Christian unity in the early twentieth century led to three significant unions within thirty years. First, the Congregational Church and the Christian Connection united in 1931, affirming their common faith and practices, and adopting the six principles originally established by the Christians as their foundational beliefs. Then, three years later, in 1934, the Reformed Church and the German Evangelical Synod of North America came together to form the Evangelical and Reformed Church. Both of these churches recognized their common ancestry, their roots in the Reformation tradition, and their common commitment to well-educated ministry and a cooperative fellowship with other denominations. Most importantly, however, they each affirmed a belief in the same Lord and God. In their constitution, they established a statement of their beliefs, which included the primacy of the Holy Scriptures as the ultimate rule of the church, the doctrinal standards of the Heidelberg Catechism, Luther’s Catechism, and the Augsburg Confession, and an affirmation that the congregations are endowed with freedom of worship. This last element, in particular, was instrumental in the eventual union with the Congregational Christian Church, which held the freedom of individual churches in very high regard.

The relations that would eventually culminate in a single unified church began in St. Louis at a study group in 1937. Participants from the Congregational Christian Church and the Evangelical and Reformed Church felt a sense of family, and a common sense of belief and understanding. The leaders of the churches acted on this insight, and set into motion what would later result in the formation of the United Church of Christ. This United Church was easier to conceive of than to accomplish, however. Despite the initial sense of connection felt by the members of the study group, the actual union of the two churches was much more complicated, and took many years to achieve. The institutional churches were weighted down by concerns that a union would hamper certain beliefs and practices they each held dear. The Congregational Christian Church wanted an assurance that the autonomy and freedom of the individual churches would not be compromised, and the Evangelical and Reformed Church wanted the assurance that there would be the structure of a unified body as well as the recognition of a sole Head.

The churches first established their common ground in 1943 in the Basis of Union, and then, with time, patience and faith they worked out their concerns. They agreed that the union of churches would depend on the voluntary action of the individual churches, that no historical or traditional doctrines would be changed, and that all persons would be assured the continued freedom of faith and practice. Having finally settled on an arrangement for union, the churches confirmed the conviction stated in their Basis of Union, “we are united in spirit and purpose.” on June 25, 1957 when they met at a General Synod in Cleveland, Ohio, and officially became “a fellowship of biblical people living under covenant for responsible freedom in Christ, joined together as the United Church of Christ.” The members of the new Church decided that they would first define themselves as a church based on what they believed, before beginning the work of determining an operating and governing structure. To accomplish this, sixteen theologians, eight from each of the two founding churches, met to draft the Statement of Faith, which expresses the unity and covenant of the United Church of Christ, affirming the united structure and faith of the Church in the very first word, “We.” The entire Statement, in fact, is written in the plural, specifically because it was intended to represent the faith of the whole church. A similar understanding and spirit can be found in the Constitution and Bylaws of the United Church of Christ. This spirit is founded in Jesus’ prayer “that they may all be one” (John 17:21), which, appropriately, is the motto of the United Church of Christ.

Unity is so central to the identity of the United Church of Christ that it has even been
incorporated into the name chosen for the Church. The word “united,” for example, defines not only the union of church bodies as established in the Basis of Union, but it also acknowledges the diversity that is uniting. If uniformity, an idea commonly mistaken for unity, did, in fact, exist, it would be far less important to identify the Church as a United Church. If all elements within the Church were uniform, it would be sufficient to recognize it as simply the Church of Christ. The use of the word “united,” then, indicates that the union of the two church bodies, as described in the Basis of Union, brought with it two or more separate elements, and that these church bodies agreed to stand together in unity in spite of the different elements. This is what the United Church of Christ is. Furthermore, the word “church” recognizes the fellowship of believers who not only come together in Christ, but also belong to Christ, as the words, “of Christ” indicates. This recognition affirms the church as the Body of Christ, with Christ as the Head, and the various members of the Body united in the Body, and in Christ. Thus, the name of the Church itself is perhaps its greatest and most profound statement of the spirit of unity within the United Church of Christ.

One of the most recent manifestations of this unity is the “God is still speaking” campaign. This campaign recons back to the climate of global unrest, and the need for healing and unity that produced the Church’s original union. It reminds existing members, and announces to all others who may be searching, lost, or hurting that the United Church of Christ is a welcoming family in the spirit of Christ, accepting, respecting, and honoring all persons, regardless of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, physical condition, or background. It is a proud and public declaration of the Church’s intention to live out its motto, and embody an answer to Jesus’ prayer that all may be united as one in Christ, and in love; and it invites other churches to join the Church in that embodiment.

Summing up the diversity of the Church, Barbara Brown Zikmund writes in her introduction to Hidden Histories, “The United Church of Christ (UCC) is a denomination that reflects the pluralistic story of American Protestantism.” The UCC is truly a patch-work quilt of various histories, traditions, beliefs, practices, agreements and structures, all of which is joined by the common threads of unity in Christ, and individual freedom that expresses itself in unity through covenant with one another.
written by Diane Carter ©2007