Of all the United Church of Christ traditions, the Christian Churches were most uniquely American in origin and character. In Virginia, Vermont, and Kentucky, the Second Great Awakening in the early 1800s stirred the hearts of quite disparate leaders and their followers with the impulse to return to the simplicity of early Christianity. The first group was gathered in 1794 in Virginia by a Revolutionary soldier, James O'Kelley. He, with many other Methodists left the church over their objection to bishops. Methodism, they felt, was too autocratical. They wanted the frontier churches to be freed to deal with the needs and concerns that were different from those of the more established churches. They declared that the Bible was their only guide and adopted as their new name, the Christian Church.
A few years later, at Lyndon, Vermont, Abner Jones and his followers objected to Calvinist Baptist views. In 1801, they organized the First Free Christian Church, in which Christian character would be the only requirement for membership, and in which all who could do so in faith, were welcome to partake of the Lord's Supper. Christ was seen to be more generous than to withhold Communion from all but those who had been baptized by immersion. Jones was later joined by Baptist Elias Smith, who helped to organize a Christian church in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and began publishing, in 1808, the Herald of Gospel Liberty. Smith's paper became a means of drawing the separate Christian movements together.
With a minimum of organization, other churches of like mind were established and the movement became known as the "Christian Connection." The "Connection" had been organized in 1820 at the first United General Conference of Christians, during which six principles were unanimously affirmed:
- Christ, the only head of the Church.
- The Bible, sufficient rule of faith and practice.
- Christian character, the only measurement for membership.
- The right of private judgment, interpretation of scripture, and liberty of conscience.
- The name "Christian," worthy for Christ's followers.
- Unity of all Christ's followers in behalf of the world.
By 1845, a regional New England Convention began.
A third group, under Barton W. Stone, withdrew in 1803 from the Presbyterian Synod of Kentucky in opposition to Calvinist theology. Stone's followers eventually numbered 8,000 and they, too, took the name Christian. Followers of Stone spread into Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Some of this group united with followers of Alexander Campbell at Lexington, Kentucky, in 1832 to found the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which became the largest indigenous body of Protestants in America. (In the 1970s, the Christian Church [Disciples of Christ] and the United Church of Christ began conversations to consider possible union.) Christians who refused to follow Stone and unite with the Disciples, gradually identified with the Christian Churches led by O'Kelley in Virginia and by Jones and Smith in New England.
From 1844, when the New England Convention passed a strong resolution condemning slavery, until long after the Civil War was over, the Christian Churches of the North and the South suspended fellowship with each other. As a result, whites controlled the newly-formed Southern Christian Association. In the North, the first Christian General Convention was held in 1850, and for the first time, Christians began to behave as a denomination.
Christians valued education since their first leaders came from well-educated New England families that had exhibited a humanitarian spirit. In 1844, Christians helped to establish Meadville Seminary with the Unitarians. In 1850, Defiance College in Ohio was born and two years later the coeducational Antioch College, Horace Mann its president, came into being in Ohio. Elon College was founded in North Carolina in 1889, and a year later, the suspended fellowship between northern and southern churches was restored. Christian colleges were recognized as holding the key to an educated clergy and an enlightened church membership.
There was a leveling influence in the frontier church that promoted a democratic spirit. The Great Awakening on the frontier promoted an anti-creedal religion, independent personal judgment, and freedom of conscience. Quite different from the rough nature of frontier life itself, educated leadership brought refined sensibilities, compassion, and concern for humanitarian causes to the churches.
James O'Kelley's denunciation of slavery in 1789 had attracted many blacks to join Christian churches in the South. They were further attracted by the revival style and the zeal for humanitarian reform. Neither race nor gender was a stumbling block to Christian fellowship in the South. Black churches were not organized before the Civil War and in 1852, Isaac Scott, a black man from North Carolina, was ordained by the Christian Church and sent to Liberia as the first overseas missionary from that denomination. The democratic social structure in the Christian Church proved more hospitable to women's sense of "calling" than had been true in Puritan New England churches. In 1839, the Virginia Christian Conference recognized an Ohio minister's wife, the former Rebecca L. Chaney, as her husband's official associate in preaching. The Christian Church exercised its independence under God when it became the first denomination to recognize the ordination of a woman. In 1867, at Ebenezer Church in Clark County, Ohio, Melissa Terrel was ordained to the Christian ministry. Following the Civil War, black members of the Christian Church tended to cut themselves off from whites to form churches of their own. The black church became the only social structure totally supported by the black community. Elevated to a high status in a climate that denigrated black males, black ministers were close to a peer relationship with white community leaders. Black church ministers were not only pastors and preachers to their congregations, but were social workers and organizers for human rights as well. Black ministers and their churches were often targets of reaction, sometimes violent, during repeated periods of local political battle over issues such as freedom from oppression, the achievement of voting rights, opportunity for land ownership, equality of educational and vocational opportunity, the right to participate in the same amenities offered others in American communities.
Women in many black Christian churches became, to an even greater degree than in white churches, the backbone of church life; many became preachers. Black women so reared, upon joining integrated churches, found it difficult to accept less crucial tasks where men dominated.
The Reconstruction Era after the Civil War was slow and painful. During the time of estrangement, Christian churches of both North and South had increasingly assumed characteristics of a denomination. During the first post-war decade, the Southern Convention adopted a manual for standardized worship and Christian Church rites, as well as for defining "Principles" for Christians. During this period, a group of freed slaves established, in 1866-67, the North Carolina Colored Christian Conference. This group maintained close ties with white Christians and shared in the General Convention of the Christian Church. In 1874, the Eastern Atlantic Colored Christian Conference was formed and in 1873, the Virginia Colored Christian Conference. As numbers of black Christian churches increased, the churches organized themselves further into conferences. In 1892, the Afro-American Convention met for the first time representing five conferences with a total membership of 6,000.
The General Convention of 1874 adopted a Manifesto, defining for the Christian Church movement true unity as based not on doctrine or polity, but on Christian spirit and character. The Manifesto stated: "We are ready to form a corporate union with any body of Christians upon the basis of those great doctrines which underlie the religion of Christ ... We are ready to submit all minor matters to ... the individual conscience."
Not until 1890 was the division between the North and the South sufficiently overcome to adopt a Plan of Union that formed a new General Convention.
Different from their compatriots who had arrived in America a century earlier, German immigrants between 1830 and 1845 were likely to have lived through the strife inflicted by the Napoleonic wars and a long history of religious coercion by the state. Yet, many Germans were enlightened by rationalist doctrine, art, music, and science. Frederick William III had united the Lutheran and Reformed Churches in 1817 into the Evangelical Church of the Prussian Union. Objections from both church groups would not be countenanced.
Suppression and persecution caused some Lutherans to leave Germany. Traveling by ship and covered wagon, they arrived in Missouri to become the nucleus of the Missouri Synod Lutheran denomination. These conservative people remain "separatist" until the present, still wary of the forced compromises of a coerced union.
Others, both Lutheran and Reformed, embodied the inward and irenic spirit of Pietism as well as its moral missionary zeal. While their leaders were well educated and biblically grounded, they were not attuned to rationalist doctrine or ecclesiastical organization. Enlightened evangelical societies from Basel and Barmen, caring little for confessional distinctions, cooperated with the London Missionary Society and the Church of England to send missionaries abroad.
Between 1830 and 1845, 40,000 people left Germany annually for America where they joined the westward movement. Most settled in Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Iowa and Wisconsin. The German Evangelical Church Society of the West (Der Deutsche Evangelische Kirchenverein des Westens), founded in 1840 at Gravois Settlement, St. Louis, Missouri, was a transplanted Evangelical Church of the Prussian Union.
As with the early Reformed congregations, the Evangelical immigrants were at first pas to red by lay people. Although Presbyterians and Congregationalists had tried to welcome them, language was a problem. One of the first lay pastors, Hermann Garlichs, later returned to Germany for ordination after gathering the first Missouri Evangelical congregations at Femme Osage and St. Charles in 1833. Basel and Barmen missionary societies responded quickly to the need for missionaries to serve the congregations as ministers. They were unconcerned about differing confessional affiliations. Cooperation with the Congregational Home Missionary Society and the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions was initiated in 1836 after Basel pastors George W. Wall and Joseph A. Rieger had spent several months among Congregationalists in Hartford, Connecticut. Traveling to New York, Philadelphia, and points west, their plea for aid yielded funds for Evangelical missions. The pietistic Wall served the incompatible rationalistic Holy Ghost Church, the first German Church in St. Louis. Abolitionist sympathizer Rieger lived with abolition martyr Elijah Lovejoy in Alton, Illinois and, in 1837, became the first secretary of the Illinois Anti-Slavery Society, while teaching school and serving as an itinerant preacher.
In 1840 the fellowship of pastors and people was organized.
In 1849, the first church, St. Paul's in St. Louis, joined the pastoral conference, the Kirchenverein. In 1847, the Kirchenverein produced its own Evangelical Catechism, abbreviated in 1862 by Andreas Irion. In 1848, a common confession to the Holy Scriptures as the basis of faith and life, and harmony with the Augsburg Confession, Luther's Small Catechism and the Heidelberg Confession were acknowledged. The intent was not to coerce Christian conscience at points of disagreement, but to provide symbols for the word of God, behind which was the reality of God's redeeming love through Jesus Christ. By 1857, an Agenda (Worship Order) was adopted and in 1862, an Evangelical Hymnal.
Among the German immigrants were free-thinking rationalists, who placed their hope in science, education, and culture. Many of them Deists, they clung to their emancipation from the church and, feeling enlightened, instead joined lodges, clubs, and singing societies. Many were disdainful of pastors and churches, contributing needlessly to hardship on the frontier. They were unimpressed by the occasional revivalist who visited their frontier communities. However, when their own children showed signs of illiteracy and irreligion, many were sufficiently disturbed to extend hospitality to a well-trained pastor of true faith, who often had to serve several communities at once.
Parochial schools were for a time more prevalent than Sunday schools, until concern for children's segregation from the community would cause many to close. During the Civil War years, to provide curriculum materials for the parochial schools and Sunday schools, the General Conference authorized the publication of readers, textbooks, a Christian Children's Paper and many books, among them, Biblische Geschichten (Bible Stories) and a Sunday School Hymnal full of chorales, folk melodies and spiritual lieder.
Social and political instability of the 19th-century American frontier aborted several starts to colleges and seminaries needed to train ministers and teachers for the Synods of the West. A college at Washington, Missouri, begun by the Society (Kirchenverein) in 1854, opened in 1858 and died during the Civil War (along with 26 others in the United States), when parents refused to allow their sons to go to the "guerilla-infested" region along the Missouri. Eden Theological Seminary (1850) and Elmhurst College (1871) have endured with distinction.
To assure authenticity and high standards of ministry on the frontier, pastors not yet ordained who sought admission to membership in the Kirchenverein were examined as to their character and their affirmation of the writings of" our Evangelical mother Church in Germany." By 1850, total dependence upon men of German theological training had been relieved by the establishment of a seminary in Marthasville, Missouri, later to become Eden Theological Seminary, a school of distinctive Lutheran and Reformed union-oriented piety. The seminary received financial support from other denominations, from Germany and from friendly benefactors. The new journal, Der Friedensbote (Messenger of Peace) helped to unify the church.
Naturally harsh frontier conditions, remnants of Lutheran-Reformed controversies, the arrogance (often cruelty) of the rationalists, and geographical isolation made communications, association, and mutual support urgent. Such difficulties also contributed to the establishment of free, unassociated churches and to the defection of some pastors to join established American denominations. Pietistic Evangelicals, facing some of the same conditions that New England settlers experienced and sharing with the Puritans an ascetic tendency, felt drawn to the Congregationalists and Presbyterians. Congregational leaders such as Horace Bushnell were instrumental in aiding establishment of German Evangelical churches in the West and providing them with ministers from Basel and Barmen. Presbyterians sent teachers and preachers as well.
The primary thrust of Evangelical mission was to establish churches in countryside and city and to serve the needs of the German population in areas west of Ohio. The Board of Home Missions, created in 1870, was called on to assist German-Russian immigrants to Colorado, descendants of Germans who had been asked by the Empress Catherine (the Great) to settle the lower Volga area. They had been promised that their language and culture would be respected and preserved. Abridgement of agreed-upon rights under Nicholas II sent the German-Russian settlers in search of freedom. They came in such numbers that the Board of Home Missions, in 1914, established an academy at Fort Collins to train German-Russian ministers and lay workers. It was closed when World War I cut off the flow of immigrants.
Evangelical churches were grateful recipients of mission society aid. Between 1840 and 1860 they responded with funds, gifts out of proportion to the church population, for the societies at Barmen and Basel that had provided pastors. At home, Evangelical Society missions would focus on needs arising among the German settlements on the frontier. Led by Louis Nollau, an Evangelical hospital was established in St. Louis, and in 1858 200 patients were rejected for lack of space. With community support, the Good Samaritan Hospital opened in 1861. Nollau also reached out to the plight of orphaned and victimized children by taking many into his own home until a proper shelter was provided for their growing number. Parochial school children would contribute pennies to their support through "orphan societies." Nollau and others went on to enlarge the mission to the young, the sick, and the aged.
A General Conference was held at Indianapolis in 1866, at which the name Evangelical Synod of the West replaced the term Kirchenverein. A disciplined and committed natural church leader, Adolph Baltzer, was elected its first president. Two years later, instead of a meeting of the full membership, as in the Old Kirchenverein, a system of delegates, elected by district, was instituted.
As stated by Baltzer, faithfulness, obedience, discipline, and the affirmation, "Christ alone! Faith alone! The Bible alone!" would be the guiding principles and articles of faith of the Evangelical Synod. Baltzer would recognize the ephemeral nature of organizations and institutions, even denominations, but emphasized the enduring and fruitful nature of "work done in the name of the Lord and in his spirit." Baltzer traveled thousands of miles by railroad, steamboat, horse and foot, to visit all the churches and would report, after two years, a 20 percent increase in churches and pastors, an incredible transformation in the land from frontier conditions to prosperous farms abundant with fruit and grain, and an increasing need to attend to the education of children. In 1884, the Evangelical Synod began its foreign missions in India.
Between 1857 and 1872, four unions took place between the Missouri Evangelicals and other church associations. In 1872, the major Synod of the West, the Synod of the East (western New York and Ohio), and the Synod of the Northwest (Illinois, Michigan and Indiana) united. By 1877 the denomination included 324 pastors and became the German Evangelical Synod of North America. By 1934, when the Synod merged with the Reformed Church in the United States, Evangelicals totaled 281,598, pastored by 1,227 clergy.
Two theologians of the 20th century of great influence and acclaim throughout Protestant America were nurtured in the Evangelical Church. Helmut Richard Niebuhr, called a "theologian's theologian," wrote and taught Christian ethics at Yale Divinity School. Educated at Elmhurst College and Eden Seminary as well as Yale Divinity School, his older brother Reinhold Niebuhr became the most influential American theologian since Jonathan Edwards. Pastor of a Detroit church during the difficult anti-German years of World War I, he guided the Evangelical War Welfare Commission to support 25,000 young people from Evangelical churches serving in the American armed forces. While a Union Theological Seminary professor, he wrote books of ethics and theology, among them Moral Man and Immoral Society and The Nature and Destiny of Man. He became the American exponent of neoorthodoxy, a theology that attempted amidst the declining morality of the 20th century, to reapply biblical teachings and truths to areas of contemporary social and political concern. The Niebuhrs helped to determine the theological orientation of thousands of religious and secular leaders and thereby to help crumble the sectarian walls of division of the Christian world.
By 1929, deep in negotiations on union with the Reformed Church, the German Evangelical Synod dropped from its name, if not its consciousness, the national designation and became the Evangelical Synod of North America.
A blend of autonomy and authority, the Evangelical and Reformed Church retained a Calvinist doctrine of the church as "the reality of a kingdom of grace," and the importance of order and discipline in its witness to the reign of God in the world. The Heidelberg Catechism still at its heart, the new church would embody -a synthesis of Calvin's inward sense of God's "calling" and Luther's experiential approach to faith. George W. Richards, ecumenist first president, had expressed the insights of all Reformation streams by saying, "Without the Christlike spirit, no constitution will ever be effective; with the spirit, one will need only a minimum of law for the administration of the affairs of the fellowship of men and women." In such a spirit the union proceeded without a constitution until one was adopted in 1938, implemented in 1940.
The second president, Louis W. Goebel, a trusted Christian statesman and exponent of the church's freedom in Christ, guided the organization and ecumenical relationships of the 655,000-member Evangelical and Reformed Church for 15 years. Its membership was mainly in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, North Carolina, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Texas, Kentucky, Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri. James E. Wagner, true to the Reformed tradition, yet responsive to the rapid changes of an era, as third president, led the church into a further fulfillment of its unitive intention.
Meanwhile, the practical act of consolidating Reformed and Evangelical programs, boards, organizations, and publications and coordinating the multiple institutions went forward. The church addressed worldwide suffering during World War II with the War Emergency Relief Commission. The Hymnal (1941) and Book of Worship (1942) were published. Reformed missions in Japan, China, and Iraq were united under the Evangelical and Reformed Church Board of International Missions. New missions were undertaken through cooperative efforts in Ecuador, Ghana, and western Africa. The Messenger became the church publication. Christian education resources soon followed. Organizations united. The Woman's Missionary Society united with the Evangelical Women's Union to become the Women's Guild.
A 1937 study group of St. Louis Evangelical and Reformed and Congregational Christian clergy, led by Samuel J. Press, president of Eden, and Truman Douglass, pastor of Pilgrim Congregational Church, had revealed among the participants a sense of "family." Dr. Press acted on the discovery with a June 1938 telegram to the General Council of the Congregational Christian Churches, "What about a rapprochement between our communions looking forward to union?" The affirmative response of Douglas Horton, minister and executive secretary of the General Council, was followed by four years of private conversations before a public proposal in 1942 would be endorsed by the General Synod of the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the General Council of the Congregational Christian Churches. After ten drafts of a Basis of Union were prepared between 1943 and 1949, a special General Synod was called in 1949 to approve the Interpretations of the Basis. Approval (249-41) was followed by successful ratification by the 34 synods, by vote of 33-1. A uniting General Synod for the United Church, first set for June 26, 1950, was postponed for seven more years. Under Congregational Christian Church autonomy, some local churches brought a legal injunction, challenging the right of the General Council to participate in a union of the whole church with another. President Richards made clear the Evangelical and Reformed Church's commitment to total unity and wholeness.
God has moved throughout the 20th century to impel a worldwide movement toward Christian unity, of which the United Church of Christ is but a part. Understood deeply as obedience, the movement is seen more expediently as an antidote to the rising forces of paganism. The ecumenical movement calls the churches to restore their oneness in Christ by union. A divided church is unlikely to convince the world.
Two world wars and religious sectarianism had made clear a need for the church to take seriously its responsibility as agents of God's healing, and in repentance, to acknowledge in its divisions a mutual need for Christ's redemption. The World Council of Churches, Protestant and Orthodox, met at Amsterdam in 1948 under the theme "Man's Disorder and God's Design." In 1961, it merged with the International Missionary Council. The Second Vatican Council at Rome, called by Pope John XXIII, met between 1962 and 1965, with a primary purpose of "peace and unity." Ending with a reemphasis on ecumenicity, the Pope participated in a joint religious service with non-Catholic Christian observers, and resolved to "remove from memory" the events of A.D. 1054 that first split the Christian church "in two great halves," Catholic and Orthodox.
The United Church movement overseas had an early beginning in the South Indian United Church (1908), later to be the Church of South India and the Church of North India. The Church of Christ in China (1927) followed and, much later, in Japan the Kyodan (1941), The United Church of Christ of the Philippines (1948) and the National Christian Council of Indonesia (1950). Common historic missionary roots were celebrated during a 1976 ecumenical visit to four of the United Churches by a delegation from the United Church of Christ, U.S.A., led by its distinguished ecumenist president, Robert V. Moss, recognized as a world church leader.
Between 1900 and 1950, Congregational churches of ten nations united with other denominations, many losing the name "Congregational." Others followed as the United Church movement proliferated. In the United States, the Congregational Churches had, since 1890, been making overtures of unity toward other church bodies. German "union" (Lutheran Reformed) churches in western Pennsylvania and in Iowa, recognized and received as German Congregational Churches in 1927, were absorbed and integrated.
Congregational associations during and following World War I received into fellowship Armenian Evangelicals, a refugee remnant of the 19th-century reform movement in the Armenian Apostolic Church in Turkey. During a period of Turkish genocidal persecution of Armenians, thousands escaped to America, many Evangelicals. In the 1980s there are 16 Armenian Evangelical churches holding membership in the United Church of Christ. Locally, the association relationship among churches made it easy to extend congregational fellowship across denominational lines.
Although it frequently stated convictions of unity, the Christian Church (perhaps because of its long travail over its own North-South division and its disinterest in organizational structure) had remained separatist. Correspondence with the Congregationalists led to a meeting in 1926, when a decision to pursue union was taken. On June 27, 1931, at Seattle, Washington, the Christian Church, with a membership of 100,000, including 30,000 members of the 65 churches in its Afro-American Convention, joined with the Congregational Churches of nearly a million members. They saw their temporal organization of Christian believers as one manifestation of the church universal, a denomination that they intended would remain adaptable, so as to enable a faithful response to the biblical Word of God in any time, in any place, among any people.
Such an understanding of the church had also matured in the Evangelical and the Reformed churches from seeds planted centuries before in Switzerland and Germany and replanted in America by the Mercersburg movement. With resolve strengthened by the great ecumenical assemblies, the Reformed Church in the United States, led by George W. Richards, in 1918, produced a Plan of Federal Union in hope of uniting churches of the Reformed heritage. Similarly inspired, Samuel Press, supported by the local churches represented at the 1925 General Conference, led the Evangelical Synod of North America to undertake negotiations looking toward organic union. While other communions of shared tradition had become involved, by 1930, only the Reformed Church and the Evangelical Synod pursued their long-hoped-for union.
After six years of negotiation, a Plan of Union evolved, approved in 1932 by the General Synod of the Reformed Church, ratified by the Evangelical Synod at its General Convention of 1933. Significant and unprecedented was the decision to unite and then to work out a constitution and other structures for implementation, surely an act of Christian obedience and faith in the power of the Holy Spirit to sustain trust in one another. On June 26,1934, the Evangelical and Reformed Church was born at Cleveland, Ohio.
The union by the Congregational and Christian churches seemed the most natural in the world, yet most of their life together from 1931-57 concerned the General Council with matters surrounding church union, first its own and then with the Evangelical and Reformed Church.
Yet the work of the church continued. In 1934, the General Council at Oberlin, "stirred by the deep need of humanity for justice, security, and spiritual freedom and growth, aware of the urgent demand within our churches for action to match our gospel, and clearly persuaded that the gospel of Jesus can be the solvent of social as of all other problems," voted to create the Council for Social Action. The Council reflected the focus of continuing Christian concern for service, international relations, citizenship, Japanese-Americans, rural life, and legislative, industrial and cultural relations. The General Council had acted to simplify and economize at a national level the prolific and redundant independent actions by churches and conferences, while maintaining the inherent liberties of the local churches.
State Conferences, led by Superintendents or Conference Ministers, responded to local church requests for pastors, resources in Christian education, youth and adult conferences, and speakers on mission and social concerns. They received funds for mission, helped new church starts, and maintained ecumenical contacts.
Printed literature and communication continued to be essential. In 1930, the Christian Church's The Herald of Gospel Liberty merged with The Congregationalist, to become Advance. The Pilgrim Press, a division of the Board of Home Missions, continued to publish and distribute books, Christian education curriculum materials, monthly magazines and newspapers, hymnals, worship and devotional material, and resources for education and evangelism. Nationally, the Women's Fellowship connected the work initiated by women in the churches; the Pilgrim Fellowship provided a network of Christian youth. The Laymen's Fellowship enabled men to carry forward a cooperative ministry.
Congregational Christian and Evangelical and Reformed Church leaders already had begun private conversations about union when German Evangelical Church pastor, Martin Niemoeller was incarcerated in Nazi Germany for preaching the Christian gospel from his prominent Berlin pulpit. He boldly opposed the persecution of Jews. On Christmas Eve, 1938, United States Catholics and Protestants, including Congregational Christian and Evangelical and Reformed leaders, sent a message to the German people. A subtle shift in emphasis had gradually crept among the churches from a desire to evangelize the world to a concern for the needs of human society.
The proposed United Church of Christ tried patience and tested persistence. By far the rockier road to union confronted the Congregational Christian Churches. From before the postponed Uniting General Synod of 1950 until 1957, thousands of hours and dollars were spent on court litigation of suits brought against the General Council by autonomous bodies and individuals of the Congregational Christian Churches. Sustained by a court ruling in 1949, the litigants, defining the General Council as "a representative body" accountable to the churches, maintained that the Council had no power to undertake a union involving the churches. Merger leadership defined the General Council as accountable to itself, "a gathering of Christians under the Lordship of Christ." That interpretation persuaded the court to reverse the ruling on appeal, sustained in 1953.
Truman B. Douglass, who would become general secretary of the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries, pointed to the theological principles of the "Headship of Christ" and the Reformed "priesthood of all believers," that sustained autonomy and fellowship, as basic to the Congregational Christian polity. Therefore it was applicable to the "agencies of fellowship." General Council minister Douglas Horton suggested that the General Council was "a kind of Congregation," and that neither it nor the local church was subordinate to the other.
The most celebrated suit was brought by The Cadman Memorial Congregational Church in Brooklyn on behalf of itselves and other Congregational Christian churches against Helen Kenyon, moderator of the General Council of the Congregational Christian Churches. Helen Kenyon bore the weight of these litigations with strength, patience and valor. Justice Archie O. Dawson, of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York opined, "It is unfortunate that ministers and church members, who purport to abide by Christian principles should engage in this long, expensive litigation. ... " Then speaking as a "Christian layman ... in all humility" he urged the parties to the controversy to "give prayerful consideration to 1 Corinthians [6:1,5-7] when similar controversies arose to trouble the early Christians" (Fred Hoskins, Congregationalism Betrayed or Fulfilled, Newton, MA: Andover Newton Theological School, 1962. Southworth Lecture [paper], pp. 7-8).
Louis W. Goebel at the 1950 Evangelical and Reformed General Synod had with patience and grace stated, "so long as they continue to extend to us the hand of friendship and fellowship ... we members of a church committed to ... the reunion of Christ's church, are bound to accept that hand" (Louis H. Gunnemann, The Shaping of the United Church of Christ: An Essay in the History of American Christianity, New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1977, p.41).
Ruling against those who would block it, the Court of Appeals issued the assurance that the union "would in no way change the historical and traditional patterns of individual Congregational Christian churches" and that none would be coerced into union. Each member was assured of continuing freedom of faith and manner of worship and no abridgement of congregational usage and practice. The ruling assured the churches that the union would depend on voluntary action taken by independent, autonomous churches (Hoskins, op. cit., p. 41).
In the United Church of Christ, the separate denominational ancestral stories are preserved at the Congregational Library in Boston, Lancaster Theological Seminary, Eden Theological Seminary, and Elon College.
Legally free to proceed with union, uneasiness remained.
Congregational Christians needed to clarify the difference between authority and power; while all autonomous units - individuals, churches, and agencies-were endowed with temporal power, none wielded authority over another except through the biblical authority of God in Jesus Christ. Evangelical and Reformed Christians needed reassurance that there would be one body and not just one head, trusting that the Holy Spirit would make of the Covenant, owned by the parts of the body-individuals, churches, and agencies-a whole United Church of Christ. In trust, a joint 1954 meeting of the Congregational Christian Executive Committee and the Evangelical and Reformed General Council (ad interim for the General Synod) affirmed The Basis of Union with the Interpretations as a foundation for the merger and sufficient for the drafting of a Constitution.
Both communions approached the 1957 Uniting General Synod with fresh leadership. James E. Wagner had succeeded Richards as president of the General Synod in 1953, and on Douglas Horton's resignation in 1955, Fred Hoskins was elected Minister and General Secretary of the General Council. Eight theologians from each uniting communion met to study basic Christian doctrine, theological presuppositions, and doctrinal positions in preparation for the writing of a Statement of Faith.
All of the Evangelical and Reformed churches, responding to a responsibility laid upon them by their church tradition, and those Congregational Christian churches that understood the church as a people gathered by Christ moved a step farther toward reunion of the Christian church on June 25, 1957 as, with faith in God and growing trust in one another, they became The United Church of Christ. Some 100,000 members, unable to accept the union, joined The National Association of Congregational Christian Churches or The Conservative Congregational Christian Conference.