A monthly feature about the history of the United Church of Christ
When the disciples of John the Baptist asked Jesus if he was the Messiah, Jesus answered, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them" (Mt.11: 5). In other words, the gospel is shared through works of service and mercy.
Thanksgiving is a secular holiday. It is not part of our liturgical calendar, yet it is the season when we are thankful for our blessings and when we make special efforts to offer hospitality and human services to less fortunate persons.
Within the history of the UCC, the Congregationalists and the German Reformed Church engaged in mission outreach to many German immigrants in the early 19th century. By the 1880s, as millions of new arrivals from eastern and southern Europe flooded North American cities, Congregationalists and other Protestant denominations developed new strategies. There was ignorance and fear of Roman Catholics and Jews, but there also was a genuine desire to improve the quality of life for everyone. In 1882, the Chicago City Missionary Society was formed (today known as the Community Renewal Society), and within the next 20 years, similar Congregational organizations were flourishing in more than 25 industrializing cities.
City missionary societies established Sunday schools to teach basic reading and writing to immigrant children who worked in factories before the enactment of child labor laws. They worked to organize new churches. Earlier urban mission efforts had focused upon preaching centers and charity missions, but by the end of the 19th century, city missionary societies were large institutional organizations committed to church development and urban reform. The City Missionary Society in Hartford, Conn. (later renamed the Christian Activities Council), is a good example. It set up programs of systematic visitation, founded Sabbath schools, distributed Bibles, ran tutorial programs, supported ethnic churches, established camps for city children, pressed for new labor laws, held meetings for prayer and provided many practical services.
By the early 20th century, German Evangelicals also responded to urban issues by training parish deaconesses to work in big city congregations. Later, the Caroline Mission, a settlement house in St. Louis, Mo., further expanded its urban witness.
At Thanksgiving, it is appropriate to give thanks for the past work of the UCC in our cities. As we do that, however, let us not forget the ongoing needs of the urban poor and homeless in today's world.
Church historian the Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund is the series editor of The Living Theological Heritage of the United Church of Christ.