A monthly feature about the history of the United Church of ChristSometimes people think that the four major denominational traditions (Congregational, Christian, Evangelical and Reformed) that came together in 1957 to form the UCC created an illogical alliance. The Congregationalists and Christians seemed to have more in common with Presbyterians and Disciples. The German Evangelicals and German Reformed churches were more like Lutherans or Dutch Reformed.
Why did such different traditions come together to form the UCC?
There is no single answer to that question, but there are some shared historical moments which later inspired church leaders from each of these traditions to envision the UCC.
For example, in 1826, New England Congregationalists formed the American Home Missionary Society, which in 1831 incorporated the Domestic Mission Society of Connecticut.
At that time, many Congregationalists on the east coast were worried about the religious fate of the thousands of German Protestant immigrants arriving in the Mississippi valley.
In Hartford, Conn., Richard Gallaudet and Richard Bigelow organized a group known as the Looking Up and Pressing Onward Society (LUPOS) to block the growing power of Roman Catholics. LUPOS appealed to the Basel (Switzerland) Mission Society on behalf of the growing German population in the "Mississippi Valley and West Connecticut." It offered to support any Protestant German missionaries that Swiss mission societies sent to the United States.
Within two years, Joseph A. Reiger and George Wendelin Wall were commissioned and sent. They arrived in New York on May 31, 1836, and then spent three and one-half months in Hartford as guests of Connecticut Congregationalists, improving their English and strengthening relationships. In October, when they finally moved on to St. Louis, Congregationalists continued their spiritual and financial support.
At that time the St. Louis area was growing at an astonishing rate, expanding from 16,000 to 75,000 people from 1840 to 1850. Reiger and Wall actively worked to develop independent Protestant churches among new German immigrants. They challenged narrow sectarian ideas and rejected radical secular attacks.
They refused to uphold the split between Lutheran and Reformed Protestants, asserting that a "higher unity could be found in Christ." From the very beginning, their Kirchenverein—the "German Evangelical Church Society of the West"—was a different kind of church structure. It benefited from the pietism of Swiss mission societies, the legacy of Prussian union church life, the hospitality of New England Congregationalism and the unique environment of frontier America.
One hundred years later, that history gave the founders of the UCC confidence that their wider vision of church union could succeed.
The Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund, a former president of UCC-related Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, is a Global Ministries missionary in Japan and editor of The Living Theological Heritage of the United Church of Christ.