Don’t let the United Church of Christ’s official birthdate fool you. The church may have come into being, formally speaking, in 1957, but its roots extend deep into the heritage and tradition of American spirituality and of the larger American experience. From this country's colonial beginnings, through its mid-19th-century paroxysm over slavery, to its contemporary battles over personal identity and social inclusiveness, the UCC and its varied forebears have played starring roles at key moments in United States history. The church calls it “religion with relevance.” Over four centuries, few religious bodies in the United States have been more relevant, or had more impact on American life.
Today’s UCC is a distinctive, made-in-America blend of diverse but complementary Christian traditions. The Congregational Church was founded by Pilgrims and Puritans in colonial Massachusetts. The Reformed Church grew from congregations of German settlers in 18th-century Pennsylvania. The Christian Churches emerged after American independence as a frontier response to the rigid doctrines of more established Protestant denominations. The German Evangelical Church Society of the West was a heartland church founded in the 19th century near St. Louis by a later wave of immigrants. In addition to these four main branches of the family tree, the UCC has welcomed congregations of African Americans, Native Americans, and seekers who found themselves alienated from other, less welcoming denominations.
Elmhurst College was founded 142 years ago to train preachers and teachers for one of the UCC’s primary precursors, Der Deutsche Evangelische Kirchenverein des Westens, the German Evangelical Church. Well into the 20th century, in fact, the ministry remained atop the list of the most popular alumni occupations. Today’s students and alumni are a good deal more varied in their professional interests and personal identities; but the College’s spiritual roots continue to inform, in profound ways, the education it offers and the profile it presents to the larger society. In short, Elmhurst College is proud to embrace and share the heritage and tradition of this special church. Here’s a look at it.
The men and women aboard the Mayflower were members of the Congregational Church, an important branch of the UCC’s family tree.
The Pilgrim’s Church
When the men and women aboard the Mayflower sighted land after 67 storm-wracked days at sea, their leader William Bradford noted in laconic fashion: “They were not a little joyful.” The Pilgrims were members of the Congregational Church, a major branch of the UCC’s bountiful family tree. They crossed the Atlantic from England in the seventeenth century to escape the heavy hand of the Anglican state church. They established congregations that were self-governing and free to elect its own ministers—an early manifestation of American democracy. Their pastor, John Robinson, urged them to keep their minds and hearts open to new ideas: “God has yet more light and truth to break forth out of his holy Word.” It was a fitting start for a church that, four centuries later, would continue to insist, “God is still speaking.”
Believers and Thinkers
Starting with the Congregationalists, the UCC and its forebears shaped American intellectual history, producing profoundly influential leaders like Jonathan Edwards and founding many American colleges and universities, including Harvard, Yale, Wellesley, Smith, Dartmouth, Williams, Amherst, Oberlin, Mount Holyoke, Howard, Elmhurst and many others. Today, 18 American colleges and universities, including Elmhurst, are full members of the church’s Council for Higher Education, the closest attainable association. The church also founded seminaries, secondary academies, the first college for the deaf (which later became Gallaudet University), and the oldest publishing house in the United States (the Pilgrim Press).
Ring Out Liberty!
Two years into the Revolutionary War, George Washington’s Continental Army was on the retreat and the British were marching on Philadelphia, looting and looking for metal to melt into cannon balls. Patriots removed the bell from the steeple of the State House, hid it under hay in a farm wagon and spirited it away to Allentown, Pennsylvania. There the bell was safely concealed under the floorboards of Zion Reformed Church, a congregation founded by German settlers in Pennsylvania that was destined to become a part of the UCC. The bell was destined to be known as the Liberty Bell.
Elmhurst was one of the first colleges founded by the German Evangelical Church Society of the West.
Rationalists and Reformers
The German Evangelical Church Society of the West was the branch of the UCC that, in 1871, founded Elmhurst College. The Society itself was founded in 1840 at Gravois Settlement in Missouri. The original fellowship of pastors and people were German immigrants, and the Society was an effort to transplant to America a reform-minded Protestant denomination, the Evangelical Church of the Prussian Union. The Society was deeply informed by the Enlightenment. Many of its members were rationalists and “free thinkers,” with forward-thinking beliefs in science, education and culture. They started churches and schools in Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and elsewhere, and established their first college in Washington, Missouri, in 1858. The prospects for a new college in a border state were doubtful during the Civil War, and the college soon failed. As the UCC website notes, however, Elmhurst College, founded six years after the war’s end, “endures with distinction.”
Lemuel Haynes, the first African American to be ordained to the Christian ministry, was ordained in a Congregational church.
Liberating the Christian Ministry (Part 1)
The son of a white mother and an African father, Lemuel Haynes grew up as an indentured servant on a farm in Massachusetts. During the War for Independence, he served as a Minuteman; and around 1776 he wrote “Liberty, Further Extended,” a seminal essay that condemned slavery as a sin and called for the liberation of African Americans. “Liberty is equally as precious to a black man as it is to a white one, and bondage as equally intolerable to one as to the other,” he wrote. In 1785, after studying with ministers in Massachusetts, Haynes was ordained a minister in a Congregational church. He was the first African American to be ordained to the Christian ministry.
The Amistad Mutiny
In 1839, 56 Africans of the Mende tribe in Sierra Leone were seized by slave brokers and forced aboard the schooner Amistad for the passage to America. Near Cuba, the Africans revolted, seized the ship and ordered its crew to sail back to Africa. The crew headed north instead, and the ship was captured by American authorities two months later off Long Island. The Africans were held in a Connecticut jail on charges of murder and piracy; their owners sued to have them returned as property. Then a group of New England Congregationalists, active in the growing abolitionist movement, organized to help the Africans finally regain their freedom. The group convinced former President John Quincy Adams to argue the captives’ case before the U.S. Supreme Court. The court ruled that the Mende had been held illegally and should be freed. After the ruling, members of the First Church of Christ in Farmington, Connecticut, sheltered the Mende and planned their safe return to their homeland. In 1842, the 35 surviving members of the group returned to Sierra Leone, with five American missionaries. The Mende’s story became famous once again in 1997 thanks to a film by Stephen Spielberg. The chapel at the UCC’s headquarters building in Cleveland is named for the Amistad.
Reinhold Niebuhr, Class of 1910 (left), was the most influential American theologian since Jonathan Edwards. H. Richard Niebuhr, Class of 1912, taught Christian ethics at Yale after serving as Elmhurst’s sixth president.
Two of the 20th century’s foremost theologians were products of the German Evangelical tradition and of Elmhurst College. Reinhold Niebuhr, Class of 1910, was the most famous and influential American theologian since Jonathan Edwards. H. Richard Niebuhr, Class of 1912, taught Christian ethics at Yale after serving as Elmhurst’s sixth president. Later, Walter Brueggemann, Class of 1955, became one of the nation’s foremost scholars of the Old Testament.
The UCC’s history includes an array of examples of congregants acting straightforwardly and often courageously to break bigoted barriers and advance human rights. In 1770, Samuel Sewall wrote The Selling of Joseph, the first anti-slavery tract published in the United States. In 1773, Phillis Wheatley, a member of Boston’s Old South Church, became the first African American to write a published book. In 1862, members of the First Congregational Church in Oberlin, Ohio, organized to defy the Fugitive Slave Act and liberate John Price, a runaway slave. Between 1862 and 1877, the church’s forebears founded six historically black colleges: Dillard, Fisk, LeMoyne-Owen, Huston-Tillotson, Talledega and Tougaloo. In the 20th century, many leaders and pioneers in the fight for racial equality, both black and white, emerged from the UCC’s pews, including Andrew Young, Hubert Humphrey and Jackie Robinson. In 1976, the denomination elected Joseph H. Evans as its president, the first African American to lead a racially integrated church in the United States.
Antoinette Brown was the first woman ordained to the Christian ministry in the United States.
Liberating the Christian Ministry (Part 2)
In 1850, when Antoinette Brown completed her seminary studies at Oberlin College in Ohio, school officials refused to grant her a degree. Women, they reasoned, were unsuited to the ministry. Undaunted, Brown pursued a career as a lecturer and preacher. Even in those roles, she often was compelled to shout down audiences unwilling to tolerate a woman in a public role. In 1853, at the First Congregational Church in South Butler, New York, Brown became the first woman to be ordained to the Christian ministry in the United States. She continued to preach and to write prolifically, arguing for the abolition of slavery and, later, for women’s suffrage. Antoinette Brown lived to see the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, and voted for the first time in 1920, at age 95.
The Evangelical Synod’s Deaconesses modeled lives of compassion and simplicity.
In 1889, members of the Evangelical Synod organized the first Deaconess Society. Like a Roman Catholic nun, a deaconess adopted a formal garb, lived on a small stipend, developed her spiritual and intellectual capacities, was consecrated in a service of worship, and was called “Sister.” The Deaconess movement established an array of ministries—especially hospitals and homes for the aged—in the Midwest and beyond, through which they modeled lives of compassion and simplicity.
Preaching the Social Gospel
At the turn of the 20th century, with the working poor of the industrialized cities enduring squalid living and working conditions, Christian reformers sought to apply ancient Biblical concepts to emerging social problems. The Congregational minister Washington Gladden led the Social Gospel Movement in taking a stand against economic injustice and the exploitation of the poor. He supported labor unions, pushed for child labor laws, sought to improve working conditions for women, and supported urban settlement houses. Something of an absolutist, he denounced a congregation for accepting a $100,000 gift from John D. Rockefeller Jr., calling it “tainted money.” Another minister, Charles Sheldon, expressed the creed of the Social Gospel Movement in 1896 when he coined the motto, “What would Jesus do?”
When Bill Johnson ’68 was ordained a UCC minister in 1972, he became the first openly gay person to gain ordination to the Christian ministry.
Liberating the Christian Ministry (Part 3)
In 1971, when Bill Johnson ’68, an openly gay seminarian, stood for ordination in the United Church of Christ, homosexuality was considered a mental disorder by the American Medical Association. Some in the church stubbornly opposed his ordination, and Johnson had to argue for his ministry in a series of contentious hearings that made national headlines. The following year, Johnson was ordained a minister in the UCC, the first openly gay person to gain ordination to the Christian ministry.
Sing a New Song
In 1995, the UCC published The New Century Hymnal, a collection of 617 hymns and psalms that emphatically embraces a variety of styles, meters and languages, including German, French, Spanish, Dakota, Samoan, Hawaiian and Japanese. Fifty-three of the hymns were written over the years by UCC members. Hymn Number 593 is the most famous. Written in 1893 by Katharine Lee Bates, the daughter of a Congregational minister in Massachusetts, it’s called “America the Beautiful.”
Affirming the Dignity of All Committed Love
In 2005, the UCC’s General Synod overwhelmingly passed a resolution supporting marriage equality for gay and lesbian persons. It was the first mainline Christian denomination in the United States to do so. UCC President John Thomas said the church had “acted courageously … affirming the civil rights of same-sex couples to have their relationships recognized as marriages by the state, and encouraging our local churches to celebrate and bless those marriages.”
Today, the UCC has over a million members in about 5,000 congregations. It takes its motto from the Gospel of John—“That they may all be one”—and sees its mission as to all and for all.
The UCC has over a million members in about 5,000 congregations. Its General Synod often favors progressive positions on social and theological issues; but its constitution states plainly that “the autonomy of the local church is inherent,” and many local churches and individual congregants respectfully go their own way. Like the church of the New Testament, the modern UCC takes seriously the Gospel call to acceptance, witness, openness and simplicity. It emphasizes a few fundamental truths and allows great freedom in other matters. Its offices are for service, not for domination. It takes its motto from the Gospel of John—“That they may all be one”—and sees its mission as to all and for all. Colleges related to the UCC, in their own ways, share the church’s values and its social and interfaith commitments. For these colleges, being open to all persons, all faiths, and all doubts, is not a rejection of the United Church of Christ but an expression of it.