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United Church of Christ

UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST

UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST. Although the United Church of Christ (UCC) is a relatively young Protestant denomination, formed in 1957, the historical roots of its four constituent bodies go much deeper. The UCC brought together the Congregational Christian Church—itself the product of a 1931 union of Congregationalist and Christian churches—with the Evangelical and Reformed church—the product of a 1934 merger between the German Reformed and Evangelical Synod churches. This diverse historical background encompasses Calvinism, American revivalism, and German pietism, but to a considerable degree the four traditions have shared a common commitment to social witness and ecumenical efforts toward Christian unity.

Congregationalism arrived in New England in the 1620s and 1630s as a movement of Calvinist dissenters from the Anglican Church, emphasizing the autonomy of local congregations from state and episcopal control. Although these seventeenth-century Puritans did not champion religious tolerance—theological mavericks might be banished or summarily executed—they did affirm the necessity of informed individual assent to church teaching. The Congregational tradition thus placed great emphasis on an educated clergy and laity—a commitment realized in the formation of Harvard in 1636 and in the myriad of smaller colleges established in the nineteenth century, including several schools (Howard and Fisk) for African Americans. Although by the end of the nineteenth century two-thirds of all Congregationalists still resided in New England, the denomination's early leadership in foreign missions, abolitionism, and women's rights testified to its powerful and generally progressive role as cultural arbiter. In the late-nineteenth century, Congregationalists like Washington Gladden and Josiah Strong led the Social Gospel movement's call for social action among Protestant churches. Similarly, churchmen like George A. Gordon, Henry Ward Beecher, and Lyman Abbott popularized the tenets of the New Theology—emphasizing the immanence of God in creation, the humanity of Christ, and the importance of scientific learning for religious thought—in pulpits and seminaries.

The 1931 merger of the Congregationalist and Christian churches was in some ways an unlikely one. The Christian church was a product of early-nineteenth-century revivalism, a movement whose emotional excesses inspired distrust among many more rationally inclined Congregationalists. But the two traditions shared a dislike of ecclesiastical hierarchy, creedal tests, and sectarian competition; the early Christian churches modeled themselves on the first-century church and refused any denominational title. The Bible was to be their only arbiter of practice and teaching, and the unity of all believers their final goal. The movement was indebted to three main founders: James O'Kelly of Virginia, who left the Methodist Episcopal Church and founded the Republican Methodists (later Christians) in 1794; Abner Jones, a former Baptist who established the First Free Christian Church in Lyndon, Vermont, in 1801; and Barton W. Stone, who led a dissenting group of Kentucky Presbyterians out of the denomination in 1803. In 1820, these groups formed the Christian Connection, a relatively loose affiliation that enabled them to sustain two colleges (Defiance and Elon) and a vigorous publishing effort, dating back to Elias Smith's Herald of Gospel Liberty in 1808. But the group remained relatively small: at the time of the 1931 merger, the General Convention of the Christian Church numbered only 100,000 members, mostly in the Upper South and Ohio Valley, compared with about one million Congregationalists.

The Evangelical and Reformed merger brought together two German immigrant groups. The German Reformed church originated in 1747, when Michael Schlatter organized a German-speaking synod (coetus) in Philadelphia. In 1793 this body, then numbering around 15,000 members, declared itself the Synod of the German Reformed Church in the United States of America. As the denomination grew, it established a foreign mission board (1838), and various colleges and seminaries, including Mercersburg (later Lancaster) Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, Heidelberg College in Tiffin, Ohio, and Franklin and Marshall College, also in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Two professors at Mercersburg, Philip Schaff and John W. Nevin, were influential critics of American Protestantism, particularly its incipient anti-Catholicism and its sectarian divisions. The Mercersburg Theology emphasized the importance of historic creeds, catechism, and liturgy as means of unifying a divided Christendom.

The Evangelical Synod of North America, which joined with the Reformed church in 1934, originated in 1817, when Prussia's King Frederick William III united his country's Lutheran and Reformed churches into one state-controlled body, the Evangelical Church of the Prussian Union. In 1833, under the sponsorship of the Basel Missionary Society, the denomination began sending pastors to German immigrants in the United States. In 1840, ministers in the St. Louis area formed the German Evangelical Church Society of the West, which in 1866 became not a formal denomination but a more loosely organized "synod." In 1872, this German Evangelical Synod of the West joined with two other regional synods in the upper Midwest and Northeast; five years later the denomination was renamed the German Evangelical Synod of North America. The word "German" was dropped in 1927. Itself the product of missionary endeavor and heavily influenced by pietist zeal, the Evangelical Synod soon developed a wide array of evangelistic and humanitarian projects, including deaconess hospitals in Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, and Evansville, Indiana. The denomination's two schools, Eden Theological Seminary and Elmhurst College, produced two leading American theologians, Reinhold Niebuhr, a central figure in the neo-orthodox movement, and H. Richard Niebuhr, an ethicist and church historian. At the 1934 merger, the Evangelical Synod numbered about 280,000 members and the German Reformed some 350,000.

The merger of these four traditions became final in June 1957, at the Uniting General Synod in Cleveland, Ohio. Not all congregations participated: the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches and the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference did not join because of disagreements on polity and theology. Since the 1960s, the UCC, like most other mainline American denominations, has endured membership losses and theological turmoil. Between 1960 and 1970, the UCC lost 12.5 percent of its members; in 2001, membership stood at about 1.4 million. The UCC has found much of its identity in social witness, particularly the civil rights movement, antiwar protest, and support for the ordination of women and homosexuals. It has pursued ecumenism as a member of the World and National Councils of Churches, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and in ecumenical partnership with the Disciples of Christ.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Dunn, David, et. al. A History of the Evangelical and Reformed Church. Philadelphia: Christian Education Press, 1961. Reprint. New York: Pilgrim Press, 1990.

Gunneman, Louis. The Shaping of the United Church of Christ: An Essay in the History of American Christianity. New York: United Church Press, 1977.

Von Rohr, John. The Shaping of American Congregationalism, 1620–1957. Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim Press, 1992.

Zikmund, Barbara Brown, ed. Hidden Histories in the United Church of Christ. 2 vols. New York: United Church Press, 1984.

MargaretBendroth

See alsoCalvinism ; Congregationalism ; Evangelicalism and Revivalism ; Reformed Churches ; Social Gospel .

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United Church of Christ

United Church of Christ, American Protestant denomination formed in 1957 by a merger of the General Council of Congregational Christian Churches (see Congregationalism) and the Evangelical and Reformed Church. The constitution for the new body was adopted in July, 1961, thus completing the union. The statement of faith promulgated in 1959 maintains the noncreedal position common to both religious bodies, holding only to baptism and communion as sacraments, ordination as an act of laying on of hands, and local autonomy in all matters of worship, doctrine, and congregational life. A general synod of the whole church meets biennially and establishes the various agencies through which its social action, ecumenical work, and missionary work are carried out. The church has about 1.4 million members (1997).

See L. Gunnemann, The Shaping of the United Church of Christ (1977).

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United Church of Christ

United Church of Christ. The body formed in the USA by the union of the Congregational Christian churches with the Evangelical and Reformed in 1961.

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"United Church of Christ." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. 18 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"United Church of Christ." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Retrieved August 18, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/united-church-christ