United Church of Christ

views updated May 08 2018


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.


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.


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

United Church of Christ

views updated May 29 2018


A Protestant denomination formed June 25, 1957, by the union of the evangelical and reformed church and the General Council of the Congregational Christian Churches, the latter arose from a merger of the Congregational Churches and the Christian Church in 1931. It seeks to express more fully the oneness in Christ of the churches composing it, to make more effective their common witness to Him, and to serve His kingdom in the world. It acknowledges as its sole Head, Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Savior of all, and it acknowledges as sisters and brothers in Christ all who share in their confession. It looks to the Word of God in the Scriptures, and to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, to prosper its creative and redemptive work in the world. It claims as its own the faith of the historic church expressed in the ancient creeds and reclaimed in the basic insights of the Protestant Reformers.

Since both denominations were similar in belief, worship, and polity, their leaders began in the 1940s to explore the possibility of merger. A document called "The Basis of Union," outlining procedures and principles of church union, circulated through each denomination and was amended until it was acceptable to all. Both denominations independently gave official approval to this, thus leading to the uniting meeting of 1957.

The statement of faith of the United Church of Christ that was first adopted in 1959 includes the following:

We believe in God, the Eternal Spirit, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and our Father, and to his deeds we testify: He calls the worlds into being, creates man in his own image and sets before him the ways of life and death. He seeks in holy love to save all people from aimlessness and sin. He judges men and nations by his righteous will declared through prophets and apostles. In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Lord, he has come to us and shared our common lot, conquering sin and death and reconciling the world to himself. He bestows upon us his Holy Spirit, creating and renewing the Church of Jesus Christ, binding in covenant faithful people of all ages, tongues, and races. He calls us into his Church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship, to be his servants in the service of men, to proclaim the gospel to all the world and resist the powers of evil, to share in Christ's baptism and eat at his table, to join him in his passion and victory. He promises to all who trust him forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace, courage in the struggle for justice and peace, his presence in trial and rejoicing, and eternal life in his kingdom which has no end.

The United Church of Christ affirms the responsibility of the church in each generation to make the faith of the historic church its own in purity of heart before God. It recognizes two sacraments: Baptism and the Lord's Supper, or Holy Communion.

Polity. The United Church of Christ is composed of local churches, associations, conferences, and the general synod. The basic unit of its life and organization is the local church, which is composed of persons who are organized for Christian worship, for the furtherance of Christian fellowship, and for the continuing work of Christian witness. Persons usually become church members by (1) Baptism and either confirmation or profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior; (2) reaffirmation or reprofession of faith; or (3) letter of transfer or certification from other Christian churches.

The United Church of Christ embodies both presbyterianism and congregationalism. It embraces: (1) the local churches of the Evangelical and Reformed Church;(2) the local churches of the Congregational Christian fellowship, which vote to become a part of the United Church of Christ, or approve its constitution; (3) any local congregational Christian church which, although it has not voted to become a part of the United Church of Christ, or to approve its constitution, votes to join later; and (4) local churches of any denomination that seek membership under mutually satisfactory provisions.

Local Church. The autonomy of the local church is inherent, and modifiable only by its own action. Nothing in the constitution and bylaws of the United Church of Christ destroys or limits the right of each local church to continue to operate in the way customary to it, or gives to the general synod, or to any conference or association, now or at any future time, the power to abridge or impair the autonomy of any local church in the management of its own affairs. These affairs include, but are not limited to, the right to retain or adopt its own methods of organization, worship, and education; to retain or secure its own charter or name; to adopt its own constitution and bylaws; to formulate its own covenants and confessions of faith; to admit members in its own way and to provide for their discipline or dismissal; to call or dismiss its pastor or pastors by such procedure as it shall determine; to acquire, own, manage, and dispose of property and funds; to control its own benevolences; and to withdraw by its own decision from the United Church of Christ at any time without forfeiture of ownership or control of any real or personal property owned by it.

The privilege and responsibility of witnessing to the Gospel belong to every member of the church, which seeks to provide opportunities for teaching, evangelizing, healing, preaching, and administration; full-time service for various forms of ministry may be recognized by ordination, commissioning, or other appropriate services of dedication. Ordination is the rite whereby the United Church of Christ through an association, in cooperation with the local church, sets apart by prayer and laying on of hands those of its members whom God has called to the Christian ministry.

Association and Conference. An association is that body within a conference of the United Church of Christ which is composed of all local churches in a geographical area and of all ministers who have standing in that association. It may retain or secure its own charter and adopt its own constitution, bylaws, and other rules, which it deems essential to its own welfare and not inconsistent with the constitution and bylaws of the United Church of Christ. A conference is composed of all local churches in a geographical area and of all ministers who have standing in the associations of that conference or in the conference itself. The General Synod is the highest representative body of the United Church of Christ, comprising delegates chosen by the conferences, and of ex officio delegates; these constitute the voting delegates. The general synod has the following powers, provided, however, that no power vested in the general synod invades the autonomy of conferences, associations, and local churches, or impairs their right to acquire, own, manage, and dispose of property and funds: (1) it carries ondirectly and through its executive council, instrumentalities, and other bodiesthe work of the United Church of Christ, and provides for the financial support of this work; (2) it organizes as required for the transaction of business; (3) it nominates and elects officers chosen from its own membership; these, with the moderators, serve as officers of the general synod; (4) it establishes and maintains a national headquarters and central treasury; (5) it determines relationships with ecumenical organizations, world confessional bodies, and other interdenominational agencies; and (6) it looks to formal union with them when appropriate.

Areas of Concern. The United Church of Christ recognizes responsibilities at home and abroad for missions, fraternal aid and service, ecumenical relations, interchurch relations and Christian unity, education, publication, the ministry, ministerial pensions and relief, evangelism, stewardship, social action, health and welfare, and any other appropriate area of need or concern. The name instrumentalities is given to the boards and other organizations that serve as arms of the church.

The United Church of Christ is deeply concerned with Christian unity. It supports the world council of churches, the national council of the churches of christ in the u.s.a., and also the consultation on church union. It also established an ecumenical partnership with the Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ) in 1985. Its national headquarters are located in Cleveland, Ohio.

Bibliography: d. horton, The United Church of Christ: Its Origins, Organization, and Role in the World Today (New York 1962). f. s. mead, s. s. hill, and c. d. atwood, eds., Handbook of Denominations in the United States, 11th ed (Nashville 2001).

[j. r. willis/eds.]

United Church of Christ

views updated May 14 2018

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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