The History of the United Church of Christ
The United Church of Christ is a part of the whole (or "catholic," i.e., universal) Church of Christ existing for the sake of the whole world (the "ecumene" from which "ecumenical" derives). The UCC has its own particular roots and emphases, stemming largely from the Protestant Reformation in Europe and the missionary activities of the North American frontier. Located largely in the United States of America, the UCC is related to other denominations and to churches or mission efforts in many other lands. The first President of the UCC, Ben Herbater, said that for the United Church of Christ to be true to itself it must be a uniting Church.
One result of Protestant thought in England was an attempt to "purify" (hence "Puritan") the Church of England, an established order under the authority of kings, queens and parliament. A minority of the Puritans wished to separate themselves from the religious establishment. This minority included a congregation at Scrooby which fled persecution to Leyden, Holland, in 1609. From there they moved on, in 1620, to Plymouth, New England, on the ship "Mayflower." On reaching Cape Cod, they drafted a simple covenant: "The Mayflower Compact." shortly thereafter others followed, including groups who organized ("gathered") congregations at Salem (1628), Charlestown (1632) and Newtowne (Cambridge - 1633). The first pastor at Cambridge, Thomas Hooker, went on with most of the early congregation to found Hartford, Connecticut, where he drafted the first constitution for representative government in the western hemisphere. Eleven remaining members, new immigrants and another pastor, Thomas Shepard, organized a continuing congregation in Cambridge in 1636. Later that year a College was started in Cambridge due to the influence of Shepard, begun with the legacy of John Harvard, Minister in Charlestown.
Congregations spread throughout New England and the congregational form of government left its stamp upon others who became Baptists and Disciples of Christ, et al, and on the forms of civil government. The influence of the congregational way was widespread; including schools and colleges, mission societies and social movements. Highlights include:
In 1929 the Congregational Churches united with the Christian Churches, a body of diverse roots in New England, the Carolinas and Kentucky that had come together in 1920.
Meanwhile, since 1725 in Pennsylvania, German and Swiss Protestants had been organizing churches from the mid-Atlantic states to the midwest and beyond. In the 18th century these churches constituted the Reformed Church in the United States. The 19th century immigration in the Missouri and Ohio valleys led to the Evangelical Synod of North America. These two bodies united into the Evangelical and Reformed Church in 1934.
The background of the Evangelical and Reformed Church featured creation of colleges and seminaries, numerous welfare institutions (hospitals, children's homes, etc.), and mission endeavors. The tradition also showed support for the American Revolution and the Union in the Civil War. Although organized along synodical or presbyterial lines, there was considerable flexibility and a remarkable exercise of theological scholarship.
From discussions as early as 1941, the Congregational Christian Churches formally united with the Evangelical and Reformed Church in 1957. With a provision for complete congregational freedom, there is a structure of association and common endeavors. There are unity conversations underway with other denominations and conciliar relations at many levels. For a number of years mission efforts in higher education have been shared with other denominations (through United Ministries in Higher Education). The United Church of Christ is organized into:
Normally the Associations are informal although pastoral standing is given by an Association. Generally the Conferences have staff and program resources. The General Synod sustains a variety of services, including major support of the Board for Homeland Ministries and the Board for World Ministries. Each major structural entity in the United Church of Christ, including each congregation, is both representative and free to make its own decisions. At best, it is a system of church order that seeks to be responsive to the lead of God's Spirit, but it does not claim any divine status or exclusivity for its structure as such.
It is also well to remember that, at this point in time, the United Church of Christ is as diverse as the peoples of the world. Not even counting its sister churches in many other lands, on a given Sunday morning in the US, the United Church is singing its praises to God in Armenian, Hungarian, Spanish, Japanese, and German languages as well as numerous English dialects. While its history can be traced continuously to the first Pentecost of the Apostolic Church, its breadth is incalculable and its future is fully expectant that God will lead it into further paths of service, challenge, suffering and the eventual victory of Christ.Back to Top
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