The Heritage of United Church


The United Church of Huntsville is a congregation of the United Church of Christ. Our history and tradition began with the first followers of Jesus Christ. In the beginning there was one church. Although within a very short time, that one church became a diverse organization. At first all Christians were Jews. But then Romans, Greeks, Iberians, Gauls, Germans, Celts, Arabs, Copts, Parthians – all ethnic groups within the Roman Empire and on the borders of the Empire – began professing faith in the gospel. The Christian Church quickly became multi-cultural, embracing a remarkable diversity of faith and practice.

X five streams all        This morning we are going to concentrate on the five major streams of tradition that have come together to make the United Church of Christ: the Congregational, the Christian, the German Reformed, the German Evangelical, and the American Missionary Association tradition of African American churches. The truth is, however, most members of the United Church of Christ come from some religious heritage beyond the five major streams of our denomination’s tradition. If you look at the “Origins of the United Church of Christ” diagram in your bulletin, you will see that if you grew up Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or any one of a hundred denominations, you still share in the roots of our heritage. This morning, because our time is limited, I want to concentrate our attention on a taste, both literally and figuratively, of the five historic streams of our heritage.

X CONGREGATIONAL ROOTS            Our congregational roots can be traced back to the Protestant Reformation in England. For political purposes Henry VIII declared the Anglican Church to be independent of the Pope in 1534. Henry was a religious conservative and retained the Latin Mass and preserved most Catholic doctrine. When Henry died in 1547, however, Lutheran and Reformed theology invaded England from the continent.   For over 100 years the English argued and fought over how “Catholic” or “Protestant” the Anglican Church should be. The most radical “Protestants” became known as Puritans, because of their desire to “purify” the Church of England of Roman influences and practices.

X PILGRIM CHURCH IN LEIDEN          Some Puritans concluded that the Church of England could not be purified and sought to separate from the Church and formed a movement that became known as the “Separatists.” Congregationalism can probably be traced to the founding of “The Privye Church”, a Separatist congregation, in 1567. The Congregationalists were persecuted. One of their leaders Robert Browne was imprisoned 32 times and finally fled to the Netherlands. There other Separatists joined him. The Separatist community finally settled in Leiden, Holland and elected John Robinson as their Pastor. (This is a picture of the Church where the Pilgrims worshipped in Leiden.) Pastor Robinson and the congregation’s lay leader William Brewster formulated the vision of a purified religious colony in the New World to establish the Kingdom of God in America.

The youngest and most physically strong members of the congregation were selected for the rigors of the advance party of the Plymouth Plantations. Pastor Robinson remained behind with the majority of the congregation with the intention of following as soon as possible. (He ended up dying in Holland. This is a picture of a monument in Leiden erected in his honor.) As he bid farewell to the members of his flock who had boarded the Mayflower, Pastor Robinson, uttered these most important words that have shaped our spiritual heritage:

X MONUMENT JOHN ROBINSON            Bretheren, we are now erelong to part asunder, and the Lord knoweth whether I shall live ever to see your faces more. But whether the Lord hath appointed it or not, I charge you before god and His blessed angels to follow me no farther than I have followed Christ. If god should reveal anything to you by any other instrument of His, be as ready to receive it as ever you were to receive any truth of my ministry; for I am very confident the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth out of his Holy word.

God’s revelation is in process, it is unfolding. Each generation must interpret and re-interpret God’s word in their own time and place. Sort of like the second half of the second verse of “Once to Every Man and Nation”: New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth; they must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.

X DEMOCRATIC IDEALS    X SOCIAL ACTIVISM EMPOWER WOMEN  In addition to a theological openness, our congregational tradition with its emphasis on the self-governance of the congregation contributed to the democratic ideals that led to the American Revolution. Our Congregational tradition was keen on issues of social justice. Our Congregational churches were very active in the abolitionist movement. Women were allowed to vote in the early congregational meetings, and the Congregational churches were the first to ordain a woman, Antoinette Brown, in 1853. Her formal ministry was short, for she soon married a physician, Samuel Blackwell, who was the brother of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman physician in America. The first woman minister and the first woman physician were sisters-in-law. Antoinette Brown lived to cast her first vote in 1920 at the age of 95. Another important lay woman in the Congregational movement for the abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage was Julia Ward Howe who wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” As a musical taste of our congregational heritage let’s sing the first verse of “the Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

X BAKED BEANS BROWN BREAD 2       The food we have chosen for our taste of congregationalism is New England Baked Beans and Brown Bread. We usually associate the Pilgrims with Thanksgiving Dinner. But Baked Beans and Brown Bread were the typical Sunday Dinner of the Pilgrims and Puritans. We must remember that these spiritual ancestors believed in strict Sabbath observance. Everyone, including women were supposed to rest on the Sabbath. On Saturdays the women would fire up their ovens, baking bread, pies, and other staples. At the end of the day the bean pot was placed in the oven, the door was shut, and the fire was allowed to burn itself out. Then in the heat left in the oven the beans were slowly baked until Sunday at Noon, when the morning worship ended. The still warm bean pot could be removed from the oven to provide a hot meal for the family.

White flour was scarce in early New England. Brown Bread utilized the ingredients at hand: corn meal, rye flour and molasses. Both Baked Beans and Brown Bread were foods that reflected the struggle for survival in the New World.

X GERMAN REFORMED HERITAGE           Our German Reformed Heritage came to America in the late 1600’s and early 1700’s. Germany had been devastated by the 30 Years War from 1618 – 1648. Through war, disease and starvation the population had been reduced from 16 million to 6 million. In the face of those hardships German peasants began looking for a new life in the New World. Amish, Mennonite, Lutheran, Reformed they came to Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia and North Carolina. Settling in great numbers North and West of Philadelphia these Germans began to gather themselves into congregations. At first there were no ordained clergy available and lay preachers conducted worship services. One of these lay leaders, John Philip Boehm, a schoolmaster, was prevailed upon by several congregations to conduct a communion service for the first time on October 15, 1725 at Falkner Swamp with 40 members present.

The American Reformed Congregations came under the care and benevolence of the Dutch Reformed Church. The Dutch sent ministers and money to assist in the formation of more congregations. In many rural areas there weren’t enough persons of Reformed or Lutheran background to form two congregations. So, many communities formed “Union Churches,” with one church building being shared by a Lutheran and a Reformed congregation. Sometimes these “Union Churches” even shared a pastor. Several of these “Union Churches” still exist today in Pennsylvania.

X REFORM GERMANS FOUGHT         Unlike their Amish and Mennonite neighbors, the German Reformed congregations supported the American Revolution by providing soldiers, arms and money. When the British captured Philadelphia, Reformed farmers wrapped the Liberty bell and the bells of Christ Church in potato sacks and hauled them to Allentown, Pennsylvania, where Pastor Abraham Blumer hid them under the floor of Zion Reformed Church.

Our Reformed Tradition has contributed a unique spirituality with an emphasis upon formal theology, the sacraments, a valuing of ancient creedal traditions, and an appreciation of liturgy. The Mercersburg Movement within the German Reformed Church was very “High Church,” cultivating worship traditions many congregationalists and Christian church people X REFORMED FORMAL LITURGYwould consider “Roman Catholic.” For instance, at Salem United Church of Christ in Allentown, where I served for a short time, there were kneelers in the pews, and the congregation knelt for the prayer of consecration during communion. Much of the more formal liturgy found in the United Church of Christ Book of Worship and in the New Century Hymnal is an outgrowth of our German Reformed heritage.

For a musical taste of our German Reformed heritage let’s sing the first verse of “Lift Up Your Heads” found in the insert in our bulletin.

For our German Reformed food taste this morning we have several side dishes at our Heritage Dinner at Noon. We will have “Red Beet Eggs,” Shoo Fly Pie, Sauerkraut, Pickled Red Cabbage, and Chow-Chow. Now I know some people think Chow-Chow is a relish. But Chow-Chow X PICKLING BEFORE CANNINGis actually pickled vegetables. We have to remember that when the German Reformed People came to America there was no modern canning. Most food items to be kept for any length of time had to be pickled in crocks. When the first frost threatened, Pennsylvania Germans would pull everything out of the garden, cut it up, par boil it, and put it in pickling juice in crocks. That became Chow-Chow.   The Pennsylvania Dutch claim that for variety every table should have seven sweets and seven sours.

X CHRISTIAN CHURCH TRADITION           Our Christian Church tradition traces its origins to the Frontier experience of the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. In Virginia, Vermont and Kentucky the Second Great Awakening spawned revivals that transcended denominational identities. Many adherents of this movement rejected denominational competition and chose to identify themselves simply as Christians. The idea spread. Soon there were many churches X SIX PRINCIPLESon the frontier that were loosely connected. The first United General Conference of Christians unanimously affirmed six principles of faith:

    1. Christ is the only head of the Church.
    2. The Bible is the sufficient rule of faith and practice.
    3. Christian character is the only measurement for membership.
    4. The right of private judgment, interpretation of scripture, and liberty of conscience is to be honored.
    5. The name “Christian” is worthy for Christ’s followers.
    6. Unity of all Christ’s followers in behalf of the world is the goal.

Christian Churches spread through Vermont, New Hampshire, Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama. With the coming of the Civil War the Christian Churches split North and South. During reconstruction, several African American Christian Churches formed their own conventions. More and more, the churches that formed in protest to denominationalism began to look like denominations. Further splits occurred over baptism, communion, and scriptural inerrancy. The Christian Churches that joined with the Congregationalists in 1935 were the most theologically liberal element of the Christian Church Movement.

For a taste of music from our Christian Church Tradition let’s sing the first verse of “What A Friend We Have In Jesus.”

X REVIVAL FRIED CHICKENThe food we have chosen from our Christian Church tradition is Revival Fried Chicken. Doctor David Shepherd was an important pastor to emerge from our Christian Church roots. He was instrumental in the gathering of the Southeast Conference. He also served as interim pastor here at United Church twice. And there is a story I like told by James Mason, who attended a Christian Church in East Central Alabama, where Dr. Shepherd preached more than one revival. James asked Dr. Shepherd why they always served Fried Chicken at revivals. And Dr. Shepherd looked at James and smiled and said, “because it’s so good.” We should also note that in the rural South, where people didn’t have much, most people kept at least a few chickens. So at Noon we will enjoy some of that so good revival fried chicken.

GERMAN EVANGELICAL HERITAGEThe German Evangelical stream of our heritage came to America in the 1840’s and 1850’s. This wave of German immigration settled mainly in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Kentucky, and Missouri. Coming to America 100 – 150 years after the German Reformed Migration, these German Evangelicals had experienced the merger of the Lutheran and Reformed Churches into the German Evangelical Church in Germany. Many of these German Evangelicals came to America fleeing the oppression of the Prussian State. They quickly organized schools, hospitals, nursing homes, orphanages. Many German Evangelical Congregations joined the abolitionist movement, and sent soldiers into the Union X REINHOLD NIEBUHRArmy. The German Evangelicals brought with them the spiritual warmth of German Pietism, cultivating personal devotions, and small prayer groups to nurture faith. Two important 20th century theologians arose out of our German Evangelical heritage: H. Richard Niebuhr and Reinhold Niebuhr.   Both brothers were recognized for their work in promoting Christian concern for social issues. Reinhold is credited with having composed the famous serenity prayer, that I want to read in its entirety, since many people are only acquainted with the opening paragraph:

God grant me the serenity

To accept the things I cannot change;

Courage to change the things I can;

And wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;

Enjoying one moment at a time;

Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;

Taking, as He did, this sinful world

As it is, not as I would have it;

Trusting that He will make all things right

If I surrender to His Will;

That I may be reasonably happy in this life

And supremely happy with Him

Forever in the next. Amen.

Evangelical piety radiates from that prayer, and is part of the warmth and depth of spirituality that our German Evangelical tradition brought into the United Church of Christ.

For a musical taste of our German Evangelical Tradition let’s sing the first verse of “We Plow the Fields and Scatter.”

X SAUERBRATEN POTATO FILLING           For our food taste of German Evangelical Tradition we will have Sauerbraten and Potato Filling this morning. If you have never tasted Sauerbraten you are in for treat at Noon. Potato Filling represents the frugality of those German pioneers. Don’t let anything go to waste. Save the stale bread mix it with mashed potatoes and a little of this and a little of that and stretch your food supply.

X AMER MISSIONARY ASSO HERITAGE            The final stream of our heritage this morning is the American Missionary Association African American Congregations. After the Civil War, congregational missionaries came to the South to found churches and schools for freed slaves. Several great Universities grew out of that X LEADER IN CIVIL RIGHTSmovement: Fisk, Talladega, LeMoyne-Owne, Huston-Tillotson, Dillard, and Tougaloo. Here in North Alabama the AMA founded a High School and what is today Trinity United Church of Christ in Athens. The AMA Schools and Churches have provided some of the most powerful leadership in the United Church of Christ. Presently, the largest congregation in the United Church of Christ is Trinity U.C.C. on the South Side of Chicago home to more than 8,000 members. Trinity U.C.C. was formed by alumni of the AMA colleges, who moved North, during the great African American migration of the early Twentieth Century. The African American heritage in the United Church of Christ provided important leadership to the Civil Rights movement and other struggles for social justice. The African American stream of our heritage has also provided a spiritual warmth and enthusiasm to our tradition at the same time emphasizing scholarship and education.

X BLACK EYED PEAS CORN BREAD            For a musical taste from our African American heritage I was tempted to chose a spiritual, but instead I would suggest that we sing the first verse of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” This important song honors the contribution our AMA tradition made to the leadership in the struggle for Civil Rights for all Americans.

For a food taste this morning from our African American heritage we will have black-eyed peas and corn bread. Like the New England Baked Beans and brown bread, black-eyed peas and corn bread are good solid food of a poor but dignified people. All of God’s children got shoes. We are all loved by our creator. (Begin Fairest Lord Jesus)

X RICHNESS OF DIFFERENCE   United Church has members from every stream of our United Church of Christ tradition. We also have a wide diversity of members who grew up outside of the United Church of Christ. We are able to live together and enjoy the richness of our differences, because we believe and defend the right of each member to follow his or her own conscience. As we eat and sample the diversity of food in a few minutes feel what a rich and wonderful offering our United Church of Huntsville truly is – a gift of God to each one of us.



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