German Evangelicals and Swiss Reformed Seek Zion in the Southland

The Southern U.S., for the most part, was in the 19th century most unlike much of the rest of the country in that it was not considered hospitable to non-English-speaking immigrants. Other than in a few large cities, most surnames were decidedly of Anglo-Saxon origin, as were the churches they attended, descendants of the Great Awakenings that took place within the confines of English-derived Puritanism. But here and there, one could find exceptions. Among them were two German-speaking immigrant groups that birthed the several congregations of the Evangelical and Reformed tradition in Alabama and Tennessee. They started out in Bavaria and Switzerland, respectively, but brought their language, customs and religion with them to the new land.

FirstChurchBelvidere
First United Church, Belvidere TN

The settlers of Cullman, Alabama in 1874 and Gruetli, Tennessee in 1869 were seeking, like most settlers did in their time, more fertile land and more political and economic freedom than Europe would or could grant. In the case of Swiss emigrants to the hard, rocky soil of southeastern Tennessee, they had been hoodwinked by a fellow immigrant who had become the mayor of Knoxville [1]. The arrivals would have to make the best of a most disillusioning situation, made so by promises in promotional materials of lush, green pastures. The Swiss were practitioners of the Reformed faith, a compound of Calvinism and the peculiar teachings of Ulrich Zwingli, such as a conception of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism as having no special saving functions, as Lutherans and Catholics by contrast taught. Dissension, instigated in all likelihood by the new freedoms people felt from traditional clerical control in a new country, prevented the Reformed Church from taking deep root in Gruetli (Episcopalians would find the Swiss more congenial in later decades and formed a parish largely with their descendants) [2]. But a number of them, along with some people who originally settled in the Great Plains in search of a warmer climate, traveled some 40-50 miles to the southwest to a place about ten miles north of the Alabama border, called Belvidere. The mainly flat land was far more suitable for large-scale agriculture than the mountain country was, and it was there that another Reformed church, one known today as First United Church, UCC, was established, with names such as Stalder, Maurer, Glaus, Zulliger, Zaugg, Roggli, and Kasserman in the original membership. [3] Certain other of the Gruetli Swiss eventually made their way to the Nashville area, where dairying land in particular was abundant. These people eventually met with a Rev. von Gruenigen, a German-speaking Reformed pastor, who formed a church with them, today’s First United Church (E&R). [4] Both churches began the process of language and cultural assimilation well in advance of their Northern counterparts, who often deferred the process until the hand of anti-German sentiment during World War I forced the change to English-language services and confirmation classes.

As for Alabama, a progressive-minded military colonel who professed Protestantism in a staunchly Catholic place that Bavaria was, Johann G. Cullmann, led a group of several families from the overcrowded German-American redoubt of Cincinnati to an isolated place in the rolling hills of the north central part of the state, along the Louisville and Nashville Railroad. [5] The settlers were mainly of the Evangelical persuasion, which was the state church of many German principalities that combined elements of Lutheran and Reformed doctrine into a synthesis that emphasized piety, good works, and a staunch devotion to worship and education. Thus, the St. John’s Evangelical Protestant Church was created to meet the spiritual needs of the immigrants in a place that was otherwise Anglophile and revivalistic, something largely repellent to German sensibilities. Dissension did take place in later years, through, bringing about Missouri Synod Lutheran and more moderate Lutheran “children” churches, though. [6]. In a separate but somewhat related development in the 1890s, some German immigrants in Birmingham founded the German Evangelical Freidens Gemeinde, later known as St. John’s Evangelical Church.

Names like Klebs, Behrens, Schaefer, Steck, Puls, Bude, and Denker were on the rolls of the fledgling fellowship, located as it was in a place known for more exotic ethnicities such as Italian and Greek and even Russian, than German. [7]

All four of the congregations were strongly family-oriented by today’s standards and considered themselves conservative in the literal sense of preserving traditional European Protestantism in the face of assaults from free thinking on the one hand and emotion-based fervor on the other. All greatly honored their pastors, who were supposed to be educated—and educators, particularly of the young for the age-old rite of confirmation at the “age of accountability,” roughly twelve to fourteen. As the Evangelicals and the Reformed in the American scene began to very closely resemble each other in terms of worship, piety, theology, and mission, they looked toward organizational union. This happened in 1934, with the Tennessee churches coming from the Kentucky Classis (presbytery) of the Reformed Church in the United States and  the Alabama churches coming from the Southern District (largely centered in New Orleans) of the Evangelical Synod of North America into the South Indiana Synod of the new Evangelical and Reformed Church several years later. As the name might suggest, the bulk of the churches were in that state, and as the president of that synod recognized, “Situated on a north-south line approximately 432 miles from Louisville (Kentucky), it was necessary in past years for delegates to travel by train to that city in order to meet with their brethren. It was practically impossible for many to do this.” [8] In 1952, this was remedied by the establishment of an Alabama-Tennessee section of the Synod for fellowship purposes, with each congregation taking turns hosting.

By the 1950s, all were experiencing their share of the resurgence in American religion, with First E&R Church in Nashville able to move to the Green Hills neighborhood, leaving behind an outmoded building in a part of town where few of their members resided in the first place. The other churches, meanwhile, enhanced their physical facilities and programs to meet the needs of growing families. As the proceedings gained momentum for yet another merger, this time into what would become the UCC, there were predictable apprehensions in each of the four churches. With the necessary geographical realignment that would come would come also potential fellowship with churches not of their peculiar temperament, activism-minded liberal Congregational churches on the one hand and revival-minded “Congregational Christian” ones on the other. To make matters more anxious still, each faction within the Southeast Convention was debating the desirability of integrating the fellowship to make the UCC in the South bi- racial. E&R attitudes toward joining the Convention to become the Southeast Conference ran the gamut from enthusiastic support to determined opposition, although the evidence is mainly anecdotal, with no records of organized caucuses or the like. Unlike other parts of the country, controversial attention was focused upon the race issue, meaning that the E&R churches got lost in the shuffle and may not have gotten the proper attention from national, South Indiana Synod and Southeast Convention officials that their co-religionists in the North did.

Whether they wanted it or not, the E&R churches had no recourse but to go along, since their national constitution and bylaws did not at the time permit withdrawal as did the Congregational Christian tradition. And the UCC would bring changes aplenty to each congregation, as did the times in which the merger occurred, with many aspects of American life and Protestant faith under challenge from newer, more liberation-minded ideas. By and large, only First Church in Belvidere remained relatively unscathed by the turbulence. The other churches, in various ways conditioned by their past histories, reacted largely negatively to the denomination at large’s embrace of new-fangled notions about worship, doctrine, and scope of mission activity.

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St. John’s Evangelical Protestant, Cullman, AL

In 1968, St. John’s UCC in Cullman, Alabama called George Fidler, from the North Carolina Reformed tradition, to its pastorate. The North Carolina church represented a rather different subculture of the E&R Church, where revivals were not uncommon and testimonial experience was elevated to a higher level in the dogmatic scheme of things than elsewhere in the denomination. He brought his preferences to help refresh a church that had been dying out from cultural inbreeding, and it paid results in large increases of membership during the 1970s, with St. John’s becoming the largest congregation in the entire Southeast Conference for many years. But, of course, it came with a price, as Fidler began vocally criticizing the rest of the denomination for not holding to his traditionalist interpretation of scripture and engaging in what he considered advocacy for causes contrary to the beliefs of most all his membership. By the latter part of his nearly quarter-century pastorate, he simply dropped out of UCC life and governed the church as if it were independent. Meanwhile, to the south, in 1960, Birmingham’s St. John’s Church called an openly fundamentalist pastor to its pulpit, George Hewson, who, despite showing some initial leadership in the SEC transition, decided by the end of the decade he had had enough, and encouraged his parish to withdraw from the UCC, becoming independent in fact, not just in practice. The congregation years later relocated to the suburbs and took a different name.

With several nearby neighbors, Nashville’s First E&R Church cautiously participated in inter- church gatherings with Brookmeade Congregational and Howard Congregational churches. But, on the whole, the congregation never was comfortable with the UCC or the Conference, despite its generous support of Our Church’s Wider Mission (OCWM) until 2005. Things moved in a more independent, conservative-minded direction when, in 1987, a former television sportscaster, Robert Kurtz, became pastor. Kurtz led that congregation for several years when he was called by the Cullman church, of all places, to succeed Fidler. It was there that his and that congregation’s relationship to the UCC deteriorated beyond repair, particularly when Tim Downs came to the conference minister position. Calling upon some old friends in Texas, Kurtz and St. John’s officials laid the groundwork in the late 1990s for the new Evangelical Association, a conservative alternative to the UCC for mainly former E&R congregations. By 2002, when the Cullman congregation modified its constitution and bylaws to remove its relationship to the UCC, it was all over. St. John’s continues today as an independent church loosely affiliated to the EA, while Nashville, by then known as First United Church (E&R), afterward had a bad experience with a female pastor running headlong into the staunch traditionalism there and opposition to the “Open and Affirming” program among some congregants. Nashville discontinued support of OCWM in the mid-2000s and now no longer participates in larger UCC functions, although it is still on the membership roll. Its prospects for future survival, like many inner-focused churches of various persuasions, are very much doubtful.

Surprisingly enough, the Belvidere church emerged as the most loyal church to the UCC despite being located in a mostly conservative rural area and having a significant portion of its membership more concerned about affirming community norms rather than challenging them. Unlike Cullman, it has had a larger vision outside its own walls, with generous support of OCWM and other mission work. Unlike Nashville, it did not react with vehemence against women pastors (it has had several in recent years) and was more open to “outsiders” in the larger community, perhaps because of a relative lack of competition in the moderate-to-liberal church market (for lack of a better term) in that community. But comparisons aside, despite the norm of short pastor tenures and isolation from other UCC congregations (a problem afflicting the majority of Southeast Conference churches), it may well emerge as the sole survivor of   the

Evangelical and Reformed tradition. Such reminds one of the Parable of the Seed and Sower; after all, the seedbed was a new land.

NOTES

[1] David E. Clayton, Forgotten Colony (n.p.: David E. Clayton, 1971), 3.
[2] Ibid., 7-8.
[3] First United Church, United Church of Christ, Belvidere, Tennessee: The 125th Anniversary, 1873-1998, 2-3.
[4] From an unpublished (very) brief history of the congregation.
[5] Centennial of the St. John’s United Church, Rev. George A. Fidler, Pastor, Cullman, Alabama (1974), no pagination.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Golden Jubilee, 1898-1948, St. John’s Evangelical and Reformed Church, Birmingham, Alabama, Carl H. Kluge, Pastor, 2.
[8] Paul J. Schlueter, “New Section in South Indiana Synod,” in The Messenger, February 24, 1953, 29.