The Penn Central Conference of the United Church of Christ and the Heidelberg Catechism

The Penn Central Conference of the United Church of Christ and the Heidelberg Catechism

An examination of Kirchengemeinschaft though the lens of the Heidelberg Catechism

Many of the churches of Penn Central Conference were planted in central Pennsylvania almost three hundred years ago.  While that is perhaps not so long in comparison with the history of the German congregations in our partnership, in the United States, it predates the actual founding of our country.  The people who came to the “colonies” from Germany were mostly from the area of the Palatinate, with a few from Switzerland.  They came especially for the economic opportunities that emigration afforded, perhaps more so than for the purpose of escaping religious persecution, as was more the case for some of our other founding strands of the United Church of Christ.  Still, as noted by Rev. Ernst Hawk, author of the introduction to Blessed Past, Bold Future:  Penn Central Conference Celebrating 50 Years, 1963-2013, “[A] driving force for change and reform was war.  Out of the turmoil and suffering of the Thirty Years’ War with its shattering conflicts between Catholics and Protestants and among Lutherans and other Protestants, came a westward migration that looked toward the recently discovered continent across the Atlantic Ocean as a haven and place of hope amid new beginnings.”

In his book A Pilgrim People, Charles Maxfield wrote: “German Reformed people reach Pennsylvania by the 1690’s.  Motivated by the desires for peace, religious freedom, and material security, they brought with them their Bibles, The Heidelberg Catechism and Psalm Book.”

When they came to the United States, one of the first acts of the people who emigrated from Germany was to establish churches.  In a kind of parallel to our German partners, churches here in central Pennsylvania were often founded in close connection with the Lutheran church.  Until mid-20th century, it was extremely common to find in our small towns and villages a “Union” Church, which may have been served by either one or two pastors, but held two worship services in one building.   

Perhaps the best-known pastor to the German Reformed people in the earliest days was John Philip Boehm, who had been a teacher in Germany.  Not yet ordained, still he was asked to serve communion at Falkner Swamp in October 1725.  He became an itinerant preacher, traveling over 25,000 miles by horse throughout eastern and central Pennsylvania.  He was quickly followed. 

Again quoting Hawk, “The Heidelberg-educated and ordained pastor, George Michael Weiss, arrived from Germany in 1727.  He later went to Holland to seek support for his congregations.  Having accomplished what he set out to do, he returned in 1731 to minister among German Reformed people in New York.  Other congregations soon sprang up, but these churches had nothing to tie them together.  There were 48 congregations scattered throughout the eastern portion of Pennsylvania.  In 1747 Michael Schlatter gathered these congregations in an organization called the Coetus.”

Though Hawk asserts that there was nothing to tie these churches together organizationally [and he is right], they were certainly bound by the Heidelberg Catechism.  To this very day, the Heidelberg Catechism is such a foundational document for the Reformed “strand” of the United Church of Christ that it appears in its entirety on the UCC website [translation courtesy of the Reformed Church in America].  This fact alone, however, cannot begin to explain the significance of the Catechism for our history in Penn Central Conference.

In volume 3 of the Living Theological Heritage, in the introduction to an article written by Jeremiah Good and Henry Harbaugh in 1849 and entitled “The Heidelberg Catechism,” the authors wrote:  The German Reformed Church was “the Church of the Heidelberg Catechism.” [emphasis added].  From the time of the founding of the church in America, in every trial of identity and survival, its leaders turned to this confessional standard as the plumb line of good theology, the lens for reading Scripture, the fountain of piety.  During the 1840s, the Heidelberg Catechism provided a much-needed common ground when theological conflicts threatened to undo “Reformed Zion.”

Harbaugh and Good both set about to translate the Heidelberg Catechism in the mid-1840s, to make the work more accessible to second and third generation immigrants some of whom no longer spoke fluent German.  On learning of each others’ intent, they agreed to collaborate.  Their English edition was published in 1849.  In the article in the Living Theological Heritage, Good and Harbaugh list some of the advantages of an English translation.  They commend it not only to pastors for catechesis, but also for Sunday School and for bible study.  They recommend that parents be encouraged to use such a translation at home.  Their compelling argument was that a child who memorized the Catechism would be well provided with a faith foundation for life.

At the end of their article, Harbaugh and Good gave nine suggestions for using the Catechism.  They believed that memorization was hugely important and that even in catechesis, parents must be involved.  It is interesting to note that to this day, many pastors and older church members can still remember being required to memorize the Heidelberg Catechism during the process of their own catechesis.  Many were examined in the congregation on a Sunday morning prior to being confirmed, being asked without forewarning to quote one of the “Sabbaths” and its proof.

Dr. Lee C. Barrett III, esteemed Mary B. and Henry P. Stager Chair in Theology at Lancaster Theological Seminary in Lancaster, Pennsylvania [systematic theology], adds this comment regarding the Mercersburg Movement:  “…when the church split theologically into Mercersburg and Ursinus factions (one oriented toward incarnation, the centrality of the sacraments and gradual nurture in the faith, and the other toward the atonement, the primacy of preaching, and the need for conversion), it was a continuing commitment to the Heidelberg Catechism by both parties that served as the basis of the decision of both groups in the 1870’s to remain in fellowship in spite of their profound theological and liturgical differences. I think that this is important, for it shows how, in general, the Heidelberg Catechism has served as a unifying document in the German Reformed heritage.”

Noted United Church of Christ historian Barbara Brown Zikmund wrote in an article for United Church News: “This message of divine support for the faithful is at the center of German reformed theology. It also is captured in the music of the so-called “Mercersburg Hymn,” which many UCC people memorized as children, “Jesus, I Live to Thee/You” (# 254 in The Hymnal and # 457 in The New Century Hymnal). This hymn, written around 1860 by local Pennsylvania pastor and later seminary professor, the Rev. Henry Harbaugh, insists that whether we live or die, our lives depend upon God in Christ Jesus. “Jesus, I live to you, the loveliest and best; My life will be your life in me, in your blessed love I rest.”

Is the Heidelberg Catechism still a living theological document in Penn Central Conference in 2013?  I would assert that it most assuredly is.  Monthly, a group of interested, self-selected pastors meet for a “Heidelberg Catechism Study Group” at the Conference office.  Several of them have written sermons, articles, pamphlets, and yes even a humor book on subjects of the Catechism.

 In addition, Dr. Barrett found the Heidelberg Catechism to be of such compelling importance to our history and theology that he undertook to publish a new translation, issued by Pilgrim Press in 2007.  From the Pilgrim Press website:

“An introduction briefly describes the role of catechisms in the life of the church and explains the historical dynamics that led to the composition of The Heidelberg Catechism. It includes a synopsis of the catechism’s distinctive theological emphases as well as suggestions about the ongoing relevance for churches in a post-Christendom environment. It explains doctrinal terms. The book is designed for new church members, confirmation students, and persons seeking ministerial standing.”

Though few may use it in confirmation classes any longer, or require students to memorize the “Sabbaths”, the Heidelberg Catechism remains more than just a connection to our past.  We are proud of its history in central Pennsylvania, we still discuss its tenets, and we continue to be informed by the theology and teaching that is central to its history and use.