St. Johns was organized following the Civil War as a movement swept through the German Reformed Church to worship in English rather than German. In Allentown, a petition to establish an English-speaking congregation was reluctantly granted by the East Pennsylvania Classis of the Reformed Church, December 6, 1865. The following month, January 15, 1866, St. John’s English Reformed Church was organized and incorporated. Land was purchased at the northwest corner of Sixth and Walnut Streets and our original building was constructed. We worship at this same site today.
A booklet, produced to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of St. John’s, states, “On the evening of December 28, 1865, under the receding shadow of the glorious Christmas Day, the brethren assembled in Academy Hall, corner of Eighth and Walnut Streets,… and organized the Sunday school which was to be the nucleus of the new congregation…” “Then on January 15, 1866… the first Consistory of the congregation was elected…” These men were ordained and installed on the evening of January 29th. The cornerstone was laid in the early fall of 1867, and the sanctuary was dedicated in 1869.
The original church was built without a separate Sunday School. In 1871, a basement was added for this purpose. Later, additional land was purchased adjoining the church to the north for a chapel, which was built in 1890. In 1900, when an organ was installed, it became necessary to build an annex to accommodate the Primary Department of the Sunday School. In the mid-eighteen-eighties, towers were built to accommodate a carillon of nine bells. These bells remain the only hand operated carillon in the city. At the same time, the church was remodeled and refurnished. In 1909 reredos and a memorial window were presented in memory of Dr. Samuel G. Wagner. Though the reredos was removed by later remodeling, the beautiful window was relocated and can be seen next to the western entrance to the first floor of the church building.
Additional changes included renovations in 1912 when the main entrance to the church was changed and the interior completely transformed. In the fall of 1916 the chapel also underwent a series of changes.
During further renovations in 1922, a fire burned the roof of the church and completely destroyed the interior. The subsequent rebuilding resulted in a design which brought the interior design into conformity with the exterior of the building. A comment by a church official stated that, “with the Byzantine finish of the interior, we now have one of the finest and most harmonious examples of Romanesque architecture in America.”
Following World War II, the growth in numbers of families in church pointed to the need for improved educational facilities. The Church School building was renovated and rebuilt in 1952. Several years later a planning committee for the renovation of the church was appointed and a parish house at 45 South 16th Street was purchased. Contracts for the complete rebuilding program and renovations of the church, the refurbishing of the Organ and the construction of a church school building were awarded in 1961.
A large stained glass window was installed in the large hall facing Sixth Street in 1961 and three windows were added above the balcony facing Sixth Street in 1986. In 1989, new stained glass windows in the nave completed the transformation of the sanctuary initiated in the 1950’s. These windows, the window in the large hall, those above the balcony and the beautiful dossal curtain behind the altar all harmonize and together with the music, preaching, scriptures and liturgy become an integral part of telling who we are as a people of faith within the United Church of Christ, what we believe and how we believe.
The Development of the German Reformed Church and the Formation of the United Church of Christ
Our Reformed Church roots go back to 16th century Germany and Switzerland. There leaders such as John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli differed from their Lutheran brethren on the interpretation of Holy Communion and on matters of church policy. Those of the Reformed tradition emphasized the symbolic nature of the bread and wine. This Reformed movement later spread into France and Holland, and Scotland where it became known as the Presbyterian Church.
Our fore bearers brought the German Reformed Church to America and settled in eastern Pennsylvania and Maryland. It is there and in contiguous areas that we find many of the churches which used the German language almost exclusively for nearly a century and a half. It should be noted, however, that as early as 1804, Reformed Churches in Philadelphia began the transition to services conducted in English.
Through the years, our denomination has grown and changed through mergers with other traditions. In 1934 the Reformed Church united with the Evangelical Synod of North America to create the Evangelical and Reformed Church. In 1957 the Evangelical and Reformed Church merged with the Congregational Christian Churches (the heirs of the New England Pilgrims and Puritans) to create the present United Church of Christ, which has a membership of more than two million nationwide. We continue to pursue our ecumenical vision, cooperating with many other religious traditions, guided by the fervent prayer of Christ for the church, “that they may all be one.”
St. John’s: A Community of Faith in Mission
Throughout its history, St. John’s UCC has been a congregation proud of its outreach and mission. For example, the brochure prepared for our 50th Anniversary suggested that, “spiritual influences cannot be understated. If interest in all missionary, benevolent, and institutional operations of the church is an indication of spiritual health, and growth, it must be said that the spiritual leaven has been working and has wrought commendable results.”
St. John’s continues its strong commitment to mission and benevolence. We actively support UCC affiliated institutions such as Phoebe Home, Bethany Home, and Lancaster Theological Seminary. Through our Community Benevolence Fund and benevolence giving we continue to support numerous efforts to promote justice and peace and enhance the lives of women and children in the Lehigh Valley and beyond. Many of our members, led by their faith, have been deeply involved as volunteers in efforts to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, and provide hope for the despairing.
We actively support the work of the UCC, The Penn Northeast Conference of the UCC, The Board for Homeland Ministries and the Board for World Ministries through Our Churches Wider Mission (OCWM) and special offerings and member participation on national and Conference board and committees when called. Over the years we have sponsored missionaries in various countries.
Through the Penn Northeast Conference of the UCC, the Allentown Mission Council and the Center City Ecumenical Group, we work with sister UCC congregations in meeting the needs around us. We consider the use of our building as a part of our mission, and we are proud to house the Traci’s Learning Center Child Development and Day Care Center, Bethany Counseling Ministries, and other groups that serve the community and use our facilities from time to time.