Church History

Christ Reformed Church

by Philip Shultz

Well before the United States became an independent nation, the founders of Christ Church had established in this community a congregation served by ordained ministers of the German Reformed Church. Although the year 1747 is the date given for the founding of Christ Church, German-speaking residents of this area had gathered for Sunday worship in the tradition of the Reformed Church in the German Palatinate for some years before.

The German Reformed Church in the United States was a denomination which came into being as a result of the emigration in the early 1700’s of thousands of German-speaking people, just as several Lutheran bodies were established in our nation. Both of these traditions, Reformed and Lutheran, trace their beginnings to the spiritual insights, the work, and the struggles of the several religious leaders of the Sixteenth Century on the continent of Europe. The early history of the Reformed Church is filled with the influence and contributions of men whose names are among those vital to the telling of the story of the Reformation in Europe: Calvin, Zwingli, Knox, Luther, and Melanchthon.

In the earliest days of the Christ Church congregation, the local Lutheran congregation (and some historians report the Presbyterian for a time as well) shared the same log building. The stone tower presently as a part of our Christ Church building was built as part of the earlier shared building. It was preserved and included as part of the present structure, which was erected in the early 1800’s. Inscriptions on the gravestones in the adjacent church yard attest to the early history of the congregation and its community. The graves of soldiers who served in the American War for Independence may be seen, and some of them like others nearby are inscribed in German.

Christ Church was a part of the Reformed Church in the United States almost from the very inception  of that denomination in the early part of the Eighteenth Century, when its name also included the word “German” to distinguish it from the Dutch Reformed Church. Another denomination formed in the United States by Germans emigrating here in a later era included Lutheran and Reformed traditions in Europe. It was the Evangelical Synod of North America, and in 1934, it merged with the Reformed Church when it was seen that these two communions shared much heritage, beliefs, and practices. Christ Chuch then became Christ Evangelical and Reformed Church in Shepherdstown.

A willingness to cooperate and a desire for church unity were prominent qualities of the national leadership of the Evangelical and Reformed church. They early found a kindred spirit among the leaders of the congregational Christian Churches, whose beginnings of the North American continent reached back a hundred years before the founding of the German churches here.

The Landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth in 1620 marked the beginning of the life of this denomination in America. Its roots among the English presented a number of differences from the German background of the Evangelical and Reformed Church, but the desire for unity in Christ was strong. In 1957, faith in a future united brought the Congregation Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church together. The United Church of Christ was formed, and the name of Christ Church   in Shepherdstown became Christ Reformed Church, United Church of Christ.

The congregation’s name now reflected a recollection of its early origin in the German Reformed Church, as well as its unity with other Christian traditions which are also a part of the new United Church of Christ.

Today, the Christ Church congregation strives to make its presence in Shepherdstown reflect a characteristic of the denomination in its presence nationally: a desire to be faithful in devotion to ministry, a commitment to ecumenical endeavors, and an involvement and influence in community life by its members well beyond the proportion of its membership to the population.

The service of the congregation in its ministry within and beyond the church is reflected in its service in worship. This is expressed through an appreciation for liturgy. Not just any liturgy, but a liturgy which is true both to its Reformation heritage of a sound Scriptural doctrine applied to today’s world and to a distinctive form of reverence, meaning, and beauty found in elements and orders of worship from the past and from the church at work and worship in contemporary society.

Living, learning, serving, and worshiping at Christ Church never demand a faith that requires you to leave your intellect, your reason, or your wisdom at the doorstep. But they do demand a faith and action which reach beyond these gifts for survival, so that we may live in God’s love, enjoy it, and serve God by sacrificing ourselves because of that love, more than we can know, more than we can understand, and more than seems wise!

Christ Reformed Church, United Church of Christ—we can celebrate a quarter millennia of service to God in Shepherdstown by continuing in that tradition, while growing in commitment more than numbers, in humility and gratitude more than prestige.

An Historical Sketch

Christ Reformed Church

Shepherdstown, West Virginia

Christ Reformed Church in Shepherdstown traces its origins to 1747. In that year the Reverend Michael Schlatter, who organizes the first Reformed Synod in Pennsylvania, made a trip through Maryland and Virginia to promote the development of the Reformed Church in those colonies. Here in the local area he found a Reformed congregation already in existence. In recognition of this congregation he left a pewter communion chalice dated 1747.

Exactly where the early Shepherdstown Reformers worshiped is open to question– in private homes, a school house across the Potomac at Antietam, or with the Lutherans and Presbyterians in a log structure on High Street between Church and King Streets.

By 1782 the Reformers had erected a dressed log church on land deeded them in 1774 by Heinrich Cookus. This building, though on Reformed property, was again shared as a union church until 1795 when both the Lutherans and Presbyterians had built separate houses of worship.

The year 1839 finds the Reformed congregation finishing construction of the present two-story brick church located in front of the site of their previous log structure. It displays a simplified form of Greek Revival architecture with gabled end walls, curtained side walls, and pitched roof. This structural style was popular with early 19th century dissenting churches because of the economy of construction and as a form of protest against the elaborate architecture associated with European Churches.

Remodeling in 1881 extended the north wall to accommodate a narthex on the second floor and a vestibule on the first. Interior wooden stairways replaced the exterior stone steps. In 1892 the east and west galleries were removed and the brickwork taken out between the two tiers of plain glass windows. The tall stained glass windows which now grace the church were then installed.

The stained glass windows memorialize past ministers and members, and resonate with color and symbolism. Traditional symbolic enrichments include a chalice, harp, anchor, bible, crown, and flowers. Among the varieties of ornamental crosses found in the windows are Celtic, Latin, Greek, and Maltese. Above the altar is a stained glass window depicting Heinrich Hoffman’s Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane.

The chancel furniture was carved in 1881 by Samuel Humrickhouse, a superior local craftsman and a Confederate cavalry veteran.  The altar, lectern, pulpit, font, and chairs are walnut and each of these chancel pieces was donated by former ministers and members of the congregation.

Originally a pipe organ sat in the north balcony. It was replaced in 1904 by a Kimbel organ which was rebuilt in 1953 by the M.P. Moller Pipe Organ Company. The capabilities of the organ have been expanded over the years through congregational memorials of chimes and a vox humana in 1935, and a trompette en chamade, octave, and mixture in 1979.

The tower, completed about 1798, is of local rough hewn stone laid in an irregular pattern known as random ashlar. East and west sides of the tower are pierced by oxeye windows. Atop the tower is an octagonal belfry with eight Romanesque arches through which the bells speak. An octagonal spire completes the steeple providing an unbroken visual composition from the top of the tower to the tip of the spire.

Much has been written about the bronze bells of Christ Reformed Church. It is thought that Michael Yeasley, a Revolutionary War veteran and ardent member of this church, went to Germany in 1795 in search of bells. He purchased a peal of four bells which were transported by ship to Baltimore and on to Shepherdstown by oxen drawn wagon. The congregation offered their money, silver buckles and other household items of value as payment for the bells.

The peal was dedicated in 1800 prior to being hung in the tower. In keeping with a custom of the time, the smallest bell was filled with choice wine from which the congregation and assembled guests drank, some more freely than others. These bells have called the faithful to worship for almost 200 years, and Michael Yeasley, at his personal request, is buried near the foot of the tower so as to always be near his beloved “chimes.”

Text by Christ Church member, Philip Shultz. Published for “Christmas in Shepherdstown– 1994.”

Christ Reformed Church of Shepherdstown, West Virginia

Christ Reformed Church in Shepherdstown, West Virginia can trace its origin to 1747. To put that date in perspective, George Washington was fifteen years old, tobacco was being used as legal currency, and we were part of the British Colony of Virginia under the reign of King George, II.

When we say that Christ Church dates to 1747, we are not speaking of the building. Early services were held in private homes. Around 1750 Reformers, Lutherans, and Presbyterians joined to worship in what has been described as a rude log church on New Street between Church and King Streets. In 1782 the Reformers built a new church on East German Street on land deeded to them by Henry Cookus. This building, constructed of dressed logs has been described as larger and more pretentious. Although on the Reformer’s ground, the building was shared as a union church until such time as the others built their own church buildings.

The Reformed congregation in Shepherdstown was already meeting when they were visited by Rev. Michael Schlatter (14 July 1716 St. Gallen, Switzerland – 31 October 1790 near Philadelphia). Schlatter was educated at the gymnasium of St. Gallen, after which he was tutored in theology, and then proceeded to the University of Leyden and then the University of Helmstedt in Brunswick. He then returned to his tutor for some time before being ordained in 1739. He taught for several years in Holland and then entered the German Reformed ministry. He officiated a few months in Switzerland, and then offered his services as a missionary to the German Reformed emigrants in Philadelphia in 1746, after learning of a request made to the Dutch Reformed Church for ministers by German Reformed clergyman John Phillip Boehm and went to Pennsylvania in that year, arriving on 6 August. He served as pastor of the united churches of Germantown and Philadelphia in 1746-51, organized a synod which met in Philadelphia in 1747, and made extended missionary tours among the German Reformed settlers in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, New Jersey and New York State. Rev. Schlatter provided formal ministerial resources for the congregation in the form of organized ministerial visits by ordained clergy.

The first minsters to serve the congregation were “circuit riders,” clergymen who rode on horseback from congregation to congregation in rotation, visiting each several times a year. In between visits from the itinerant clergy, the men of the local congregations took turns leading worship. During each visit from the traveling minister baptisms, weddings, and communion were celebrated.

The Lutherans built their church just across the street, a move that was occasioned by the discussion of whether to hold services in English or German. While the Reformers continued using German for a number of years, the Lutherans opted to hold their services in English. After the split, the Reformers and the Lutheran congregation held services at different hours so respective members could attend both services.

In 1839 the Reformed congregation finished construction of the present two-story brick church located in front of the stone bell tower, the only remains of the original church. Remodeling in 1881 and again in 1892 resulted in many changes to the building, including the removal of double-tiered clear glass windows and the installation of the tall stained glass windows, vibrant in color and symbolism, which still grace the church today. Also, still in use is the beautifully crafted chancel furniture carved by a superior local craftsman, Samuel Humrickhouse.

The original church organ was a small and rare type located in the balcony of the church. It is now exhibited in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. In 1904 a Kimbel organ was installed in the front of the sanctuary. A recital was held on its dedication with a charge made of 25¢ for adults and 15¢ for children. In the This historic pipe organ has been rebuilt many times over the years and its capacities expanded with additions of pipes, stops, and enhancements made possible by several memorial gifts.  In the 1920’s a Mohler organ was combined with the best parts of the Kimbel organ. It was at this time that the organ console was turned to its present position. In 1953 all the leather parts of the organ had to be replaced when it was discovered that squirrels had gotten into the church and had eaten every scrap of leather in the organ pipes and the wind box. Most recently, in 2002, an Allen organ was installed, incorporating the best of the existing Mohler organ. The organ has added greatly to worship at Christ Church, used for many community musical events, made available to students of music, and has launched several students into careers in church music.

Michael Yeasley, a Revolutionary War veteran and active and much devoted member of the Reformed Church, believed bells were needed to call the congregation to worship. In 1795 he took a collection of money, silver buckles and jewelry, and other valuable items to Germany to buy bells. He purchased a demi-peal, a set (or peal) of four bells that had originally been cast in France. During the French Revolution, many churches were dismantled in an attempt to destroy the larger institutional church. Some bells thrown down from their towers made their way to Germany. After purchase in Germany, our bells came to Baltimore by ship and then to Shepherdstown by ox-drawn wagon. The bells arrived to an occasion of great rejoicing. The dedication of the bells in 1800 was marked by prayer and song and by the filling of the smallest bell with choice wine from which the congregation and the assembled guests imbibed freely – some more than others. On the largest bell in our tower is an inscription in French, which translated means “The year 1732 Gabriel Buret made me.” The smallest of the bells, which is elaborately decorated, also has a French inscription, translated as “Made in Paris by Claude Bernard, Founder.” Our bells have called the faithful to worship for more than 200 years, and Michael Yeasley, at his request, is buried near the foot of the stone bell tower to be always near his beloved bells. (+)

Christ Reformed church is part of the United Church of Christ. The United Church of Christ (UCC) is a mainline Protestant Christian denomination, with historical confessional roots in the Reformed, Congregational and Evangelical traditions, and “with over 5,000 churches and nearly one million members”. The United Church of Christ is in historical continuation of the General Council of Congregational Christian churches founded under the influence of New England Puritanism. The Evangelical and Reformed Church and the General Council of the Congregational Christian Churches united in 1957 to form the UCC. These two denominations, which were themselves the result of earlier unions, had their roots in Congregational, Christian, Evangelical, and Reformed denominations. At the end of 2014, the UCC’s 5,116 congregations claimed 979,239 members, primarily in the United States.  In 2015, Pew Research estimated that 0.4 percent, or 1 million adult adherents, of the U.S population self-identify with the United Church of Christ.

At 270 years’ young, Christ Reformed United Church of Christ is still growing and reaching out to the Shepherdstown and Shepherd University communities.

+For more information on the history of bells, I recommend the following book, especially the discussion on the baptism of bells throughout history and the dedication of bells in the Protestant tradition, Chapter IX, pages 93 – 95.

Bells : Their History, Legends, Making, and Uses by Coleman, Satis N. (Satis Narrona), 1878-1961. https://archive.org/details/bellstheirhistor00cole

Ministers of Christ Reformed Church

Shepherdstown, West Virginia

L. Mayer 1808

S. Helfenstine 1822

J. Beecher 1826

R. Douglas 1833

D. Bragonier 1845

J. M. Titzel 1859

H. Wissler 1864

E. O. Forney 1870

J. T. Rossiter 1871

J. C. Bowman 1876

B. F. Bausman 1883

G. G. Everhart 1889

J. E. Guy 1902

J. D. Miller 1906

C. F. Freeman 1912

G. P. Brady 1914

S. L. Flickenger 1916

J. E. Guy 1928

W. H. Solley 1939

D. M. Banner 1944

M. T. Hamm 1947

H. A. Harris 1955

P. H. Curvey 1957

R. D. Coulter 1960

F. H. Kalkbrenner 1967

Rev. Bronson Staley 1969

Rev. Ronald C. Grubb 2008

Rev. Gayle Bach-Watson 2015