In 1736, downtown Lancaster was a woodland.
Orange Street was a dirt path, King Street was a wagon path and only 200 people lived in Lancaster city. There were a couple houses that dotted the landscape downtown, and a little log church sat, nestled in the woods.
In 2021, Lancaster is Pennsylvania’s eighth biggest city. Orange Street and King Street are lined up and down with buildings, apartments and businesses. And what was once that little log church is now a brick building — First Reformed Church, United Church of Christ, 40 E. Orange St. — which will celebrate its 285th anniversary Sunday, June 20.
“This property has been here since the early days of Lancaster,” says Bill Groff, First Reformed Church’s congregational president. “This church has grown with Lancaster, and it’s changed as Lancaster has changed.”
Despite the major changes Lancaster has seen over the past 285 years, the plot of land that the church is on has solely been used for religious purposes since the log church was built in 1736.
Church historian Jim Chryst says that the land was rented until 1741, when lawyer and future politician James Hamilton executed a deed granting the property to the congregation.
Only large enough to seat 100 people, the log church quickly outgrew its capacity.
In 1747, the Rev. Michael Schlatter administered Communion to 225 people; the overflow gathered outside in the surrounding woodlands.
The log church provided a sanctuary for the congregation until 1752, when growth in membership led to the construction of a larger stone church, dedicated at the same location in 1753.
With a church whose history is older than the country, the congregation’s past didn’t come without some conflicts. Groff says that for various reasons, there were times in the church’s past where parts of the congregation have broken away, and joined to form other churches.
“But, there were people who were dedicated to this place, and the work that was being done here,” Groff says. “It’s not all a rosy history. It’s not a direct line. There have been turns and bends and there’s been conflicts that have existed in our past, but there’s always been groups of people who were committed to being in this place.”
Revolution and language
During the American Revolution, more than two dozen of First Reformed Church’s congregants fought for the Colonies.
Chryst says that some Hessian soldiers — Germans who fought as auxiliaries on behalf of Britain — came to the church to worship, since they were prisoners of war during the Revolution, and ended up marrying some of the people in the church.
“The congregants of this church have volunteered for military service since the Revolution, all the way through Afghanistan,” Chryst says.
A little over a hundred years after the church’s inception, there was debate over what language should be used for the service — English, or German. The church was originally founded by German-speaking people, so the services were in German.
“Most of the people that were congregants were talking German at home, so they wanted it in the church as well,” Chryst says. “During that time, from 1849 to 1851, the English-speaking folks had a disagreement with the German-speaking folks. The German speaking folks stayed here; the English-speaking folks moved up the street to St. Paul’s Church. It was a huge issue at the time.”
But overcoming these conflicts is a testament to the faith of the people that have attended the church over its history.
“The people who attend here now are people of deep faith,” Groff says.
In 2010, First Reformed Church became an “open and affirming church,” a movement of over 1,500 churches and ministries in the United Church of Christ that welcome LGBTQ members. A few of the church’s members left because of this decision, but Groff says that the people who supported it then support it now, and are committed to that ideal of being open and accepting of all people.
“We always say on Sunday, whether you’re Black or white, gay or straight, rich or poor, whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, you’re welcomed and you’re loved here,” says the Rev. Devin B. Jeffers, pastor of First Reformed Church. “I think that’s what has really kept this church together, is the love and the compassion that they have, not just for one another but for this community and this city.”
Jeffers was selected as the church's 43rd minister in 2019 — making history as the first Black pastor in the church’s history.
“If you’re going to be a church for the city, then you need to look like the city,” Groff says. “One of the things we need to do is become more diverse, racially and ethnically.”
Jeffers has also been tasked with leading the church through the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I had to find different ways to keep that connectivity with the congregation,” he says. “Our congregation is an older congregation, so I’m excited that I have 90-year-olds on Facebook, and 95-year-olds doing Zoom, and different things like that.”
Chryst noted that the virtual services reach beyond Lancaster County, and that people are tuning in from the surrounding area as well.
Additionally, Jeffers has started the “Church Adopt a Class Initiative,” as part of his vision to invest in the community. The congregation has “adopted” Fulton Elementary School, and has been able to provide meals for families, a teacher wish list for class items and holiday baskets and toy giveaways, among other things.
“Every month we try to do something just to share hope, give some type of encouragement to them,” Jeffers says.
To celebrate the 285th anniversary, the church is planning events from June 18-20, including an organ and piano concert, a German meal for the congregation and an anniversary service including German hymns and readings.
The 285th anniversary is in a couple of days, but to make it to 300 years, Groff says that the church needs to continue to reach out and be more connected with our community. The goal for the 300th anniversary is to become more diverse, reconcile the past and grow in the future.
“We’re still here,” Chryst says.