Church Steeple by Morgan HevelThe congregation of St. John’s UCC can trace its birth to some of the families who first settled what was once the wilderness of northern Lebanon county.  These families left Germany for the promise of a better life in the New World and brought with them many traditions, among these their faith, food and fortitude.  While the congregation has grown beyond the first faithful to worship together as one congregation, its history continues to distinguish who St. John’s United Church of Christ is today as a people of faith.

A brief history…

           The congregation now known as St. John’s United Church of Christ, Fredericksburg, originated among a hardy group of Pennsylvania settlers early in the eighteenth century.  No one knows for certain when this group was first organized or when they built their first church, the Church of the Swatara.  Their church, located about two miles northeast of Jonestown on the way to Fredericksburg, was a simple log building with a rough interior.  It served as a spiritual home to both Reformed and Lutheran settlers in the area.  People gathered for worship on an irregular basis, determined by the travels of the itinerant ministers who served them.

          The official history of the congregation dates to 1739, when the first recorded reference to it appears in a letter from the Rev. John Philip Boehm to the Classis of Amsterdam, a governing body of the Reformed Church of Holland. … The first official records of the congregation are preserved in the Schwatarer Kirchenbuch and written in the hand of the man who first ministered to the congregation, John Conrad Templeman. … Considering the conditions confronted by Templeman and other early ministers—few and bad roads, severe climate, Indian raids and ambushes, wild animals, long distances on horseback, exposure, few bridges, and little money—their work must be deemed nothing less than heroic. …

          The Rev. Templeman’s ministry at Swatara was beset by other troubles as well.  During a three year period from 1743-46, Moravian missionaries took control of the Swatara congregation and its church. … This … resulted in many painful controversies, as evidenced among the Swatara congregation, and only added to the difficulties already faced by the struggling Reformed congregations. 

          … In 1789, the revolutionary spirit ignited the desire among the Reformed leaders to break their strong ties to Holland and unite with German Reformed congregations in the other American colonies instead.  …  Meanwhile, the Church of the Swatara resolved its difficulties by rehiring John Conrad Templeman as its pastor in 1746.  This decision obviously was a difficult one, as evidenced by an entry in the diary of one of the Moravian missionaries, Rauch, on May 25, 1746: “The one part of the congregation has again hired a preacher, Mr. Templeman, while the other part weeps bitter tears.” … The Rev. Templeman’s ministry to the people of Swatara ended in 1757, when failing eyesight prevented him from discharging his duties.

          This period of time, the middle of the eighteenth century, was a particularly dangerous one in the Lebanon county area.  It was the time of the French and Indian War, when white settlers were murdered by Indians armed by the French, their horses and buildings burned to the ground, and their crops ruined.  Legend has it that a similar fate befell the Church of the Swatara, also.  In a report from the Rev. William Stoy to the church in Holland, he speaks of “three churches beyond the Tulpehocken” that were raided and burned by Indians.  It is widely believed that one of these was the Church of the Swatara.

          The unsettling times and the death of the Rev. Templeman in 1761 led to a state of malaise for the Swatara congregation during this period.  The congregation split into two groups, one going to Jonestown and the other to Stumpstown [Fredericksburg], around 1765.  In 1766 a log church was erected in Stumpstown to be shared by the Reformed and Lutheran congregations, a tradition which continued until 1970.  Christened St. John’s, this plain log church, the first in Stumpstown, was dedicated in the 1760’s or early 1770’s by the noted John Casper Stoever, the pioneering Lutheran minister in the Lebanon county area.

This drawing, as it appeared on the church bulletins of the time period, depicts the church prior to the addition of the steeple, social hall, and pastor’s study.

        … The log church stood for sixty years, and was replaced by a brick building in 1827.  The new church was to be a place of worship for both the Reformed and Lutheran congregations on an equal basis.  Local Mennonites, who had contributed liberally to the building project, were granted the privilege of holding funeral services there.  The church was to have a steeple with a bell, and it was to 46 x 48 feet in size. … The cornerstone was laid July 22, 1827, with a proclamation stating that “both Lutheran and Reformed have united to erect a German Church, and they shall have equal claims and rights.” …

          Christian education in Stumpstown was organized on a community wide basis on November 17, 1844, in a public school building.  After a fire in 1868, each church in town conducted its own Sunday school.  A union church school of both the Lutheran and Reformed congregations, with leaders and teachers from both congregations, existed for many years. …

        The year 1891 brought several changes to St. John’s.  In that year the Reformed congregation united with those of St. Paul’s, Hamlin, Zion, Mt. Zion, and Salem, Bethel, to form the Bethel Charge.  Also in 1891, the old brick building was torn down, and another one built on the same site.

Former Pastors are left to right: Rev. Haldeman, Rev. Goode, Rev. Shay, and Rev. Mulholland

          … St. John’s continued as part of a charge and a union church for many years.  … In March of 1969, a joint council representing St. John’s and St. Paul’s of Hamlin, voted to explore the possibilities of forming a two point charge.  That same month, discussion concerning the possible purchase of the Church of the Brethren building in Fredericksburg began in the Consistory. … The congregation voted overwhelmingly on July 6, 1969, to offer a bid [on the building] and thereby resolve its longstanding union with the Lutheran congregation. … The Articles of Dissolution, severing a formal association between the Lutheran and Reformed congregations in Fredericksburg that had lasted over 200 years, were signed in April of 1970.  … The first service in the new home of St. John’s U.C.C. congregation was held on June 21, 1970. … In 1976 St. John’s took the final steps toward being an independent U.C.C. congregation.  On April 11, the congregation voted to dissolve the two-point charge. … The congregation, thriving in its new home and expanded facilities, continued to grow and progress in the years that followed. 

          …In June of 2002, calamity struck as a storm battered Fredericksburg, and caused damage to the church roof and steeple.  Water damage inside the church caused pews to be replaced and repaired.  Rallying around our beloved church home, the people of St. John’s worked quickly to clear away the damage and make repairs to the building.  As is so often the case, some good even came from the destruction; wood from the fallen trees in the church parking lot has been used to construct furniture for the church, and a beautiful wooden cross that adorns our chancel area. …

          While reaching out to others, St. John’s continues to be a warm and welcoming place for people to come to worship God and find a spiritual home in Fredericksburg. … Most of all, our desire to serve as a faithful congregation in the church of Jesus Christ motivates us to search for new avenues of service.  May God be praised by the work of St. John’s that is yet to be done! 

This history is excerpted from “Creating and Renewing The Church of Jesus Christ — A History of St. John’s: Commemorating the 250th Anniversary of St. John’s U.C.C., Fredericksburg, PA, September 10, 1989” written by Julie Ditzler and from “Creating and Renewing the Church of Jesus Christ: The Work Continues,” an article addendum also written by Julie Ditzler, on the occasion of the 270th anniversary of St. John’s UCC, Fredericksburg, October 25, 2009.