History of First United Church of Christ, Hellertown, PA

Early Beginnings in America

The history of the Reformed Church in Pennsylvania had its start with John Philip Boehm, a devout school teacher, who lived with the German settlers in Pennsylvania.

According to Charles E. Schaeffer (Historical Sketches of The Congregational Christian Churches and The Evangelical and Reformed Church, 1955):

“… many immigrants from Europe had come to America and settled in the states along the Atlantic seacoast. Some came from Holland, settling in what is now New York and New Jersey; and out of their coming derived the so-called Dutch Reformed Church, now known as the Reformed Church in America.

Others came from the Palatinate region of Germany. Their ports of entry were mainly New York and Philadelphia, and from there these early settlers moved out and occupied the fertile region between the Delaware and the Susquehanna rivers. Some of them went farther south into what is now Virginia and North Carolina. Chiefly from this Palatinate migration and in these areas the foundations of what came to be known as the Reformed Church of the United States were laid.

These pioneers had brought with them their Bibles, their hymnals and prayer books, as well as the Heidelberg Catechism; but they had no churches in which to worship, and few ministers to serve them. It is interesting to observe that the people of the Reformed faith were not much given to holding religious services out-of-doors. They always sought a shelter for the altar and consequently they worshiped in private houses, in barns, and in log buildings which they called churches.

Many of the people who came in companies to America brought with them one or more ministers, who frequently had organized the company; but in other cases there was no minister among them, and these religious-minded people called upon schoolmasters or other prominent laymen to conduct services for them.

The latter was true of the German settlers in Pennsylvania. Thus it came about that a devout school teacher, John Philip Boehm, who lived among them, conducted the first Communion Service after the Reformed order at Falkner Swamp, a rural community some forty miles north of Philadelphia. This took place on October 15, 1725. A few weeks later a similar service was held at Skippack, and another at White Marsh.  Boehm speaks of these as “the first beginnings.”

More exactly they were the first beginnings in Pennsylvania.1

Beginnings of the Church in Lower Saucon

Rev. John Philip Boehm, one of the first land owners in the Hellertown area, organized the first German Reformed congregations in America in 1725, and the Lower Saucon Reformed Church (now the Lower Saucon United Church of Christ), our “mother Church.”2

The Reformed Congregation of Lower Saucon is “said to be the oldest Reformed church in the Lower Saucon Township-Hellertown area, and among the denomination’s oldest in the nation.” 3

Boehm, in a letter dated October 28, 1734 to the Dutch Reformed Church in Holland, describes the conditions of the churches in America.  He characterizes the people of the area as “poor sheep at the end of the wilderness.” 10

In an historical sketch written for the 1963 dedication of Lower Saucon UCC (Third Avenue, Hellertown), Henry and Mildred Laubach paint a clear image of Boehm’s connection to the Lower Saucon area.

Boehm, one of the fathers of the Reformed Church in the United States, assumed spiritual oversight for a number of frontier congregations, including the one which was founded in Lower Saucon Township.

The Reformed congregation of Lower Saucon, which exists today as the Lower Saucon United Church of Christ (Third Avenue, Hellertown, PA), claims to have been founded by John Philip Boehm in 1734. This date is taken from the earliest written reference to the congregation at Saucon or Saucon Creek (“Saconkrik in Boehm’s records). It is assumed that Boehm was the spiritual leader of this flock, because at this time he was the only Reformed pastor in the region. He was the spiritual leader of several congregations closer to Philadelphia, but took time from those duties to make periodic and perhaps infrequent trips to the outlying congregations. On such journeys he would administer the sacraments, preside at catechetical instruction, and counsel with persons who sought resident pastors for these frontier settlements.

That Boehm was an occasional visitor to this area of the Saucon Creek is implied for several reasons. He was a landholder in Lower Saucon Township; his son Anthony was a resident of this area and is the ancestor of the Boehms living in the area today.  History records that John Philip Boehm died in Hellertown in 1749.

The early frontier congregations suffered from the lack of regular pastoral leadership.  The pastoral record of the Lower Saucon congregation contains the names of men whose pastoral leadership was of the highest quality, but it also reports of inferior pastoral leadership. There is no record prior to 1736 to indicate that any one person was responsible for ministering to the congregation at Saucon.

The first regular preacher was John Henry Goetschy, a young man who preached throughout this area, without benefit of ordination, between 1736 and 1739. The fact that Goetschy was but eighteen years of age when he took up his duties, points to the scarcity of ministerial talent. 4

Goetschy, born in Switzerland, began his ministry at Lower Saucon at the age of 18, and served there until 1739. He came to America with his family in 1735.  His father, the Rev. Maurice Goetschy, died the day after they landed. 3   You can find more details about John Henry Goetschy in the book entitled Life and Letters of the Rev. John Philip Boehm, Founder of the Reformed Church in Pennsylvania.3

The pastors who served Saucon on a regular basis were not always able to serve on a frequent basis. Goetschy reports, for example, that his charge in 1736 consisted of Skippack, Old Goshenhoppen, New Goshenhoppen, Great Swamp, Egypt, Berne and Tulpehocken — in addition to Saucon. When John Conrad Wirtz, another unordained preacher, assumed the responsibility for Saucon in 1745, the charge was considerably smaller. Then it consisted only of Springfield, Forks of the Delaware and Saucon. It is interesting to note that, in addition to the above, the Saucon congregation was involved at one time or another in a multi-church relationship with Hamilton (“which was upwards of twenty miles distant and beyond the Blue Mountains”), Easton, Plainfield, Dryland, Allen, Moore, Hanover and Towamansing. 4

From 1734 until 1746, the Saucon congregation held services in private homes.  In 1746, the Reformed congregation built a log cabin along the south side of Hellertown-Raubsville Road. 3

“This log building was located on the south side of the public road [Ed. Note – what is now known as Easton Road], in front of the cemetery. Burials at that time were made in a still older cemetery further west called “Old Cemetery”, but no evidence of graves remains. Some of the bodies were doubtless moved to the present old cemetery.”   The Reformed Congregation of Lower Saucon owned this property, along with a farm.

Five years later, in 1751, the log building was either renovated or replaced by a frame church.3

NEXTPart 2: Forming a Union Church in Lower Saucon