Zion's Reformed UCC Church in Allentown to be 250 in 2012

Posted: 11:41 AM EDT Jun 30, 2011   Updated: 11:41 AM EDT Jun 13, 2011

When he first drew up his plan for Allentown in 1762, founder William Allen was far more interested in selling building lots then planning for churches. He might simply have expected they would come in God's good time.

So it probably did not surprise Allen when he learned that same year that a Reformed congregation had been founded in the new community. But it might very well have surprised him to know that Zion's Reformed UCC Church and his town would both be celebrating their 250th anniversary in 2012.

Like Abe Lincoln Zion's Church was born in a log cabin. Its log birthplace, located about a block south of the current church stood on Walnut Street, roughly where the Lehigh County Government Center's parking deck is located. The cabin was shared with a Lutheran congregation which later to became St. Paul's Lutheran Church at 8th and Walnut.

The creation of both congregations suggests that at that time, the early German settlers felt it was essential to have a place to worship God. And almost from the beginning the cabin was also the center of community activity.

One of the first references dates from October 1763. The Lutheran pastor Rev. Roth noted in a letter that he was in the middle of a sermon when people from the surrounding countryside started to flood into the log church seeking refuge from what they feared was an uprising by Native Americans. Some folks had recently been killed by Indians who had been abused and cheated at a local tavern. Memories of violence on the frontier during the French and Indian War, which had just ended in 1760, were still searing. But having made their point the Native Americans retreated northward and were not seen again.

By 1773 the Reformed congregation had moved out of the log building and constructed a handsome stone church. Illustrations from that time show a solid building located on the site of the current church on the south side of Hamilton Street between 6th and 7th. Relatively unadorned it was one of the largest buildings north of Philadelphia at the time.

As the British colonies headed toward their break with England, Zion's role in the community grew. Zion's pastor, Rev Abraham Blumer, was a strong supporter of independence and helped guide his congregation through those exciting and perilous times.

It was at Zion's Church, on July 8, 1776, that the Declaration of Independence was read publicly in Allentown, in German and in English, for the first time. The church bell that summoned Allentown residents that day, cast in Bethlehem in 1769 and recently restored, is on display at the church. It is rung at a special service on the Sunday closest to the Fourth of July.

The church was also a military hospital, but Zion's is best known as the site of the hiding place of Philadelphia's bells during the British occupation of that city in 1777-78. The State House Bell, better known as the Liberty Bell, was among them. Carried by Pennsylvania German farmers who were returning from Philadelphia, it was hidden beneath the church until the enemy retreated.

An oral tradition kept this exploit alive and it was first written down in the 1820s. Thanks to diligent research done in the 1950s the hiding place for the bell was established and in 1962 the Liberty Bell Shrine Museum, celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2012, was created with a permanent exhibit including a replica of the Liberty Bell. Changing historical exhibits are also featured.
With the war's end Zion's went back to its primary task as a church. In the 1830s Zion's sanctuary was redesigned. A handsome brick fa├žade was added that gave the building the look of a Federal style church. Photos from the 1860s show a large white bell tower and a clock face but there appear to be no hands on the clock. The reasons were probably known by everybody in town 150 years ago, but are now lost in the past.

Zion's Reformed is in one of the first photographs taken of Allentown. It shows the square as it looked on October 15, 1862, after a surprisingly early snowfall. In April 1861, at the start of the Civil War, Lehigh County troops left from Zion's church following a dinner. The men later known as the First Defenders were among the first troops to answer Lincoln's call to defend the nation's capital, days after the attack on Fort Sumter.

From its founding in 1762 to 1867, a little over 100 years, all the services at Zion's were held in German. Starting in the late 1850s there had been agitation that Zion's offer services in English Finally in 1867 a group broke from Zion's to form St John's Reformed which offered English language services. And eventually Zion's decided to offer a combination of English and German services on its schedule.

Another important event occurred at Zion's in 1867. That September a group of local folks, mostly fathers who wanted their daughters to get a decent higher education, created Allentown Ladies Seminary. Its first classes were held in the church's sanctuary. It was the root of what became Allentown College for Woman and finally in 1915, Cedar Crest College.

Zion's current church was built in 1886. The German Gothic facade casts a dark powerful air of majesty and awe. The interior, in contrast, makes extensive use of a riot of colorful Victorian stained glass in the windows. It was a surprise to everyone when the author of most of these changes, Zion's Pastor Rev. Edwin Gernant, left the Reformed ministry and became an Episcopal priest. But in time Zion's congregation forgave him and even welcomed Gernant back for a visit.

Since then, through two World Wars, a Cold War, an economic depression and our own turbulent times, much has changed and so has Zion's Church. But its past is an ever present part of the city Willam Allen founded almost 250 years ago.