The immediate history of the General Conference of Evangelical Protestant Churches (GCEPC) began in 1912, in the Ohio Valley. The GCEPC is the successor to the Evangelical Protestant Church of North America and the Evangelical Protestant Conference of Congregational Churches. The General Conference is historically rooted in the Protestant Reformation.
The Protestant Reformation was a European movement of protest against many teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. One of the main issues was the selling of Indulgences. This was a simple act of one person buying a relative out of Purgatory, the intermediate state between Heaven and Hell in Roman Catholic theology. The Indulgence would, according to the theology, guarantee a deceased loved one getting into Heaven and avoiding Hell. The selling of Indulgences was also available to the living. They could buy “extra credits” and thereby have some of their sins wiped away.
When he discovered that Dominican Friar John Tetzel was engaged in the selling of these Indulgences, Martin Luther, a German priest, challenged this practice based on Holy Scripture. Luther had additional reservations about some of the other teachings of the Catholic Church as well. On October 31, 1517, on All Saints’ Day, he posted his famous Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Catholic Cathedral in Wittenberg, Germany.
A year later, Ulrich Zwingli, a Swiss priest, listed his Sixty-Seven Articles of protest against the Church as well. One of Zwingli’s main concerns was that the proper focus of Scripture was being neglected as he witnessed a decline in moral righteousness, especially among the clergy.
Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses can be summarized as the just shall live by faith, grace comes from God alone, the Scriptures are the sole authority in matters of faith and practice and Baptism and Communion are the only two Sacraments. These Theses were in direct opposition to the Catholic Church that believed in the selling of Indulgences, buying one’s way into Heaven, Papal authority and in seven sacraments.
Zwingli’s Sixty-Seven Articles can be summarized as Christ alone is our righteousness and salvation, we pray only to Jesus Christ, there is no Purgatory, the clergy should be allowed to marry and shameful living among the clergy is to be avoided. Zwingli’s Articles, like Luther’s Theses, were in direct contrast to the Catholic teachings. His Articles spoke out against the selling of Indulgences, praying to Saints, Purgatory, the ban on clergy marriage and the sinful living of many clergy.
In summary, Luther, Zwingli and their respective followers, constituted the Evangelical Protestant movement. Luther’s followers became known as Lutherans; Zwingli’s, Reformed. Subsequently, Lutheran and Reformed churches were established all over Europe, especially in Germany and Switzerland.
Between 1720 and 1740, there was a great German migration to the United States. From the Palatinate, from Wurtemburg, from Darnstadt and from other parts of Germany, these immigrants settled around Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the Ohio Valley areas of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Cincinnati, Ohio. These immigrants were poverty-stricken, could not afford a church or school building and yet, they kept the faith.
These early settlers were devout, evangelical, God-fearing and industrious. Their motto was “To fear God and love work.” They were hungry for the Word of God and prayed mornings and evenings for spiritual leaders to perform baptisms, confirm their children, visit in times of affliction, speak comforting words in their dying moments and conduct funerals. At first, two lay preachers, Johannes Stauch and Balthaser Myer, performed these functions but an ordained clergy was more desirable.
In 1782, there were 100 families constituting 60 households in Pittsburgh with no churches in which to worship. The Lutheran and Reformed folks finally decided to take action. They called The Reverend John William Weber to become their pastor. He would serve four Lutheran and Reformed congregations in 1782. Throughout the Ohio Valley, many Lutheran and Reformed congregations shared ministers and efforts to merge the two groups into one were attempted.
The thinking was to establish one Evangelical Protestant Church. This attempt at uniting the Reformed and Lutheran bodies actually began in Germany. Luther and Zwingli met to discuss the union of the Lutheran and Reformed bodies but could not agree on certain points of doctrine. One point of disagreement concerned Holy Communion. Luther believed Christ’s blood and body were actually in the elements; Zwingli believed them to be symbolically present. Thus, a united Evangelical Protestant Church failed to materialize in Germany.
As previously stated, many Lutheran and Reformed churches in the Ohio Valley were already combining their services and referring to their churches as Evangelical Protestant Churches. As a matter of fact, in 1812, the First German Evangelical Protestant Church was established in Pittsburgh. This church holds the unique distinction of being the oldest union congregation in America as well as the oldest Evangelical Protestant Church in the world. In addition to German Lutherans and Swiss Reformed groups settling in the Ohio Valley, Evangelical Protestants settled in Missouri, Iowa, Southern Indiana, Texas and Alabama.
In St. Louis, Missouri, German immigrants established the Holy Ghost Evangelical Protestant Church on August 2, 1840. In 1851, the Swiss and Germans founded four Evangelical Protestant Churches in the Northwest corner of Iowa. Little is left in the historical record concerning these churches. What is known is they produced 27 teachers, 3 lawyers, 2 doctors, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and a chief engineer to the New York City water works system. Eleven Evangelical Protestant Churches were established in Southern Indiana. Their history, like that of the Iowa churches, is scant. These churches were founded by The Reverend Frederick A. Francke and eventually joined other denominations or ceased to exist.
Only a scattering of German immigrants initially settled in the South. In Texas, The Reverend Gustav William Eisenlohr served as pastor of the Evangelical Protestant Church of New Braunfels, Texas. Not much history of the Texas church exists. In Alabama, Johann Gottfried Cullman, who had come to America from Germany in 1864, founded the St. John’s Evangelical Protestant Church. This church, located in Cullman, Alabama, is currently a strong worshipping center. Although they have retained the Evangelical Protestant name, they are a member of the United Church of Christ. It is a strong church true and faithful to its Evangelical, Protestant and Reformed roots. The church claims a 1999 membership of 1172.
Naturally it took strong leaders in the Evangelical Protestant movement to unite believers and establish churches. August Kroell left Germany in 1834, and arrived in Baltimore, Maryland, on August 5. From Baltimore he went to Wheeling, West Virginia; St. Louis, Missouri; Belleville, Illinois; and, finally accepted a call to pastor the German Evangelical Protestant Church in Louisville, Kentucky. From Louisville he went to Cincinnati to accept a call to the German Evangelical Protestant St. John’s Church. He served until his death on November 25, 1874.
Another early leader was Gustav William Eisenlohr. He came to America in the Fall of 1850, and accepted a call to pastor the New Richmond, Ohio, church. A few years later he began serving the Evangelical Protestant Church of New Braunfels, Texas. He served this church until 1857, when he was called to the Evangelical Protestant St. John’s Church in Cincinnati. He retired, moved to Texas, and passed away May 18, 1881, in Dallas.
Carl Rumpf was the scholarly pastor of the Evangelical Protestant St. John’s Church, Cincinnati. He came to America in 1884, spent time in Buffalo, New York, and Cleveland, Ohio, teaching prior to serving in the pastorate. In 1894, he pastored the Evangelical Protestant Church in Pittsburgh, and eventually accepted a call to the St. John’s Church. Rumpf married Carrie Hirt of Buffalo, in 1875. They had twelve children. Four children died within a five-day period: a little boy and girl died of diphtheria in one day; three days later a thirteen-year old daughter was killed by an accident and on the same day an infant son died. In spite of these tragedies Rumpf remained a man of faith until the end.
One additional early leader worth mentioning is Phillip G.H.E. Wittich. Wittich came to America in 1881. He attended the Lutheran Seminary at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, graduating in 1884. He was ordained to the Lutheran ministry on September 29, of the same year. After serving a number of Lutheran churches in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana, he became the pastor of the Mt. Washington Evangelical Protestant Church in Pittsburgh. He is credited with helping establish a Christian Endeavor Society, the Ladies Aid Society and a Sunday School within the movement.
Other early leaders of the Evangelical Protestant Church were Gustav Schmidt, Ursinus Haengaertner, Gustav Lorch, Frederick Ruoff, Hermann H. Fleer, Carl V. Scheuermann, Alfred Schramm, Gerhard Weise, John Henry Demmler and Frederick Gwinner. These great men of God were very effectual in the promotion of the Evangelical Protestant movement. They worked primarily in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Of significant importance is the work they engaged in and promoted regarding humanitarian service.
The Evangelical Protestant ministers had a strong heart for humanitarian and benevolent work. They believed in “faith in action” and practiced the Golden Rule. They were firm believers in “Be ye not hearers of the Word only but doers also.” Feeding the hungry, visiting the imprisoned, working with alcoholics, caring for widows and orphans were just a few of the humanitarian efforts with which they concerned themselves.
The German Protestant Orphan’s Asylum was established in West Liberty, Pennsylvania. The German Protestant Home for the Aged was established in Fair Oaks, Pennsylvania. The work on the Orphanage was begun in February, 1887, and was dedicated on May 21, 1888. The Home for the Aged became one of the finest institutions for elderly persons under the auspices of a denomination in America. The vast work and establishment of the Evangelical Protestant Churches created a strong desire to form a national denominational body.
On September 16, 1885, a meeting of pastors from the Pittsburgh and Cincinnati areas met at the First Evangelical Protestant Church in Pittsburgh and formed the Evangelical Protestant Church of North America. This was a loosely organized group of believers with no organizational structure or constitution. However, on July 19th and 20th, 1912, the organization affirmed the body and a constitution was adopted at the Mt. Washington Evangelical Protestant Church in Pittsburgh. Thus, the Evangelical Protestant Church of North America was an official denomination.
From 1912, until 1925, the Evangelical Protestant Church of North America flourished. With missionary work increasing, a strong reputation for their reaching out to the less fortunate, their humanitarian and benevolent work highly and widely respected, and, with their strong, unwavering faith critically acclaimed, the Evangelical Protestant Church was on the way to being a major denominational force in American religion. The hopes, dreams, goals and aspirations of the leaders were commendable. Yet, poor insight, vision and judgment led to the decline of the denomination.
One of the critical moments in the history of the Evangelical Protestant Church was their steadfast stand against the atheism, secular humanism, and Higher Criticism of the 19th Century. Ironically, these criticisms of the Christian faith originated in German universities. The slogan of the day was “Die Kirche ist doch nur eine Verdummungsanstalt.” Translated this is “The church is only for the ignorant.” Evangelical Protestants in America took a firm, zealous stand against anti-Christian sentiment as it spread to the American universities. Ministers of the church were adamant in their warnings against such movements. Had the Church continued that kind of zeal, vigor and aggression, the decline might not have occurred.
Many reasons have been given for the decline. Some of the reasons given were other denominational ministers pastoring Evangelical Protestant Churches and taking their congregations into their own denominational fold; the marriages of Evangelical Protestants outside the denomination; the lack of a denominational theological seminary; and, the decline of the “evangelizing spirit.”
At the time of the decline the Evangelical Protestant Church numbered about 80,000 members. In 1925, many Evangelical Protestant Churches merged with the Congregational Christian Churches into the Evangelical Protestant Conference of Congregational Churches. The merger name lasted until 1945, when nearly all Evangelical Protestant Churches dropped their original name and simply called themselves Congregational Churches. Some Evangelical Protestant congregations, in time, joined the United Church of Christ, the Christian Church, the Lutheran Church and the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church in addition to the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches.
The Congregational Christian Church itself was the product of a merger in 1931, between the Congregational Church and a number of Christian Churches. The Congregational Church developed in England. The Pilgrims who sailed on the Mayflower were Congregationalists. Famous Congregationalists were Henry Ward Beecher, Lyman Beecher, Horace Bushnell, Jonathan Edwards, who is credited with preaching America’s greatest sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Walt Disney and former President Calvin Coolidge.
United States Senator Bob Kerrey, of Nebraska, is a Congregationalist. The Christian Church fractured into the Christian Church (independent), the Christian Church/Churches of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Alexander Campbell, Thomas Campbell, B. Barrett Baxter, former Presidents James Garfield, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan were all members of the various factions of the Christian Church.
The Christian Church developed on the American frontier. Barton Warren Stone, one of its founders, is considered our “spiritual forefather” after our becoming the General Conference of Evangelical Protestant Churches. Stone was an ordained Presbyterian minister who felt the Presbyterian Church was straying from Biblical doctrine. Stone believed in “no creed but Christ,” and in “where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent.” The chief cornerstone of the Christian Church was “In things essential, unity; in things non-essential, liberty; in all things, love.”
Looking at Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, Zwingli’s Sixty-Seven Articles, and, The Rev. Gustav Schmidt’s final sermon to the German Evangelical Protestant Church, McKeesport, Pennsylvania, wherein he said, “Dear Children, love one another. The Christian teaching is love to God, love to neighbor, the duty of living and charity--these are the simple tenets of faith in the Evangelical Protestant Church,” it is easy to see why we view Stone as our “spiritual forefather.” Stone believed in a simple Gospel of Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour, the Fatherhood of God, and the authority of Holy Scripture as sufficient in matters of Faith and Practice.
Like Luther and Zwingli, he stood firm in his beliefs. When Luther was questioned about his belief in the German Confessions of Faith, he said he did “…in so far as they meet in the teachings of the Holy Scriptures and in the common confessions of all Christendom.” Stone, standing before the Transylvania Presbytery for examination into the Presbyterian ministry, was questioned about his acceptance of their Confession of Faith. He was asked if he believed in it. His answer was “I do, as far as I see it consistent with the Word of God.” After subsequent, careful, detailed comparative analyses of the Confession and Scripture, he saw many discrepancies between the two and withdrew from the Presbytery helping found the Christian Church.
Remnants of the Evangelical Protestant Church decided, in the latter part of 1999, to reorganize as the General Conference of Evangelical Protestant Churches (GCEPC). Dr. James Clifton, Dr. Michael Layne and Dr. David Moshier were instrumental in this effort. Dr. Clifton was born in Heidelberg, Germany, and was baptized into DIE EVANGELISCHE KIRCHE IN DEUTSCHLAND (The Evangelical Church in Germany); Dr. Michael Layne has deep roots in Congregationalism; and, Dr. David Moshier has deep roots in the Reformed movement.
On January 1, 2000, an official organization came into existence. The reasons for our gathering were that most of the denominations, with whom the Evangelical Protestants merged, became theologically and morally liberal, drastically drifting from the original faith and practice of the Evangelical Protestant movement. The gender of God is debated, the divinity of Jesus is questioned and the authority of the Holy Scripture is challenged.
It is the mission of the General Conference to reverse this trend and “reclaim the Faith once delivered.” Our Statement of Faith encompasses the beliefs of Luther, Zwingli and Stone: “We unashamedly believe in God the Father; Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour; the Holy Spirit as our Comforter and Guide; and, the authority of Holy Scripture in matters of Faith and Practice. We stand firmly for Biblical morality. Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent.” Thus, like Luther, Zwingli, the early Evangelical Protestants and Stone, we stand for a Christ-centered, morally sound, Biblical Christianity: the Faith and Practice of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour.
The General Conference does not interfere in the internal matters of our affiliates and members. The only time we get involved is upon request and then only in an advisory capacity. Each local General Conference church and ministry is solely responsible for its own affairs, including all legal matters pertaining to incorporation, tax exemption, etc.
Today the General Conference of Evangelical Protestant Churches continues the historical tradition of sound, moral, Biblical Christianity and humanitarian work. Each of our churches and affiliated ministries has a sound doctrine and moral fiber. Our affiliated ministries offer assistance to the poor and homeless, a wide array of counseling services, etc. In addition, a strong, vital ministry to the afflicted and disabled is carried on. Learning a lesson from our past we endorse several Bible Colleges and Seminaries for theological training.
The General Conference newsletter, “The Evangelical Protestant,” is sent to all who request it. This continues the tradition begun in June, 1918, when “The Evangelical Protestant” first went into publication. Each of our ministers is invited to submit articles in his or her field of expertise: counseling, theological education, homeless ministry, grief and loss ministry, ministry to the afflicted and disabled, church planting, Bible studies and a variety of other relevant subjects.
The General Conference of Evangelical Protestant Churches invites all searching for a sound, Biblical Christianity, to unite with us. Churches and ministries are scattered throughout America, Germany and Canada with churches being planted in other areas. One of the advantages of modern technology is that many GCEPC ministries have websites, email, chat sites and conference groups set up via the Internet. Those who wish to become credentialed with us may do so by several methods. All churches planted by GCEPC ministers will be Evangelical Protestant churches and must register with the national office.
The General Conference invites all who feel called to the Gospel ministry to consider us as their denominational home. Candidates for ordination must have at least a Bachelor’s degree in theology, Bible or a related field. Those holding ministerial credentials from other evangelical denominations, associations, ministries, conferences, etc., will be received by transfer. If the candidate wishes to maintain his or her current standing, dual standing is suggested. For additional information please contact us. The General Overseer and Board of Advisors must approve all ordinations. Credentials are sent from the Office of the General Overseer.
The General Conference of Evangelical Protestant Churches has a rich and varied history. It is the story of faith and those who labored to maintain evangelical Christianity in the days of atheism, higher criticism and secular humanism. The challenge continues as the church is under attack from all sides. It will be up to good men and women, who are not ashamed of their faith, to “reclaim the Faith once delivered.” Like Martin Luther, nearly 500 years ago, standing trial for heresy, we repeat his words, “Here I stand. I cannot, I will not recant.” Neither will the General Conference of Evangelical Protestant Churches.
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