Know Your Congregation’s Denominational History

St. Peter's Church of Coupland, Texas
St. Peter’s Church of Coupland, Texas

When researching your congregation’s history, the history of the religious bodies with which it has been affiliated may yield important clues that help you contextualize your church’s history. That history may also help you track down resources that can aid in understanding your congregation’s history!

Your Congregation’s Affiliations

It’s possible that your congregation may have been affiliated with more than one denomination during its history. Recent examples would be churches that have left the Episcopal Church in the United States for more conservative bodies such as the Anglican Church in North America, or moderate Southern Baptist churches that have affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship or American Baptist Churches USA.

One example of a change in affiliation that gives context to the history of a congregation is that of the church pictured above: St. Peter’s Church in Coupland.

The congregation that became St Peter’s first started meeting in 1890. The early members of St. Peter’s were of mixed German and Swiss heritage.

At first, they were served by two pastors from the First Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Texas (aka the Texas Synod): the Rev. Gus Szillat of St. John’s Lutheran Church in New Bern (near Taylor) and then the Rev. Friedrich Ernst of Siloah Lutheran Church in McDade.

But by 1894, the congregation had decided to affiliate with the Evangelical Synod of North America instead.

Why would they do that?

I don’t know for sure, but understanding the history of the Texas Synod and the Evangelical Synod may give us some clues.

Conflict in the Texas Synod

The Texas Synod was established in 1853, and from the very outset had difficulty finding pastors to serve congregations in Texas. Many Texas Synod pastors wanted pure Lutheran doctrine and practice, but others were open to mixing Lutheran and Reformed doctrine and practice much as the state church in Prussia had done.

Many Texas Synod pastors were sourced from the St. Chrischona in Switzerland, which was a mixed-confession school. As a result, those pastors were generally sympathetic to the less conservative perspective in the Texas Synod.

Because of this ongoing conflict, as the end of the nineteenth century approached, the conservatives in the Texas Synod worked tirelessly to align it with a larger national body that could provide conservative Lutheran pastors. In 1890, the Texas Synod Convention declined to re-align with a different national body, and as a result, six pastors withdrew.

Six years later, the Texas Synod did align with a more conservative body. Following that a number of pastors and churches left and formed a competing Lutheran body in Texas, The Old German Evangelical Synod of Texas.

You can read more extensively about this ongoing conflict on one of my other sites: The Texas Synod’s Pastor Problem

Eventually, the original Texas Synod became part of the American Lutheran Church, and then the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The Old German Synod, on the other hand, became part of the Lutheran Church in America, which also merged into the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

The Evangelical Synod of North America

Now let’s take a step back now and look at the Evangelical Synod of North America.

The ESNA was organized in 1840, and unlike the Texas Synod, was a more nationally-oriented body. In many ways, the Evangelical Synod was like the state church in Prussia in that some congregations leaned Lutheran and some leaned Reformed in doctrine and practice.

The Evangelical Synod merged with the Reformed Church in America in 1934 to form the Evangelical and Reformed Church, which in turn merged with the Congregational Christian Churches in 1957 to form the United Church of Christ.

Bringing it All Together

St. Peter’s affiliated with the ESNA in 1894, two years before the synod split after it chose to align with a more conservative national body.

Now I haven’t actually seen the records of St. Peter’s, so everything that follows is just a working theory. I strongly suspect, though, that it is fairly accurate.

Since the early members of St. Peter’s were of mixed German and Swiss ancestry, it is quite likely that the overall character of the congregation leaned toward mixing Lutheran and Reformed doctrine and practice.

The ESNA was explicitly of a mixed confession, while the Texas Synod was, at least on paper, an explicitly Lutheran body.

I suspect that St. Peter’s saw the writing on the wall for the Texas Synod, and chose to affiliate with a national body that was more in alignment with its internal practice, and that body was the Evangelical Synod.

Looking for Resources

St. Peter’s continued with the ESNA into the Evangelical and Reformed Church and then into the United Church of Christ. That gives us several potential avenues for historical information about its history.

First, since pastors from New Bern and McDade served the congregation, it is possible that those congregations would have some historical information about the church.

The congregation at New Bern merged with a neighboring congregation on Wuthrich Hill, forming Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, which might be a good resource.

Siloah Lutheran in McDade, on the other hand, dissolved in 1944, though a new congregation, Faith Lutheran, was organized there in 1962.

Since the Texas Synod eventually became part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, it’s possible that one or more ELCA archives may have information about the early history of St. Peter’s.

And finally, one or more United Church of Christ archives may have information about the history of St. Peter’s since 1894.

We’ll discuss archives and other potential denominational resources in a future article… stay tuned!