In the late 1700s, German immigrants swarmed to western Pennsylvania with the promise of land and opportunity. Many of these immigrants also came to flee the violence of 18th century Europe and the oppression brought upon these Protestants by Roman Catholic noblemen. Some of these Germans came from Lutheran churches and others came from Calvinistic churches and in many cases, here in the American frontier, neither could sustain the building of a church and the provision for a pastor, so they united.
Lutherans and Calvinists?
At different times in Germany, the Lutherans and Calvinists had attempted unions, though they never lasted very long. The Heidelberg Catechism was written for the express purpose of accomplishing this, though the Lutherans rejected it as "too Calvinistic." In the American frontier, though, necessity provided the fertile ground for such a movement. And thus arose a group of churches that identified themselves as "German Evangelical Protestant." Evangelical was the term that the Germans used to identify themselves as "Not Roman Catholic" and Protestant was the equivalent term. To ensure that their new community understood that they were not Romanists, both terms were adopted.
Agreeing to Debate in Fellowship
The hallmark of the union movement in western PA was not a harmony brought about by compromise; it was a harmony brought about by a willingness to disagree (and to disagree passionately) but not to break fellowship. At the same time, these Calvinists and Lutherans were very clear on the doctrine that united them.
In 1835 a group of German farmers founded St. John's German United Evangelical Protestant Church. They purchased an acre of land from Jacob "Swiss" Burry, meeting in his home until the first log-church was constructed. As a result, the church acquired the nickname, "Burry's Church," a nickname that, after 180 years, has stuck. So, while officially we are "St. John's Church," many in the community simply know us as "Burry's Church."
Pastor E.F. Winter
Burry's founding pastor was E.F. Winter, a German Reformed pastor who was called to America due to the need of pastors on the frontier. Pastor Winter would be responsible for founding or serving nearly a dozen churches in this region, but would serve as pastor here at Burry's from his arrival in 1835 until his retirement in 1880. These circuit-riding German pastors had a reputation of traveling with a Bible in one hand and a good knife in the other. While not much is known about his ability to handle a knife, Pastor Winter's ability to handle his Bible laid a firm foundation for this country church to be built upon.
The log church that was built in 1835 served the church until 1859 when the second church was built. The congregation worshiped in the second sanctuary until 1928 when, having outgrown the second church, the church building in which we currently worshiped was built.
The German Evangelical Protestant Movement
The German Evangelical Protestant Movement thrived along the Ohio Valley between Pittsburgh and St. Louis for about 100 years. Yet, as the American frontier became more developed, churches migrated toward various different denominations. Many would become part of Lutheran synods and others joined with Dutch congregations to form the Reformed Church in America. In the east, some of the churches merged with the Brethren movement to form the United Brethren. As we moved into the 20th Century, the majority of the remaining churches merged with the New England Congregationalists to found the United Church in Christ.
Burry's and Independence
Burry's founding fathers came out of a context where German princes had forced their theological ideas upon the people, thus they had a distrust for denominationalism. Thus, as the majority of the German Evangelical Protestant churches began joining with denominations, our founding fathers chose to remain independent, while also committed to our historical roots. As a result of these roots, the church has been served by both Lutheran and Reformed pastors, though in the 1950s it was determined that the dominant theological influence of the congregation was Reformed and from that point on, the church has been served by Reformed pastors, largely called from the ranks of the RPCES and the PCA.
It is the position of the church leadership that we look backwards to the past to keep ourselves grounded as we move into the future. While challenges have always existed, we seek to continue to stand firmly within the Reformed tradition as we shine a beacon of light and truth into this world around us. We know from where we have come and look forward to where God is taking us; come join us in that journey.