History of Old First Reformed UCC

Founded by German immigrants in 1727, Old First Reformed United Church of Christ has been part of the fabric of Philadelphia for over 280 years.

Early pioneers

On September 21, 1727, the Rev. George Michael Weiss and 400 of his congregants arrived by boat to Philadelphia from the Palatinate region of Germany. They worshiped in members’ homes for two decades before building a hexagonal church at Old First’s current location at 4th & Race (then Sassafras) Streets.

On September 24, 1747, our second pastor, the Rev. Michael Schlatter, who had been sent to America to “organize the ministers and congregations into a Coetus (synod),” had gathered and founded the German Reformed Church in America, that founding taking place in Old First’s Sanctuary on the corner of 4th and Races Streets. More information on the German Reformed Church is available on the UCC’s website.

In 1774 our congregation replaced the small building with a larger church to accommodate their growing congregation. During the American Revolution, the British Army used the church as a hospital and imprisoned the pastor, Rev. Casper Weyberg, for preaching to Hessian solders.

The congregation built a third building in 1837 due to concerns over traffic noise on Race Street and inadequacies of the second structure. The 1837 church is the one in use by our congregation today.

Throughout most of the 18th & 19th centuries the church provided basic education to local children, including those who were too poor to pay tuition.

Urban migration

Toward the end of the 19th century, the area around the church became increasingly industrialized and many of the church members left the neighborhood.  The congregation decided to follow the migration of its members to 10th & Wallace where they built a new church in 1882.  The congregation later followed its members once again in 1925—this time to 50th & Locust in West Philadelphia.

Returning home

In the 1960s, the City of Philadelphia and the federal government began an effort to revitalize the Old City section of Philadelphia in advance of the country’s bicentennial.  Thus, in 1967 Old First bought back its third building at its original location at 4th & Race Streets. The building, then vacant, had been in use as a paint warehouse for much of the early 20th century.

The “urban pioneers” who returned to rebuild the congregation’s presence at 4th & Race were propelled by a dream to make a difference in the city. Embracing its central location, the congregation established ministries to serve the needs of the surrounding communities.

  • Ministry to the homeless—In 1984 Old First was the first church in Philadelphia to open its doors to provide overnight shelter to homeless Philadelphians. We continue that ministry today with a partnership with Bethesda Project and with our weekly food & clothing cupboard.
  • Ministry to disadvantaged kids—Following in the footsteps of the 18th & 19th century Old Firsters who provided free basic education before the advent of public education, Old First has run a free summer camp for kids in disadvantaged neighborhoods of the city.
  • Urban workcamps—Old First invites youth and adults from across the country to experience the joys and challenges of community service in an urban environment.
  • For more information on our current community service programs, please visit our Wellspring page.

    Today: Serving the Community and the Region

    In previous generations, Old First moved from neighborhood to neighborhood, keeping up with the migration of its membership. Today, Old First is stationery, but our members live throughout the region. Reflecting the mobility of modern life, Old First draws members from across the city and throughout the region—from Oaklyn, Collingswood and Sicklerville to the East; Queen Village, Wallingford, and Wilmington to the South; Northern Liberties, Warminster and Abington to the North; and East Falls, East Norriton and Merion to the West. We gather at 4th & Race as a community of faith, to serve God, one another and our communities.

    The archival records of Old First Reformed United Church of Christ can be found at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Collection Information