Immanuel United Church of Christ (UCC) has roots that reach back to the earliest days of the German and English Protestant Reformations. The Puritan settlers brought the Congregational Church to New England, and in 1931 it combined with the indigenous American Christian Church. Meanwhile, the German Evangelical and Reformed Churches united in 1934. Immanuel UCC was initially an Evangelical Church, then an Evangelical and Reformed Church. When the Congregational-Christian Church and the Evangelical and Reformed Church merged in 1957 to form the United Church of Christ, Immanuel adopted its current name.
In the late nineteenth century, St. John Evangelical Church, Immanuel’s parent church, was one of the largest Protestant congregations in Louisville. Its pastor, Rev. Carl J. Zimmerman, had been called in 1878 and was highly respected. When a movement within the church to conduct worship services in English rather than German began, Rev. Zimmerman, at the age of 52, along with a handful of congregants, withdrew to form the New Evangelical Mission. It was a church founded on the strength of their conviction that the gospel should continue to be preached in German according to their particular church’s tradition. The first services were held in Fisher’s Hall, located above a shop on Baxter Avenue, on May 15, 1898. Rev. Zimmerman’s first sermon was based on the declaration in Matthew 18:20, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name there I am in the midst of them.” At that first service, 20 gathered together; but soon the numbers increased and a more permanent home was sought.
Land was purchased at what is now the intersection of Bardstown Road and Grinstead Drive. On October 8, 1899, the cornerstone for the new church was laid and the church, then known as Evangelical Immanuel Church, was dedicated on May 6, 1900. For the next 20 years the church continued to grow on that site. As membership increased, more and more of the congregants did not speak German. By 1916, German-speaking services were held only once a month.
At the end of World War I, membership took a giant leap and the church again decided to relocate. Since Louisville was expanding eastward, farmland was purchased on the corner of Taylorsville Road and Doup Avenue. The old property was sold to Stoll Oil for $14,000. The first services were held at the new location in a tent with a sawdust floor. By December 25, 1925, the congregation had moved into the still incomplete church, which would end up costing $43,000.
The “Roaring Twenties” saw the church prosper with many groups and activities in the church forming or continuing to grow, including Vacation Bible School, Sunday School, church orchestra, bowling teams, and the Ladies’ Mission Society. Unfortunately, The Great Depression soon followed causing the congregation to struggle to keep the church financially solvent. Out of necessity, the pastor’s salary had to be reduced significantly. During the Ohio River flood of 1937, the church came to the assistance of those displaced by the rising waters by feeding flood victims and rescue workers. Likewise, during World War II, Immanuel opened its doors one night a week to servicemen and women for entertainment and refreshments. Many troops were stationed at nearby Bowman Field.
In 1931, the Congregational Church and American Christian Church denominations merged; similarly in 1934 the German Evangelical and Reformed Churches united. On April 3, 1940, Immanuel’s name was changed to Immanuel Evangelical and Reformed Church. When the Congregational-Christian Church and the Evangelical and Reformed Church denominations merged in 1957 to form the United Church of Christ denomination, Immanuel became Immanuel United Church of Christ, the name which it bears to this day.
It was obvious by the 1950’s that the church needed more room. Discussion of moving again resulted in the decision to build on site instead. “A church on the corner,” the long-time dream of many of the members, became a reality when the new, modernistic sanctuary was dedicated in 1961. Known by its sanctuary roof, a hyperbolic parabola, the sanctuary’s sweeping roofline sets it apart from all other churches in the city and most other churches in the nation. The design was extremely progressive at its inception. When the construction plan was accepted, some in the congregation thought it would never hold up. Others thought that while it was a very strange design, it was also very beautiful.
In 1995, a three-year fundraising campaign began for another building expansion, this time a Christian Education wing. The generous response of the congregation resulted in a public mortgage burning in a relatively short period of time, an important event that helped mark the church’s centennial celebration. An on-site bus garage to store the new church bus, generously donated by a member in 2010, was dedicated debt-free on August 28, 2011. Part of the remarkable growth in the last half of the twentieth century resulted from the stability afforded by two long-serving pastors, Rev. Robert Groves and Rev. Dr. William Schultz, and sadly, the closure of a number of other UCC churches in the Louisville area.
Immanuel UCC is a church founded in faith and growing in grace. It is a member of the Kentuckiana Association and the Indiana-Kentucky Conference. It is a church with a good blend of older members and younger families. The diversity of its membership includes some who were raised in this congregation and some brand new Christians, who were recently baptized here as adults. Church governance rests in the hands of the Church Council. Church leadership is a responsibility shared by the Pastor and the Council President. A large number of groups offer opportunities for everyone to participate in a variety of ways and activities. The church continues to minister to the needs of its members, our neighborhood and city, state and nation, and to the world beyond our country’s borders.
Everyone is welcome here. What we are all about may have been best stated by Rev. Groves during the dedication ceremony of the new sanctuary in 1961, “Too often we are so anxious to make our Christianity conform to our patterns and to old traditions. This building should remind us that we cannot be too easily satisfied with the life about us, but it should stir us to action and should ever lift our eyes to the sky.” On August 9, 2012, the Louisville city architect, while photographing the sanctuary to commemorate its unusually modern, mid-century architecture, noted how well the sanctuary connects the worshipping congregation to the elements of God’s creation in nature: the pews are set down in the earth, the roof sweeps upward toward heaven, and the many windows convey the changing light and weather conditions outside the sanctuary as clouds move across the sun, the sun rises and sets, the winds stir the trees, and storms begin and end.