The "Smithfield" Churches
A brief history
By 1782 German immigrant farmers and merchants and their families were settling in Pittsburgh, then a small frontier hamlet of about thirty-five houses, most of them made of logs. In fact, many of the 250-some residents were German. They were a people with a firm belief in God, and the words of the Psalms celebrated in Martin Luther's great hymn A Mighty Fortress Is Our God were their declaration of faith. Wanting a place to worship, they established the first church in the town that year. Forty-two men were listed on the membership roll women not being voting members. The church was not connected with any denomination, and its roster included Lutherans, Reformed members, and people not affiliated with any group. It was a church that welcomed diversity of opinion, valued religious freedom, and respected the right of individual conviction and personal conscience quite a remarkable stand for a church in that day.
Being organized and having a rented log cabin in which to worship was only a start. They needed a minister. And so in that same year they extended an official "call" to the Rev. Johann Wilhelm Weber, thus becoming the first organized church in Allegheny County and the earliest German congregation west of the Allegheny Mountains. Weber was a perfect match for this fledgling church. He'd been forced to leave a previous parish near Philadelphia because he was "too political," and he firmly supported the War for Independence. In 1783, the congregation built a one-room log meetinghouse, often referred to as a "blockhouse," on Diamond Alley and Wood Street. (Diamond Alley is now Forbes Avenue, and in the 1700s the intersection was much closer to the Point than it is today.)
From the time of the church's organization, there was a divide between Germans of the Lutheran tradition and those of the Reformed tradition. The two groups coexisted, however, generally holding separate services in the log church and having separate officers, but mostly sharing the same pastor. In 1787 John Penn, Sr., and John Penn, Jr. (the grandson and great-grandson of William Penn), in order "to promote morality, piety and religion," granted to the two congregations a 240' x 110' plot of land along Smithfield Street between Sixth Avenue and Strawberry Way. It was large enough for a meetinghouse, a parsonage, and a cemetery but had one serious drawback. It was "too far out of town."
It was not until 1791 or 1792 that they built on this property their second church, adding a cemetery and manse in later years. Succeeding congregations have owned the land continuously. (Since 1924 the portion of the property not used by the church building has been leased.)
After much to-ing and fro-ing over the years, the congregations finally became one in 1812, identifying themselves as the German Evangelical Protestant Church and reasserting their commitment to freedom of conviction and the right of personal interpretation. In 1815 the original building at Smithfield and Sixth was replaced by the much larger third church that seated 200 on the main floor, with a gallery seating 20.
A fourth church was constructed in 1833 and included school rooms and a second floor sanctuary, and the fifth with its 218-foot tower was built in 1875-77, both at the corner of Smithfield and Sixth Avenue.
Construction of the sixth building, this time at the corner of Smithfield and Strawberry Way, began in 1925, with consecration in December 1926, and an "official opening" on the congregation's 145th anniversary in October 1927. This building known today as Smithfield United Church of Christ or, just as often, Smithfield Church is readily identifiable by its unique steeple, visible from countless vantage points in downtown Pittsburgh. It is the fifth at the Smithfield location, the sixth official place of worship overall.
Our German heritage remains both visible and honored. In the sanctuary are the inscriptions Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe and Ein' feste burg ist unser Gott. In the church archives the earliest records are, of course, in German. Later, valued records like these "Minutes" and "Protokoll" books were written in German and also in English.
The church archives are located on the sixth floor, in the tower, and are accessible by elevator. Here documents and artifacts of all kinds have been sorted, organized, and provided with finding aids, and we are able to keep them secure while making their contents available for church purposes as well as historical and genealogical inquiries.
The on-line Guide to Church Registers of baptisms, confirmations, marriages, deaths and Finding Aid for the Smithfield United Church of Christ Archives. (a .pdf document)
Inquiries are welcomed and visits can be arranged: call 412-281-1811 or write to us at Church Archivist, Smithfield United Church of Christ, 620 Smithfield Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. You can also send an email request to firstname.lastname@example.org
All of the services the Archives performs — including searches, photocopies, and digital images of original records — are provided without charge. The Archives welcomes donations, which are used to purchase such much-needed supplies as acid-free containers.
through you and me!