since 1863

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History Of Yokohama Union Church


The story of the Yokohama Union Church (1872 - 1923)

Sending out roots: The early Years (1872-1923) With the opening of the port of Yokohama to the outside world, an obscure village began its rapid growth into a bustling city. Previously a place "notable only for its isolation, poverty, and obscurity", which the daikan assigned to this place found "a hardship post in a dull backwater where nothing ever happened", Yokohama became a progressive city of many "firsts" . (Yokohama, City of Firsts, p. 8)

Just a few of these "firsts" include: Japan's first newspaper, gas lights, tennis, bricks, ice cream, roast beef, beer, sewers and baseball. Two other important "firsts", perhaps not mentioned in secular history, are the founding of Japan's first Japanese Protestant Church (the Kaigan Church) and Japan's first Protestant English-speaking Interdenominational and International Church (Yokohama Union Church). It is reported that a sister church was developing in Kobe about the same time. A Catholic and an Anglican church had been established in Yokohama.

Almost simultaneous with the opening of the port was the arrival of early American missionaries to Japan. Among them were Dr. and Mrs. James C. Hepburn. A medical doctor, a linguist and a truly dedicated Christian, Dr. Hepburn not only invented prosthetic limbs and the standardized romaji system, wrote a Japanese-English dictionary and translated the Bible, but he "still had time to found three churches, four schools and two colleges before dying at the age of 96." (Yokohama, City of Firsts, p.10)

As has been true throughout all of history, wherever Christians went the church followed. This was also true of the first Christians who came to Japan. Many foreigners who came with the opening of the port, whether business people, government representatives, bankers or missionaries, felt a need to worship and to be in the fellowship of Christian believers.

After meeting together informally for several years, the Union Church was organized with eleven members in Dr. Hepburn's dispensary/chapel in March of 1872. The founders, Rev . J . H . Ballagh and Rev . S . R . Brown wanted a church "entirely independent in the regulation of its affairs, governing itself according to the teachings of the Word of God as understood by its founders". They wanted to be a congregation of people from many bodies who were a part of the world - wide Church of Christ. Therefore, "Union Church" was appropriately chosen as the name.

Early in the history of the church, in order to give identity and unity to this international body . Articles of Faith based on the Bible and the historic Apostles' Creed were formulated. In the first two years, sixty - nine persons signed the statement. Among these signers was Mary Eddy Kidder, founder of Ferris Seminary now known as Ferris Jogakuin which operates Ferris University and Ferris Girls' High Schools.

For the first thirty-eight years, the congregation met in various places :the Gaiety Theatre, the Doremus School, the Kaigan Church and Van Schaick Hall on Ferris' campus. Not only was the church mobile in its place of worship, but there was great mobility of membership and leadership , as there still is today. It was reported that in 1875 only 23 of the 69 who had signed the Articles of Faith remained in Japan. It became evident that a long-term pastor was needed in order to carry out an effective ministry to this mobile congregation. In 1885 Elbert B. Munroe, Esqr., the founder of the Y.M.C.A. in Japan was visiting this country. He was very much impressed with the unique vantage point occupied by the Union Church and saw the importance of having a resident pastor to meet the spiritual needs of this cosmopolitan community . He pledged his continuing support provided they secured a pastor. The congregation succeeded in this with the calling of Rev. George Meacham who served Yokohama Union Church for eleven years.

During this time the church extended its ministry through membership in the Christian Endeavor Society ( an international youth organization) and by establishing a mission to the Chinese in Yokohama's "China Town" as well as weekly services at the British and United States jails. It was a decade in which more than 110 entered into the active fellowship of the church of whom one haIf were received upon profession of their faith.

For the period of time that the Kaigan Church was the home of the worshipping congregation, two Sunday morning services were held, one for Japanese, the other for English speaking people. The Union Church members furnished a pipe organ, the second pipe organ in Japan.

By 1899 the congregation was getting very eager to have a church building of its own. With morning services held in the settlement and evening services up on the bluff they felt like a divided congregation. A Ladies Auxiliary was formed and it was largely through their efforts that the church's goals were reached . On April 25, 1905 at an extraordinary general meeting of the congregation the following resolution was passed: "That a permanent board of seven trustees be appointed by the church with full power to raise funds, to acquire property on the "Bluff", Yokohama which shall be held in their names in trust for the Union Church as a building site for church, school and manse." This led the church to purchase property at number 49 Bluff during the following summer. Sometime later a contract was signed, and on March 20, 1909, the corner stone was laid.

In 1910, on the weekend of October 15 and 16, a weekend described by those in attendance as "ecstatically happy", the new building was dedicated with a service on Saturday and three on Sunday. Finally Union Church had a home of its own in a beautiful facility designed to meet all the needs of the growing congregation. It truly was a reason for celebration! A lower level had large Sunday School rooms, a church parlor and vestibules.On a mezzanine floor was a pastor's study, choir assembly room and kitchen. The upper floor was the sanctuary, which could seat

320 to 550 people. All of the woodwork was of light-colored keyaki and with colorful stained glass windows, the effect was spectacular. Also, the pipe organ from the Kaigan Church was moved here, providing the new church with beautiful music. A smaller pipe organ was later installed in the Sunday School area. In gratitude for all of this and to enable the building to be dedicated debt free, the congregation was challenged to raise 21,000 yen the balance remaining of the 82,000 yen expenditure.

In the next decade the church became a place of influence in Yokohama. But they were soon to be affected by the trying years of the First World War. The church shared the grief of some of its families as they lost young men in battle. This was a busy time for the Ladies' Auxiliary as they cooperated with other organizations in the city in rolling bandages

and sewing pajamas for use in field hospitals. On one occasion, the ladies received a letter of thanks from a Yokohama volunteer hospitalized in France who had been wearing a pajama bearing the label, 'Union Church Ladies Auxiliary of Yokohama' . During this time pastorates were rapidly changing. However, the historic log comments that there was cause for real gratitude that during that lamentable period a pastor was always available, ready to give cheer and comfort.

SCHOOL MINISTRYYokohama Christian School