Old Zion Lutheran Church
Old Zion Lutheran Church is a traditional German Lutheran congregation founded in 1742. Worship services occur every Sunday, with both German and English Services.
The beginnings of Old Zion are in the German immigration to the American colonies along the East Coast from as early as 1690. Many of those immigrants settled in the area of Philadelphia, and some of them formed a Lutheran congregation which grew along with the city.
It proved to be very difficult at first to find a German pastor who would stay to serve the congregation for any length of time. Therefore these German Lutherans depended on the Swedish Lutheran pastors of the former New Sweden (Nya Sverige) colony to minister to them. Thus the still existing Swedish Gloria Dei church (Old Swedes’ church), built in 1699-1700, served also as “our” first church building.
A dramatic change occurred in 1742, when at long last there was found a German pastor willing to serve the German Lutherans in Philadelphia on a permanent basis. He was Heinrich Melchior Muehlenberg, sent out from Halle/Saale, at that time a center for Lutheran outreach and missionary activity. Pastor Muehlenberg turned out to be the right man in the right place at the right time. Under his energetic and capable leadership, the congregation flourished.
Two churches were built—St. Michael (1743) and Zion (1766), as well a schoolhouse (1761, still existing). The churches gave name to the congregation, “St. Michael-and-Zion,” but in the course of time it became known popularly as “Old Zion.” That has been our official name since 1984. From the early 1800s on, a number of daughter congregations were established throughout the Philadelphia area, a reflection of the growth of the city and a proof of the ongoing influence of Muehlenberg, whose guiding maxim was always ecclesia plantanda—“the Church must be planted.” In addition, of course, these younger congregations also reflected the gradual change from German to English as the language of worship.
“Mother” Old Zion, however, did and does retain German as one of her official service languages, which, for a church founded in pre-Revolution times, is unique in American Lutheranism. Not even the two World Wars were able to muzzle our preachers. And for all her history, Old Zion has never become a mere museum of the past. Rather, we remain a living link to those who came to these shores to confess and to practice their Lutheran faith, because it is that faith which we continue to proclaim today and which we hope to carry forward into the future. We now worship in a beautiful sanctuary built in 1891/92—our fifth church building, but the same joyful Gospel!
Whether in English or in German, the congregation at Old Zion Lutheran Church follow Scripture and Luther in their understanding of Christian worship. The German word Gottesdienst -- “God’s Service” -- and the English term “Divine Service” both signify that, as we worship, God is serving us. Traditional and liturgical worship services center on Christ Jesus who comes to us through His Spirit-filled Gospel in word and sacrament to bestow forgiveness and new life on us, to strengthen our faith in Him, and to help us to live in ever closer union with Him.
During English services, the red Service Book and Hymnal (© 1958) is used, following the “Common Service,” a liturgy which is deeply rooted in the worship tradition of the western Church and which at one time was the most commonly used liturgy among all Lutherans in America.
During German services, the Evangelischen Kirchen Gesangbuch (Ausgabe fuer die Evangelisch-Lutherische Kirche in Bayern, © 1877) is used. The German liturgy which is followed has been inserted into the front of the German hymnals and is rooted in the same tradition as the “Common Service,” with most of the same responses and liturgical songs. In addition to the joint Communion service on the fourth Sunday of each month, the Holy Supper of our Lord is also offered in the German service on an every-other-month basis (usually on the second Sunday).
On the fourth Sunday of every month, a joint English-German Holy Communion service is offered. In the joint service, several parts of the worship is said or sung in German— one of the readings (usually the Epistle), alternate verses of the chief hymn of the day and occasionally of other hymns as well, and the Lord’s Prayer after the Words of Institution.