Zion Church, the second German Evangelical congregation in Burlington, Iowa, was built in 1864 for Deutsche Evangelische Zions Gemeinde. The sandstone medallions on the front exterior wall of the building still bear the original name.
The 55 households who became part of the founding of Zion included Friedrich Gottlob Klein, who headed the Zion German parochial school from 1864 to 1900. The German School was an essential center for the education of both children and adults as they learned religious lessons, the German language and the essentials of English during the early transition from immigrants to permanent residents and citizens.
The Evangelical Catechism was memorized by everyone. The desk that students used for recitations, under the stern guidance of Friedrich Klein, is found in the library area of the Fellowship Hall.
One of Zion’s founders, Johann Zimmermann, was a newly ordained pastor who had studied at Basel Mission House in Switzerland. He delivered his first sermon in First Church as a sign of the continuing close ties of the two congregations.
The Beginning of Zion Church
It all began in 1843 when six families founded First Evangelical (now First UCC). By 1864, the German community in Burlington had grown tremendously, and the founding families agreed amicably to divide their efforts into two congregations rather than attempt to incorporate all of the new immigrants into one. They wanted both to be central, downtown congregations easily accessible to everyone, and attempted to purchase property across the street from First Church, but had to settle for an odd hillside location one block away.
Zion’s founders called Johann Zimmermann, a newly ordained pastor who had studied at Basel Mission House in Switzerland. He delivered his first sermon in First Church as a sign of the continuing close ties of the two congregations.
Pastor Zimmermann donated the church bell to the church in 1876. It was cast in St. Louis by J.G. Stuckstede and Brothers, and weighs 2,300 pounds, making its installation in the tall central tower that stood at the time a major feat. The bell inscription reads “Kommet her zu mir alle die ihe muselig u beladen seid” (“Come here to me all those who are weary and troubled”) and “Ehre sei gott in der hohe” (“Glory to God in the highest”).
The choice of Johann Zimmermann was fortuitous as the congregation prospered. By 1882, both he and Zion were recognized as leaders in the German Evangelical Church, as he was elected the first president of the German Evangelical Synod of North America. He continued as pastor of Zion for 25 years, but continued as denominational president nearly to his death in 1909.
The current sanctuary preserves the original ceiling from 1864, but most of the interior dates from the 1890 remodeling. The choir loft, organ case and pews were installed in 1890, as well as all of the west wall stained glass. The old central tower was replaced with two shorter corner towers in that renovation.
The continuing influence of the German Church was evident in the work of Zion's second pastor, Carl Kurz, to establish a hospital in Burlington along the lines of German models established by churches. Meeting in Zion's Fellowship rooms, the first organization of what became the Burlington Medical Center took shape in 1894.
In 1901, the original windows on the north and south sides of the sanctuary were replaced with new art glass. Each window was donated in honor of early founding families or groups. The large, south wall Biklen window was severely damaged in the tornado of 1913, when the roof of the house next door blew onto Zion, but the window was soon restored.
Photos of all of Zion’s pastors are located in the lower level, near the library.
The third pastor, John Erdmann, continued the tradition of being born in Germany, emigrating to America, and beginning a life-long ministry at Zion. He led the congregation through the challenging years of the First World War, and began English services part-time in 1917, which members recall as being as difficult for him as for older members, since his English was halting at best. The transition to mostly English worship was accomplished by 1928 – after 65 years of German usage.
The Sunday School begun in 1900 filled the building to overflowing by 1930 and plans were made to build the Religious Education building that consists of four floors east of the original building. Although the church had lost most of its money collected for the purpose in a bank failure, the congregation still voted in 1931 to complete the building. Many of Zion’s unemployed members were put to work on the construction, which was designed and executed entirely by Zion’s people.
The 1864 brickwork also was covered with a new exterior in the 1931 effort, and the existing towers were constructed with all of the decorative concrete formed by members’ own efforts. (The original exterior is only visible on the north side. At the foot of the stairs to the balcony on the main sanctuary, floor look out the windows facing east.)
Zion’s pageants and plays have provided countless hours of entertainment to the whole community since the 1920's. The old Fellowship Hall stage, dating from 1904, has been used regularly ever since. Events have included a dinner theater, fellowship nights and special programs in the current church schedule. Performers add their names to the flats that have been used since the 1920's.
The only major sanctuary change since 1890 occurred in 1951 with the replacement of the central pulpit and altar with a divided chancel pulpit, lectern and central altar. The earlier pulpit and altar are still in use in the rear chapel area.
Pastor John Schultz came to Zion in 1952 after 31 years as a missionary and hospital administrator in India. He continued a strong interest already present in Zion in mission work, evident in continuing support for mission efforts in excess of 30 percent of Zion's current budget. He also continued to serve Burlington's immigrant community. A new Greek immigrant, John Skarlis, among others, joined Zion. Mr. Skarlis brought the Lord's Supper tapestry to Zion from Greece, and it is displayed in the rear Fellowship Room.
In 1959, English handbells began to be used regularly in worship after the pattern of English handbell choirs. Zion formed the first of such choir in the area, and all ages of members have participated.
The 1964 building addition modernized Zion facilities with a large narthex or reception area, offices, and new nursery and children's rooms. At the same time, a new Moller Pipe Organ was installed in the 1890 organ case.
Janice Kellar Gibson began her service as organist in 1969, and she continues to rock the house as Zion’s Minister of Music. She leads an integrated program of Christian education, music and fellowship for the children, youth and families of the church.
Zion and Messiah Lutheran in 1964 began the Christian Action organization, which continues to assist low- and moderate-income people in purchasing and renovating homes.
The first monthly Community Luncheon was served at Zion in 1978. More than 200 people take part each month, and through the years the proceeds of these events have included contributions of almost $80,000 to mission and service projects beyond Zion's doors.
In 1988, Zion began planning for the Friedenheim Community, a church-sponsored home for the elderly and disabled on Madison Avenue in Burlington. Now co-sponsored by United Church Homes, based in Ohio, and by the other U.C.C. congregations in the area, the Friedenheim opened in September, 1993.
In 2011, Zion followed in the footsteps of the U.C.C. General Synod by adopting a statement of Open and Affirming, recognizing the rightful place of LGBTQ members of our community in the spiritual life of the church. On Jan. 30, 2013, in a unanimous congregational vote, the following statement on welcoming was added to the church's constitution:
Zion UCC welcomes all who welcome everyone else. These include persons of every gender; sexual orientation; gender identity and expression; mental and physical ability; age; ethnicity; nationality; economic and social status; faith background; political affiliation; marital standing and family structure. We invite them to share in the life, leadership, ministry, fellowship, worship, sacraments, responsibilities, blessings and joys of our congregation as we seek to grow together in faith and love.
At least eight members have entered full-time Christian service during Zion's history.
In 2014, with a year-long series of historical vignettes and a celebration in September that invited former pastors back to the church, Zion celebrated the 150th anniversary of its founding. Information from these vignettes was compiled into a book.