St. John's Unitarian Church Records: Searching the History of one of Cincinnati's Oldest Churches

The Confirmation class of 1903 with Rev. H.G. Eisenlohr

The Archives and Rare Books Library holds the records of a few local churches, including St. John’s Unitarian Church, one of Cincinnati’s oldest houses of worship.  This church’s rich history began in 1814 when Joseph Zaeslin (also spelled Zaeslein), a Moravian minister, organized a church for German immigrants in Cincinnati under the name The German Evangelical and Reformed Church.   The history of this church is important to both Cincinnati’s religious history and to the history of Cincinnati’s German-American community.

At its beginning, the church was diverse and included both Protestants and Catholics since there was no Catholic church in Cincinnati at the time.  The beliefs of the congregation also ranged from liberal to conservative elements, but Zaeslin was successful in keeping everyone together until his death in either 1817 or 1818.  When Ludwig Heinrich Meyer became pastor in 1820, however, things were not as peaceful and the congregation endured a number of splits throughout the 1830s.  Yet, the original congregation maintained a liberal character, and in 1839 was incorporated as German St. John’s Church.

The church on the corner of 12th and Elm in Over-the-Rhine, 1916
The church on the corner of 12th and Elm in Over-the-Rhine, 1916

The congregation’s first church building was built in 1824 on Arch Street, but in 1868 St. John’s moved to the corner of 12th and Elm Streets in Over-the-Rhine, the heart of Cincinnati’s German community.  More changes came to the church in the early 20th century.  Under the leadership of Rev. H.G. Eisenlohr, the congregation slowly stopped using the German language, and by 1918 the church was keeping records and holding all services in English.  Also while Eisenlohr was pastor, the congregation joined the American Unitarian Association and changed their name to St. John’s Unitarian Church.  The mid-20th century brought a new church on Resor Avenue in the Clifton neighborhood of Cincinnati.  The church is still located there and is now known as St. John’s Unitarian Universalist Church.

The records of the church in the Archives and Rare Books Library are on microfilm.  These records include church minutes (1822-1916), and lists of baptisms, marriages, funerals, and confirmations (1839-1935).  The records are primarily in German, but the church minutes have been translated into English.  The microfilm also contains a history of the church written by H.G. Eisenlohr, and the Archives and Rare Books Library holds several pamphlets relating to the history of the church.  The microfilm of the church records is part of the German-Americana Collection and is Microfilm Number 10 in the ARB’s holdings.  Various pamphlets on the church can also be found in the German-Americana Collection under the call number SpecCol Fick BX 9861.C5 S346.

– Suzanne Maggard