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The Prussian Union of Churches (known under multiple other names) was a major Protestant church body which emerged in 1817 from a series of decrees by Frederick William III of Prussia that united both Lutheran and Reformed denominations in Prussia. Although not the first of its kind, the Prussian Union was the first to occur in a major German state.

It became the biggest independent religious organization in the German Empire and later Weimar Germany, with about 18 million parishioners. The church underwent two schisms (one permanent since the 1830s, one temporary 1934–1948), due to changes in governments and their policies. After being the favoured state church of Prussia in the 19th century, it suffered interference and oppression at several times in the 20th century, including the persecution of many parishioners.

In the 1920s, the Second Polish Republic and Lithuania, and in the 1950s to 1970s, East Germany, the People's Republic of Poland, and the Soviet Union, imposed permanent or temporary organizational divisions, eliminated entire congregations, and expropriated church property, transferring it either to secular uses or to different churches more favoured by these various governments. In the course of the Second World War, church property was either damaged or destroyed by strategic bombing, and by war's end, many parishioners had fled from the advancing Soviet forces. After the war, complete ecclesiastical provinces vanished following the flight and expulsion of Germans living east of the Oder-Neiße line.

The two post-war periods saw major reforms within the Church, strengthening the parishioners' democratic participation. The Church counted many renowned theologians as its members, including Friedrich Schleiermacher, Julius Wellhausen (temporarily), Adolf von Harnack, Karl Barth (temporarily), Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Martin Niemöller (temporarily), to name only a few. In the early 1950s, the church body was transformed into an umbrella, after its prior ecclesiastical provinces had assumed independence in the late 1940s. Following the decline in number of parishioners due to the German demographic crisis and growing irreligion, the Church was subsumed into the Union of Evangelical Churches in 2003.

Campaigning in the election of synodals and presbyters (23 July 1933)

The Gestapo confiscated the office and the printing-press there, in order to hinder any reprint.[51] Thus the list, which had renamed into Gospel and Church [de] (German: Evangelium und Kirche), took refuge with the Evangelical Press Association (German: Evangelischer Preßverband), presided by Dibelius and printed new election posters in its premise

The Gestapo confiscated the office and the printing-press there, in order to hinder any reprint.[51] Thus the list, which had renamed into Gospel and Church [de] (German: Evangelium und Kirche), took refuge with the Evangelical Press Association (German: Evangelischer Preßverband), presided by Dibelius and printed new election posters in its premises in Alte Jacobstraße # 129, Berlin.[52] The night before the election Hitler appealed on the radio to all Protestants to vote for candidates of the German Christians, while the Nazi Party declared, all its Protestant members were obliged to vote for the German Christians.

Thus the turnout in the elections was extraordinarily high, since most non-observant Protestants, who since long aligned with the Nazis, had voted. 70–80% of the newly elected presbyters and synodals of the Evangelical Church of the old-Prussian Union were candidates of the German Christians. In Berlin e.g., the candidates of Gospel and Church only won the majority in two presbyteries, in Niemöller's Dahlem Congregation,[53] and in the congregation in Berlin-Staaken-Dorf.[54] In 1933 among the pastors of Be

Thus the turnout in the elections was extraordinarily high, since most non-observant Protestants, who since long aligned with the Nazis, had voted. 70–80% of the newly elected presbyters and synodals of the Evangelical Church of the old-Prussian Union were candidates of the German Christians. In Berlin e.g., the candidates of Gospel and Church only won the majority in two presbyteries, in Niemöller's Dahlem Congregation,[53] and in the congregation in Berlin-Staaken-Dorf.[54] In 1933 among the pastors of Berlin, 160 stuck to Gospel and Church, 40 were German Christians while another 200 had taken neither side.

German Christians won a majority within the general synod of the Evangelical Church of the old-Prussian Union[55] and within its provincial synods – except of the one of Westphalia –,[55] as well as in many synods of other Protestant church bodies, except of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria right of the river Rhine, the Evangelical Lutheran State Church of Hanover, and the Lutheran Evangelical State Church in Württemberg, which the opposition thus regarded as uncorrupted intact churches, as opposed to the other than so-called destroyed churches.

On 24 August 1933 the new synodals convened for a March of Brandenburg provincial synod. They elected a new provincial church council with 8 seats for the German Christians and two for Detlev von Arnim-Kröchlendorff, an esquire owning a manor in Kröchlendorff (a part of today's Nordwestuckermark), and Gerhard Jacobi (both Gospel and Church). Then the German Christian majority of 113 synodals over 37 nays decided to appeal to the general synod to introduce the so-called Aryan paragraph (German: Arierparagraph) as church law, thus demanding that employees of the Evangelical Church of the old-Prussian Union – being all baptised Protestant church members -, who had grandparents, who were enrolled as Jews, or who were married with such persons, were all to be fired. Gerhard Jacobi led the opposing provincial synodals. Other provincial synods demanded the Aryan paragraph too.[51]

On 7 April 1933 the Nazi Reich's government had introduced an equivalent law for all state officials and employees. By introducing the Nazi racist attitudes into the Evangelical Church of the old-Prussian Union, the approving synodals betrayed the Christian sacrament of baptism, according to which this act makes a person a Christian, superseding any other faith, which oneself may have been observing before and knowing nothing about any racial affinity as a prerequisite of being a Christian, let alone one's grandparents' religious affiliation being an obstacle to being Christian.

Rudolf Bultmann and Hans von Soden [de], professors of Protestant theology at the Philip's University in Marburg upon Lahn, wrote in their assessment in 1933, that the Aryan paragraph contradicts the Protestant confession of everybody's right to perform her or his faith freely. "The Gospel is to be universally preached to all peoples and races and makes all baptised persons insegregable brethren to each other. Therefore unequal rights, due to national or racial arguments, are inacceptable as well as any segregation."[56]

On 5 and 6 September the same year the General Synod of the whole Evangelical Church of the old-Prussian Union convened in the building of the former Prussian State Council[57] (Leipziger Straße No. 3, now seat of the Federal Council (Germany)).[58] Also here the German Christians used their new majority, thus this General Synod became known among the opponents as the Brown Synod, for brown being the colour of the Nazi party.

When on 5 September Jakob Emil Karl Koch [de], then praeses of the unadulterated Westphalian provincial synod, tried to bring forward the arguments of the opposition against the Aryan paragraph and the abolition of synodal and presbyterial democracy, the majority of German Christian synodals shouted him down. The German Christians abused the general synod as a mere acclamation, like a Nazi party convention. Koch and his partisans left the synod.[58] The majority of German Christians thus voted in the Aryan paragraph for all the Evangelical Church of the old-Prussian Union. On 5 September the brown synodals passed the retroactive church law, which only established the function and title of bishop.[59] The same law renamed the ecclesiastical provinces into bishoprics (German: Bistum/Bistümer, sg./pl.), each led – according to the new law of 6 September – by a provincial bishop (German: Provinzialbischof) replacing the prior general superintendents.[60]

By enabling the dismissal of all Protestants of Jewish descent from jobs with the Evangelical Church of the old-Prussian Union, the official church bodies accepted the Nazi racist doctrine of anti-Semitism. This breach with Christian principles within the range of the church was unacceptable to many church members. Nevertheless, pursuing Martin Luther's Doctrine of the two kingdoms (God rules within the world: Directly within the church and in the state by means of the secular government) many church members could not see any basis, how a Protestant church body could interfere with the anti-Semitism performed in the state sphere, since in its self-conception the church body was a religious, not a political organisation.[61] Only few parishioners and clergy, mostly of Reformed tradition, followed Jean Cauvin's doctrine of the Kingdom of Christ within the church and the world.[62]

Among them were Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who demanded the church bodies to oppose the abolition of democracy and the unlawfulness in the general political sphere.[63] Especially pastors in the countryside – often younger men, since the traditional pastoral career ladder started in a village parish – were outraged about this development. Herbert Goltzen, Eugen Weschke, and Günter Jacob, three pastors from Lower Lusatia, regarded the introduction of the Aryan paragraph as the violation of the confession. In late summer 1933 Jacob, pastor in Noßdorf (a part of today's Forst in Lusatia/Baršć), developed the central theses, which became the self-commitment of the opponents.

In reaction to the anti-Semitic discriminations within the Evangelical Church of the old-Prussian Union the church-aligned Breslauer Christliches Wochenblatt (Breslau Christian Weekly) published the following criticism in the October edition of 1933:

"Vision:

Service. The introit faded away. The pastor stands at the altar and begins:

›Non-Aryans are requested to leave the church!‹

Nobody budges.

›Non-Aryans are requested to leave the church!‹

Everything remains still.

›Non-Aryans are requested to leave the church!‹

Then Christ descends from the Crucifix of the altar and leaves the church."

On 11 September 1933 Gerhard Jacobi gathered c. 60 opposing pastors, who clearly saw the breach of Christian and Protestant principles. Weschke and Günter Jacob proposed to found the Emergency Covenant of Pastors (German: Pfarrernotbund), and so they did, electing Pastor Niemöller their president.[58] On the basis of the theses of Günter Jacob its members concluded that a schism was a matter of fact,[64] a new Protestant church was to be established, since the official organisation was anti-Christian, heretical and therefore illegitimate.[65][66] Each pastor joining the Covenant – until the end of September 1933 2,036 out of a total of 18,842 Protestant pastors in Germany acceded – had to sign that he rejected the Aryan paragraph.[58]

In 1934 the Covenant counted 7,036 members, after 1935 the number sank to 4,952, among them 374 retired pastors, 529 auxiliary preachers and 116 candidates. First the pastors of Berlin, affiliated with the Covenant, met biweekly in Gerhard Jacobi's private apartment. From 1935 on they convened in the premises of the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA, German: Christlicher Verein Junger Männer) in Wilhelmstraße No. 24 in Berlin-Kreuzberg, opposite to the headquarters of Heinrich Himmler's Sicherheitsdienst (in 1939 integrated into the Reichssicherheitshauptamt, RSHA) in Wilhelmstraße # 102. In 1941 the Gestapo closed the YMCA house.[67]