The Next Page: How the outbreak of World War I affected Pittsburgh‘‍s Germans and their Downtown church

Divided loyalties

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The assassination of the Austrian archduke and his wife by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, set in motion a cascade of responses culminating in what was arguably the most significant event of the 20th century: World War I.

Exactly one month later, Austria-Hungary would move to punish Serbia. Austria’s rival, Russia, stood up for Serbia. Germany came to Austria’‍s aid against Russia. France, bound by treaty to Russia, opposed Germany. Great Britain stuck by its ally, France, and when the dominoes stopped falling, the principal powers of Europe found themselves belligerents in the first major modern war.

President Woodrow Wilson initially declared America‘‍s neutrality in the conflict. But what of American opinion, especially among those whose roots were in the warring nations? Could this country remain detached from the war? Could its citizens remain neutral in word and deed?

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The Germans in Pittsburgh were in a difficult position. According to contemporary statistics, they composed the largest foreign-born or first-generation-American ethnic group in Allegheny County. Like most immigrants, they embraced the ways, ideals and behaviors of their adopted country, even as they continued to treasure and celebrate their heritage. This created an interesting dynamic as the war broadened and deepened over the next four years.

The first locally reported response of the city’‍s Germans, related in the Pittsburg (then spelled without the “h”) Press in early August 1914, came from the Western Pennsylvania branch of the National German-American Alliance. It urged Pittsburghers to suspend judgment about who was right and wrong in the conflict and adopted a resolution declaring that its members, though German by birth or descent, were Americans by adoption and sympathy.

But the alliance also blamed Russia and France for their “belligerent intervention”  and extended sympathy to the “German race in Europe” (that is, the Germans and Austrians), offering them such aid as possible. Furthermore, the alliance accused Britain of publishing biased reports about the war, and the group‘‍s request for a suspension of judgment was coupled with a confident statement that British and French provocations soon would become known.

Two days later, an editorial in the Press depicted the situation this way: “Enemies in Europe, Friends in America.” The editorial said it was inconceivable, in America’‍s melting pot, that Pittsburghers who hailed from the belligerent nations would not continue to get along with one another. 

The frailty of this hope soon became apparent. The German Catholic Central Verein of America, a national organization promoting social justice that happened to be meeting in Pittsburgh in 1914, issued a statement pronouncing its solidarity with Germany and Austria and offering prayers for the safety of German and Austrian soldiers. Then, the Allied German Societies of America, meeting in Philadelphia, called for supporting the kaiser and Germany, who were, they said, fighting to regain Germany’s position in culture and civilization.

Amid this heightened sensitivity came the announcement of a mass meeting and religious service at the German Evangelical Protestant Church, now known as the Smithfield United Church of Christ, Downtown. The church was founded by Pittsburgh Germans in 1782. Interest in the meeting ran high, partly because the church’‍s highly respected pastor, the Rev. Carl Voss, was interrupting his annual vacation (apparently at Chautauqua, N.Y.) to address the gathering.

Anyone of Germany extraction was invited to attend the meeting on Sunday, Aug. 16 (church services customarily were suspended during the hot summer months). About 500 people, including pastors of other German congregations, attended.

Rev. Voss, an American of German descent who had been the pastor since 1905, was the dean of Pittsburgh‘‍s German pastors and one of the city’‍s religious leaders. He told the crowd, “We come together as Americans whose cradles first rocked on German soil and whose parents brought us the heritage of German culture.” He urged his fellow German-Americans to have sympathy for all of those involved in the conflict, but he called for particular sympathy “for our German brothers,” surrounded by “legions” of those he said were envious of German achievements. Rev. Voss said he could understand how French vindictiveness (following the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71) would lead that country to side with Serbia and Russia, but he could not fathom why Britain would join France in opposing Germany.

He portrayed the contest in Europe as one between two types of civilization: the Teutonic, striving for peace and justice, versus another (a not-so-subtle reference to despotic Russia) that enabled ruling classes with unlimited power to keep the masses in bondage. He deplored the ingratitude of a world that would make war on its own civilizer. “Realizing what the Teutonic races have done for the upbuilding of humanity,” he continued, “we as Americans of German extraction pledge our sympathies and our prayers to those who are sacrificing themselves for the preservation of German ideals.”

A collection for the Red Cross in Germany netted $570.57.

Looking back a century, then, we observe a rapidly expanding conflict in Europe that has grasped the attention and inflamed the emotions of those viewing it from across the Atlantic, specifically the Pittsburghers of German origin or sympathy who constituted nearly 100 percent of this church and who surely represented a majority of those attending the Aug. 16 meeting. Led by their pastor, they expressed support for their countrymen — and, in many cases, their own relatives — still living in Germany and Austria. How would this pro-German sympathy fare as the war widened and the United States tried to maintain its neutrality? Could this church remain detached from these events? 

And, looking further ahead, how would the war affect the fortunes of this venerable German church in Pittsburgh?

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Between 1914 and 1917, the members of the German Evangelical Protestant Church did their best to balance their emotional connection to their European homeland (to which they continued to send generous humanitarian assistance) with loyalty to their new country.

When the United States joined the Allies in April 1917, these German-Americans, without renouncing their affection for Germany, became “Americans to the core,” as Rev. Voss phrased it years later. Much testified to the accuracy of his statement: Large contributions to American war relief agencies, sizable purchases of Liberty and Victory bonds (by the church and its members), the enrollment of dozens of the church’s women in Red Cross activities and the enlistment of 121 of its men in the U.S. armed forces. Five of the men died for the Allied cause, one in battle and four in military camps.

Rev. Voss’ church experienced no interference in its use of the German language and no instances of the anti-German hysteria that befell churches in other parts of the United States.

But in fact, WWI sounded the death knell for the German Evangelical Protestant Church of Pittsburgh as it then existed. Bilingual services were instituted in 1917, a bow to members’‍ desire to hear the language of their new country.

The war interrupted the immigration of Germans to Pittsburgh, and new U.S. immigration laws in the 1920s disrupted the flow of newcomers. These factors cut the influx of new members the church needed to thrive.

 The emphasis on Americanization so prevalent during the war intensified during the 1920s, too, as did a passion for modernization. Moreover, German churches in the United States now found it difficult to recruit pastors from abroad, and without a theological seminary at which the German Evangelical Protestant churches could train their own pastors, a real leadership crisis loomed for these institutions.

Thus the “Germanness” of the German Evangelical Protestant Church of Pittsburgh withered during the decade after WWI broke out (although the church occasionally did hold services in German for many years to come). By 1941, there would be little angst in the church, still led by Rev. Voss, about a second war with Germany — one that demanded even greater commitment from Germany’s enemies.

By then, the church had taken radical steps to solve its problems. In 1925, it affiliated with the National Council of Congregational Churches, a group with which the German Evangelical Protestant churches held in common many religious principles and governance practices. The church also renamed itself after the street — Smithfield — on which it is located.

When the Congregational churches joined with several other denominations to create the new United Church of Christ in 1956, Smithfield went along with the new adventure, which has been a signal success. Today, Smithfield Church remains fiercely proud of its German origins and its contributions to Pittsburgh since 1782.

It’s ready to face whatever challenges lie ahead.

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Donn Neal ( has a doctorate in history. The Downtown resident is the archivist at the Smithfield United Church of Christ and occasionally speaks to the congregation about church history. This story is partly adapted from a talk he is giving during today’‍s service. 

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