News Archives

Historians take United Brethren bicentennial tour

9/28/2000

A UMNS Feature By Robert Lear*

Splashing through a daylong rain, 90 people from across the nation traced 200 years of denominational heritage Sept. 25, traveling by chartered bus more than 300 miles of Maryland and Pennsylvania once covered on horseback by a German Reformed pastor and a minister in the Society of Mennonites.

It was on Sept. 25, l800, that 13 preachers came together at the call of Philip William Otterbein and Martin Boehm at a farm on what now is the edge of Frederick, Md. Otterbein and Boehm were elected superintendents, and the foundation was laid for what has been called the first truly American church. Other religious groups up to that time traced their roots to Europe.

By coincidence, that same year marked the first class meeting of what was to become the Evangelical Association. The two denominations eventually were united in l946 to form the Evangelical United Brethren Church. In 1968, that denomination and the Methodist Church were united to form today's United Methodist Church.

Featuring visits ranging from a barn near Lancaster, Pa., to a 215-year-old church in the heart of Baltimore, the weekend United Brethren bicentennial observance was the centerpiece for the annual meeting of the Historical Society of the United Methodist Church. The celebration also included lectures, a drama, and the planting of a commemorative tree on the grounds of Old Otterbein Church that stands in the center of Baltimore's professional baseball, football and convention facilities.

Otterbein, a native of Germany, and Boehm first met in the barn on what then was the Isaac Long farm. Otterbein had come to a "great meeting" of upwards of 1,000 worshipers, probably in 1767, to hear Boehm preach. Out of that meeting came the famous phrase of Otterbein's as he embraced Boehm: "Wir sind bruder!" (We are brothers!)

The Rev. K. James Stein, retired from the faculty of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Ill., in the concluding address of the weekend, said the "pivotal statement" of Otterbein "evangelically reaffirmed the Gospel and it ecumenically offered reconciliation across denominational barriers. No wonder some in the congregation praised God aloud and the
greater part 'were bathed in tears.'"

The incident, "which eventually united into one spiritual family the scholarly, polished Otterbein ... and the humble, self-taught Boehm who emerged from the background of radical plainness, exemplifies the essence of the denomination," Stein said.

Still in use on a working farm, the barn is a shrine visited regularly by today's United Methodists.

The day had been scheduled to begin with a stop at the Kemp farm near Frederick for rededication of a plaque placed in 1900 marking the centennial of the church's formation. However, rain made it impossible to meet outdoors, so the service was moved to nearby Trinity United Methodist Church.

Meal stops on the tour were utilized for a series of vignettes, usually in costume, tracing the United Brethren involvement in ecumenical concerns, missions and splits in the church. The final stop of the day was Boehm's Chapel near Lancaster, built in 1791. Boehm is buried beside the chapel.

In a major address during the weekend, the Rev. J. Steven O'Malley, a specialist in United Brethren history at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky., traced the missions emphasis of the church, particularly in Sierra Leone, Japan and the Philippines, as well as New Mexico and Florida in the United States.

"Our field was the world, and we were serious about our field," O'Malley said. "Much of the church's efforts have been on an ecumenical basis, leaving denominational loyalties on our shores."

"Church historians care about their past because they care about the future," Bishop James K. Mathews said in a closing devotional. "If we do not remember our heritage, we are not worthy of it."
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*Lear is the retired director of the Washington office of United Methodist News Service.

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