Early Pietist Influencers of Methodism: Phillip William Otterbein and Martin Boehm

Phillip William Otterbein
Phillip William Otterbein

Last time, we saw how it is that we actually get to see the thumb of George Whitefield, the famous evangelist, and friend of both John and Charles Wesley and Benjamin Franklin.

In addition to helping ignite the first “Great Awakening” in America, Whitefield would go on to issue an early call to John Wesley back in England to send itinerant preachers to America to work with the emerging Methodist movement there. But before we tell that story, it’s time to meet a couple of other important people in the story of early American Methodism.

Phillip William Otterbein (1726–1813) belonged to a family of pastor-theologians steeped in the German Reformed tradition and the Pietism of their native Herborn, Germany. Like his five brothers and father, Phillip studied at the Reformed university at Herborn, a Pietist institution. (See how German Pietism is creeping back into our story?) He passed ordination examinations, subscribed to the Reformed confessions, and was ordained in 1749.

Otterbein served for three years in Germany, demonstrating early his ability as a teacher, preacher, and pastor. By organizing Bible and prayer groups, Otterbein earned a formal reprimand from authorities for holding such “divisive” conventicles. Amazing what used to get people riled up!

Responding to a plea for ministers made on behalf of the Pennsylvania (Reformed) synod, Otterbein moved to American and became pastor in the important Reformed community of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1752. (We will be in Lancaster on the first Monday of our trip.)

In 1755 Otterbein experienced “a more perfect consciousness of salvation in Christ” (i.e., a conversion experience which was important to the Pietists). As a result, he redoubled his efforts to hold himself and his people to a covenanted and disciplined life through prayer and Bible groups. He made clear to hearers that his Reformed doctrine eschewed hyper-Calvinist notions of predestination and made a significant place for free will and responsibility – which would bring him close to the Methodists later on.

Martin Boehm
Long's barn
Isaac Long’s barn, Lancaster County, PA

During Otterbein’s ministry in York, he attended a “great meeting” at Isaac Long’s Barn (a UMC Heritage Landmark that we will, unfortunately NOT be visiting), near Neffsville in Lancaster County. The event, perhaps in 1767, a several-day ingathering, anticipatory of later camp meetings, had been common in the colonial German community since the early 1720s.

The leader at this event was Martin Boehm (1725–1812), a Mennonite preacher whose evangelistic style, personal religious experience, and insistence on assurance resembled those of Otterbein.

In 1753 Martin Boehm, son of Jacob and Barbara Boehm, married Eve Steiner and they established their home on a 181 acre farm, part of a tract patented to Jacob Boehm by William Penn in 1715. Martin and Eve had eight children. In 1756, at the age of 31, Martin Boehm was chosen by lot – the usual Mennonite practice — to be the minister in his local Mennonite congregation. His initial sermons were sadly lacking. Although raised in the Mennonite faith, he discovered he had little or no assurance of the presence and power of the Risen Savior in his life. He felt the need for a heart-warming experience, a more expressive religion and a deeper sense of personal salvation. After months of prayerful struggle, he had an encounter with the Lord Jesus while plowing one of his fields. After this, Martin preached with confidence and fervor. In 1761, Martin was advanced to the office of Bishop in the Mennonite tradition.

It was in this context that he happened to be preaching in Long’s Barn the day Phillip William Otterbein heard him. After hearing Boehm preach, Otterbein embraced him, announcing, “Wir sind Bruder!” (“We are brothers!”)

Thus began an association that would eventually lead in 1800 to the establishment of the United Brethren in Christ, one of the predecessor groups later to form United Methodism.

The Boehm home was a significant stopping place for itinerant ministers and lay evangelists of various denominations. This group of travelers became known as “circuit riders”. One of the most famous circuit riders was Francis Asbury, “The Father of American Methodism” who we will meet later in our story. He was a frequent visitor at the Boehm home over a 35 year period. Robert Strawbridge, early circuit rider and the 1760’s organizer of the first Methodist Society in America, who we will also meet later, also found both hospitality and a preaching place here.

Next time, we’ll look at early Wesleyan initiatives in the formation of American Methodism.

(Source: “American Methodism: A Compact History,” by Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt, and http://www.boehmschapel.org/history.html)

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