Phillip William Otterbein in Baltimore

Phillip William OtterbeinWe’ve already seen how Phillip William Otterbein keeps darting into our story of early American Methodism. We recall from an earlier blog post that Otterbein, born in Germany to a family that included many clergy, was present at a worship service in Long’s Barn near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Martin Boehm, a Mennonite who had been born in Lancaster, preached, and after the service Otterbein came forward and greeted Boehm with words that became famous in United Brethren tradition: “Wir sind Brűder” (We are brothers). From that day forward they had a close working relationship. Historian Frederick Norwood comments that “They were an interesting pair: Otterbein the stately university-trained minister and Boehm the Mennonite farmer with a full beard.”

As a German missionary to America, Otterbein had been organizing religious classes on the Wesleyan model among the German immigrants to America. On the day he began pastoral duties in Baltimore, May 4, 1774, he met Francis Asbury who would be his friend throughout the remainder of his life. As we saw in our last post, Asbury asked Otterbein to join Coke in laying hands on him during his ordination as Superintendent at the Christmas Conference. Later, Otterbein would join up with Martin Boehm to form the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, which became part of the United Methodist Church in 1968.

The relation between Otterbein’s Evangelical Reformed Church of Baltimore (today, Old Otterbein United Methodist

Plaque at Old Otterbein Church in Baltimore
Plaque at Old Otterbein Church in Baltimore

Church, which we will visit) and the German Reformed Pennsylvania Coetus (synod) was unclear.

The Coetus first dissuaded Otterbein from accepting the Baltimore call but acquiesced after he settled there in May 1774. And though both the church and its pastor enjoyed the affiliation with the Coetus, Otterbein continued the wider itinerations, care for outlying German communities, and nurture of persons into ministry that made him as much a competitor to as agent of the Coetus.

Further, Otterbein launched in May 1774 what might be seen as an alternative to the Coetus, a semiannual multidenominational gathering of preachers that met initially at Pipe Creek, Maryland. These provided mutual counsel for some eighteen class leaders and the various classes ministered to by the six attending preachers. Calling itself the “United Ministers,” it continued at least through 1777.

That year, the Mennonites expelled Martin Boehm for preaching false doctrine, engaging in irregular practices, and fraternizing with other religious communities— including Methodists! Increasingly, Boehm partnered with Otterbein in leading the new evangelical party developing among German pastors and people. This would eventually become its own denomination, the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, which as we’ve seen, eventually became part of the UMC.

Under Otterbein’s leadership, the Baltimore church prospered, growing steadily in membership and in 1785 erecting a brick and stone building, now the oldest in Baltimore (the one we will see, known as Old Otterbein). That year, congregation and pastor signed a covenant which, in effect, created a denomination (albeit like Wesley’s Methodism remaining within the German Reformed). It retained the Reformed or Calvinist ministerial order— government by vestry, doctrine of scriptural authority, and constitution by covenant. But it repudiated predestination and irresistible grace and provided for class meetings (“special meetings” or collegia pietatis) to maintain order, exercise oversight, discipline members, encourage growth in the faith, and pray and sing together. Their mandated character and agenda— “to flee the wrath to come”— suggest some Wesleyan influence, as does a rule for ecumenically open Communion.

Otterbein and Asbury developed strong personal bonds. Their movements also explored unity, efforts frustrated by differences in discipline, authority, and language, until they joined together in Dallas, TX, in 1968.

Next time, we’ll take a closer look at race, gender, and gentility in the new Methodist Episcopal Church.

(Source: “American Methodism: A Compact History,” by Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt; Wikipedia entry for Phillip William Otterbein)

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