United Brethren and Evangelical Association Roots of The UM Church

Martin Boehm

There’s one piece of our United Methodist story yet untold. We need to backtrack a bit and bring that portion of our story up-to-date. Recall that in 1968, The United Methodist Church was formed in Dallas, TX, from the union of the Evangelical United Brethren (EUB) and the Methodist Church. The EUB was itself the product of the merger of the United Brethren in Christ and the Evangelical Association. (For background, the United Brethren in Christ was formed by Mennonite pastor, Martin Boehm, and German Reformed pastor, Phillip William Otterbein, whom we have met at several points in our story. Recall that Otterbein and Boehm had met at a religious meeting in Isaac Long’s barn in Lancaster County, PA. After hearing the Mennonite Boehm preach, the German Reformed Otterbein had declared, “Wir sind Bruder!,” meaning “We are brothers!” Further, Otterbein had laid hands on Francis Asbury at the Christmas Conference of 1784 when Asbury was ordained bishop.) The Evangelical Association was formed by German pastor, Jacob Albright. As United Methodists, we are spiritual descendants of all of these people.

So far, we’ve been mostly tracing the history of the Methodist side of the UMC. We need to go back and pick up the threads of the EUB. Many in our church today trace their roots to the EUB side of the family, perhaps some of our readers.

Phillip William Otterbein
Phillip William Otterbein

Lacking the crisis over orders and sacraments that the Methodist Episcopal Church experienced, and not requiring a transatlantic transfer of authority, the United Brethren in Christ evolved more gradually out of German Reformed and Mennonite contexts and continued that evolution slowly.

An important stage in the emergence of the United Brethren as a distinct movement and disengagement from the German Reformed occurred in the 1800 gathering of the “United Ministers.” The conferees agreed to meet annually; adopted a new name – United Brethren in Christ (UBC). They approved believer’s as well as infant baptism. (FUN FACT: As much as infant baptism has been a part of Methodist tradition, tracing all the way back to our Anglican roots, there is never-the-less an order for infant DEDICATION, distinct from infant baptism, in our UM Hymnal. This service traces to our EUB ancestry which has its roots in the Continent’s Reformed movement). They also selected their two founders, Phillip William Otterbein and Martin Boehm, as bishops. They also empowered them to appoint preachers to circuits upon consultation with pastors and circuits. This was the beginning of the modern “consultative process” in appointment making. They clustered circuits around three centers, later conferences: southeastern Pennsylvania, Maryland and northern Virginia, and the Miami River valley in Ohio.

Despite Boehm’s and Otterbein’s, election as bishops of the United Brethren in Christ in 1800, not until 1813, however, did they ordain any new preachers. It finally happened when Otterbein, after Boehm’s death in 1812 and anticipating his own, consecrated William Newcomer and two others, with the assistance of a Methodist elder, William Ryland.

United Brethren in Christ inaction on discipline finally stopped a series of negotiations with the Methodist Episcopal Church, carried on by the Baltimore Conference and formalized in letters between the two denominations from 1809 to 1814.

Jacob Albright
Jacob Albright

Like the UBC, the Evangelical Association (EA) developed gradually with no single transition crisis. Competing for German-speaking members with the UBC in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, the EA, like its leader and first bishop, Jacob Albright, emerged out of and remained in close association with the Methodists. Though catechized Lutheran, Albright found a spiritual home after his conversion experience with the Methodists and in the early 1790s professed commitment to the discipline, order, practices, and doctrine of the Methodists. Licensed as an exhorter by the Methodists, Albright began preaching in 1796, itinerating through German-speaking communities.

Theologically, Albright was influenced by pietism. He Insisted that salvation came through a renewed heart, not traditions, liturgies, and catechisms. He received ridicule from the Lutherans, Reformed, and Mennonites, and in 1797, Albright was excommunicated by the Lutherans.

Like his Methodist compatriots, Albright gathered converts into classes, held camp meetings, and raised up others to preach. He brought together class leaders in 1803 in the EA’s first formal trans-local assembly.  That organizing conference recognized Albright as leader, ordained him, commissioned two other preachers as associates, and constituted itself as a society.

The EA met in its first regular annual conference in 1807, a gathering of five itinerant preachers, three local preachers, and twenty class leaders. It elected and ordained Albright as bishop and asked him to prepare a German translation of the Methodist Episcopal Church Book of Discipline, “for the instruction and edification of the societies,” and to appoint the preachers to their circuits.

Unfortunately, Jacob Albright’s health failed and he died the next year in 1808. From the start the EA entertained hopes for unity either with the MEC or with the UBC. Such explorations, including the possibility of becoming the German conference of the MEC, went nowhere with Asbury over the EA’s persistent use of the German language and despite affinities. Though the EA and the UBC would eventually merge together to form the Evangelical United Brethren, full union with the Methodists would have to wait until 1968.

John Dreisbach
John Dreisbach

In 1816, John Dreisbach – Albright’s successor – convened the organizing General Conference of the Evangelical Association. It sustained the commitment to a German-only ministry, approved expansion into Ohio and upstate New York, authorized negotiations with the UBC, rearranged and improved the Discipline, and authorized a new hymnal. This General Conference also embraced a new name, Evangelical Association, the first American church body to adopt the term Evangelical in its name, something that was actually common in Germany.

Not until 1839 was the church’s second bishop, John Seybert, elected and consecrated, a bachelor known for frugality and simplicity and a former Lutheran. The new bishop began an aggressive plan of church expansion westward to Ohio and Indiana, Michigan and Illinois, even Canada.

In contrast to United Brethren, Evangelicals clung firmly to the German language well into the twentieth century.

Next time, we’ll return to looking at the expansion of the Methodist Episcopal Church through the eyes of its bishop, Francis Asbury.

(Source: “American Methodism: A Compact History,” by Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt)

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