The glory that You have given me, I have given them, so that they may be one, as We are One.” (John 17:22)
“By Your Spirit, make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.” (The Great Thanksgiving, The United Methodist Hymnal)
Though I have been a United Methodist all my life, before the merger of 1968, I was not a Methodist. In my childhood, I grew up in the Evangelical United Brethren Church. That is the denomination that merged with the Methodist Church in 1968. In that merger, the Methodist side contributed its whole name; the EUB side contributed the “United” from its name, and together we formed The United Methodist Church. While young people in the Methodist Church were learning about John and Charles Wesley and Francis Asbury, those of us in the EUB Church were learning about Philip William Otterbein, Martin Boehm, and Jacob Albright. Nowadays, we hear frequently about the Wesleys, but not so much about the others. I have been thinking about our EUB heritage, and particularly about where the name “United” came from. It may be worth revisiting that heritage as we ponder the things that may divide us at the upcoming Special Session of the General Conference.
The EUB Church itself was the result of a merger. In 1948, the Evangelical Church (founded by Jacob Albright) merged with the United Brethren Church (founded by Philip William Otterbein and Martin Boehm) to form the Evangelical United Brethren Church. So the “United” part of our heritage goes back to the United Brethren. The origin of that term appears to be the time when Rev. Otterbein, who was pastoring a German Reformed Church in York, Pennsylvania, went to a “great meeting” in 1767, and there heard Rev. Boehm, who was pastoring a Mennonite Church near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. A great meeting was an open-air gathering that was held regularly in those days, particularly among German-speaking people. Preachers from different denominations would come and many laypeople from the surrounding towns and countryside would gather both to hear the Gospel proclaimed and to have an opportunity for some fellowship with neighbors from their extended area. At this particular great meeting, Rev. Otterbein was listening to Rev. Boehm preach in the barn of Isaac Long. As he listened, he was deeply moved, and at the end of the sermon, Rev. Otterbein greeted Rev. Boehm with a heart-felt embrace, while joyfully exclaiming in German, “We are brethren!” The bonds that were born on that day developed into the foundations of a new denomination. (I am recounting this history from the first chapter of The History of the Evangelical United Brethren Church, by Bruce Behney and Paul Eller [Abingdon 1979].)
What interests me about this heritage is the significant differences that could have kept these two men apart. Though they both spoke German, they came from different religious traditions. Philip William Otterbein was Reformed, tracing his roots to John Calvin. Martin Boehm was Mennonite, tracing his roots to Menno Simons, who was an opponent of John Calvin. The Reformed pastor practiced infant baptism; the Mennonites rejected that practice and insisted on believer’s baptism only. The Mennonites were pacifists, who rejected violence and refused military engagement; the Reformed were not pacifists, and embraced the use of violence and military engagement in order to maintain order and restrain evil. The Mennonites had been a persecuted minority that had to flee Europe to find a safe haven in the colony of Pennsylvania; the Reformed had become the state church in certain parts of Germany and Switzerland. Martin Boehm had little formal education; Philip William Otterbein was a university graduate. Boehm owned a farm; Otterbein owned no property and lived in a parsonage. Otterbein’s marriage ended after only six years with the death of his wife; he had no children and never remarried; Boehm had a large family of eight children. In short, these two men had plenty to keep them apart, including a fundamental difference on the meaning and practice of baptism and a fundamental disagreement on the role of the church vis-à-vis the state. Nevertheless, they remained united and were recognized together as the two first bishops when the Church of the United Brethren in Christ was formally established in 1800. That new denomination included pastors from the German Reformed Church, the Mennonite Church, the Amish Church, and the Moravian Church. They all came together to unite in the common cause of spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ and put aside their differences to make disciples for Him.
When I read the New Testament, it seems no accident that Jesus begins His ministry with baptism, signaling the forgiveness of sins and the inauguration of a new creation. In comparison, questions about ordination and marriage are secondary at best; issues about how disciples relate to Caesar and his armies are at least as important in Jesus’ ministry. Our “united” heritage, as recalled above, found a way to overcome disagreements about baptism, about the church’s relation to the state, and more. Through the years, the heirs of Otterbein, Boehm, Albright, and Wesley, have found ways to work through our disagreements about things like divorce and the role of women in church leadership. One generation’s interpretation of scripture has evolved into another interpretation in a new generation. Yes, we had that terrible schism around the question of slavery and the ownership of slaves, which was accompanied by a civil war and the persisting blight of racism. I would like to believe that we who are today’s heirs of the “United” heritage would be able to continue the tradition of finding ways to work through our disagreements while remaining united. That is my fervent prayer. I hope it is yours too, and that we are all praying daily for God’s will to be done through the Special Session.
In the meantime, I have been providing some basic information at every charge conference this fall, and we are planning for a gathering on Wednesday, March 13, 2019, to come together as United Methodists in the Alexandria and Arlington Districts, to walk this journey with one another as the Lord leads us.
Grace and Peace,