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The Beginnings of the United Brethren Church

It was 1767, and an inter-denominational renewal movement was sweeping through the colonies. Back then, Christians gathered in what they called “Great Meetings.” These were lively affairs. Several hundred people from all over might spend several days hearing a string of stirring speakers.

Isaac Long hosted a Great Meeting at his big barn in Lancaster, Pa. Martin Boehm, a Mennonite preacher, told his inspiring story of becoming a Christian and a minister. It deeply moved William Otterbein, a German Reformed pastor. Otterbein left his seat, embraced Boehm, and said loud enough for everyone to hear, “Wir sind bruder.”

Which, being translated, means, "We are brethren." And that's where our name originated--United Brethren in Christ.  Otterbein and Boehm realized that, despite their many differences--in theology, background, education, personality, and even stature--they agreed on the basics of the faith.

The movement spread to include a bunch of German speaking churches in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, and Ohio. In time, the loose movement saw the need for organization. In 1800, they began holding a yearly conference for business and inspiration--the forerunner of today’s “General Conference,” our highest decision-making body.

The United Brethren church has the distinction of being the first denomination to actually begin in the United States. Other denominations existed at the time (Lutheran, Reformed, Mennonite, and others), but they were transplants from Europe. The United Brethren church was truly Made in America.

In the 1700s, German immigrants accounted for one-third of Pennsylvania’s population, and nearly everyone spoke German in the state’s south-central counties where the church started.

As German immigrants moved west, so did the church. But around 1815, English began overtaking German.

The Beginnings of the Evangelical Association in Minnesota

Indian attacks were still a reality in the Minnesota territory when the first settlers who were members of the Evangelical Church arrived.  The Methodist Episcopal Church had arrived much earlier to minister to the native population.  The Evangelical Church arrived in 1856 at the request of German immigrants who hungered for spiritual leadership.

The Evangelical Association originated in the United States and was still a young church when it made its way to the prairies of Minnesota.  It originated in Pennsylvania by Jacob Albright, son of German immigrants.  He was a religious man who was not happy with his experience as a young person in the Lutheran church.  In 1791, he “came into a new religious experience” at the home of Adam Riegel, a United Brethren layman.

The Evangelical Association was born in 1809 when George Miller wrote the society’s Articles of Religion and first Discipline.  Since the new church believed, as John Wesley did, that their primary source and  for Christian teaching was Scripture, they adopted the German translation of the Methodist Articles of Religion. 

Members of the Evangelical Church brought their loyalty with them as they moved into the Minnesota Territory.  Two of those families were the Gackstetter and Laschinger families who had come to Minnesota by way of Canada.  They  left their native Germany and settled in Ontario.  After several years the families moved to Minnesota.   The families settled five miles south of St. Paul. 

 Both families had been members of the Evangelical Association in Canada, and they again wanted to be a part of that church.  Michael Gackstetter wrote to his pastor and requested they send a minister to Minnesota.  The Wisconsin Conference set up a Minnesota Mission and  Andrew Tarnutzer crossed the Mississippi River at Winona in November of 1856 as the first Evangelical minister in Minnesota.

 The Evangelical Association merged with the United Brethren to form the Evangelical United Brethren Church.

A Brief History of Methodism

In 1729, brothers John and Charles Wesley organized what detractors called the “Holy Club” at Oxford University in England and were ridiculed as “Methodists” by the way they studiously followed the Scriptures in their habits and discipline. It was their way of being faithful to the God who called them.  Later, as priests in the Church of England, they became restless with a church that seemed indifferent to the needs of the poor. In an effort to reform the church, they began societies that held members accountable to a life of “holiness” and service. They visited prisons, preached in coalfields, and established health care facilities and a factory for the poor.

 

In America, Methodism grew with the nation, primarily as a lay movement.  The American Revolution caused Wesley to recognize the need for greater autonomy in American Methodism. Ordained clergy were also in short supply, so he took the bold step of ordaining three lay preachers, Richard Whatcoat, Thomas Vasey, and Thomas Coke, and sent them to the former British colonies. His actions effectively set in motion the beginning of an independent church.

 

During the historic Christmas Conference of December 24, 1784, held at Lovely Lane Chapel in Baltimore, Francis Asbury was ordained by Coke and consecrated the first bishop of the brand new Methodist Episcopal Church in America. The next year, the church published its first Discipline, calling for the church’s first quadrennial General Conference, held in 1792. A constitution and publishing house followed in short order, and the new denomination was quickly on its way spreading “scriptural holiness throughout the land” with itinerating preachers, camp meetings, and revivals. Asbury, the “prophet of the long road,” traveled more than 275,000 miles on foot and by horseback during his 45 years of ministry. When he began his work there was only one Methodist for every 2,050 Americans; when he died in 1816 there was one for every 39.

 

The persistent presence of Methodist circuit riders became so legendary that a common response to stormy weather was, “There’s nothing out today but crows and Methodist preachers.”

 

But the early years were not without their problems. Richard Allen, an emancipated slave and Methodist preacher, left the denomination because of mistreatment and began the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1816. For similar reasons the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Zion Church was founded in 1821. Nine years later the Methodist Protestant Church broke away over issues of lay representation and election of presiding elders (district superintendents). In 1844, the issue of slavery finally tore the Methodist Episcopal (M.E.) Church in half, creating a separate Methodist Episcopal Church, South.  It would be 69 years before the Methodist Protestant, M.E., and M.E., South, churches would reunite to form the Methodist Church in 1939.

Methodists helped to establish the World Council of Churches, the YMCA, Goodwill Industries, and the Salvation Army. The World’s Woman’s Christian Temperance Union that worked to abolish child labor and promote women’s suffrage was started by a Methodist. Northwestern, Auburn, Vanderbilt, and the University of California; Duke, American, and Southern Methodist Universities; all were founded by Methodists. More important than who goes to our church is where our church goes.  From saddlebags to cyberspace, the people called United Methodist are on the move to “spread scriptural holiness throughout the land”.  The United Methodist Church now has over 10 million members worldwide.

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This site was last updated 10/12/13