How the United Brethren Denomination Began
It was 1767, and an inter-denominational renewal movement was sweeping through the colonies. Back then, Christians would gather in what they called “Great Meetings.” 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 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.” (Oh--we spoke German back then.) Otterbein’s words meant, “We are brethren.”
Out of this revival movement came a new denomination, and it took its name from Otterbein’s words: United Brethren in Christ.
Boehm and Otterbein became our first two bishops. They were very different.
* Boehm was short, Otterbein tall.
* Boehm was described as “plain in dress and manners.” Otterbein, from a long line of distinguished ministers, was cultured and well-educated.
* Boehm lacked confidence in his speaking ability. Otterbein exuded confidence. He commanded attention, while Boehm could easily shrink into the background.
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. These were the perfect guys to head a new church which united diverse people from many backgrounds around the essentials of the faith.
When Did the United Brethren People Become a “Denomination”?
We start the clock in 1767, there in Long's Barn. But it was a loose movement for many years. As time wore on, they saw the need for some organization and standards.
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, which came to be called "General Conference."
Just 13 ministers attended that first conference, which was held in a house. They did two major things:
1. Adopted a name: United Brethren in Christ.
2. Elected Boehm and Otterbein as bishops. Both men, at the time, were in their mid-70s.
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.
The church spread west, into Ohio and Indiana. Circuit-riding preachers, on horseback, carried the Gospel from community to community, organizing churches and doing whatever they could to tell people about Christ. Many of them were farmers who traveled around preaching in their spare time, sometimes supervising a circuit of up to 30 churches. Very dedicated people.
The early ministers were mostly farmers who traveled around preaching in their spare time, without pay. A preacher would travel for hours over rugged terrain on horseback getting to just one meeting (not quite like hopping in the car and going across town). He might oversee 30 churches spread over two counties. Very dedicated folks.
Back then, UB churches chose a “lay leader” to be in charge of the church between the preacher’s visits. The day the preacher came was always special and eagerly-awaited. Big crowds would gather for the service, and many people might commit their lives to Christ.
These highly-committed circuit-riding preachers served at great sacrifice. The church grew rapidly under their leadership.
Back in 1789, Otterbein wrote a “Confession of Faith,” which outlined the basic doctrines to be followed. A similar Confession of Faith was adopted in 1815, and it’s never been changed--not one word. (View the Confession of Faith)
(An Interesting Side-note)
Francis Scott Key, who wrote “The Star Spangled Banner” during a War of 1812 battle, was a United Brethren Sunday school teacher.
By 1889, the United Brethren church had grown to over 200,000 members. It had six bishops, plus a full-blown denominational structure. But trouble was brewing.
The controversy centered around the desire to make three changes in the Constitution. And since the amendment procedure spelled out in the Constitution made it almost impossible to change the Constitution, the denominational leaders decided to just ignore the Constitution and make the changes anyway. They essentially adopted a new Constitution in an unconstitutional way, along with a new Confession of Faith.
Only one of the six bishops opposed these changes. His name was Milton Wright. He, by the way, had two sons named Wilbur and Orville. (The inventors of the first, succesful airplane)
Wright led our group--maybe only 10,000 people, a definite minority--away from the larger body. They stuck to to the original Constitution and Confession of Faith. But beyond that, they were very much starting over. They had no Headquarters, no colleges, no publishing house. Most of the congregations which sided with Wright lost their property to the larger group, which many courts recognized as the legitimate owner of all church property.
Over time, the larger group merged with the Methodist Church to become the United Methodist Church.
The United Brethren denomination continued to grow throughout the Northern and Western United States, as well as to several countries throughout the world.
It did not grow in the South because of it's strong opposition to slavery. In fact, several Pastors and church members were persecuted because of this.
When Did Mt Pleasant Church Begin?
The congregation was organized in 1889 by a small group of farm families who worshipped God in the Sharp School. Land was donated across the road (at the corner of 997 and White Church Road), and in 1892 a new church was dedicated. Through God’s vision the ‘White Church’ Road congregation continued to grow and additions to the original white clapboard building were dedicated in 1923 and 1951.
The brick building where we currently meet is across the road from the old ‘White Church’ and was dedicated to God in 1964. It was expanded in 1983 and again in 2003. Growth both spiritually and numerically have continued as the people of Mt. Pleasant have faithfully followed God’s plan. The church has continued to prosper as we continue to share God’s vision of making disciples who make a difference in our community and beyond.