Who were the United Brethren?


Editor's note: The following article is from the Jan. to March 2014 issue of The Historical Messenger, the publication of the IGRC Historical Society, Vol. 46, No. 1).

By Richard Chrisman
IGRC Historian
Now that it’s been 46 years since the Evangelical United Brethren Church and The Methodist Church united to form the United Methodist Church, and 68 years since the United Brethren in Christ joined with the Evangelical Church to form the Evangelical United Brethren Church, there are relatively few people who are able to remember the United Brethren Church.

Brothers of the Faith: Otterbein and Boehm

Philip OtterbeinWho were the United Brethren and what brought them to Illinois?  To answer these questions, let us start at the beginning, with a small group of preachers who had begun a revival movement in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia.  One of them, Philip William Otterbein, born at Dillenburg, Germany, March 6, 1720, received a classical education and theological training at Herborn, a school that had been deeply influenced by Pietism.  Ordained in the Reformed Church in Germany, Otterbein began preaching the Reformation doctrine of “justification by faith,” which stirred up considerable controversy.  His mother said:  “This place is too narrow for you, my son, they will not receive you here; you will find your work elsewhere.”  (Koontz and Rousch, The Bishops of the United Brethren Church, 46But where would that be?  A request for pastors for Reformed Churches in far-off Pennsylvania answered that question, and in 1751 he was off to America to begin his life’s work.

Martin BoehmJust five years after Otterbein’s birth, a son was born in a Mennonite family in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  His name was Martin Boehm, who after growing up in the church, was selected by lot to preach, and began assisting the older preacher.  However, he found himself unable to speak, and his prayers turned to his own salvation.  While plowing the fields, he kept hearing “lost, lost,” and was so overwhelmed that he stopped in the middle of the field and prayed, “Lord save I am lost.” Then a voice answered:  “I am come to seek and save that which was lost.” Now he was able to preach with comfort.

William Otterbein and Martin Boehm had never met, but in 1766, Otterbein attended a “great meeting” that Martin Boehm was conducting in Isaac Long’s barn in Lancaster County.  At the conclusion of  Boehm’s sermon Otterbein rushed forward, embraced him, and cried out, “Wir Sind Bruder,” “We are brothers.”  These two, different in so many ways, shared a common faith, which could be called an American form of German Pietism.  This revival movement stressed feeling, the devotional instead of the intellectual study of a literal Bible, conversion or the “new birth,” followed by a life of faith and love, with ethical concerns and an emphasis on brotherhood, transcending denominational lines.  This group of preachers from several denominations held evangelistic meetings and gathered in “conferences” in 1789 and 1791.  Then, in 1800, these “United Ministers” met at Peter Kemp’s farm near Fredrickstown, Maryland, and officially organized the Church of the United Brethren in Christ.  “Thus,” says John Wilson Owen, “a new religious denomination was formally launched, the first to be born under the American flag and possibly the most American in its organization and form of worship.” (A Short History of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, 27)

With the passing of Boehm and Otterbein, Christian Newcomer became the leader and had a “vision of a denomination at work in a big way.” (Holdcraft, History of the Pennsylvania Conference of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, 56)  On one of his many trips across the Allegheny Mountains, he knelt to pray at an altar he had constructed at the top of the ridge.  Finishing his prayer, he “mounted his horse and turned his face toward the needy fields of the West,” and in so doing “he not only exemplified his sense of dependence on God, looking to him for guidance in every step he took, but he also registered the rising tide of desire and purpose on the part of the Church to extend the saving influence of the gospel as rapidly and widely as possible.”  (Brane, “Leaves from Pioneer United Brethren History,” Religious Telescope, June 12, 1907)

Movement to the Midwest

Moats' Marker near Towanda -- site of the first United Brethren Church in IllinoisThe United Brethren moved westward with the surging tide of settlers, first, into Ohio, and up its three major rivers, and then into eastern Indiana.  The pioneers traveled up the Wabash to western Indiana, and then into Illinois, especially along the Little Mackinaw River in McLean County, where a few United Brethren families from Sciota Conference had settled.  John Denham, called the “western missionary,” after pioneering in Ohio and Indiana, began preaching tours into Illinois in the 1820s.  In 1830 Isaac Messer, a local preacher, organized the first class in Illinois in the home of Jacob Moats, who had arrived from Licking County, Ohio, the previous year.  A marker was placed at the site of the Moats cabin, north of Towanda,  at the time of its centennial in 1930.   Denham, who would later also pioneer in Wisconsin and Iowa, would often preach at the Moats cabin during his tours.  He was memorialized in Denham Hall, constructed at East Bay Camp on Lake Bloomington in 1950.

United Brethren work was beginning in central Illinois during the waning days of the Native American presence, but some attended services until their faith was shaken by the theft of an Indian’s ornate horse bridle.  During the time of the Black Hawk War, there were Indian scares, and flights to forts, but no actual encounters.  Following the War, almost all Indians were removed.

In 1839 a Mackinaw Circuit was organized, soon extending 200 miles and taking three weeks for the preacher to cover, followed the next year by the Spoon River Circuit in western Illinois.  An early preacher, Hiram Stoddard, rode the Randolph circuit, located in six counties.“From Randolph Grove [south of Bloomington] the line extended to Wapella, Clinton, nearly to Decatur east, to where Bement [Piatt County] now is, to Champaign, thence to the Upper Wabash conference, north through Ford [County] to Paxton, west to the Kickapoo.  It included twenty-three appointments, and took three weeks of daily preaching in houses, shops, groves or school houses.”(Bloomington Pantagraph, Feb. 12, 1907)

A year after the Moats class was begun, John Hoobler, a pioneer preacher in western Indiana and Illinois, organized a class in the home of Henry Evinger, two miles west of Westfield, in Clark County. The Westfield area would become a leading center of United Brethren activity, served by the Westfield circuit, including Clark and portions of Coles, Edgar and Cumberland counties. In his first year on this circuit, William Clayborne Smith, “traveled 4,000 miles horseback, preached 300 times and had 125 conversions and accessions to the church.” (Obituary, Religious Telescope, November 15, 1905)  Here a college was built and the church was significant enough to host the General Conference of 1877.

A new Illinois conference

Expansion continued at such a pace that the General Conference of 1845 authorized five new conferences, Illinois being one of them.  The first session of the Illinois Conference was held at the Mackinaw church, near Lexington, in 1845, with 28 ministers present.  The state would be further divided with the organization of the Rock River Conference in 1853, the Lower and Upper Wabash conferences in 1857, the Central Illinois Conference in 1865, and the Southern Illinois Mission Conference in 1872.

These preachers whose ”religious experience was so explosive and creative that their hearts could not contentedly dwell in silence,” (Eller, These Evangelical United Brethren, 55) traveled the circuits, spear-heading the growth of the church.  The circuit riders encountered many obstacles, as, for example when Walton Clayborne Smith “reached the banks of the little Wabash River only to discover the river far out of its banks, with the bridge that crossed the river standing like an island with a mile of water on either side.  Unable to secure a guide, he put himself in the hands of God and successfully passed through the flood to reach his appointment in time, and there organized a class of twenty-four members.” (Religious Telescope, April 9, 1938)

Few statistics are available for the first half-century of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, as a strong prejudice existed against “numbering Israel.”  When the Church began to allow the taking of statistics in 1857, membership had reached 61,399, which rose to 89,811 in 1865 and 185,103 in 1886, with 2,984 being recorded in the Central Illinois Conference and 2,400 in the Illinois Conference.

The United Brethren were basically a rural people, and their churches were primarily outside towns and cities.  “As our church fathers pushed westward they had a pathological suspicion of cities.  They established our churches in villages and open country.”  (Howard, “Our Denominational Solidarity,” Religious Telescope, December 12, 1936)  Superintendent W. L. Perkins observed:   “When I think of Illinois, this great and goodly land, big with opportunity, my heart craves this whole commonwealth for Christ and the church.  The United Brethren Church has a goodly history in this State.  No church has a louder call to enlarge the place of her tent, and stretch forth the curtains of her habitation.” (Religious Telescope, September 26, 1925)

Only 19 of the 102 county seats were occupied by the UBC and many other cities and towns were ripe for cultivation.  Quincy had not been easily entered; missionaries were sent there in 1887 but before the first service could be held the preacher was ”notified that there were enough churches in Quincy and the mission hall would not be open to the United Brethren intruder.” (Religious Telescope, December 1, 1923) But within a year a little chapel was secured and a church chartered with eight members. Because so many places were unoccupied, the Central Illinois Conference named a “committee for formulating a method for city work” in 1889, that reported Bloomington, Springfield and Normal should be entered.  Normal was particularly important, because it had “become a place of great attraction to our people, and many are locating there permanently, and having no church of our own they naturally seek a home in one of the churches already located there, and thus become a constant drain upon our intellectual, financial and spiritual forces, that we cannot well afford.” (Central Illinois Conference Journal, 1890, 18)  A church was planned for Streator, but not much happened until Ella Niswonger began her work there in 1887 after graduating from Bonebrake Seminary.

It was another two decades, November of 1910, before a lot was selected in Bloomington, and W. H. Arbogast began his work the following May.  Meetings were held in a newly-constructed tabernacle, and a church organized with 37 charter members one year later.  The church grew rapidly and in just four years started a mission of its own in southeast Bloomington.

The Illinois Conference in 1924 “instructed the extension society to drive stakes in Macomb and Champaign-Urbana this year, capitals of McDonough and Champaign counties.” (Religious Telescope, October 4, 1924)  As the work progressed, the need for more preachers became evident.  William McKee wrote in 1888 that while there were only 26 charges in the Central Illinois Conference, there was a “large territory of the ’fat land’ found in this most fertile of the western states. … But its chief want … is a greater number of efficient young itinerants.  If a half-dozen wide-awake preachers, who are looking beyond the Missouri for a field, would drop into Central Illinois Conference they might do good both for themselves and the church.” (Religious Telescope, September 26, 1889)

Uniting and merger

The expansion in the number of conferences in Illinois stopped, then a reverse movement set in.  The Missionary Society reported in 1881 that “Southern Illinois Conference has not had the success we could have desired.  There is a lack of laborers fitted to work here.  It is a needy field.” (Religious Telescope, May 18, 1881)  Consequently, the Southern Illinois Mission Conference territory was turned over to the Lower Wabash Conference in 1889.  Central and Rock River conferences were united by General Conference in 1901, four years later the Illinois Conference was added, and then those portions of Upper and Lower Wabash conferences in Illinois.  In 1917 all the work in Illinois was combined into one conference, with 22,684 members, making it sixth in membership in the United Brethren Church.  There were two superintendents to supervise the work until 1923, after which there was only one.  By this time there were 120 charges with 227 churches, in ten districts.

In 1924 “J. M. P.” discussed the position of the United Brethren Church in Illinois.  “We are well established in the eastern part, with churches in Danville, Paris, Marshall, Lawrenceville, and Robinson.  A little further west are Olney, Mount Vernon, Toledo, and Charleston.  East Saint Louis is one of the newer city churches, with Quincy up the river.  In the center of the State we have churches in Decatur, Springfield, Bloomington, Peoria, and Galesburg.  In the northeast is Chicago, with Weaver Memorial, Grace and Downer’s Grove showing fine promise. … Chicago has two German churches.  Farther west, the territory includes Freeport, Rockford, and Sterling.  Aside from these, there are many town, village, and rural churches, which have helped nobly in establishing these in county seats.” (Religious Telescope, October 4, 1924)   Some time after the Macomb Church was established in 1924, a speaker at an anniversary, in his history of the church, included “how the church in Macomb was necessary to conserve the fruitage of the surrounding churches, and possibly to save United Brethrenism in the county.” (Religious Telescope, August 24, 1929)

By this time Decatur had become the focal point of the denomination in Illinois.  ”In United Brethren circles in the State this fair city had long since been recognized as the pole star around which the constellation of Illinois swings.  In fact, in these later years the conception has grown up that a United Brethren preacher who would be faithful to all the requirements of itinerant travel in Illinois Conference must needs make regular pilgrimages to this wonderful Mecca, breathe of its atmosphere, partake of its hospitality … before he is able to go forth in the labors of the year.”  (Religious Telescope, October 6, 1923)

In addition to the circuit riding preachers, the conferences in Central Illinois produced other strong leaders, such as J. M. Phillippi, editor of the Religious Telescope; Geneva Harper, missionary and women’s organization leader; W. H. Arbogast, who was sent to Bloomington in 1911 to start a new church.  Several have gone out as foreign missionaries, such as Dr. Marietta Hatfield, who was one of seven martyred in Sierra Leone in an uprising in 1898.  But others were not deterred, and in 1900 Dr. Zenora E. Griggs, Peoria, took Hatfield’s place, where she remained for 20 years.  Lynn W. Turner, college professor and church historian, was the conference archivist for several years.  Two outstanding ministers would later become bishops after the Church union of 1946:  L. L. Baughman and Paul W. Milhouse.

As the years passed, there was a growing concern for the church’s youth.  While many opposed education, others favored it, and also believed this education should be done in the church’s own colleges, lest their youth be lost to other churches or to public colleges.  Blandinsville Seminary (McDonough County), begun in 1850, survived only five years. Westfield College, founded in 1865, was “Most favorably located and is in the best sense in an ideal town.  The enrollment of last year was nearly four hundred.  The college is armed and equipped with a most thorough and efficient corps of teachers.”  (Streator Free Press, September 6 , 1891)  This school produced many leaders for the church, but due to lack of adequate resources, it was forced to close in 1914.

W. G. Arbogast led in the formation of youth camps, holding the first at Lewistown, before moving to East Bay.  Church camping grew greatly in the late 1930s and 1940s, East Bay Camp being quite popular with the United Brethren.  In 1942 they built “vesper altar,” a six-foot oak cross on a grassed mound at the lakeside, (Religious Telescope, July 18, 1942), later to be known as “Inspiration Point.”  The United Brethren became one of the members of East Bay Camp Associates that owned the camp.  Dr. Arbogast was followed in this work by Oral R. Landis, who became the Director of Christian Education in the conference, specializing in Christian nurture.

Should the preachers be educated as well?  One writer in 1874 suggested that “a liberal education makes men better preachers and men.  It knocks off the ‘rough corners’ of the crude specimen…”  (“Report of Upper Wabash Conference,” October 14, 1874)  Many disagreed, feeling that “hearts full of the Holy Spirit” could do more good than “head knowledge and cold souls.” (Fetterhoff, Life of John Fetterhoff, 106) Still, pastors began attending seminaries, especially Union, later known as Bonebrake, in Ohio, which opened with eleven students in 1871.

Women began to take their place in the United Brethren ministry years before most other denominations.  The first female seminary graduate to be ordained and join any conference was the first woman member of the Central Illinois Conference, Ella Niswonger.  The presiding bishop, E. B. Kephart was so impressed he commented:  “Is this the millennium dawning?  God grant it.” (Gorrell, “Ordination of Women by the United Brethren in Christ, 1889,” Methodist History, January 1980, 143)  Niswonger led the Streator Church into prosperity, later serving several other charges, and in 1901 was the first woman to attend General Conference as a ministerial member.

The Holiness Movement

In the period before and after the Civil War, many felt that the church had become too “modern,” or “worldly,” and a movement toward “holiness” spread through many Protestant churches.  The Central Illinois Conference formed a Holiness Association to unite holiness proponents.  Among them was Rev. Andrew Wimsett who, while preaching at Alexis, “became so filled with the Holy Spirit that he fell into a trance and remained in that condition for several hours.  This was a new experience for the people of this community and a hush as of death fell upon the congregation.” (“U. B. Church Anniversary,” undated newspaper clipping)  Religious Telescope editor and later Bishop, David Edwards, who resided at Lexington while Bishop, sought and found “the blessing,” and became the church’s leading promoter of holiness.  He professed “entire sanctification” in 1845, and the following year published The Perfect Christian, or, a Condensed View of Bible Holiness as Taught in the Scriptures, which was widely read and quite influential.  But in a backlash, the 1880 Illinois Conference noted that “The Church has been in some portions of our conference disturbed in its peace and communion by those who have made high profession of moral purity and perfection … and have charged upon the Church opposition to Bible holiness, because the Church has questioned the propriety of the methods adopted by those who have assumed the responsibility and leadership of the so-called holiness movement.” (Religious Telescope, October 20, 1880)

During the mid-nineteenth century, there was much emphasis upon moral reform, such as temperance and Sabbath observance.   Slavery, however, was not much of an issue in the UBC in Illinois, and was not mentioned in Conference reports, nor was the Civil War until 1862, when members were urged to support the war effort.  Illinois Conference resolved, “That as a means of bringing our present war to a close, and establishing the basis of permanent peace and prosperity amongst ourselves, we employ all legal means within our reach to bring about the universal emancipation of all slaves within the limits of the United States.” (Religious Telescope, October 15, 1862)

The Central Illinois Conference in 1871 took a stand regarding certain moral issues: “Resolved:  “That we as ministers will labor earnestly to discourage all forms of intemperance, especially the use of alcoholic drinks and tobacco, and recommend to our people total abstinence. That we protest against the way in which many of our church members spend the Sabbath day—such as  unnecessary visiting, attending to secular matters, &c, and thereby neglecting the services of the church. That we regard novel reading as detrimental to Christianity, and therefore discourage it as far as possible. That we request our members to spend their time in a better way than playing base ball, marbles, croquet, and such other games, and thereby cultivate habits of industry. Also that they do not waste their money in going to shows and such other places of entertainment as are degrading. That we regard the nature and tendency of secret societies with increased approbation, believing that they tend to build up party, sectional and selfish interests, by the employment of unwarranted and unchristian obligations, alike detrimental to church and State, and that each pastor be required to enforce discipline upon this subject both in letter and spirit.” (Central Illinois Conference Journal, 1871, 13, 14) The 1865 Central Illinois Conference voted to require all preachers to preach on temperance at least once a year./p>

Battles over secret societies

Urbanization and the increasing sophistication among the preachers and church members, helped bring on the conflict over secret societies.  Lynn Turner noted “the most fatal handicap to the Church in these years was its fanatical stand against secret societies. Preachers who joined a Masonic Lodge were ruthlessly expelled,” (“The United Brethren Church in Illinois,” Papers in Illinois History and Transactions for the Year 1939,” 1940, 57) and preachers were required to dismiss any member who joined a lodge. The denomination faced the issue head-on at its General Conference in York, Pennsylvania, in 1888. This Conference, as a result of a positive vote by the membership of the Church, voted to change the church’s constitution to allow members to belong to secret societies. This decision caused Bishop Milton Wright and 14 others to walk out of the conference and form a new body that came to be known as the Church of the United Brethren in Christ—Old Constitution. The Central Illinois Conference in 1889 “Resolved, that we are pleased with the action of the last General Conference, in adopting the work of the commission [removing the prohibition against secret orders], and believe it will increase the zeal of our membership in Church work, and open the door to success to us as a church, which has hitherto been closed.” (Central Illinois Conference Journal, 1889, 19)

Both Liberals and Radicals claimed ownership of some church buildings and appointed ministers to them, one of the most hotly contested cases of dispute over church property took place at the New Michigan Church, in Livingston County, near Streator, which was made a test case for Illinois. Litigation claimed more resources than the New Michigan Church could muster, so appeals were made to the conference, and to other conferences for financial help. The Conference in 1891 voted $500 for this litigation, unanimous in favor of prosecuting the suit. (Streator Free Press, September 14, 1891)

A “prophecy” by an anonymous writer concerning the United Brethren Church was made in 1937 for fifty years later.  One of these predictions was most striking. It stated that: “The United Brethren Church of 1987 will be a part of a denomination quite large, made up of several denominations similar in doctrine and polity.”(Religious Telescope, May 8, 1937)  Though this “first and most American church” has now become a part of The United Methodist Church, its history and witness have enriched the Church.

J. Bruce Behney and Paul H. Eller concluded their useful book on the Evangelical United Brethren with these words:  “Past experience and current conviction readied Evangelical United Brethren to join the Methodists even though it meant the surrender of some treasured traditions and some of the more familial relations that are possible in a smaller denomination.  In unions in 1922 and 1946 they had learned that mergers were not a betrayal or repudiation of the past but occasions for enrichment and new satisfactions.  Even more impelling was the conviction that God’s guidance, which in the early nineteenth century had led to separation, now led to union.” (The History of the Evangelical United Brethren Church, 395)