February 13, 2023
by Anthony Blair, President at Evangelical Seminary and Professor of Leadership and Historical Studies
On Pentecost weekend, sometime in late May 1767, a large crowd of German families gathered at the farm of Isaac Long in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, for a “great meeting.” Hour after hour, preachers from the region exhorted, encouraged, or excoriated this massive, amalgamated congregation. Remarkably, the audience consisted of members from theological and denominational traditions that were at odds with each other. In nearly every other environment, Christianity was torn asunder by the boundaries erected between groups, but in Lancaster that weekend disciples of Jesus came together, worshipped together, and heard each other speak of their own experiences and understandings of God.
One of those in attendance that weekend was the tall, urbane, well-educated pastor of the German Reformed Church in Lancaster City. Philip William Otterbein had come to Pennsylvania originally as a young missionary to German immigrants living on the frontier. He had begun his ministry 15 years earlier in the fledgling Tulpehocken community, where Evangelical Seminary (one of our Kairos legacy partners) now resides. He had since had an experience of spiritual renewal that changed the trajectory of his ministry.
Otterbein listened intently that Pentecost day to a passionate sermon offered by a short, rough, uneducated Mennonite farmer bishop. Martin Boehm had never intended to enter the ministry but had literally drawn the short straw; his perplexity at having nothing to say to his flock had led him to a spiritual crisis while plowing his field. He now preached with energy and conviction. Despite their differences in life experience and outlook, Otterbein recognized a kindred spirit in Boehm. At the end of the message, Otterbein worked his way to the front of the crowd, ostentatiously wrapped his arms around the shorter man, and proclaimed loudly, “Wir sind Bruder!” We are brethren.
And thus began a partnership that lasted until their deaths nearly 50 years later. Boehm was eventually excommunicated from the Mennonites because of his friendship and cooperation with Otterbein, and Otterbein was marginalized within the Reformed synod for the same reason. In the end, they would end up serving as the co-founders of a new denomination, the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, which took its name from that fabled first meeting. This is the denomination in which I was raised and with which I am ordained. I live within a dozen miles of the barn (still standing) where the movement had its symbolic founding moment.
“Movement” is actually a better word for what Otterbein and Boehm initiated than “denomination.” Neither regarded their participation with one set of Christ’s followers as exclusive of participation with another. Martin Boehm considered himself a lifelong Mennonite (I was privileged to be at the service at his gravesite when the Lancaster Mennonite Conference revoked his excommunication), but also worshipped in his later years in a Methodist chapel erected on his own farmland. And, yes, he was also for decades an overseer (bishop) of the United Brethren. And he found nothing incongruous about that collection of experiences.
Martin Boehm was a rare Christian leader who was not defined by bounded sets. His whole ministry was animated by a transformative experience with Jesus Christ, and he gladly transcended human-made boundaries to invite others into that ongoing journey. The movement he worked so strenuously to create was imbued with that same spirit. The United Brethren were an unusual thing in 18th century America—a church created not out of a schism but out of a coming together. It consisted of those who were shaped by their experience of following and being shaped by the Spirit. The fact that they eventually organized at all was due only to their exclusion by their home churches, simply for working together.
It has admittedly been a struggle over the years for us United Brethren to maintain that original spirit. We have a written confession of faith that I describe as bold but brief, one that focuses on Christ and is intended to be inviting, not off-putting. One core principle of our life together is that we will not denigrate (the old word for it in our founding documents is “traduce”) each other for varying perspectives. We do not have defined positions on most theological questions. We don’t tell local congregations how to organize themselves or what leadership needs to look like. We refrain from speaking for each other on matters of political and social issues. The result is not mush; it’s not everyone agreeing in the middle. It’s doing what Scripture admonishes us to do—to “honor everyone”, especially our brothers and sisters who see things differently.
This is hard. It seems sometimes that everything in American Christianity, and in our polarized American culture, tempts us to forsake that original spirit and instead define new and exclusionary boundaries to keep people, ideas, and questions out, particularly when we feel most fearful. Time and again during the 40 years that I’ve been part of the UB movement we’ve had to catch ourselves, to resist the temptation to create new boundaries in favor of following Jesus by the power of the Spirit for the glory of God. When we follow the Spirit, we are drawn in the same direction that drew Otterbein and Boehm to each other, that drew the earliest disciples in Jerusalem together, that makes possible an extraordinary, theologically hospitable, vibrantly spiritual enterprise like Kairos University.
To me, the original spirit of the UB movement looks a lot like the work of the original Spirit on the original day of Pentecost. And so does the original spirit of so many other traditions that I have come to know and appreciate. I am persuaded that all directional set movements, which are animated by the transformational work of Jesus Christ as they follow the call of the Spirit, are precisely what our own generation needs to see again in the people of God, no matter the names of our tribes, our theological convictions, or our histories. Wir sind Bruder. Und Schwestern.