The Church of the United Brethren in Christ is an evangelical Christian denomination based in Huntington, Indiana. It is a Protestant denomination of episcopalstructure, Arminian theology, with roots in the Mennonite and German Reformed communities of 18th century Pennsylvania, as well as close ties to Methodism. It was organized in 1800 by Martin Boehm and Philip William Otterbein and is the first American denomination that was not transplanted from Europe.
In 1889, a controversy over membership in secret societies such as the Freemasons, the proper way to modify the church’s constitution, and other issues split the United Brethren into majority liberal and minority conservative blocs, the latter of which was led by Bishop Milton Wright (father of the Wright Brothers). Both groups continued to use the name Church of the United Brethren in Christ.
The majority faction, known as the Church of the United Brethren in Christ (New Constitution), merged with the Evangelical Church in 1946 to form a new denomination known as the Evangelical United Brethren Church (EUB). This in turn merged in 1968 with The Methodist Church to form the United Methodist Church (UMC).
The Wright-led faction (The Church of the United Brethren in Christ, Old Constitution) continues today as a denomination of about 550 congregations, with 47,300 members in fifteen countries. The US National Conference consists of about 200 churches and 25,000 members in the United States, plus mission districts in Haiti and India. The United States national office, known as Healthy Ministry Resources, is located in Huntington, Indiana, as is the denomination’s only college, Huntington University and its Graduate School of Christian Ministries.
Though the church was not organized until 1800, its roots reach back to 1767. In May of that year, a Great Meeting (part of the interdenominational revival movement known as the “Great Awakening“) was held at a barn belonging to Isaac Long in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Martin Boehm (1725–1812), a Mennonite preacher, spoke of his becoming a Christian through crying out to God while plowing in the field. Philip William Otterbein (1726–1813), a Reformed pastor at York, Pennsylvania, left his seat, embraced Boehm and said to him, “Wir sind Brüder (we are brethren).”
The followers of Boehm and Otterbein formed a loose movement for many years. It spread to include German-speaking churches in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, and Ohio. In 1800, they began a yearly conference. Thirteen ministers attended the first conference at the home of Peter Kemp in Frederick, Maryland. At that conference in 1800, they adopted a name, the United Brethren in Christ, and elected Boehm and Otterbein as bishops of the conference. The United Brethren Church claims this organization in 1800 as the first denomination to actually begin in the United States, rather than be transplanted from Europe. A Confession of Faith was adopted in 1815 (similar to one written by Otterbein in 1789), and it has remained the statement of church doctrine to the present. In 1841, they adopted a Constitution. It has remained mostly intact, being changed only a few times.
William Otterbein retained a connection with the Reformed Church, pastoring a Reformed Church in Baltimore, Maryland from 1774 until his death in 1813. Martin Boehm was excluded by the Mennonites in 1775. He joined the Methodist Church in 1802, while remaining bishop of the United Brethren until his death in 1812. Francis Asbury, bishop of the Methodist Church in America, spoke at the memorial services of both of these United Brethren bishops. Otterbein had assisted in Asbury’s ordination.
The United Brethren took a strong stand against slavery, beginning around 1820. After 1837, slave owners were no longer allowed to remain as members of the United Brethren Church. In 1847 the United Brethren founded Otterbein College in Westerville, Ohio, which continues today. In 1853, the Home, Frontier, and Foreign Missionary Society was organized. Expansion occurred into the western United States, but the church’s stance against slavery limited expansion to the south.
By 1889, the United Brethren had grown to over 200,000 members with six bishops. In that same year they experienced a division. Denominational leaders desired to make three changes: to give local conferences proportional representation at the General Conference; to allow laymen to serve as delegates to General Conference; and to allow United Brethren members to hold membership in secret societies. The denominational leadership made these changes, but the minority felt the changes violated the Constitution because they were not made by the majority vote of all United Brethren members. One of the bishops, Milton Wright(the father of aviation pioneers Wilbur Wright and Orville Wright), disagreed with the actions of the majority. Bishop Wright and other conference delegates left the meeting and resumed the session elsewhere. They believed that the other delegates had violated the Constitution (and, in effect, withdrawn from the denomination), and deemed themselves to be the true United Brethren Church.
Courts saw it differently. Most of the congregations that sided with Milton Wright lost their properties. Milton Wright led this group—estimated at 10,000-20,000 constituents—in those early years as they reorganized. A new headquarters began taking shape in 1897 in Huntington, Ind., with the establishment of a publishing house, national offices, and Huntington College. Wright served as bishop until 1905.
Until 1946 two groups operated under the name Church of the United Brethren in Christ, distinguished by whether they were under the old constitution or the new constitution In 1946, the larger United Brethren church merged with the Evangelical Association to form the Evangelical United Brethren Church. That body in turn merged with the The Methodist Church (USA) in 1968 to form the United Methodist Church. The present United Brethren Church is descended from the minority who organized under the leadership of Bishop Milton Wright. They eventually adopted two of the changes that led to the division of 1889 – local conferences have proportional representation at General Conference, and half of the delegates are laypersons. They believe they adopted them constitutionally.
Since its beginning in the 18th century, the Church of the United Brethren in Christ founded 34 colleges, seminaries, and academies in the United States. Only Huntington University is part of the current Church of the United Brethren in Christ. The complete list of colleges surviving as independent entities, include:
- Huntington University, Huntington, Indiana (UBC)
- Lebanon Valley College, Annville, Pennsylvania
- Otterbein College, Westerville, Ohio (Associated with the UMC)
- United Theological Seminary, Dayton, Ohio (UMC)
- University of Indianapolis, Indianapolis, Indiana (UMC)
- Shenandoah University, Winchester, Virginia (UMC)