Origin and History of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ

The United Brethren Church in Canada is a part of the worldwide Church of the United Brethren in Christ. It is the first denomination in North America that was not transplanted from Europe. While there were European antecedents, the church originated in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia under the earnest evangelistic preaching of two men.

philip_otterbeinOne of these leaders was Philip William Otterbein, who was born in Dillenberg, Germany, and was originally a minister of the German Reformed Church. When he came to America in 1752, he found formal religious practices the common standard among church people. His training and subsequent heart change prompted him to present a dynamic spiritual experience based on a faith relationship which permitted God to release His power through the indwelling Holy Spirit to a continuing transformation of the believer's life.

martin_boehmMartin Boehm was the other associate. He came from the Mennonite faith, and had been selected by lot to be a preacher among his people. He felt that he had no message to present until he had a personal experience of God's saving grace through faith. Then he was anxious to present the good news and became a flaming evangelist, proclaiming the salvation experience wherever he had the opportunity.

These two men, who had done extensive evangelistic preaching in interdenominational gatherings, met for the first time on Pentecost Sunday, 1767. A "great meeting" was held in the barn of Isaac Long near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. These great meetings were usually held over weekends in groves, barns, or wherever a large congregation could assemble. The congregation included preachers and laymen from various denominations, including the German Reformed, Lutheran, Moravian, Mennonite, Amish, and Dunker groups. The preacher for the afternoon service was Martin Boehm. On a high tide of spiritual peace and power at the close of the sermon, Otterbein, who was of greater stature than Boehm, threw his arms around the small man and exclaimed, "We are brethren," using the German language. From that greeting came the corporate name of the church "United Brethren." to which was added "in Christ" at a later date.

These two leaders were joined by George A. Geeting from Maryland and other God-called leaders in attempting to evangelize the German-speaking churches located in the Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland colonies. There was no thought of organizing a separate fellowship, and no effort was made to do so until they were forced to it by circumstances. They cooperated in the appointment of great meetings where one or more of them would preach. Counseling and guidance were given to other preachers and laymen who joined the interdenominational venture. Itinerant preachers were selected to conduct services where possible.

There are records of organized small group meetings dating from 1774. Otterbein and other Reformed pastors were involved in class meetings that sought to awaken the Reformed churches spiritually. Opposition forced Otterbein to proceed along other lines. The church at Baltimore, Maryland, of which Otterbein was the pastor, became interested in an outreach and became the mother church for a number of societies. Articles for the operation of the Baltimore church program, adopted in 1785, made reference to societies under the superintendence of Rev. Otterbein. Preachers and exhorters were already in the field and looked to Otterbein for direction.

A formal conference was held in Baltimore in 1789 to gain a fuller knowledge of the field, to unify the work being done, and to plan for larger and more permanent results. Another conference was held in 1791 to advance the work started two years before. There are no records of additional conferences until 1800. From that point, sessions were held annually until 1815, when a General Conference was held. Since 1821, the general conferences have been held every four years.

The conference of 1800 adopted the name "Church of the United Brethren in Christ," and elected Otterbein and Boehm as bishops. They served in this capacity until their death. Christian Newcomer was elected bishop for one year in 1813, and according to the church rules of 1814, he was again elected this time for a three-year period. The Discipline was formally accepted by the first General Conference in 1815, which provided for quadrennial sessions and the election of bishops. Since Newcomer had been elected in 1814 for three years, it was decided to hold the next conference in 1817. It was Newcomer who bridged the gap, from the loose evangelistic fellowship to a more organized movement. He was also the connecting link between the early leaders and the later itinerants.

People who had been associated with United Brethren in the east migrated west and settled in Ohio and Indiana. Societies were organized and services conducted by itinerant preachers. Christian Newcomer visited an area in Ohio in 1810 and held a meeting which was of the nature of an annual conference. Because of distance, the brethren in the west felt that annual meetings for all ministers were impossible; so the plan for a General Conference was adopted as reported above.

Services were conducted almost exclusively in the German language. The group inherited from the German culture the standard of opposition to secret societies. It was not until English-speaking people associated with the revival movement in Ohio that a pronouncement was necessary by the Miami Annual Conference of 1826. This moral reform standard became a part of the Constitution of 1841. The Discipline of the church in 1821 took an historic stand against slavery, which hindered the growth of the church in the South. This stand was also included in the Constitution of 1841.

A tentative constitution for the church was adopted by the General Conference of 1837, followed by a formal adoption of a constitution in 1841. General departments for the church were organized as needs arose. The work of publishing a church paper gave birth to the United Brethren Publishing House, established at Circleville, Ohio, in 1834. It was moved to Dayton, Ohio, in 1853. The first missionary activity was to send a caravan under the leadership of Rev. T.J. Conner and Dr. Jeremiah Kenoyer to the far west where they settled in Oregon. In 1853, the mission board was reorganized under the name of the Home, Frontier, and Foreign Missionary Society. A mission in Africa was established in 1855.

Various educational institutions were founded over the years, and in 1865, the Sunday School Association was organized. The Women's Missionary Association (Reorganized as the Women???s Missionary Fellowship in 1989) was started in 1875.

After discussion for a number of general conferences over three problems--pro-rata representation, lay delegation in the General Conference and membership in secret societies--a division in the denomination occurred in the General Conference of 1889 which brought into existence two United Brethren fellowships. A new constitution and confession of faith accepting the above principles was adopted by the majority group, who termed themselves ???liberals.??? They became known as the United Brethren in Christ, New Constitution, with headquarters in Dayton, Ohio. In the United States, this group united with the Evangelical Association in 1946 to form the Evangelical United Brethren Church. The Evangelical United Brethren Church and the Methodist Church merged in the States to form the United Methodist Church in 1968. In Canada the more ???liberal??? branch joined with the Congregationalists in 1906, and has been a part of the United Church of Canada since 1925.

The group that adhered to the Confession of Faith of 1815 and the Constitution of 1841 under the leadership of Bishop Milton Wright (father of Orville and Wilbur Wright of aviation fame) adopted the name "Church of the United Brethren in Christ (Old Constitution)." Church headquarters were moved from Dayton, Ohio, to Huntington, Indiana, in 1897. The local church buildings in Michigan and Oregon were awarded to the Old Constitution group, but properties in other states and in Ontario were lost, and all departments had to be reestablished. Educational activities centred in Hartsville College at Hartsville, Indiana, which was in sympathy with the Old Constitution fellowship.

The twentieth General Conference of 1889 reorganized the general departments--board of education, trustees for the United Brethren Publishing Establishment, and a board and secretary for the Domestic, Frontier, and Foreign Missionary Society. The Women's Missionary Association was reorganized during the quadrennium.

Huntington (then Central) College was chartered in 1897 and has operated at Huntington, Indiana, since that time. Huntington College currently has charitable status within Canada, and many Canadian students have graduated from the College over the years. A ???School of Christian Ministries??? was opened there during the 1970s, and the ???Master of Christian Ministries??? degree (or its equivalent) is required of all ministers as a prerequisite to their ordination.

The first known Sunday school to be organized was near Corydon, Indiana, by Rev. John Pfrimmer in 1820. Various departments of the General Church have been organized over the years to oversee Sunday Schools, youth ministries and publications. The Christian Conservator, which had been published since 1885, became the official publication of the United Brethren Publishing Establishment in 1889. The name was changed to The United Brethren in 1954. The newest denominational headquarters building was completed in Huntington, Indiana in May of 1976.

The reorganization plan adopted by the 1981 General Conference resulted in the consolidation of some general departments. The departments of Church Ministries and Stewardship ceased to exist, and these responsibilities, along with the denominational Archives, were placed under the newly-created Department of Church Services. With the relocation of the Archives at Huntington College in 1988, oversight of the Archives was transferred to the Board of Education.

Over the years, the Parent Board of Missions (Domestic, Frontier, and Foreign Missionary Society until 1957) and the Women's Missionary Association have had oversight of the mission fields. Until 1961, these boards worked separately, but in that year the first step was taken to begin working more closely together--a Joint Board of Missions account was established. Action was taken at the 1965 General Conference to merge the two mission groups into one department to be known as the Department of Missions.

Mission fields served at that time included: Sierra Leone, West Africa; Hong Kong; Jamaica; and Honduras. Laurel Mission in Kentucky was a home mission station until 1973, when administration was transferred to Central Conference. A new field was established in Nicaragua in 1969, and the department became involved in medical work in India in 1974. In 1986, the board began overseeing several congregations in Mexico which affiliated with the United Brethren church. The board also opened a new work in Macau in 1987. The 1989 General Conference added the Mexico Mission District and the Macau Mission District to the Overseas District.

A number of missionaries working with parachurch groups now receive support from the church. The board also cooperates with the Evangelical Congregational and Primitive Methodist denominations in jointly supporting several missionaries.

In 1889, the majority of the churches organized were rural. Through a program of church extension, the annual conferences have established churches in industrial and metropolitan areas. Consolidation of some of the smaller churches in relocated areas has proved advantageous.

Through referendums, the church constitution was amended in 1957 and 1961, resulting in lay representation in the General Conference; in 1973, resulting in a provision for local churches to hold title to their own property and for the use of a nomination slate in electing elders to the General Conference; and in 1977, changing the eligibility for election to General Conference from three years in the conference district to three years' standing as an elder and substituting the term "ministers" for "preachers."

The United Brethren Church in Canada

The United Brethren presence in Canada initially came from three sources. While some UB families had moved into Canada in the migrations of the early 1800s, and certainly many were won to the Lord in evangelistic outreaches when UB ministers came, the initial foundation was laid by a non-United Brethren man, John A. Cornell.

Rev. Cornell was born in New York in 1782, and was of the same family as Ezra Cornell, the founder of Cornell University at Ithaca, New York. He moved to what is now Sheffield, Ontario in 1800, and was converted ???the old fashioned way, while reading the Bible on his own.??? There seem to have been no other preachers in his neighbourhood when he began sharing his testimony in 1812, and people drove for miles to hear him. He preached for forty-two years at a dozen preaching points from Waterloo to Rockton, Ontario. In 1854, at the age of 72, he began to consider retirement.

The family of Jacob Erb (a United Brethren minister and later Bishop) lived in nearby Preston, and Cornell decided to find out more about these United Brethren the next time Rev. Erb came for a visit.

As early as 1825 Jacob Erb had come to Canada with another minister, Christian Smith. Erb had a cousin who was a minister in Erie Co., New York, and an uncle, Christian Hersey, who ministered in Williamsville, N.Y. His grandfather and other relatives lived in Preston and Berlin, Ontario (now Cambridge and Kitchener).

In 1826 Christian Newcomer himself traveled to New York and picked up Christian Smith, and the two of them crossed into Canada at Fort Erie to preach. There were certainly some UBs here already, for Newcomer records that he ??? met many acquaintances whom I had not seen for many years.??? A year later Erb and Smith ???formed some societies, but they were neglected, and as a consequence, were disbanded, although some excellent members, gathered into the fold by Mr. Erb, remain unto this day.???

When John Cornell and Jacob Erb met in Preston in 1854, Erb explained the history, doctrine and government of the United Brethren Church favourably, and Cornell proposed a connection with the UB Church. Erb reported to the newly established ???Home, Frontier and Foreign Mission Society??? in July, and by October Rev. Israel Sloane of Ohio was in the pulpit of Cornell???s Beverly Chapel at Sheffield. The grandson of John Cornell writes that there was some concern at the church that this was only their second minister in 42 years, that he was an American, and that it all seemed far too Methodistic, but that old ???Uncle Johnny Cornell??? encouraged the people. They were especially reassured when Bishop J.J. Glossbrenner spoke there, and many later considered him ???the best preacher they had ever heard.???

While Israel Sloane was following up on Cornell???s work in Waterloo and Oxford Counties, Charles E. Price came to the Niagara area in April, 1855 to follow up on Jacob Erb???s earlier work. He soon established a number of preaching points. Peter Flack of Sandusky Conference had come to Sheffield to help Sloane two months before. Rudolph Light transferred from the ???Old Conference??? in Pennsylvania to ???Canada West??? in April of 1856 and began a ???German Mission??? in Berlin (now Kitchener).

On April 19, 1856, Bishop Glossbrenner organized the four above-named ministers with membership in American conferences, along with four new Canadian ministers (John A. Cornell, his son William, and C. Moore of the Beverly Church, and Abram B. Sherk of the New Mennonites), into the Canada West Mission Conference. The minutes show 18 appointments, seven organized societies, and 152 members.

The membership doubled each of the next two years, and Israel Sloane moved on to more ???church planting??? in California. Jacob Erb, quite fittingly, was called up to replace him as the Presiding Elder (Conference Superintendent) in 1858 and 1859. The 1861 minutes talk of 50 appointments, 33 classes, and 636 members. The membership hit 1000 in 1863 and stayed around that figure for the next twenty years. The churches were still located in the Niagara area and along Lake Erie, and around Kitchener and through to Port Elgin.

The debates that finally brought a split to the UB church in the States were also divisive in Canada. The older and most respected ministers were generally conservative (called Radicals), while the younger men labeled themselves as Liberals. C.W. Backus and his two brothers joined the Conference in 1880, and their father in 1885. C.W. was the only conservative of his family, and in reference to the vote for Presiding Elder in 1888 and again in 1889 he says it was ???a straight fight, conservative or liberal.??? Of the 26 names on the conference roll on March 28, 1889, twelve stayed with the Radical United Brethren at the next Annual conference in March of 1890. The Liberal group, thinking to get the advantage after the division in May 1889, called their Ontario Conference of 1890 into session four months early; November 14,1889. They expelled the ???Radical??? ministers and assigned their own men to all the fields, locking the doors on many churches. C.W. Backus writes that ???my own father and two brothers almost disowned me. All three wrote me some most abusive letters.??? The liberal United Brethren branch joined with the Congregationalists in 1906 and then with the United Church of Canada in 1925.

While the March 1889 conference (prior to the division) had 14 circuits and 1635 members, the 1890 Radical sessions of the Ontario Conference had just six circuits and 703 members. The ownership of the Port Elgin church building proved to be the test case regarding property in Ontario. When the Appeals court judge in Toronto reversed an earlier decision which had awarded ownership to the Radicals, all church properties were taken by the Liberals. Other than at the Garrison Road Church in Fort Erie, where the Radicals bought the building back in 1901, all other Radical congregations were forced to build new church buildings all over again.

In 1915 Lloyd Eby of Kitchener planted two churches in Toronto, and was very well received. He often commented that the Toronto people were very gracious in accepting a minister of German descent during the war years. Later, he went on to plant other UB churches in the U.S. and then became a Bishop in the denomination. Another church was started in Guelph, Ontario by Ray Zimmerman in 1976. Current and future Church planting endeavours will target growing urban areas and significant ethnic populations within Ontario.

There was an Alberta Mission District active between 1906 and 1917, headed by Rev. & Mrs. E.A. Olmstead of Michigan and James Cotton of Nebraska. Some UBs from Oregon and Ontario had moved there earlier, and Bishop Barkley organized them into a Conference in 1909. F.G. Matthews joined them from the Free Methodists, and two young men were soon granted local conference licenses. ???Difficult times??? rapidly erased all of the ministers from the scene except Matthews, as Cotton died of blood poisoning, two joined the Canadian Armed Forces for World War I, the Olmsteads returned to Michigan, and several families returned to Oregon. Bishop Alwood thought no one was left, so F.G. Matthews was the sole member of the 1917 Alberta Annual Conference, without even a Bishop. During the 1920s Rev. Matthews pastored the Bloem Avenue UB Church in Toronto and Paul Olmstead (son of E.A. Olmstead) pastored the UB Church in New Dundee, Ontario.

In 1991 it was discovered that the Charities Sections of the Canadian Income Tax Act had changed to the point that the United Brethren Church in Canada was by law a completely separate body from the Church of the United Brethren in Christ in the United States. It was necessary for the Canadian Church to adopt its own Constitution and administrative structure, and to elect its own leadership. Committees were set up to fashion the new Constitution and to negotiate a joint ministry agreement concerning international ministries in conjunction with the Church of the United Brethren in Christ in the United States. A Constitutional Convention was held, and at noon on June 7, 1992 Bishop C. Ray Miller officially proclaimed into existence the United Brethren Church in Canada.

In 2001 the delegates to the General Conference from the seven United Brethren National Conferences (including Canada) voted into existence ???The Church of the United Brethren in Christ, International.??? It is a genuinely international entity by which international decisions can be made.

New churches have been planted in Guelph and Port Colborne, Ontario, and are being planted in Port Elgin and Hespeler, Ontario.  In 2013 a Vietnamese Church was planted in Guelph in partnership with the Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination.

Certainly we must concur with the Prophet Samuel, "Thus far has the Lord helped us..." (1 Samuel 7:12) and with Paul when he said, "Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.??? (Philippians 3:13,14).