Sectarians in America: The Life and Ministry of Philip William Otterbein



As the six young ministers disembarked from the ship which had brought them to the New World, they were met by Henry Melchoir Muhlenberg, the Pietist Lutheran minister who had preceded them to the American mission field by ten years.

“Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves,” served as both his greeting and his warning, for the colonies were a hotbed of sectarian movements, none more afflicted than Pennsylvania. Accompanying them on their voyage was their teacher and leader Michael Schlatter of the Reformed Church.

John Nevin, 1875, Courtesy Archives and Special Collections, Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, PA.Like their Lutheran brethren, the Reformed struggled to harness the passions of unfettered ecclesiastical liberty that prevailed in the colonies, and sought to preserve a degree of order and orthodoxy amidst unbridled chaos. To this end, Schlatter had appealed to the Reformed churches of Holland for assistance. The Amsterdam churches were already supporting more than 100 churches in Europe and India, but they enthusiastically embraced the new challenge, examining and then commissioning the new young ministers to the arduous task before them.

It would be a rocky path, not only for the congregations, but for the young ministers themselves, who labored not only under exceedingly hostile conditions, but struggled with their own theological growth as well. Of the six, one of the ablest was Philip Otterbein, the young man from Hebron, who had been exposed to the Pietist movement and whose convictions soon chaffed under the oversight of the Dutch Calvinists. While the Dutch Reformed were by most assessments the most missionary minded of the European Protestants, they were also deeply committed to their confessions. The Germans, whose own German Reformed Church was destitute and unable to provide assistance, found common ground with the Dutch in the Heidelberg Catechism, the most ecumenical of the continental confessions, but the more rigorously Calvinistic Canons of Dordt were new to them, and with men such as Otterbein, did not sit well.

Early in his ministry, Otterbein rejected the Canons’ Predestinarian view and embraced Arminianism, the free will theology of Jacob Arminius that the Synod of Dordt had so strenuously opposed. Count Zinzendorf and the Moravian influence had preceded the new ministers and was firmly established in the region. As so often happens when piety and doctrine are viewed as polar opposites, the two camps settled into an uneasy conflict driving both camps further from the truth. The Reformed writer and professor John Williamson Nevin, whose book The Anxious Bench was sharply critical of the excesses of the experimental approach to the Christian life, nonetheless recognized the deeply seated problems that characterized the churches of the colonies in the early years.

“To be confirmed and then to take the sacrament occasionally was counted by the multitude all that was necessary to make one a good Christian, if only a tolerable decency of outward life was maintained besides, without any regard at all to the heart. True, serious piety was indeed often treated with open and marked scorn. In the bosom of the church itself it was stigmatized as Schwaermerei, Kopfhaengerei, or miserable driveling Methodism. The idea of the new birth was treated as aFirst Reformed Church, Lancaster, PA, c. 1870. Courtesy United Church of Christ, Lancaster, PA. Pietistic whimery…. Prayer meetings were held to be a spiritual abomination. Family worship was a species of saintly affectation….”

Into such a brew, Otterbein received a call from the Reformed congregation at Lancaster, which he accepted. His sermons were well prepared and well received, but it proved to be Otterbein himself who was not profiting from his own ministry. He recounts a case where, upon delivering a sermon one Sunday morning on faith and repentance, he was approached by a man who had been deeply affected by the Word. His only answer was, “My friend, advice is scarce with me today.” Otterbein recounts that he sought his closet in prayer and labored until he found peace and the joy of salvation in Christ. He did not speak of this as conversion, per se, but said “by degrees was I brought to the knowledge of the truth.” In any case, his ministry began to change dramatically.

One of the movements that had become deeply entrenched in the region was known as the Congregation of God in the Spirit, an undisciplined and “perilously subjective” sect. While Otterbein was not connected to the Arminian group, he was clearly drawn to their emphasis on experience and practical sanctification. He differed, however, in a firm conviction that the subjective and objective elements of the faith needed to be present in equal measure. To this end, he maintained his alliance with the Reformed Church until his death, remaining on the rolls of the Coetus until his death. He believed in church discipline and submission to one another among the brethren, but rejected the elements of formalism that suited neither his own temperament, nor that of the colonial mind.

A.W. Drury, in his Life of Otterbein, speaks of the two types of piety that characterized the division among the people and their pastors. The first he, noted, placed great emphasis on the subjective, “looking into the feelings… more to sanctification than to justification.” This type he described as Arminian in their view of salvation. The other type he describes as more doctrinal, that “leans hard upon the Bible,—the objective Word,” and that is characterized by preaching the law and justification. “It prizes the church and its ordinances. With it the constantly recurring theme is justification—the most objective of all the Bible doctrines touching man. It knows how to deal with earthly things and builds wisely and lastingly. It is likely to be Calvinistic, by placing the condition as well as the source of salvation without man.”

Otterbein would minister for a time at Tulpehocken, where the extreme sectarian Conrad Beissel had found many recruits for his Ephrata Commune. So wild were the opinions that held sway at Tulpehocken that Drury reports as late as 1829 a group of self-styled “freemen” held a meeting to protest against “Bible and missionary societies, theological seminaries, and Sunday School unions, as ‘works of supererogation’ (beyond the call of duty, as it were). The same group proclaimed a right to ‘hilarity’ and ‘innocent amusements.’”

Martin Boehm, From the collection of the United Brethren Historical Center, Huntington Unversity, Huntington, Indiana.At Tulpehocken, Otterbein instituted the prayer meetings where he stressed the need to inquire into the state of one’s soul. He also sought to interview congregants individually before communion, a practice which he had instituted at Lancaster and which was apparently unknown among the churches of that time. Thus, while Otterbein demanded a liberty in the pulpit, he was no friend of license. Members of his congregation were expected to manifest Christian character and profession. Those who preferred outward ceremony alone found the path difficult with the pastor who was intent upon inquiring after their souls.

While the sectarians, in general, moved as far away from oversight and submission to the brethren as possible, Otterbein was actually more rigorous than some of his Reformed fellow pastors, requiring not only outward profession of the truth, but also the “hearty trust” demanded by the Heidelberg Catechism.

A number of men in the Reformed Church were warm toward Otterbein, despite his irregular methods and preaching. They did not countenance what they considered his clearly unorthodox views of salvation, which they believed was based upon the idea that the will was not fallen in Adam’s sin. Yet, they were charmed by his brotherly spirit and earnest desire to see people converted to Christ. He bore little of the highly subjective form of Pietism that so infuriated Martin Luther. It was Luther who, when confronted by men who claimed that the “spirit” had revealed things to them apart from the Bible said, “I slap your spirit on the snout.” Even John Wesley would confess that those who professed an inner knowledge springing from introspection alone. “All other enemies are triflers, the mystics are the most dangerous.”

As the years progressed, Otterbein would evidence a broad ecumenicism in his contacts, embracing the Mennonite revivalist Martin Boehm at the seminal gathering at Isaac Long’s barn and declaring “We are brethren!” The term “brethren” would stick, and even before his death, the “Brethren churches” were bound in loose affiliation with later adherents citing Otterbein as their founder. The timing and nomenclature has caused unending debate among church historians. Was Otterbein founding a new church denomination? Did he see the Brethren movement as a new ecclesiastical body? To the modern reader, the answer would appear to be “Yes,” but such a conclusion does not fit well with either Otterbein’s theology or certain elements of the historical record. Otterbein had accepted the position of bishop (after the Methodist manner) along with Boehm in the United Brethren church, so undoubtedly a new organization did exist. Still, the disaffection was gradual and though de facto, it was not de jure, that is it was a practical reality without being formalized, for Otterbein never withdrew his German Reformed affiliation and the synod never excluded him. The reality was more a result of the synod refusing to ordain new ministers who shared Otterbein’s views and methods.Milton Wright, father of the Wright brothers, and founder of the conservative group that split from the United Brethren in Christ church.

Drury records the occasion of the German Reformed synod in 1806, meeting in Baltimore, near the end of Otterbein’s life. Otterbein did not attend, at first, but when summoned and requested to address his brethren, he did so with great feeling, stressing the need to preach the new birth in terms that the people in the pews could apprehend. The minutes add that Rev. C. L. Becker, recently installed in the German Reformed congregation in Baltimore, stood to oppose Otterbein’s statements, but the synod took no action against the octogenarian minister. Many present, though disagreeing with his Arminianism, were apparently unwilling to chastise a brother at the end of his ministry, particularly one who spoke so feelingly about doctrines of repentance that were hardly alien to those nurtured on the Heidelberg Catechism. As Otterbein arose and leaned upon his cane, he saluted his brethren and said, “Adieu, Brueder!”

One of those attending the synod records that he met one of his church members on the trip home who inquired,

“Well, what have you done with Mr. O?”

“Oh, nothing.”

“Nothing! Why did you not throw him over the fence?”

“Ah, He was too heavy for us.”

Otterbein would live another seven years, never severing his relationship with the church of his birth, but practically speaking, his filial affections not withstanding, his labors were entirely devoted to the United Brethren. The ambivalence of the Charles Finneybody about the “new measures” would continue for some years, as the German Reformed Church struggled to reconcile its devotion to both piety and doctrine. As late as 1828, the Old First Reformed Church on Race Street in Philadelphia would host none other than the revivalist Charles Finney for a series of meetings, while John Winebrenner would lead yet another exodus to form the Church of God.

At Otterbein’s funeral in 1813, the Rev. J.D. Kurtz would preach the sermon in German. Kurtz was the leading Lutheran minister in Baltimore, whose sermon was followed by another in English, preached by the Methodist pastor William Ryland. Rev. George Dashields of the Episcopal Church conducted the graveside service. Interestingly, neither ministers from the German Reformed nor the United Brethren churches took part. The church where Otterbein ministered in Baltimore still stands and is occupied by the Old Otterbein United Methodist Church. It sits in the shadow of Camden Yards.

The United Brethren in Christ later split over the issue of freemasonry into liberal and conservative wings, the smaller conservative group under the direction of Milton Wright, father of the Wright brothers. They exist today as more than 500 congregations with a membership of 47,000. Among its more famous members was United Brethren Sunday School teacher and author of the Star Spangled Banner, Francis Scott Key. The larger wing merged with the Evangelical Association and through subsequent mergers is today part of the United Methodist Church.