Father Otterbein – The Gentle Revolutionary

Part III

by Sondra O’Neale

Otterbein was 26 years old when he took his first pastorate at Lancaster, PA. The congregation was difficult, having been without a pastor for a year and a half. But there was one family of particular spiritual joy and hospitality: Mr. and Mrs. Abraham Leroy. They had four daughters and one son. French Huguenots, who spoke German as well, they had escaped to Switzerland because of state persecution against Protestants. Later they came to the U.S. and settled in Lancaster. Of particular attraction to young pastor Otterbein was 17-year-old Susan Leroy.

Nearly 10 years later she became his wife. In fact, she was the one love of his life. There is no record left as to why or where Susan Leroy Otterbein died. But we do know she was buried at the York church just six years after their marriage. The tender love Otterbein had for Susan is shown when some 50 years later, two days before his own death, he asked for a silk purse she had made. He had carefully saved it over the years, and after gazing on it a long while remembering the winsome Susan, he raised it to his lips and fondly kissed the keepsake.

A man of God is often lonely. Outside of memories of Susan, Father Otterbein had few friends. There were co-leader Martin Boehm and G. Adam Geeting, a convert of Father Otterbein’s who became his lifelong son in the ministry. And there was the pillar of American Methodism, Bishop Francis Asbury.

Asbury was greatly impressed when he first heard about Otterbein’s work among the Germans. In 1774 he wrote Otterbein urging him to accept the twice-offered call to pastor the German Evangelical Reformed Church in Baltimore. It was Asbury’s plan that Baltimore become a preaching center of the Great Revival and that Methodism would have an increasing influence on the three-state area.

Father Otterbein agreed, fully aware that the move would further damage his weak relations with the German Reformed denomination to which he belonged. During his 22 years in America, enemies in the church became more vocal in opposing him. They agitated the synod until Adam Geeting was expelled. They held long tirades against the “wicked fanaticism” of the Otterbein movement, particularly the “revival meetings in experimental religion that called for a new birth.” Further, the church extending the call had split from the more conservative First German Reformed Church of Baltimore because they favored the Otterbein views.

When Asbury and Otterbein met, the seasoned, ordained, intelligent, well-educated German preacher was 48 years old. He could speak little English. Asbury, by contrast, was an itinerant preacher who was just beginning his rise to fame in America. He was 29 years old and could speak no German. Nevertheless, they knew the same Lord and were united by the same Holy Spirit. Thus, their close companionship continued for 40 years. Asbury insisted that Otterbein assist in his ordination as bishop. Otterbein tenderly exhorted the young evangelist, always gently resisting Asbury’s efforts to obtain a commitment for union between the Methodist and Brethren churches.

By the time of its first annual meeting in 1800 to form an official church body, the United Brethren in Christ were indeed an attractive prize for the merger-minded Asbury. There were some 100 men in the Brethren ministry. The community prayer meetings and churches had extended hundreds of miles from places Otterbein had pastored. Organization was urgently necessary to assure that each congregation would be served by an overseer or circuit pastor, and that articles of faith and church order was followed. Venerable Fathers Otterbein and Boehm were named bishops of the United Brethren in Christ. But they were quite aged and the younger men, particularly Christian New- comer, would be responsible for further organization and growth of the church.

Father Boehm died in 1812 at the age of 87. He had preached the gospel for 55 years and it was only fitting that Bishop Asbury would deliver a notable eulogy.

His beloved friend and co-worker, Philip William Otterbein, died at the same age of 87 one year later. He died simply, as he had lived. All of his financial earnings had been given to the church or to the poor.

He never officially left the Reformed denomination, but Otterbein did indicate his intention that the United Brethren continue by giving apostolic ordination just days before he died, to two of the young ministers who succeeded him and Boehm.

To the end he was true to his life conviction that not “in denomination” but “in Christ” mattered. His funeral services were held in a Baltimore Lutheran church. A Lutheran pastor preached in German and a Methodist pastor preached in English. An Episcopal pastor conducted the ceremony at the grave site.

When Bishop Asbury heard the news, he cried, “Is Father Otterbein dead? A great and good man of God! One of the greatest scholars and divines that ever came to America or born in it. Alas, the chiefs of the Germans are gone to their rest and reward …. Forty years have I known the retiring modesty of this man of God, towering majesty above his fellows, in learning, wisdom, and grace, yet seeking to be known only to God and the people of God.”


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