Father Otterbein – The Gentle Revolutionary

Part II

by Sondra O’Neale

In the last issue of Good News, we met William Otterbein. We saw his godly family of six brothers who preached the Kingdom of Jesus Christ in and around Germany. And we saw God lead the fiery Otterbein to the German immigrants of America, known affectionately as the “Pennsylvania Dutch.”

In mid-eighteenth century America there was little affection for these settlers. Ninety thousand were in Pennsylvania alone. They came mostly from the German Palatinate where war, ruin, devastation and poverty had been their heritage for 400 years. There were Mennonites, Amish, Lutheran, Reformed, Moravians, Dunkers-all German, all persecuted at home, unwanted in the new land.

A stream left to itself, with no fresh currents, will die. So did the language, the culture, and especially the religion of these new Americans begin to die. A home-loving people, they forged farms from the rough hills of Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland. They built churches, but there were few pastors. There were no schools, no teachers, no one to teach them English. So they taught their children as best they could from the few German books they had.

They fought in the Revolutionary War with the rest of the colonists. But this intensified their bitterness because they were alienated when the war was over. By then their churches were wrapped up in form: cold, strict obedience to dead rules. There was no Spirit and little life in them. Unbelief. In all of America everyone knew that the churches of Jesus Christ did not really believe God anymore. There was no reality. No new birth. Only six percent of all the nation’s people were on church roles and among the Germans of Pennsylvania it was worse than that.

God was not satisfied with this dismal state. He determined that this quaint people were to find satisfaction in Him. So He brought zealous Otterbein from Germany and fortified him to burn as a flashing light in the midst of this colonial darkness.

Otterbein preached and people cried out to be saved. Few in the German Reformed Church had ever heard of prayer meetings, but Otterbein started them. He would open these meetings with a familiar hymn and then gently encourage the curious onlookers to kneel with him in prayer. He lovingly exhorted each one in his congregation to seek the great salvation {as he always referred to it) and then to prove this salvation experience by holy living.

“Holiness,” to Otterbein, did not mean a self-righteous pride. Everyone who knew him marveled at his humility. Methodist Bishop Asbury often spoke of him as “modest Father Otterbein.” If there was any thunder in his character, any exertion of will or power, it was seen only from the pulpit as he unflinchingly called sinners to repentance against the Judgment Day.

By “holiness” Otterbein meant several things: peace … unpretended love for all true Christians who lived and believed the Gospel … a strong love for the souls of all men … a life unblameable before God and man.

This call for true religion cut across the grain of early America. Then as now, people were living for money, prosperity. They were drunk with freedom and independence. Ownership, power, growth, and expansion were in the air. Pride in doctrinal differences was the chasm that kept denominations stubbornly divided. Church was for Sunday. Religious talk was to encourage patriotism.

Tenacious Rev. Otterbein was getting on everyone’s nerves. He had become America’s gentle revolutionary. The strongest irritant to the Reformed Church was Otterbein’s insistence on preaching among non-Reformed Germans – or non-Reformed anybodies for that matter. He was always concerned about those outside the church, for “how can they hear without a preacher?” Never neglecting his own flock, Otterbein would none-the-less ride mile after weary mile on horseback or in buckboard wagon to reach the lost farmer, the drunkard, the forgotten German.

In each location he would gather converts together into class units and appoint one of them as overseer. They met often for prayer, Bible study and self-examination, witness and growth in holiness.

These overseers reported to Father Otterbein during his visits and at annual meetings, records of which show him mainly concerned that the brethren live in peace. No rivalry. No competition.

Self-examination was essential. Before communion each believer must confirm to the overseer, that his soul was cleansed, alive and wholly in love with God.

All these arrangements were solely to keep new Christians encouraged and growing. No one was thinking of a new denomination, least of all Otterbein.

But the Spirit of God was moving. And He determined that one of Otterbein’s overseers in Lancaster County was Adam Riegel, a man whose next – door neighbor God would sanctify and set apart for His special use. This man was Jacob Albright. The story of his dramatic conversion and itinerant ministry which grew to become the Evangelical Church shall be in the next issue of Good News.

It was also in Lancaster County that the Holy Spirit brought William Otterbein to meet Martin Boehm. The two would become the first bishops of the United Brethren Church.

Pentecost Sunday 1767 was the fateful setting of that historic beginning. Today little notice is taken of Pentecost Sunday, but for early American Christians it was a festive day of preaching at “great meetings.” The German immigrants called this joyful Sunday “Whitsuntide.”

In Lancaster that year the Whitsuntide festival was at Isaac Long’s barn. Church goers from three counties had come to hear the new preacher everybody was talking about. Long’s now-famous stone barn covered 34,596 square feet. Even so, it was not big enough to hold the crowd that afternoon. Those who could not fit into the barn gathered in a nearby orchard to hear other speakers.

But the main attraction was definitely Martin Boehm. With strong, clear voice Boehm urged his listeners not to mistake church attendance for true conversion. He recounted his upbringing in the Mennonite Church where the congregation had voted him minister. “I was 31 years old, a preacher and had nothing to preach,” Boehm explained. “While thus engaged in praying earnestly for aid to preach, the thought rose in my mind, or as though one spoke to me, saying, ‘You pray for grace to teach others the way of salvation, and you have not prayed for your own salvation.’

“This thought or word did not leave me … I felt and saw myself a poor sinner. I was LOST! My agony became great. I was plowing in the field, and knelt down at each end of the furrow to pray. The word ‘lost, lost’ (verlohren), went every round with me. Midway in the field, I could go no farther, but sank behind the plow, crying, ‘ Lord, save, I am lost.’

“And again the thought or voice said, ‘I am come to seek and to save that which is lost.’ In a moment a stream of joy was poured over me. I praised the Lord, and left the field and told my companion what joy I felt.”

Boehm began to bear down with emphasis in his message as he told of returning to the Mennonite Church with the news of his conversion.

“This caused considerable commotion in our church. None of us had heard or seen it before. When speaking of my lost estate and agony of mind, some in the congregation began to weep.”

As the erect, keen-eyed young man with long hair and flowing beard continued his testimony, many in Long’s barn began to weep also. Otterbein was deeply moved as he heard Boehm’s conversion experience. It reminded him so much of his own.

“Like a dream, old things had passed away,” Boehm continued, “and it seemed as if I had awaked to new life, new thoughts, new faith, new love. I rejoiced and praised God with my whole heart. This joy, this faith, this love I wished to communicate to those around me; but, when speaking thereof, in public or in private, it made different impressions on different persons.

“Some gave a mournful look; some sighed and wept, and would say, ‘O Martin, we are indeed lost!’

“Yes, man (der mensch) is lost! Christ will never find us till we know we are lost.”

Isaac Long’s barn was quiet. Silent, flowing tears witnessed to the Spirit’s presence as Otterbein made his way to the platform. “Wir sind Bruder (We are brethren),” he cried as he embraced Boehm.


Yes, hearts melted in the Isaac Long barn that day. Together Mennonite Boehm and Reformed Otterbein would be fishers of men. They would invade the frontier, make disciples and establish prayer groups. Neither had in mind building a new denomination. They just knew the tide of the Spirit was revival and they kept in step with Him.

Boehm was to preach for 54 years. He held the fellowships in Pennsylvania together during the Revolutionary War and afterward when Otterbein moved to Bal ti more.

Opposition grew among the Mennonites because Boehm held revival meetings, sometimes preached in English and associated with people from other churches until he was formally expelled in 1780. But no matter, Boehm’s magnetic preaching power and evangelistic zeal far outstripped his accusers.

Of the 14 founders of the United Brethren Church, five were Menonite followers of Boehm. Perhaps no single statement can best illustrate the affection and esteem Boehm had in the hearts of those touched by the Great Revival than that of Christian Newcomer, a second-generation leader of the United Brethren; who declared, ” Father Boehm preached with great power.”

(Continued in the next issue)


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