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Philip William Otterbein

File:Otterbein William.jpgPhilip William Otterbein (June 3, 1726 – November 17, 1813) was a U.S. (German-born) clergyman. He was the founder of the United Brethren in Christ.


Otterbein attended the Reformed seminary at Herborn and was ordained June 13, 1749. He volunteered for missionary work in Pennsylvania, and arrived in New York on July 28, 1752. He served several German speaking parishes near the Pennsylvania-Maryland border, finally moving to the Second Evangelical Reformed Church in Baltimore, where he was pastor from 1774 until his death in 1813. The building where Otterbein preached is still used for worship, and the congregation is now called Old Otterbein United Methodist Church.

In 1767 or 1768, Otterbein was present at a worship service in Long’s Barn near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Martin Boehm, a Mennonite who had been born in Lancaster, preached, and after the service Otterbein came forward and greeted Boehm with words that became famous in United Brethren tradition: “Wir sind Brűder” (We are brothers). From that day forward, they had a close working relationship. Norwood comments that “They were an interesting pair: Otterbein the stately university-trained minister and Boehm the Mennonite farmer with a full beard.” A few years later, the Mennonites excommunicated Boehm.

By 1772 Otterbein was organizing religious classes on the Wesleyan model, and on the day he began pastoral duties in Baltimore, May 4, 1774, he met Francis Asbury who would be his friend throughout the remainder of his life. Asbury asked Otterbein to be one of four clergy who would lay hands on him when Asbury was ordained (or consecrated) as Methodist bishop, December 27, 1784, when the Methodist Episcopal Church was officially organized. Otterbein died on Wednesday, November 17, 1813.


Officially Otterbein remained in good standing as a German Reformed clergyman until his death, but his work led inexorably to the formation of a new Protestant denomination, the Church of the United Brethren in Christ. In 1798 Otterbein called a conference of clergy, including Boehm, to be held at Otterbein's Baltimore church. They took the first steps toward organizing the denomination. Two years later, in 1800, another conference took more organizational steps, including the decision to use a German translation of the Methodist Episcopal book of discipline. In their conversations, those present used words such as “society,” “association,” and “fellowship,” but not the word “church.” They began formally calling themselves a “church” in 1814, after Otterbein’s death.

In spite of his reluctance to form a church, the younger men in his movement began conducting themselves as if they were clergy, including administration of sacraments, so seven weeks before his death, Otterbein ordained three of his workers: Christian Newcomer, Joseph Hoffman, and Frederick Schaffer. Newcomer was elected bishop after Otterbein’s death.