Author: Rev. Ronald J. Williams, retired clergy, Great Plains Conference
First, perhaps I should introduce myself. I am half of a clergy couple who served small and rural congregations. My wife and I had our religious beginnings in United Brethren Churches in small Kansas Towns. Her grandfather and my great grandfather were United Brethren Pastors. My education was at an Evangelical United Brethren College, & United Theological Seminary (which had both United Brethren and Evangelical roots) St. Charles Catholic Seminary, and work toward a doctorate at Phillips University School of Theology. Our first house was the 10 room manse built for Bishop Otterbein in Baltimore, Maryland, next to Old Otterbein Church, where he is buried in the front yard.
The Methodist Church was not the only one that was fraught with controversary, division and schism resulting in several denominations. The Evangelical United Brethren Church and its predecessor denominations had similar problems. While there were some issues incubating in their early history, the big breaks happened around 1890.
In the Evangelical Association, (Actually it is Die Evangelicische Gemeinschaft in the native German language) the issues came from sectionalism, personal animosity arising from disagreements, and sanctification. The disagreements were placed before mediators who after not being successful said that they saw no good reason for the split to happen. In 1891 the schism actually happened with the split off group forming the United Evangelical Church. After the turn of the century in the year 1900 a new crop of leaders saw the foolishness of the schism, which led to reunion in 1922 under the new name, the Evangelical Church. As in every union and reunion there were those who did not want to go along, and these formed the Evangelical Congregational Church.
The United Brethren split came to a head in 1898, when there was an adoption of a new constitution. The changes in the constitution deemphasized opposition to secret organizations, provided for lay participation in the annual conference, and the necessity of constitutional changes be adopted only by a 2/3 vote rather than a simple majority. The General Conference met in Indianapolis, Indiana. Upon the passing of the new constitution Bishop Milton Wright (Father of the Wright Brothers) led about 20% of the delegates out of the meeting and called another General Conference in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and formed the United Brethren Church (Old Constitution.)
At both the 1946 union which led to the formation of the Evangelical United Brethren Church, and the 1968 union which led to the United Methodist Church overtures were made to the Evangelical Congregational Church, and the United Brethren Church (Old Constitution) to become part of the new denominations, and there was no interest.
The tragedy of all of this is, as it was in the Methodist Church, that it has often paralyzed and decimated the ministry of the churches, and altered their concentration from the mission of witnessing people to invite them to become disciples for Jesus Christ. These kinds of controversy have so soured the reputation of religious discussion that it no longer is even permissible polite conversation.
These events also become settled in our memories, as the way to do church, and creates habits and traditions that are time consuming and wasteful of the Lord’s financial resources. This is not the way Church is done. Read the thirteenth chapter of 1st Corinthians and read it in light of church administration, which was the intention of Paul had in writing it in the first place. 1st Corinthians 13:5b “It [love] does not insist on its own way” and verse 11 “When I was a child, I thought like a child, I spoke like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult I put an end to childish ways.” (NRSV)
A further tragedy is the unnecessary waste of human and financial resources on unnecessary meetings. Think for a minute about the use that the Board of Global Ministries, and particularly UMCOR could put to use in spreading the word of God, or the alleviation of suffering, if they had the resourses being spent on the General Conference of 2019,
*The information presented in this article were gleaned from The History of the Evangelical United Brethren Church c1979 Abingdon Press, Nashville, Behney, Eller & edited by Kruger. With the Annual Conference Journal of the Louisiana Conference which I have personally read, and is in the United Methodist General Achieves at Drew University.