Preached by Pastor Tom Maurer, Allison United Methodist Church to the congregation of Grace United Methodist Church on June 26, 2011
Each year the United Methodist Church recognizes a special day known as Heritage Sunday. This year Heritage Sunday fell on May 22nd – just a little over a month ago. The purpose for this special day is to commemorate John Wesley’s “heartwarming” experience on May 24th, 1738, in a Moravian meeting house on Aldersgate Street in London. It’s also an occasion for United Methodists to remember our heritage; a time to recall the saints who preceded us, who left us a legacy of faith and inspiration.
The sermon I’m about to preach is one that I preached at Allison on that occasion. Apparently it became a topic of discussion soon afterwards. Within a few days Joanne Reynolds approached me to see if I would consider preaching the same sermon in each of the churches represented on the Cooperative Ministries Team.
In case you’re unaware of that Ministry Team, it’s comprised of representatives from Allison, First, Grace and the Church of the Good Shepherd. The purpose of the Team is to develop a improved spirit of cooperation among our churches.
Joanne also said that the Cooperative Ministry Team was considering planning an historic tour to Baltimore to visit several of the sites you’ll be hearing about this morning. I believe those plans are in the making, but not yet finalized. You’ll want to watch your Sunday bulletins and monthly newsletters for details about that trip.
In any case here I am. So let’s begin.
Any new comer to Carlisle must wonder why there are three sizeable United Methodist Churches within six blocks of each another, two located only two blocks apart. To those unfamiliar with United Methodist history, the situation must appear strange if not absurd. After all, what organization would do such a thing? Would Giant, Target or Wal-Mart locate their stores so close together? So it’s reasonable to ask, “What led to this peculiar situation?”
The answer is in our United Methodist history. On April 23rd, 1968, The United Methodist Church was formally chartered in Dallas, Texas. The new denomination was the result of a merger between the former Evangelical United Brethren Church – often referred to as the E.U.B. Church – and the Methodist Episcopal Church. Of the two denominations, the Methodist Church was by far the largest, outnumbering the E.U.B.’s by a ratio of 10 to 1. The Methodists were established nation wide, while the E.U.B.’s were mostly concentrated in the Mid-Atlantic states, particularly Pennsylvania, northern Maryland, Delaware and Ohio.
While the 1968 merger created the United Methodist Church, our roots predate that event by another merger that took place 22 years earlier.
In 1946 the former Evangelical United Brethren Church was organized in Johnstown, PA. That was a merger of two small denominations comprised of formerly German-speaking people, their roots set in Lancaster County and Baltimore. These two denominations were the United Brethren in Christ Church and the Evangelical Association.
Helen Gotwald – a disciple at Allison – was the organist for the historic worship service that formally united the two denominations in 1946. At the time she was 19 years old living with her parents in Johnstown, who had begun taking organ lessons at the local United Brethren in Christ Church.
To fully understand United Methodism in Carlisle, we need to go back even farther to Colonial times when Carlisle was still a frontier town.
Sometime in July, 1789 – a mere 38 years after Carlisle was founded – a Methodist Circuit Rider named Francis Asbury arrived in Carlisle. Five years earlier he had been elected as the first Bishop of the newly-organized Methodist Episcopal Church. At the time both Methodism and our nation were in their infancies. So it’s not surprising there was no Methodist presence in Carlisle at the time.
Upon arriving in Carlisle, Asbury went to the Rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church on the square and requested to preach the following Sunday. The Rector graciously consented. The following Sunday Bishop Asbury preached to the congregation of St. John’s.
Following the morning service Asbury asked the Rector to extend his invitation so Asbury could to preach that evening. This time the Rector declined for reasons unknown. Not easily discouraged, Asbury crossed the street and preached that same evening on the steps of the Old Court House.
Evidently Asbury’s presence in Carlisle touched some hearts. This is evidenced by the fact that less than three years later, on March 3, 1792, the trustees of the newly- formed Methodist Society of Carlisle purchased a small plot on which to erect a one-story stone structure. This was to serve as the Society’s meeting house. Methodism had arrived in Carlisle.
While Asbury was traveling through the Mid-Atlantic States preaching the Gospel in English, there were two other preachers proclaiming the Gospel in German to the German-speaking immigrants of the Mid-Atlantic region. They were Philip Otterbein and Jacob Albright.
Like Asbury, Philip Otterbein was born in Europe and had immigrated to the Colonies as a missionary prior to the Revolutionary War. Like Asbury, during the war Otterbein remained in the colonies supporting the American cause. Neither Asbury nor Otterbein ever returned to their native lands.
Like John Wesley, Otterbein was a learned scholar having received his formal education in Germany.
Upon his arrival to the colonies in 1752, Otterbein first settled in Lancaster, PA, beginning his ministry under the auspices of the German Reformed Church. In 1766 Otterbein happened to hear a Mennonite preacher named Martin Boehm preaching. Asbury was impressed by what he heard.
Although the relationship between the Reformed Church and the Mennonites were far from cordial, Otterbein and Boehm soon became good friends. So much so that in 1800 the two men convened a conference of German-speaking clergy in Baltimore and chartered a new denomination called the United Brethren in Christ Church.
The images of Otterbein and Boehm shown on the media screen are two separate stained glass windows found in Kauffman Chapel here at Grace honoring this historic connection between the two men.
In 1774, Philip Otterbein accepted an invitation from a German-speaking congregation in Baltimore to become their pastor. He accepted their invitation and remained their pastor for 39 years until his death on November 17, 1813. Today the church is named in his honor: Old Otterbein Church. It stands in Camden Yards’ parking lot next to the Baltimore Orioles’ stadium.
It’s important to remember that the native tongue for Otterbein and Boehm was German. During the late 1700’s, throughout the 1800’s, and even into the first half of the 1900’s, there were concentrated pockets of German-speaking people living in the Mid-Atlantic region, particularly Central Pennsylvania. They spoke a low German dialect known as Pennsylvania Dutch. It was primarily to these German speaking people that Otterbein and Boehm concentrated their ministry.
While Otterbein and Boehm were preaching to the German-speaking people of the Mid-Atlantic region, an unlikely preacher rose from obscurity and became an influential player in United Methodist history. His name was Jacob Albright.
Jacob Albright was born May 1, 1759, one of nine children of German immigrants who settled near Pottstown, PA. Like his parents, Jacob was raised a Lutheran. As a young man he and his young bride, Catherine, settled in Lancaster County where he farmed and produced clay roof tiles.
At age of 33 Jacob and Catherine experienced a severe loss when three of their nine children died from a dysentery epidemic. This loss created a spiritual crisis for Jacob for which his Lutheran faith was little help. Desperate for answers to his spiritual quagmire, Albright found himself in a nearby Methodist Class Meeting which he subsequently joined.
The discipline and practices of the Methodist people were exactly what Albright needed. Jacob enjoyed his association with the Methodists even though at times he had difficulty understanding and speaking their English language.
Within a few years Albright was licensed as a Methodist Lay Preacher and became known as a powerful speaker. From then on he spent much of his time preaching to the German-speaking communities near his Lancaster home. In time he developed a following of his own among the Germans.
Even though it was never Albright’s intent to start a new church organization, in 1800 his work had increased so much that there was need for some form of supervision.
So he began organizing classes throughout central PA among the German-speaking people even as Asbury had done among English-speaking people.
On November 5, 1803, Albright was ordained by his fellow lay preachers. Four years later, in 1807, they acclaimed him Bishop of what had become known as Albright’s People. In 1816 the denomination took the name Evangelical Association.
For some peculiar reason Bishop Asbury did not share Otterbein’s and Albright’s desire to adopt the German language for preaching the Gospel to the Germans. Believing there was no future for the German language in this new-founded nation, Asbury believed the Gospel needed to be preached in English, which in affect excluded Otterbein and Albright’s ministry. Consequently Otterbein founded the United Brethren in Christ Church, and Albright the Evangelical Association.
Despite Asbury’s refusal to sanction Otterbein and Albright’s ministry as being Methodist, the two remained close friends of Asbury. Asbury often preached at Otterbein’s church in Baltimore.
In fact, Philip Otterbein was present at the historic Christmas Conference on December 25th, 1784, when Asbury was consecrated Bishop. Otterbein was even one of several men who laid hands on Asbury during the consecration service. He is pictured in the image on the media slide as the clergyman wearing the white robe behind the kneeling Asbury.
Despite the language barrier that separated them, the three men shared a common understanding of the Christian experience and church organization. In addition, all three men strongly believed in acquiring a good education. This is evidenced by each man having a liberal arts college named after him.
Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, was named to honor Philip Otterbein. My wife happens to be a graduate of Otterbein, as is Rev. Don Ciampa and all his brothers.
Albright College in Reading, PA., is the namesake of Jacob Albright. Joanne Reynolds is a graduate of Albright. And Asbury University and Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, honors the memory of Francis Asbury.
So what does this history mean for the three United Methodist Churches in Carlisle? Each of the three churches has its roots in one of the three former denominations. Each of the three churches was what we call today an anchor church in their respective denominations. As late as the early 1960’s, each of the churches periodically hosted its respective Annual Conferences.
First United Methodist was originally founded in 1866 by a congregation of 12 men from the Evangelical Association. Her roots go back to Jacob Albright. Originally known as St. Paul’s Evangelical Church, in 1896 the church changed her name to The First Evangelical Church of Carlisle.
Grace United Methodist was founded in 1893 by a group of 17 men who were members of the United Brethren in Christ Church, founded by Philip Otterbein. Both First and Grace Churches were originally German-speaking congregations. In 1946 their respective denominations merged, creating the Evangelical United Brethren Church.
As you might suspect, Allison Church – just two blocks from here – traces her roots to the 1789 visit of Francis Asbury to Carlisle. Her roots are Methodist.
So you see, the reason we have three United Methodist Churches in such close proximity is because they represent each of the three former denominations. The language barrier that once separated us has long disappeared. Our style of worship and church organization have always been similar, as has been our understanding of the Christian experience and how to live as Christians.
Given the threads of our common history, one is left to ponder the need for having three United Methodist Churches in Carlisle. Is it possible that after 43 years of being UNITED Methodists, the time has come for our three congregations to truly become one United Methodist Church?
God only knows, and only time will tell. Amen.