Losing the Brethren

Losing the Brethren September 14, 2020

Over time, denominations and churches rise and fall, and mergers and acquisitions are a recurring theme of American religious history. We can argue at length about the social or spiritual impact of such changes, but losing those labels has a bad effect on the popular awareness of history – ethnic and political as well as religious. We lose a sense of the diversity of that religious history. I keep coming back to Martin Marty’s wise dictum that “Ethnicity is the skeleton of American religion.”

As a random example, I choose a church that stands in an area I know well, in State College, Pennsylvania. To the best of my knowledge, this Park Forest church is a flourishing congregation with an excellent range of ministries and programs. As its sign proclaims, it is a United Methodist church, and nothing obviously contradicts that title. The architecture proclaims its roots in the 1960s, specifically 1967, and it stands in what was at the time a new suburban development. It did not replace any older structure on the site.

Photograph is my own work

But let me turn again to that denominational title. Most non-historian passers-by would see the Methodist label and if they know anything at all about the Christian past, they might venture something like “Wesley, right?” But when this church was built, it looked to a whole different history, and a very rich one, one that is pretty much forgotten. When completed in 1967, with its then ultra-modern look, this was a church of the EUB, Evangelical United Brethren, not the Methodists. Um, so what exactly were they, and what happened to them? It’s a powerful story.

Why Denominations Matter

I know, of course, that denominational identities are not that strong in modern America, and they have been fading steadily for years. The reason why people belong to particular denominations are complex, but have little to do with the history or theology of those traditions. People attend Church X because that is what their family has always done, or because their friends go there, or they generally like the style of worship, or the pastor, or the kind of music, or (maybe most important) they love the programs for children and youth. In each case, what matters is what happens in the given congregation, not at the church’s national or global level, which is why so few ordinary churchgoers get disturbed at the startling or actively deranged policy statements that regularly emanate from national headquarters.

If you talk to smart or educated people attending Church X, you may be taken aback by how little even they know of what makes that denomination distinctive, or what its positions actually are on matters of faith or practice. In religious terms, Americans are a very small-c congregationalist people (and that comment applies to Catholics far more than many might care to admit).

I’m not naïve about how much denominations and brands matter. But they do have a lot to tell us, and losing those narratives is tragic. Even as basic a matter as why particular denominations end up concentrated in certain areas is of real significance. On the eighth day of Creation, God did not add that, by the way, there would be Unitarians in New England, Lutherans in Minnesota, and Baptists in Georgia. In each case, there is a real story behind those distributions, and how they have developed over time. It tells us about ethnicity, class, race, migration, and a host of other key historical factors.

We Are Brothers

So what was the EUB? As we know, the eighteenth century was marked by a powerful religious revival across the Atlantic world, and Europe. In the English-speaking world, the key figures were the Wesleys and Whitefield, but German America  had its own distinct movements, and some once-famous leaders.

Some background is helpful here. The Germans who poured into Pennsylvania and neighboring states in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were deeply divided between two main religious wings or currents, and relations between the two could be frosty. The  church people, Lutheran or Reformed, belonged to denominations that enjoyed state support and establishment back in their homelands, and these constituted the large majority of the settlers. There were also the more celebrated sect people, the Mennonites, Amish, and Dunkers, together with really some marginal groups. The sect people had bitter memories of recent persecution by the established churches back in Germany or Switzerland.

The revival movements of the mid-eighteenth century divided all the churches and sects, between enthusiasts and conservatives. Three key leaders stood out among the German revivalists: Philip William Otterbein (Reformed) and Martin Boehm (Mennonite), and from a younger generation, Jacob Albright (Lutheran). Although one was “sect” and one “church,” Boehm and Otterbein both became powerful preachers in their own right, and in a celebrated Great Meeting in Lancaster County in 1767, they agreed that despite all those glaring church-sect differences, “We are brothers,” “Wir sind Brüder.” The two leaders were close to the Anglophone Methodists, and Otterbein was friendly with Francis Asbury, but cultural and linguistic differences kept the movements separate.

That “brothers” phrase inspired the denomination that was formally established in 1800, the United Brethren in Christ (UB). This has me thinking, but Wikipedia states that this was “the first American denomination that was not transplanted from Europe.” Hmm, can that be right? In the 1790s, meanwhile, Jacob Albrecht or Albright evangelized the German-speakers of south-eastern Pennsylvania, and attracted many followers. “Albright’s People” (Die Albrechtsleute) became the Evangelical Association or Evangelical Church in 1816. From its early days, the Evangelical Church and the UB sporadically discussed formal merger, but nothing came of it.

In 1889, the United Brethren  split into two churches, each claiming the original name. This was in no sense a marginal tradition, as it had a national and international span. In 1906, the majority UB wing had a membership of 274,000, with a global missionary outreach, and a chain of colleges and seminaries. In 1946, that majority UB faction finally merged with the Evangelical Church to form the Evangelical United Brethren, EUB. That merger generated real controversy over women’s ordination and clergy rights, of a kind that might appear surprising for that period. The UB had ordained women elders since the 1880s, while the Evangelicals were far more conservative. The new merged church did not ordain women.

The present situation dates from 1968, when the EUB (then 750,000 strong)  joined the Methodists to form the United Methodist Church, and older congregations were subsumed under that denomination.

The Age of Unions

That merger is representative of a much larger story of church unions and alliances in the mid-twentieth century, and it tells us as much about ethnicity and language as it does about theology. Originally, the German-oriented churches were separate from mainstream Methodism because of language and culture, but over time, the distinctions separating the various ethnic churches from the mainstream faded, as the regular use of non-English languages declined steeply. The reasons justifying continued ecclesiastical separation faded, especially among younger believers and clergy.

This is part of the larger phenomenon of how America’s various white ethnic and immigrant groups came to share a common identity, which was White, Anglophone, and Protestant, if not actually Anglo-Saxon – WAP if not WASP. This is related to the growing assimilation of immigrant populations into a new shared Whiteness, a movement that was rapidly accelerated by common participation in the two World Wars. Obviously, at every stage, African-Americans were part of a distinct and often segregated narrative.

Pennsylvania Realities

Evangelical, UB, and EUB churches were common in Central Pennsylvania. In State College, the Evangelical Church began an impressive downtown church in 1915 to cater to a burgeoning new college community: it was completed in 1921. That in turn joined the new EUB, which in 1967 spawned its new suburban offshoot, as I have already mentioned. That must have been one of the last new structures erected by the denomination. The 1967 date was significant as the bicentennial of that fraternal Great Meeting back in 1767. The old downtown State College church preserves some memory of its founder through its name, the Albright-Bethune Church. But the suburban church really does not cite its EUB roots, and you have to work to find them.

Losing the memory of those older denominations involves real amnesia about the country’s religious past, as well as forgetting some important figures in American religious history. Of course, the story is open to anyone who cares to dig, but I suspect not many try.

Nor is this issue confined to the Methodists or its various contributory strands. Just walk around any American city or mid-size town and look at the informative foundation stones of those older stone and brick churches from the era between (say) 1870 and 1960. See how many began as something other than the Baptist or ELCA or UCC churches that they are today. Look how many once-mighty older denominations have been all but forgotten in the same way as the EUB. In a society that spends so much time and effort pursuing the ancestry and genealogy of families and individuals, little attention is paid to investigating the precursors of churches.

This is absolutely no criticism of any particular church or congregation. Now more than ever, they would probably tell you that they have more pressing demands on their time and resources than to commemorate bygone days. But may I suggest that a bit of that lost denominational history might at least feature on their websites, if not on actual physical signage?

“Ecumenism demands amnesia” (Discuss).





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