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Mon, May 21 2018
A brief history of United Methodism in Pennsylvania

The United Methodist Church was officially formed April 23, 1968, with the unification of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical Brethren Church, along with the dissolution of the Central Jurisdiction, a segregated group of African-American congregations. Susquehanna Conference Archivist Dr. Milton Loyer recently offered some insight into the beginnings of United Methdodism as we know it. What were the reasons behind the Methodist and EUB uniting in 1968? There were two reasons, one spiritual and one practical. The spiritual reason, I think, was for with the unity of the church. Jesus prayed that his believers would be one. The merger of Methodist Church (English roots) and the Evangelical United Brethren Church (German roots) was a natural spiritual union; though speaking different languages (English vs. German) they had the same discipline, same practices, same outlook, same philosophy, and similar spiritual roots — there was no reason why they should remain separate. For many years the Methodists, because of their circuit-riders and their outreach, had been the largest Protestant denomination in America. In the 1960s they began to decline. There were about nine million Methodists and roughly a million EUBs — from a practical point of view a merger would restore them as the largest protestant denomination. Although the EUBs were a national denomination, they were not very strong in the South, the West, the Southwest, the Northeast, and the New England states, so it made sense from a practical point of view to become part of a larger body that had name recognition and was very similar. How did the union help  us in Pennsylvania? The church is about people. One thing that the union did is, it brought together different people with Wesleyan roots; EUBs were Wesleyan in theology through Jacob Albright, a Pennsylvania German Lutheran who converted to Methodism then started the Evangelical Church (so he could preach in German); Philip Otterbein, German born and raised in the Lancaster Reformed Church, was a friend of Francis Asbury (a Methodist Episcopal Bishop in the U.S.) and started the United Brethren in Christ with Martin Boehm (Pennsylvania German-raised in the Mennonite Church) based on Methodist classes, but German-speaking. The Evangelical Church and United Brethren in Christ merged in 1946 to become the Evangelical United Brethren Church; Methodists in turn learned more about the rich spiritual history of Albright, Otterbein, and Boehm when they united with the EUBs in 1968, and of course shared more about their deep spiritual roots in John Wesley and Francis Asbury. What kinds of changes took place  in Pennsylvania after the merger? For two years after the merger in 1968 there were five or six overlapping conferences in Pennsylvania - former EUB Conferences and a former Methodist Conference. But in Pennsylvania there was a great spirit of unity so in the entire state of Pennsylvania all the former EUB and Methodist Conferences got together and agreed on a Basis and Plan of Union. It was decided to divide the state into three conferences: the Western Pennsylvania Conference, the Central Pennsylvania Conference, and the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, each with roughly the same number of churches. The Plan and Basis of Union included structural guidelines that a certain number of commissions would be headed by former EUBs and a certain number of commissions would be headed by former Methodists, and there was general agreement and working together, although each conference could make it’s own decisions for pensions, insurance, ordination standards, and some other things. How did they handle other  differences after the merger? There were a number of differences between the two denominations. EUBs elected bishops for four years, Methodists elected them for life. As United Methodists they elected bishops for life. District superintendents were elected by the conference in the EUB Church but appointed by the bishop by the Methodists. A proposal to have the bishop nominate district superintendents and Annual Conferences approve them was presented, but that was not approved, and together as United Methodists they chose to have them appointed by the bishop. In general the traditions of both denominations were honored, such as The Lord’s Prayer has two versions in the UM hymnal: “forgive us our trespasses” for the former Methodists, and “forgive us our debts” for the former EUBs. EUBs dedicated their infants rather than baptizing them, but this was a tradition that was discouraged. Occasionally families still request to have their child dedicated, and there is an EUB Book of Ritual for the dedication of infants in the Conference Archives. Language was no longer an issue as all congregations were now English-speaking. What happened to all the  different church buildings? In many places the former congregations united into one church building, but in many towns, there may be two or more United Methodist Churches, such as Mechanicsburg, where there are three - one a former Evangelical, one a former United Brethren, and a former Methodist church. Carlisle also had three churches from the former denominations that became Allison, Grace, and First United Methodist Churches — they recently merged into one congregation to become Carlisle United Methodist Church, and are planning to build a new church building. In a number of suburbs and towns there are two United Methodist churches across the street from one another, each with a vibrant congregation and distinct ministry niches. What should we learn  from our history? We should remember that the church shouldn’t be afraid of change and that we can’t be static. There were good reasons for each denomination to remain separate, and some people wanted that. But the merger taught us that change can be good. We gained more than we lost. We’re a stronger church for it. If we face change constructively, honestly, prayerfully, and realistically, then I believe God has a good future for us.

From Susquehanna Link - May 2018

 

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