A Brief History
Old Otterbein is the Mother Church of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ and the oldest church edifice in continuous use in the city of Baltimore as well as the oldest building on its original foundation in Baltimore City. Our congregation dates to August 7, 1771 when the deed for the property was sold for 90 pounds.
In 1771, a German Evangelical Reformed Church was organized and a temporary chapel erected to house the congregation. The First German Reformed Church of Harold's Hill changed names several times, but the congregation has persisted for over 250 years.
On June 22, 1772, Founding Pastor, Rev. Benedict Schwope, lent the chapel to Rev. Joseph Pilmore as a place to organize the Lovely Lane Meetinghouse congregation. This congregation would go on to be the host of the Christmas Conference of 1774 in their new building that organized the Methodist Episcopal Church and is the Mother Church of the Methodist Episcopal strand of The United Methodist Church. Two of the main branches got their start right in this very location.
Rev. Schwope and (Bishop) Francis Asbury persuaded Rev. Philip William Otterbein (1726-1813) to accept the pastorate in 1774. Mr. Otterbein, as he was often called, had come from Germany in 1751 as a missionary to German colonists in Pennsylvania. The Baltimore pastorate was his fifth, and he stayed for the rest of his life, a thirty-nine year pastorate and the longest in the congregation's history. Over time, people began to refer to the church as "Otterbein's Church" and the name stuck. When others wanted to be called "Otterbein," the congregation took on the moniker of "Old" to designate that we were the first.
Bishop Otterbein had a close relationship with Francis Asbury; in 1784 he assisted in Asbury's ordination at the Christmas Conference which founded the Methodist Episcopal Church. The two men would frequently gather together for prayer, conversation, and theological dialogue. Asbury preached at Otterbein's church many times, including at Bishop Otterbein's funeral. On March 24, 1814, some months after Otterbein's death, Asbury wrote the following in his journal: "Forty years have I known the retiring modesty of this man of God; towering majestic above his fellows in learning, wisdom, and grace, yet seeking to be known only of God and the people of God; he had been sixty years a minister, fifty years a converted one."
Otterbein's evangelical preaching and his increasingly Wesleyan theology led to conflicts with the Reformed Church. An entry from Francis Asbury's journal for June 4, 1786 is evidence of Otterbein's growing interest in the Methodist movement: "I called on Mr. Otterbein: we had some free conversation on the necessity of forming a church among the Dutch [Germans], holding conferences, the order of its government."
Otterbein and Martin Boehm helped found the Church of the United Brethren in Christ in 1800, and Otterbein's church in Baltimore became the cradle of the new denomination after meeting at Long's Barn in Lancaster, PA when the well-educated Otterbein heard about the spiritual uprising happening where he used to serve and went to hear the country excommunicated Mennonite preacher, Martin Boehm preach. After the service, Otterbein approached Boehm and said "Wir sind brüder!" ("We are brethren!") While Boehm is credited with being a founder of the UBC, he never served as a preacher in the UBC. In fact, he served as a preacher in the Methodist Episcopal Church in the German language mission churches.
The present church structure was erected in 1785, replacing the wooden structure from 1771. The 1811 parsonage stands nearby. Bishop Otterbein never lived in this parsonage, instead declaring that it should be rented out and the money given to the poor. He remained in his cabin on the property until his death in 1813. Bishop Philip William Otterbein is buried in the churchyard and a monument was placed over his grave in 1913. The interior of the church has been remodeled at various times, including changing the orientation of the building in the 1840s, but the sanctuary remains the oldest in continuous use in Baltimore and the only extant eighteenth century church in the city. We are the oldest building on our original foundation within City lines.
In 1946, another German-language denomination, the Evangelical Association, which was founded under the leadership of Jacob Albright, merged with the Church of the United Brethren in Christ to form the Evangelical United Brethren Church (EUB). Soon after this merger, in the wake of World War II with a desire to unite people, discussions began with The Methodist Church to merge the historically friendly denominations. The Methodist Church was formed in 1939 as the result of the merger between three denominations that had previously split and came together again: The Methodist Episcopal Church; the Methodist Episcopal Church, South; and the Methodist Protestant Church. The 1939 merger was only possible by segregating the Church by forming the Central Jurisdiction for all black members. The merger of the EUB and The Methodist Church was only possible because the EUB refused to join a segregated church and insisted upon integration because they had never been segregated. This delayed the merger from 1964 to 1968. Today, we are part of The United Methodist Church--the "United" part comes not from the act of merger, but from the "United" Brethren in Christ.
Today, we continue this tradition of radical inclusivity. Where we first welcomed immigrants and those who spoke different languages as well as people of all colors to our doors, we continue this spirit of welcome and radical inclusivity by also welcoming and including in leadership the LGBTQIA+ community. We are a diverse congregation to this day with a variety of races, ages, genders, sexual orientations, and languages spoken in our services.
You can learn more about the beliefs of The United Methodist Church here.