Old Otterbein Church is the mother church of the United Brethren in Christ Church, which took a strong stance against slavery in 1817. In both the Methodist Episcopal Church and the United Brethren Church, all the Founders were against slavery, except one—George Whitfield, an English clergyman.
Philip William Otterbein and Martin Boehm helped found the United Brethren in Christ in 1800, and it became the cradle of the new denomination. Pastor Otterbein’s evangelical preaching and his Wesleyan, anti-slavery theology led to conflicts with the Reformed Church and evidenced his growing interest in the Methodist movement:
The early Methodist Societies were against slavery. Slave owners initially were not allowed to become members. But the ideal and the lived experience didn’t match, and the denominations eventually split.
The original United Brethren Church was against slavery in part because the German Americans who comprised the congregation at the time were not large land owners, but smaller farmers who had no need for slave labor. The General Conference of 1817 adopted a rule on slavery and said –
Any slave-holding member was required to set their slaves free or ask the Quarterly Conference to determine when the cost of purchasing that slave had been paid. However, in no case was a member of the United Brethren Church to sell a slave. If this rule were violated, the person would be reprimanded. If the reprimand were disobeyed, the person would face expulsion from the Church.
Of note, this rule was enacted right after the Missouri Compromise when lines between slave and free were sharply drawn. This rule was so strict that even a well-known bishop (Bishop Glossbrenner) enforced it against his own father-in-law.
When slaves were inherited, it created even more complications, but it was still enforced. By 1837, slave owners were no longer permitted as members of the denomination. As a result, the denomination did not face a split like that of the Methodist Episcopal Church.
The present church structure was erected in 1785 and the 1811 parsonage stands nearby. Anti-slavery pastor Philip William Otterbein is buried in the churchyard and a monument was placed over his grave in 1913.
Old Otterbein and United Brethren Church of Christ did not officially merge with United Methodist Church until the mid-1940’s.
Rev. Benedict Swope was a clergyman of the Reformed Church. After his ordination he became pastor of the Second Reformed Church in Baltimore at the former earlier German chapel on this same site, During the Revolutionary War Rev Swope preached in Baltimore, where he remained until its close, Rev. Swope was a life-long friend of Francis Asbury, and assisted Dr. Thomas Coke during the ordination of the Bishop Asbury at the Lovely Lane Chapel Christmas Conference1784. While in Baltimore Bishop Francis Asbury spoke several times at the Otterbein Church.