Otterbein's Ordination Important to Brethren

May 03, 2010
Otterbein's Ordination Important to Brethren

The gathering in the city church of Dillenburg, Germany was special to all, but to no one more than Philip William Otterbein. Just ten days earlier, the young teacher had turned twenty-three. Now, on this day, June 3, 1749, he was being ordained.

John Henry Schramm performed the ceremony. Later he wrote out a certificate: "The reverend and very learned young man, Philip William Otterbein, from Dillenburg, in Nassau, a candidate of the holy ministry, and a teacher of the third class in this school, received of me...on the 13th of June, 1749,--the rite of ordination that he might perform the function of vicar in the congregation at Ockersdorf."

William (that is what he was called) was so determined to demonstrate the power of real Christianity and to get others to do the same, that he ruffled feathers among the more careless people of his church. Church authorities advised him to "cool it."

His mom said to him, "Ah, William, I expected this... This place is too narrow for you, my son; they will not receive you here; you will find your work elsewhere."

And that is what happened. Through tears, his mother bid him good-bye as he sailed for America. He became a German Reformed Church missionary among the colonists of the New World.

William Otterbein was just as bold in the new world as in the old. He seized opportunities to urge men to turn to God. Cabbies feared to haul him, because he would open conversation about the state of their souls. When he stayed overnight in a home, he would read a portion of the Bible during worship hour and then quiz each person present to be sure they were saved!

More and more, he saw the value of Methodism. He invited Methodist missionary Francis Asbury to speak in his church. His use of Methodist techniques, especially the development of small groups, helped him win many people to faith throughout Pennsylvania and Maryland. But it also stirred opposition in his own denomination. Eventually William teamed up with a Mennonite pastor named Martin Boehm. Their German-speaking congregations formed a new denomination, known as the United Brethren in Christ. William became one of its first bishops.

No doubt he was a good administrator. He was such a clean and orderly man that he even whitewashed the inside of his cow barn! But he did not bury his concern for people under paperwork. On the contrary, he made a point to personally help the poor. In the pulpit, he preached with such fire that listeners wept for their sins. It was clear that he relied on the Holy Spirit for his words. For example, in one of his last sermons, having difficulty because he was so weak, and cried aloud, "O Lord, help me this one more time to preach your word." Immediately he was able to speak with ease. He died soon after, in 1813. Francis Asbury wrote, "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..."


  1. Drury, A. W. History of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ. Dayton, Ohio: United Brethren Press, 1931, Source of quote on his ordination.
  2. O'Malley, John Steven. Pilgrimage of Faith: the legacy of the Otterbeins. Metuchen, N.J., Scarecrow Press, 1973.
  3. "Philip William Otterbein." Appleton's Encyclopedia.
  4. Various internet and encyclopedia articles.
Last updated May, 2007.


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