Friday, April 23, 2010

Otterbein Church

Otterbein Church, representing all of the rural churches that once dotted Lucas County, was moved to the museum campus during 1976 as a joint project of the Lucas County Bicentennial Commission and the Historical Society.

Otterbein seems like an odd name for a church and to understand how it came to be it’s necessary to go back nearly 250 years to 1767 and a big barn in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, owned by a farmer named Long. That was a time when great revival meetings attracting hundreds if not thousands were being held across the land.

At one of those meetings, Martin Boehm, a plain-spoken Mennonite bishop and farmer was preaching. In the audience was the Rev. Philip William Otterbein, a stately, eloquent and highly educated preacher in the German Reformed Church. Otterbein was deeply moved by three words Boehm spoke, “Wir sind bruder,” or "We are brothers," referring to all Christians.

A close working relationship developed between the two men and out of that grew eventually the first Christian denomination born in North America --- the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, based on Boehm’s statement and attracting German-speaking people mostly of Lutheran, Reformed and Mennonite backgrounds.

Otterbein was a close friend of Francis Asbury, named by John Wesley in 1784 as co-superintendent with Thomas Coke of the new Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States of America. In part because of that, the United Brethren Church emerged strongly Wesleyan in theology, practice and polity --- almost a German Methodist Church.

The United Brethren developed a missionary system that rivaled that of the Methodists during the 19th century and congregations, called classes at first, spread across the East and flooded into the Midwest. Although the denomination continued to attract those with German roots, the German language ceased to be used and all were made to feel welcome.

By the 1860s, there was a United Brethren class at New York in Wayne County and it planted a new class in 1866 that came to be called Gartin after the school in which it met in what once was called the Wolf Creek neighborhood just south of Chariton. The organizing families included Redlingshafers, Rosas, Risbecks, Sellers, Johnsons, Schrecks and Carpenters.

After 23 years, in 1889, the Gartin Class had gain strength and John Redlingshafer, John Rosa and John Sellers were named trustees to canvass the membership to see if backing could be found to build a church building. That proved to be no problem, and later on in 1889 the first Otterbein church was built along what now is Highway 14.

There were disagreements about what the church should be called, however, since Gartin was no longer appropriate. Finally Otterbein, honoring one of the denomination’s founders, was selected as a compromise.

Otterbein Church flourished well into the middle of the 20th century and became the spiritual and social center of the Wolf Creek neighborhood. It’s neighbors were Mount Carmel, a United Evangelical congregation a couple of miles southeast; and Freedom Methodist, to the east. A good deal of neighboring went on among these congregations. It was said the Schrecks attended Mt. Carmel on Sunday mornings and Otterbein on Sunday evenings.

Otterbein became the mother church for what emerged as a larger United Brethren congregation in Chariton, located just north of the library. The people of Otterbein made many sacrifices to launch that new church. John Rosa, for example, mortgaged 40 acres so that he could make a significant cash contribution.

Things began to change after World War II, however. In 1946, the United Bretheren and the United Evangelical denominations merged to form the Evangelical United Brethren denomination. In that same year, the Otterbein congregation, then somewhat smaller, decided to demolish its lovely but somewhat drafty and deteriorating original building and recycle its materials and contents into a smaller, more efficient building --- this one.

As rural population continued to shift into towns, the size of the Otterbein congregation continued to decline and in 1968, the Evangelical United Brethren and Methodist Episcopal denominations, always similar in outlook, merged and that fairly well sealed the fate of both Otterbein and the Chariton church, although Chariton lingered for a time as a second United Methodist congregation in town.

In the 1970s, the board of the Lucas County Historical Society began searching for a church building to relocate to the museum grounds to represent the county’s religious heritage. Many existing buildings were too large, too decrepit or still in use. But Otterbein was available and just the right size.

So during 1976, with a good deal of cooperation from members of the congregation, the Lucas County Bicentennial Commission assumed responsibility for moving the structure onto the museum campus in Chariton and restoring it. Approximately $4,000 and countless volunteer hours were invested in the project, dedicated on July 4, 1976.

Some modifications were made so that it looked more like the original Otterbein building --- a bell turret was added, as was the fretwork in the peak of the fa├žade. In addition, a second front door was added, as had been the case at the first Otterbein. Although no one alive now remembers it, there was a time when women and children entered churches of several denominations by one door and men and boys by another and sat separately.

The pews and many other items from old Otterbein accompanied the building to town and remain in the building. As the years have passed, items from other churches and other donors have joined the collection --- stained glass from Chariton First Christian (Disciples of Christ) and Derby Methodist, pulpit, chairs and a variety of items from Last Chance Beulah, Salem, Bethel and other rural congregations.

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