It may come as a surprise to the uninitiated in United Methodist history that the word United was not originally, formally associated with “the people called Methodists.” When and why did United come into the denomination’s name, and does it matter? At a time when The United Methodist Church (UMC) may seem more untied than united, not only the word but also its meaning matters enormously. In fact, the heritage behind the formal name holds the potential to help members and leaders alike not only to reaffirm the full meaning of United, but also to navigate the treacherous waters of division in which this once thriving denomination is currently floundering.
The United in the name United Methodist holds at least three levels of meaning, each one essential. First and most obvious, it represents the Evangelical United Brethren (EUB) side of the merger with the Methodists in 1968 that formed the UMC. Although one frequently hears a United Methodist refer to himself or herself simply as a “Methodist” or the denomination as the “Methodist Church,” it should be known that there is nothing more offensive to former EUBs, who came to the merger with the Methodists in good faith, than to have their side of the United Methodist heritage skipped over as nonessential, omitted as unimportant, and thus silenced, even if casually. This is because the word United in the name United Methodist is as important as the word Methodist. Each word represents one of the two denominations that formally merged into one United Methodist Church more than five decades ago. Each is loaded with meaning that comes from its distinctive heritage.
The second layer of meaning in the United part of the name United Methodist is also, quite simply, historical. It represented the United Brethren side of the formal merger between the Evangelical Association and the Church of the United Brethren in Christ in 1946 that formed the Evangelical United Brethren (EUB) Church. Incidentally, I have never read or heard of a former EUB dropping the United from his or her denominational name as a matter of ignorance or convenience and simply referring to himself or herself as an Evangelical, Brethren, or Evangelical Brethren. Rather, each part of the name and even the acronym with all its letters is as a matter of course stated with proper respect and dignity. I suspect the reason for this has something to do with the third layer of meaning in the United that eventually, in 1968, wedded itself with Methodist. Quite simply, the EUBs would never drop or discount the word united because they were steeped in its deep, theologically rich, German meaning.
The third and original meaning of the word United was also expressed in historical succession: The Church of the United Brethren in Christ, The Evangelical United Brethren and at last, The United Methodist Church. The third use (although chronologically first) of the word may be the most important and instructive of all, more than two centuries after it was employed to describe what became the first indigenous American denomination, the Church of the United Brethren in Christ. It represented the coming together of a variety of groups of Christian believers, differing “parties” or “sects” if you will, each with its own origin, distinctives, and leaders, as one unsectarian or unpartisan (unparteiischen in German) body working together wholeheartedly to serve God’s purposes.
At the founding conference of the United Brethren in 1800, the following resolution was adopted:
Resolved, that annually a day shall be appointed on which the Unsectarian (unparteiischen) preachers shall assemble together and counsel how they can become more useful in their office so that the church of God may be built up, sinners converted to God, and God glorified. (A. W. Drury, History of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, 1924)
This formal action was anticipated by the encounter of the formally ordained, German Reformed pastor, Philip William Otterbein, when he greeted the Mennonite farmer-lay preacher, Martin Boehm with the famous words, “Wir sind Bruder!” (We are brothers!) at a revival meeting in a barn in Pennsylvania on Pentecost Sunday in 1767. Thereafter these two covenanted to minister together, despite different backgrounds and ecclesial traditions, to further the work of ministry among the German-speaking inhabitants of the region.
The coming together of the folks that founded the United Brethren was not a matter of a bunch of homogenous, uneducated, simple-minded settlers desperate for social encounter or not knowing any better. Rather, this association (Gesellschaft) represented the leadership of a well-educated, ordained clergyman and a variety of German immigrant settlers enacting a vision of a new humanity reconciled by Jesus Christ into a new, unparteiische relationship through the power of the Holy Spirit. Many among them remembered well the discord and discrimination within church groups in Europe, and they resolved not to repeat these worldly behaviors in America. One could easily argue that this Pietist quality was also a major factor in bringing the German American denominations into the mergers of both 1946 and 1968.
Today as much as ever, to the extent the word United has connotations of coming together across party or sectarian lines to proclaim and put into practice a vision of a Holy Spirit-led, reconciled community of faith in Christ, it is one worthy not only to affirm, but also to go out of our way to implement, God helping us.