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A Bishop Who Organized His United Brethren 1749-1830
By John G. McEllenney

At the close of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, a growing number of German-speaking people experienced brotherhood in Christ through the preaching of Bishops William Otterbein and Martin Boehm. But these United Brethren in Christ lacked a well-defined organization. This they gained through Bishop Newcomer who took the lead in calling their first general conference in 1815.

Much earlier in his life, Newcomer had felt weighed down by the burden of sin until he experienced the liberating leverage of God’s forgiveness. Then, within the heartwarming fellowship of the United Brethren, he helped others shift their spiritual burdens onto the strong shoulders of Christ. In the process of doing so, he became convinced that the weakness of his church, which had been organized in 1800, was lack of discipline in doctrine and administration..

Unlike their Methodist cousins, who always knew how many Methodists there were, the United Brethren did not believe in counting their members. And when, during merger talks with the Evangelicals, the United Brethren were urged to be precise about standards for their clergy, they declined. All of which troubled Newcomer.

He was a farmer, as well as preacher, who carefully timed his preaching missions from his Maryland home into Pennsylvania, Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio in order to be back in .his fields for the harvest. As a tiller of the soil, he kept records and made plans, along with trusting God. More, Newcomer had been trained as a carpenter. So he knew that doing things well requires training and practice, not just inspiration.

Even more, he acknowledged that having good religious intentions, while lacking a disciplined way to put them into effect, leads to nothing. Several times in his early life, Newcomer felt he was dying. He asked God for healing, promising if he received it to become a preacher. But lacking someone to discipline his pious pledges, he reneged until the third occasion when, recovering from a fever, he became, probably in 1777, one of the preachers working with Otterbein and Boehm.

Newcomer, from that time on until his death in 1830, added a host of responsibilities to his previous ones of caring for his wife, Elizabeth, whom he married in 1772, their four children (three sons, one daughter), and his farm. He traveled an estimated 150,000 miles on horseback between ages 46 and 81, preaching, evangelizing, and organizing. Elected bishop in 1813, he formed annual and general conferences, discussed merger with other denominations, and wrote disciplinary and doctrinal statements.

One of his church’s annual conferences, over which Newcomer presided, resolved in 1813 “that the Confession of Faith and Evangelical Discipline of the United Brethren in Christ shall be printed.” Newcomer, along with Christopher Grosh, did the writing. Two years later, in 1815, Newcomer, principal organizer of the first General Conference of the United Brethren in Christ and the presiding officer, found himself under attack for daring to use his human words to express articles of belief and rules of church order. Was not, his brethren demanded, the Bible all-sufficient? In the end, however, the General Conference agreed to approve a Confession of Faith and guidelines for organizing conferences, electing bishops, ordaining clergy, dealing with “the immoral conduct of preachers,” and receiving men and women into church membership.

Bishop Newcomer understood that churches, if they are to endure, must clearly identify the biblical beliefs they think are central and crucial to Christian living. The Bible contains too much, sometimes contradictory, material to justify saying, “The Bible guides us,” and let it go at that. A denomination needs a statement of doctrine.

Newcomer also recognized that frail, sinning human beings create churches. Therefore there must be rules to discipline the unruly and restrain the ambitious. Guidelines, too, for membership, because spiritual climbers need to be told more than, “There’s your mountain: believe that you can climb it.” They need to be shown the ropes and the footholds for scaling it.

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