On May 13, 1889–Day Four of General Conference–Bishop Milton Wright (right) and 14 other delegates walked out. They’d had enough. Time to start a new denomination.
General Conference was being held in York, Pa., and everyone figured there would be fireworks. For years, the “Liberals” and “Radicals” (us) had been fighting over the future of the church, and the Liberals had the votes. They were using the 1889 General Conference to make some huge changes:
- Adopt a new Confession of Faith.
- Allow laypersons to be delegates to General Conference (until then, ministers were running the show).
- Soften the stand against Freemasonry.
- Adopt a new Constitution.
The Constitution couldn’t be changed unless two-thirds of all United Brethren members–not just those voting–approved the change. That made it practically impossible to change the Constitution. And the Constitution said–no changing the Confession of Faith, no lay delegates, and no connection with secret societies (read: Freemasonry).
The Liberals, since they had the votes, basically decided to just ignore the Constitution. They made the changes they wanted to make, and the conference ended with a new Constitution and new Confession of Faith.
But before these votes were taken, Bishop Milton Wright and his supporters left in protest. We don’t know if they stormed out, or just quietly existed. Whatever the case, their departure was noticed and mourned, but it made no difference.
Wright & Co. gathered at the Park Opera House in York, where they reconvened as the “true” United Brethren in Christ Church. They argued that the Liberals had withdrawn and formed a brand new denomination with a new Constitution and bylaws. The Liberals had 250,000 members and the Radicals had about 15,000 members, so it’s a stretch to say THEY withdrew from us. But that was Milton Wright’s story, and he stuck to it.
There in the Park Opera House, the delegates re-elected Wright as bishop and elected three rookie bishops.
The whole thing was messy and sad. But today’s United Brethren church–which this year is celebrating its 250th anniversary–is descended from that small group of protesters. Otherwise, like the descendents of those other 250,000, we’d all be United Methodists.