Historian A. W. Drury wrote of the early United Brethren leaders, “They had not started out to reform the world, but to help to save it.” But by the time General Conference ended on May 17, 1821, we had waded deep into the waters of social action.
The delegates took strong stands against two evils in society: slavery, and alcohol. In both cases, they were ahead of their time.
Regarding slavery, there were people who would use the Bible to claim slavery was a divine institution. On the other side were abolitionists, who viewed slavery as evil and wanted to see it vanquished. The United Brethren church was firmly abolitionist, and never waivered from that.
The 1821 General Conference passed a lengthy resolution which began, “Resolved, That no slavery, in whatever form it may exist, and in no sense of the word, shall be permitted or tolerated in our Church.”
The resolution said any UB members who held slaves couldn’t continue as members, and laid out some conditions for freeing the slaves. In the years ahead, additional statements made out stand increasingly tough. We took a stand and pursued it relentlessly.
UB historian John Lawrence wrote, “On no subject have the United Brethren in Christ preserved a cleaner record than on the subject of slavery.” He said other church groups had moderated their anti-slavery stands during the first couple decades of the 1800s, probably because they had churches in both the North and South. But, he said, “The United Brethren in Christ have firmly, and almost alone, maintained theirs.”
A statement against slavery remained in our Discipline until 1945, when we replaced it with a statement on “Human Relations.” Our Constitution still has a statement against any kind of “involuntary servitude.”
Regarding alcohol: the 1821 General Conference prohibited UB members from operating a distillery, and instructed preachers to “labor against the evils of intemperance.” To that point, wrote John Lawrence, only one other ecclesiastical group had taken action against alcohol—a Unitarian group, in 1811, which had little influence beyond New England.
In 1826, five years after we took a stand, the American Temperance Society formed and other evangelical denominations entered the fray. We, wrote Lawrence with mixed metaphors, “were among the pioneers in the temperance movement, and have always fought in the advanced columns.”
The 1841 General Conference adopted a statement requiring that all UB members—both ministers and laypersons—totally abstain from drinking alcohol. That remained the Law of UB Land until 2005, when we said laypersons could drink alcohol.