Until October 2, 1813, the only ordained United Brethren minister was Bishop William Otterbein, who had been ordained in 1749 as a German Reformed minister in Germany. The early UB ministers were classified as “full ministers,” “preachers,” and “exhorters.” Christian Newcomer had been elected in May 1813 as a bishop, taking the place of Martin Boehm, who had passed away the year before. However, Newcomer was not ordained; he was merely a “full minister.”
At the time, we had two conferences–the Original or Eastern conference in Pennsylvania and neighboring states, and Miami Conference in western Ohio. In August 1813, Miami Conference sent a letter to Bishop Otterbein asking him to ordain one or more ministers, who could then ordain others. The letter reached Otterbein in late September. At that point, Otterbein was near death–and, in fact, would pass away six weeks later.
At the same time, “full minister” Joseph Hoffman was concerned when he heard about Otterbein’s ill health. He traveled 90 miles to Christian Newcomer’s home, and asked him if it would be appropriate to request that Otterbein ordain them. Newcomer wasn’t concerned about getting ordained, but he saw merit in the idea. The two men traveled together to Baltimore to see Otterbein.
Otterbein told them about the letter he had recently received from Miami Conference. He told them he had always considered himself unworthy to conduct ordinations, but now saw the necessity for doing so “before I shall be removed.”
The next day, various leaders from the Baltimore congregation gathered in Otterbein’s home for the ordination service. Newcomer and Hoffman were joined by Frederick Shaffer, who had become a Christian years before during Otterbein’s ministry in Lancaster, Pa., and was now apparently serving at Otterbein’s church.
The infirm Otterbein was helped into a chair, from which he addressed the three men (cautioning them to not be too quick to ordain others). He prayed, and then was helped to his feet so he could lay his hands on the three men and ordain them to the ministry. Otterbein was assisted by William Ryland, an esteemed Methodist minister who, in 1820, became chaplain of the US Senate.
Frederick Shaffer died in 1814; he briefly filled the pulpit after Otterbein’s death.
Joseph Hoffman succeeded Otterbein as pastor of what is now called “Old Otterbein Church” in Baltimore. In 1817, he gave up city life to minister in pioneer settlements in western Ohio, starting churches in numerous places and playing an important role in the UB church’s westward expansion.
Christian Newcomer served as a bishop until his death in 1830. In 1815, Newcomer ordained a minister named Christian Crum, and then assisted Crum in ordaining seven other ministers. One of those seven, Andrew Zeller, was elected bishop in 1817 and served alongside Newcomer for four years. Zeller, in poor health, was succeeded in 1821 by Joseph Hoffman, who served until 1825.
Nearly all ordained United Brethren ministers are part of a chain which started with Otterbein and continued through Newcomer and Hoffman, and from them spread to include thousands of other ministers through the years.