Old Otterbein Church in Baltimore, Md.

Old Otterbein Church in Baltimore, Md.


On May 4, 1774, William Otterbein became pastor of the Howard’s Hill church in Baltimore, Md. He remained there for 39 years, until his death in 1813. All that time, he also provided leadership to the United Brethren movement he and Martin Boehm had launched in 1767.

Otterbein was coming into a messy situation, and he knew it. The German Reformed church in Baltimore had gone through a nasty split, with various accusations flying around. The church’s more evangelical element split off, bought property, and built their own church, which became known as Howard’s Hill.

In 1773, Otterbein was asked, at least twice, to come pastor the church. The first time, he said no. The second time, he said he would go IF the German Reformed synod approved; they didn’t.

Francis Asbury, a young Methodist leader who had been in America for three years, was asked to write a letter to Otterbein, asking him to come pastor Howard’s Hill. Asbury hadn’t yet met Otterbein, but had heard a lot about him. How much the letter helped, we don’t know. But three months later, Otterbein became the pastor (despite the synod’s continuing disapproval). And he and Asbury became close friends.

Howard’s Hill was essentially a independent church which maintained nominal ties to the German Reformed denomination (which had little or no authority). Otterbein himself kept his German Reformed credentials, but was not considered a minister in good standing. He had other things on his agenda. Most ministers were assigned from the United Brethren ranks.

In 1949, the church united with the Pennsylvania Conference of the Evangelical United Brethren Church. That denomination, in 1968, merged into today’s United Methodist Church.

Today, that church is called Old Otterbein Church. Their website says, “Old Otterbein Church is the mother church of the United Brethren in Christ and the oldest church edifice in continuous use in the city of Baltimore.” Otterbein is buried in the church yard.

Mary Mullen (upper left) and the five missionaries murdered at Rotufunk (l-r): Isaac and Mary Cain, Ella Schenk, Dr. Mary Archer, and Dr. Henrietta Hatfield.

Mary Mullen (upper left) and the five missionaries murdered at Rotufunk. Top: Isaac and Mary Cain. Bottom (l-r): Dr. Henrietta Hatfield, Dr. Mary Archer, and Ella Schenk.

May 3–two days, 94 years apart, both set amidst national upheaval in Sierra Leone. A day of tragedy for missionaries, and a day of rescue.

On May 3, 1898, five missionaries with the “liberal” United Brethren church were massacred in Sierra Leone. Two more were soon murdered elsewhere. Just like that, seven of the eight missionaries supported by the Women’s Missionary Association were dead. Killed in the Hut Tax War, which was sparked by grievances against the British government.

Although our denominations had split nine years earlier, the ties ran deep, and our goal was the same–to evangelize the people of Sierra Leone.

None of our own missionaries perished. Mary Mullen, who had arrived six months before, served by herself at Momaligi. She found herself at the hands of five young men brandishing blood-stained clubs and swords, which they had used to massacre people in another village. As she sat in her house awaiting her fate, a boat carrying five well-armed policemen pulled up to the wharf. She ran to the boat, and they quickly pushed off. Before long, Mullen was on a ship to England.

UB missionaries Daniel and Elizabeth Wilberforce, along with their four children, fled into the bush as a war party approached Gbangbaia. They hid for several days as warriors passed closely by. The mission buildings at both Momaligi and Gbangbaia were destroyed.

The five Americans at Rotufunk fled into the bush, but were caught. As the rebels surrounded them, Rev. Isaac Cain, standing next to his wife, reportedly held a revolver in his hand. He threw it aside and stated, “I will not have any man’s blood on my hands.”


Orville and Ruth Merillat

Orville and Ruth Merillat

On May 1, 1916, Orville Merillat was born on a farm in Tedrow, Ohio, the seventh of 15 children.

In 1946, after returning from ship-board service in the Pacific during World War II, Orville and his wife, Ruth, opened a small wood-working shop in their garage in Adrian, Mich. It eventually grew into Merillat Industries, the world’s largest maker of cabinets, with a dozen plants around the country. About his revolutionary innovations, Orville humbly deadpanned, “I’ve been blessed with some good ideas.”

Orville and Ruth, members of Trentons Hills UB church in Adrian, Mich., sold the company in 1985 and started the Merillat Foundation. With their personal involvement in the company decreasing, they focused on giving money away. Their philanthropic generosity included Focus on the Family, World Vision, Youth for Christ, and many other colleges and ministries.

Within the United Brethren church, there were many beneficiaries — local churches, camps, missions work, church planting, and the national office and its ministries. But no entity benefited more than Huntington College.

Their first gift to Huntington College, in 1968, was cabinets for a house the college owned. In 1972 they led the campaign for a new athletic complex. During the 1980s and 1990s, nearly every new building and campus improvement received funding from the Merillat Foundation. Several major buildings bear their name — the Merillat Centre for the Arts, the Merillat Physical Education Complex, and the RichLyn library (named after their two children, Richard and Lynette).

Orville’s office at the Christian Family Centre in Adrian was adorned with items bearing the Huntington College name and logo. He and Ruth wanted Huntington College to prosper — not only because it was their denomination’s college, but because they believed in its mission.

Having completed just six months of high school, yet becoming a multi-millionaire, Orville could easily have said, “Who needs college? You can succeed without a college degree. I did.” But you heard nothing of the sort from him. Rather, he said, “I have seen the value of higher education in people who have worked for us.” Some of them were Huntington College products.

Ruth added, “We want to help our country, and we can only do it through young people. Our vision is Christian young people.”

Orville nodded in agreement. “They are the future.”

In 1987, Orville Merillat gave the Commencement address at Huntington College. He concluded with this:

You will find that people are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered. But let God love them through you anyway.
If you do good, people will accuse you of ulterior motives. Do your best anyway.
If you are successful, you may win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway.
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.
The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway. It’ll let you sleep at night.
The leaders of the biggest dreams can be shot down by those with the smallest minds. Think big anyway.
What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway.
Give the world the best you’ve got, and you may get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you’ve got, anyway.
In short, dare to be different from a lot of people you’ll run into.
If you do something worthy of remembrance, it’ll be remembered.

Orville Merillat passed away January 15, 1999.

From upper left: Jeff Pelley in 2006; the Pelley family; the Olive Branch parsonage.

From upper left: Jeff Pelley in 2006; the Pelley family (the four victims are in front); the Olive Branch parsonage.

On April 30, 1989, Pastor Robert Pelley didn’t show up for church at Olive Branch UB in Lakeville, Ind. (just south of South Bend). Eventually, two men went next door to the parsonage. They knocked several times, but got no response. The blinds were tightly drawn.

The found a spare key, entered the house…and discovered a grisly scene. Robert Pelley (38), lay dead in the upstairs hallway, killed with two deer slugs. In the basement were wife Dawn (32) and her two youngest daughters from a previous marriage, Janel (8) and Jolene (6). All had been shot in the head. Three children were not at home: Robert’s son Jeff and his sister Jacqueline, from a previous marriage, and Dawn’s daughter Jessica, 9. (Both Robert and Dawn were widows.)

Jeff Pelley, a 17-year-old high school senior, was always the leading suspect, but wasn’t arrested or charged. There just wasn’t sufficient evidence. He moved to Florida, developed a good career, married, had a child, and was teaching Sunday school.

Thirteen years passed. Then a Cold Case squad reopened the investigation. Jeff Pelley was arrested in August 2002 and charged with the four murders. In July 2006, he went on trial.

The evidence was very circumstantial. No murder weapon was ever found (Bob’s 20 gauge Mossberg was never located). No fingerprints linked Pelley to the crime itself. Rather, the prosecution relied on a carefully constructed timeline which put Jeff Pelley at the parsonage during a particular 20-minute period, during which he did a whole bunch of things (commit the murders, change clothes, load the washing machine, take a shower, locate and pick up the shell casings, draw the blinds, lock the doors, get rid of the gun and casings, and more).

Investigators said he was angry at his father for grounding him from attending pre- and post-prom activities, and from driving his car. After the killings, they said, he cleaned up, went to the prom with his girlfriend, stayed overnight with friends, and the next day went with friends to the Great America theme park in Chicago, where he was located on Sunday.

During the trial, Jeff Pelley’s attorneys insisted there wasn’t enough time for him to kill his family, do everything they claimed he did, and still make it to the prom, and that after committing an act like that, nobody would act normal, which is how friends testified that he acted during the prom events.

After a six-day trial which included nearly 40 witnesses, jurors deliberated for 34 hours and returned a guilty verdict. Pelley, now 34 years old, was sentenced to 160 years in prison (four consecutive 40-year sentences). A Court of Appeals reversed the conviction in 2008, but in 2009 the Indiana Supreme Court upheld the conviction. He is now incarcerated at the Wabash Correctional Facility near Terra Haute, Ind.

A book about the case, The Prom Night Murders, was published in 2009. A lengthy article appears here.

Oliver and Mahala Hadley, missionaries to Sierra Leone, 1866-1869

Oliver and Mahala Hadley, missionaries to Sierra Leone, 1866-1869

No missionaries suffered more than Rev. Oliver and Mahala Hadley. That was the opinion of Amanda Billheimer, one of the first United Brethren missionaries to Sierra Leone, as she reviewed the first 50 years of UB mission work. She wrote, “I believe no truer servants of God ever went out to do His bidding in any non-Christian land.”

The Hadleys served in Sierra Leone 1866-1869. They were the first to leave a child at home—14-month-old Mary Elizabeth, left in the care of her grandmother in Indiana. They were the first to lose a child in Africa. And Mrs. Hadley was the first to lose a spouse as a result of serving Christ in Sierra Leone.

Oliver and Mahala, the daughter of a UB minister, were married in 1864. Two years later, they sailed for Sierra Leone, arriving on December 13, 1866, after a 51-day voyage.

Oliver fought sickness throughout their term, and Mahala watched her husband’s health deteriorate during those two years. Nevertheless, Oliver threw himself into the work. He kept a journal. His first entry of 1867, written on January 3, said, “Oh, when shall I see some of these men converted? I cannot rest until I hear some of them glorify God for the salvation of their souls. The Gospel is the power of God, and I look for a manifestation of that power here.”

A baby girl was born in April 1867. They named her Ida. Six weeks later, during the night, they watched helplessly as she died. Mahala later wrote, “We were alone and far from all Christian friends. There was no minister on whom we could call, and no one to offer a word of comfort. Our tears fell thick and fast. I prayed while my husband tried to conduct the funeral service himself. God seemed near to us in our sadness, and with our own hands, we laid our baby in a grave under the trees in the mission compound.”

At the end of December 1868, Oliver became very sick. He wrote of a violent cough, nausea, diarrhea, lack of appetite, and serious back pain. Yet, he kept a positive attitude. He wrote on December 29, “I have set my face to seek to be profited by everything that befalls me. I have been profited. I have a sweet peace.”

He added, “I am often so distressed at the thought that I can do so little, if anything, toward the salvation of these people.”

Another child, a son, was born January 17, 1869, after what Oliver described as a remarkably easy childbirth. At that point, they were preparing to leave Africa. Their ship departed Freetown on March 1, bound for Boston. The captain’s cabin was the only heated room on the ship. Seeing the Hadleys’ physical plight, the captain gave them his cabin for the journey. The Hadleys reached America on April 15 and continued on to their home near Lafayette, Ind.

On April 28, Oliver died. He was 31 years old. Ten days later, their infant son died.

Eighteen months later, in December 1871, Mahala Hadley returned to Sierra Leone and served another three years. They were good years; the mission was finally experiencing the success for which her husband had yearned. George Fleming, a former mission director, wrote, “She was favored by the mercies of her Heavenly Father to taste the sweetness of victory after experiencing round after round of disappointment and tears.”

Oliver Hadley was our Jim Elliott, the missionary slain by Auca Indians in Peru in 1956. There are many similarities. Both were young, had an infant daughter, and carried a passion for unreached tribal people. Both died while just getting started, never seeing the fruit of his efforts. Both had a wife—Mahala Hadley and Elizabeth Elliott—who returned to the field for a few years and experienced the joy of seeing her late husband’s hopes and prayers fulfilled. And both left behind an incredible journal.

For William Otterbein, one of the United Brethren founders, six years of marriage came to an end on April 27, 1768. He was a widower at age 42, and remained single the rest of his life.

Susan LeRoy was a Huguenot, descended from French Calvinists who came to America after France outlawed Protestantism in 1685. Susan’s family arrived in Pennsylvania in 1754 and settled around Tulpehocken; the next year, an uncle was tomahawked and burned in an Indian raid. But they built homes, farmed the land, and did well.

William Otterbein was the pastor at Tulpehocken 1758-1760, so that’s undoubtedly how he and Susan met. After two years, he moved on to pastor a church in Frederick, Md. But he apparently couldn’t get Susan out of his mind. They were married on April 17, 1762. He was 36, she 26. (Different sources disagree, by a few days, on the exact date of both the marriage and Susan’s death.)

Susan joined William in Frederick, and in 1765 they took a church in York, Pa., where he spent a full nine years. It was during the second year that he traveled 25 miles east to Lancaster to attend a Great Meeting, where he met Martin Boehm and an embrace launched the United Brethren movement.

We can imagine Otterbein returning to York and excitedly telling Susan all about what had happened at Long’s Barn. Or, perhaps Susan was there to hear her husband proclaim, “We are brethren!” Maybe they used the trip to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary. We don’t know.

What we do know is that Susan soon became afflicted with a lengthy illness. Less than a year later, she was gone.

The year of Otterbein’s marriage, a curious letter was sent to Dutch Reformed officials in Holland saying, “Brother Otterbein has entered the state of matrimony in deference to public opinion, which in America requires a minister should be a married man.” But history writers recount the great sorrow which Otterbein suffered upon the death of Susan.

Two days before he died in 1813, Otterbein asked someone to bring him a small pocketbook that Susan had made soon after their marriage 51 years before. Paul Millhouse wrote, “Those who were with him said that he kissed it with all the fondness of a youthful lover, and tears came to his eyes.”

barnaby300In 1889, the year of the division in our denomination, we elected four bishops. Three of them–Milton Wright, Halleck Floyd, and Horace Barnaby–served together for the next 16 years. All three left office in 1905. And all three died in 1917.

Horace Barnaby was born April 26, 1823, in New York. There is nothing particularly noteworthy about his service to the United Brethren church, but he was a solid guy who served faithfully and was respected by other ministers.

Barnaby lived an interesting life, and suffered a lot of hardships. Nothing was handed to him.

A year after Barnaby was born, his father went on a business trip and was never heard from again. His mother remarried several years later, after which he lived with an aunt for a while, and then, from age ten, with his grandparents. Once a year, he would walk 18 miles to visit his mother.

Barnaby grew up knowing hard work. He was teaching school at age 17, and two years later, he bought from his uncle some frontier land near Hillsdale, Mich. He walked from New York to Michigan, hunted for food, and cleared the land for a home (during his lifetime, he would clear land for three different farms). He continued teaching school, and married one of his students, Lydia.

In 1850, at age 27, Barnaby joined the California Gold Rush. He sold the farm, found a place for his family to stay, and headed west with a friend. It took them four months to reach California; they braved Indians and scorching heat. But they did well. A year later, they returned to Michigan with $4000 saved up. But while sleeping aboard a steamship, all of their belongings were stolen. It was a wasted trip. Back to farming.

Barnaby was converted in 1852, and became a circuit-riding preacher in the Methodist Protestant church. In 1858, he switched to the United Brethren church, and was ordained in 1863.

Lydia died in 1855, soon after an infant son died. He married Jane in 1856, but she died six years later. He then married Jane’s sister, Susan…who died a year later in childbirth, followed soon thereafter by the infant.

With the Civil War at its height, Barnaby found homes for his two daughters, now ages 15 and 18, and tried to enlist. He was rejected three times, and never understood why, except maybe that he had a frail appearance. He went back to pastoring in Michigan Conference. In 1864, he married Sophia. This one lasted. They celebrated their 50th anniversary in 1914.

Barnaby was one of the men who guided and rebuilt the United Brethren Church after the split. We don’t know much about his contributions, but since he was a bishop, we can assume he played a vital role and made a lot of decisions. He and Bishop Halleck Floyd left office in 1905 following an unfortunate controversy over the publishing house; they crossed swords with Milton Wright and lost.

Horace Jr. wrote that during the winter when his father was 83, he would go into the woods each morning with his axe, because “he felt better satisfied each day to be of some use in the world.” That winter he chopped thirty cords of wood, and when spring came, he dug and tiled 220 yards of ditch.

Barnaby died on March 1, 1917, at age 94. He left behind some impressive kids. Alvin became an ordained UB minister and taught for a while at Huntington College (then called Central College). Horace became an attorney in Grand Rapids, and served in the state legislature for several terms. Milton attended Huntington College for three years, and worked in the Michigan state auditor’s office. James managed the Barnaby farm. Daughter Addie graduated from Huntington College and taught school in Grand Rapids.

The Sambo Creek church in Honduras.

The Sambo Creek church in Honduras.

We became involved in Honduras in 1945. For the first eight years, the work focused around several English-speaking churches comprised mostly of persons who had immigrated from Caribbean islands. Those churches separated from us in 1953 (it was very contentious), and we pretty much started over.

This time, we focused on the largely unreached Spanish-speaking population. Leading the way was missionary Archie Cameron, who had come to Honduras in 1952. He was joined by fellow missionaries Don and Leora Ackerman and Betty Brown.

Archie and a growing team of zealous young Christians took the Gospel from village to village. There were many new Christians. By June 1953, three Spanish congregations had been established, and another three were on the way. Some very capable Hondurans began leading alongside the missionaries–Eudaldo Mejia, Rufina Cruz, Manuel Flores, Andres Castillo, and others.

By 1956, the Spanish outreach had touched many places–Jutiapa, Sambo Creek, Nueva Armenia, San Francisco, Santa Ana, five parts of La Ceiba, and various mountain villages. There had been over 300 conversions. There were three ordained ministers, and several future pastors were enrolled in Bible school or seminary.

Seven churches and preaching points had been established, and in many other places, it was just a matter of time. Seven churches was enough to organize a conference. Which is what Bishop Ezra Funk did on April 23, 1956.

Baker Hall

Baker Hall

Many changes in denominational leadership occurred in 1981. Among them was the inauguration of Dr. Eugene Habecker as president of Huntington College. He had been hired in 1979 as executive vice president–sort of a president-in-waiting. Upon the retirement of DeWitt Baker in 1981, after 16 years as the president, Habecker would take his place.

As executive vice president, Habecker spent eight months developing a long-range, 17-year plan for the college. This “Quest for Quality” program, which would lead up to the college’s centennial in 1997, called for advances in curriculum, plus the addition of various buildings, including a new residence hall. That part happened even before Baker left office.

On April 22, 1981, ground was broken for what became Baker Hall, named in honor of DeWitt Baker. It was built behind the original Wright Hall, which was later torn down and replaced with Roush Hall.

Baker Hall was the first residence hall built around suites; there were 3-4 suites per floor with a shared lounge, plus kitchen and laundry facilities. Today, female students occupy the first floor and male students occupy the second and third floors.

Lt. DeWitt Baker

Lt. DeWitt Baker

DeWitt Baker graduated from Huntington College in 1940, taught school in Michigan for two years, and then volunteered for duty in the Naval Reserves Air Force, where he learned to fly. While on furlough in 1942, he married a UB preacher’s daughter, Evelyn Middaugh, whom he had met at Huntington College. The Navy then sent him to Brazil to help guard the naval shipping lanes to Africa. He spent most of the war flying patrols over the Atlantic searching for German submarines, with some stints as a test pilot.

In 1944, Evelyn read in the denominational magazine about five United Brethren missionaries who were on their way to Sierra Leone, and would be stopping in Natal, Brazil. (See the April 9 post.) She clipped the article and sent it to her husband, who received the letter just as he arrived in Natal on temporary assignment. Natal was located on the eastern point of Brazil, the closest point to Africa.

Three young women arrived on April 20–Bernadine Hoffman, Oneta Sewell, and Erma Funk. DeWitt and Bernadine had been classmates at Huntington College, and he also knew Erma Funk. Several days later, Lloyd and Eula Eby joined them.

The missionaries were stuck in Natal for six weeks. Lt. Baker was able to spend three weeks with them before being transferred. In the company of a naval officer, the missionaries could eat at the naval base and attend English church services there. One day, he took them up a river for a picnic, with American hotdogs. Another time, 19 missionaries gathered at the hotel for an indoor picnic supplied by the mess sergeant at the base.

Altogether, up to 40 Africa-bound missionaries, representing many denominations, were stranded in Natal. They met at the hotel each morning, 8-10 am, for devotions. DeWitt Baker met with them every other morning; the alternate days found him flying patrols over the Atlantic. One time they had special prayer for one of Baker’s fellow pilots who, while far out in the ocean, had an engine die. There was much rejoicing when he made it back.

Planes were constantly making the flight across the Atlantic, but military people had priority. Finally, on June 4, Pan Am had a plane for them. A few seats would be filled by the wives of Firestone workers. All the rest would go to missionaries. On June 5, after a 14-hour flight, their seaplane landed in Liberia. From there, the five United Brethren missionaries made their way by boat to Sierra Leone. They reached Sierra Leone on June 9, exactly two months after leaving Indiana.

Lloyd Eby was impressed with young Lieutenant Baker, and sent him a letter later that summer. After leaving the military, would he be interested in going to Sierra Leone to start a secondary school? DeWitt’s reply was that God hadn’t called him to become a missionary, and besides, he wasn’t a United Brethren member. But Eby followed up in 1948 after returning to the States. In August 1949, DeWitt and Evelyn Baker began their own journey to Sierra Leone, where they would spend the next 16 years, followed by 16 years in the Huntington College presidency.