The Administration Building, now Becker Hall, as it looked in 1897.

On September 22, 1897, Central College dedicated the Administration Building. Classes began the next day. That building is now called Becker Hall, and the school is now Huntington University.

After the denomination divided in 1889, our group emerged with just two of the denomination’s many colleges: Philomath College in Oregon, and Hartsville College south of Indianapolis, Ind. Both were struggling, and the UB bishops wanted a college which was directly under denominational control.

In 1896, a group called the Huntington Land Association–a group of developers in Huntington, Ind., one of whom was a United Brethren minister–approached the denomination with a good deal. They wanted to develop an area north of Huntington, just outside of the city limits.

There would be 262 lots in what was called the College Park Addition. They would sell sell for an average of $225. Here’s the deal: if the church would sell 102 of the lots, the Huntington Land Association would donate land for a college and spend at least $35,000 to erect a building (the future Administration Building). We would basically be getting a new college for free.

A contract was signed on March 11, 1896. By the end of March, the Huntington Land Association had sold all 160 of its lots; it took the church a year to sell its 102 lots. People who bought lots were encouraged to build by the summer of 1897, so that when classes started in September, there would be housing for faculty, staff, and students. Since there would be no dormitories, at least not right away, students would live in private homes.

Construction on the Administration Building started in the spring of 1896, and was completed in June 1897.

On June 15, 1896, the Hartsville board of trustees voted to suspend operations for a year, and got on board with Central College. Hartsville College closed in July 1897, as their trustees got on board with Central College and turned over all of Hartsville’s books, records, student grades, etc. They suggested that Central employ Hartsville’s professors and let Hartsville seniors complete their degrees at Central College. (Fire destroyed the Hartsville building on January 30, 1898, so there was no going back.)

The Administration Building was dedicated on September 22, 1897, a Wednesday. The entire third floor consisted of Davis Hall, named in memory of former bishop Lewis Davis. About 1200 people jammed into the yet-seat-less auditorium for the service, thereby affirming the building’s structural integrity. More people crowded the lower floors as well. Bishop Milton Wright gave the dedication prayer. They took an offering, which provided $1000 to buy seating for the auditorium. Seize the day.

Classes started the next morning. About half of the 85 students that first year came from the Huntington area; a few were former Hartsville students. Interestingly, about half of the students were enrolled in music courses. Enrollment crept up to 102 by the fall of 1900. The way it worked out, we began the century going past the century mark, and began the next millennium going past the 1000 mark. Symmetry. During the first 20 years, enrollment averaged 100, swinging from a low of 72 to a high of 143.

There were seven faculty, two of them from Hartsville; the school averaged ten staff for the first 20 years. For the first five years, the college president was Dr. Charles Kiracofe, an ordained UB minister and 1871 graduate of Otterbein University. Beginning in 1879, at age 34, he served ten years as president of Hartsville College. In 1888, he ran for governor on the Prohibition ticket, and lost. Kiracofe left the Central College presidency in 1902, spent the next three years editing e Christian Conservator newspaper, and then became a Presbyterian pastor.

Nobody graduated the first year, but there were three graduates in 1899. That means the first annual commencement actually occurred after the school’s second year. Extrapolating, the 100th anniversary saw only the 99th Commencement. Somewhere along the way, the college snuck in an extra year to sync past and present. The 2017 Commencement was heralded as the 119th annual commencement, which implies there was a graduation in 1898 at the end of the first school year. Alas, this is just picking a harmless historical nit.

Daily chapel services were held in the chapel which occupied the west end of the first floor (where, for many of us, the business offices were located). Davis Hall was initially used only for large gatherings, like commencement and plays. College Park Church, which started two months after the college opened, held services in Davis Hall. Don’t even ask if it was handicap accessible.

With the introduction of men’s basketball in 1909, Davis Hall was partitioned to include a gym. But concerns about the constant pounding got the gym condemned. Eventually, that area became two classrooms, and an abbreviated Davis Hall hosted plays and other events.

Initially, the Administration Building lacked indoor restrooms (there were outdoor facilities by the ravine). A steam-heat system was installed in 1903, following strong complaints from students and parents about the cold. More improvements were made through the years…and continue to be made. Now there’s an elevator.

Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin

On September 19, 1963, Bishop Clyde W. Meadows (right) made the first of what would become six trips into East Berlin. He went in his role as president of the World’s Christian Endeavor Union. He was accompanied by Arno Pagel, a Christian Endeavor leader from Frankfurt, and a young seminary student from Hamburg.

About 500 Christian Endeavor societies functioned in East Germany. Because of the communist hostility toward Christianity and toward Americans, the trip was shrouded in secrecy and need-to-know precautions.

Around one corner, a car was waiting. The three visitors squeezed into the small car, along with a man and his daughter and a husky young man who shadowed Meadows for the rest of the day. The car drove about 20 miles outside of East Berlin to a group of buildings, which turned out to be an institution for mentally handicapped children. They were ushered into one building, where about 30 Christian Endeavor people, ages 25-35, were waiting. Some had traveled up to 300 miles to hear Meadows speak.

They asked him to preach. Meadows said, “I want to speak from Philippians 2:5-¬11, to urge you to take courage and assure you that your oppressors will someday have to bow the knee to Jesus Christ.” Nobody in the room had a Bible, but hands shot up throughout the crowd.

Hands shot up all over the room. Arno pointed to one fel¬low, who stood and recited the entire second chapter of Philippians. Meadows then preached a message which, with interpreting, lasted 30 minutes. They then asked questions about the message. Before long, two hours had passed. Then he was asked to preach another message…and then a third message, with discussion in between each one. They shared a simple meal, and didn’t leave until 7:30 that night.

Back in East Berlin, the car stopped in front of a darkened building, and they went inside. The husky young man took his arm as they walked through a dark entryway and down a pitch-black corridor, up some steps, down another corridor, and into a room where 40 young people waited to see the president of the World’s Christian Endeavor Union.

He preached to them. Then they moved on to another dark building, where he found himself preaching to a group of people in a basement. By then it was 11 p.m.

“Dr. Meadows, can you stand one more?” he was asked.

He responded, “I’m so excited, you could cut off my arm and I wouldn’t notice. Let’s go!”

This turned out to be the largest gathering of all. Nearly 100 people, some of whom he remembered from the first meeting. Meadows was told that they wanted to sing for him. He considered that strange, since it was supposed to be a secret meeting, but figured they knew what they were doing.

The director stood up in front, got everyone’s attention, and then raised his arms and brought the people up just like a choir. Then they “sang” all four stanzas of “All Hail the Power of Je¬sus’ Name.” Every mouth was going—but without a sound.

Meadows wrote in his autobiography, “I was almost overcome. These people wanted to sing the praises of the Lord, but had to mouth the words lest they betray themselves.”

After the song, he preached for the sixth time that day. Nobody in any of the meet¬ings had a Bible, yet someone always stood to recite whatever chapter he chose.

Around midnight, they crossed back into West Berlin. Meadows then asked about the husky young man who had closely shadowed him throughout the day. Arno said, “That young man pledged the other Christians behind the Iron Curtain that he would make sure you were taken care of and that if anything went wrong, he would try to get you out of the country—even at the cost of his own life. He pledged his life for yours.”

During subsequent trips, conditions were relaxed. During the final trips, the Christians he visited sang aloud, and during his final trip in 1979, he carried a Bible and his visa granted him permission to preach. In 1990, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the Christian Endeavor societies of East and West Germany merged.

Christian Newcomer

On September 18, 1797, Christian Newcomer bought a 12-year-old slave girl named Patience. The bill of sale is kept in a courthouse in Hagerstown, Md. It says Newcomer and his heirs could own the girl until she reached age 30, at which point she would be declared free. They would also own any children she bore until they reached age 25 (for girls) or age 30 (for boys).

This happened three years before the denomination actually organized in 1800, and 16 years before Newcomer became a bishop. What was this about? Why did one of our founding fathers, a future bishop, buy a slave girl?

Newcomer kept a meticulous journal, but never mentioned Patience or owning a slave. But on August 1, 1806, he mentions riding into Hagerstown to get medicine for a servant girl who lived with them, but who died later that day around midnight. Was that Patience? If so, she would have been 21 years old.

Most likely, Newcomer bought Patience in order to free her, and since she was just 12, she lived with them. People did this quite often in those days. John Pfrimmer, another prominent UB preacher from those years, bought two slaves and freed them.

Bishop Newcomer’s opposition to slavery was well-known. He presided at the 1821 General Conference which condemned slavery and forbid UB members to own slaves. In his journal, he recorded preaching several times in black churches.

Hurricane Fifi struck and devastated northern Honduras on September 18, 1974. Hurricanes usually broke up in the mountains to the east of La Ceiba. But Fifi settled 18 miles off the coast and lashed the mainland with torrential rain and 130-mile-per-hour winds. Over 600,000 people were left homeless, and in La Ceiba alone, 125 people were killed. Many UB churches, including Bethel church in La Ceiba, opened themselves to refugees.

Most hurricane damage comes from flooding. On each side of La Ceiba was a river. Normally, those rivers carried water falling on the mountains into the Caribbean Sea. But Fifi’s winds pushed inland, causing the rivers to back up. Everything flooded.

Missionary Gary Brooks (right) recalled seeing the carnage the next morning. “Whole barrios in La Ceiba were just gone, swept out to sea. Gone.” One place along the beach, populated by little shacks, was totally wiped away. Cars lay upside down against buildings. Gary found the body of a woman who had fled her home, and died in her overturned car just 50 yards from the church. One man lashed himself to a tree and refused to come down. The storm uprooted the tree and carried it 500 yards away, where the man’s body was recovered, still tethered to the tree.

Living at the mission house next to the Bethel church, the Brooks family got by comparatively well. But, said Gary, “We were this little island, a high spot surrounded by water. Three blocks away, people were dying, flooded out. And ten blocks the other way, ten or twelve kids were killed when the river came through the school in which they took shelter. Water all around us, but nothing touched us except the wind.”

Eight feet of water flooded the Bible Institute. Six inches of mud covered everything. Classes were cancelled for the rest of the year, as students shoveled mud and cleaned. Gary’s efforts to contact outlying villages proved futile. But in the days and week ahead, reports trickled in of damage to churches, homes, and fields (and therefore livelihoods).

The Missions department sent $1000 right away and dispatched Harold Wust to Honduras. The UBs worked with other relief groups to help the homeless. It was a hectic time, the needs overwhelming.

Two United Brethren ministers in two countries passed away within a day of each other, both from cancer. There was a strong bond between them. They had been partners in ministry 40 years before.

Harold Wust (right) passed away on September 17, 2009. Harold’s father immigrated from Germany to Alberta, Canada, around 1930, and Harold was born there. However, the family returned to Leipzig, Germany, in 1939. In 1940, at age 10, Harold became part of the Hitler Youth, though at that age the Nazi ideology meant little to him.

After the war Harold, a Canadian citizen, returned to Canada on his own. He ended up in Fort Erie, Ontario, where he met Ray Zimmerman, pastor of the Garrison Road United Brethren church. Under the preaching of evangelist Paul Graham, Harold gave his heart to Christ.

Harold went on to become an ordained United Brethren pastor. Then, in 1966, he and wife Dee went to Honduras as UB missionaries. They served one term, 1966-1970. Then Harold accepted a position as Associate Director of Missions, which he held for about 20 years.

The Wusts served in Honduras when the Soccer War broke out between Honduras and El Salvador in July 1969. All Salvadoranians living in Honduras were rounded up and imprisoned. That included several United Brethren pastors in the La Ceiba area.

Guillermo Martinez (right) was one of them. Harold and Guillermo often traveled together to villages and churches throughout northern Honduras. Guillermo pastored the large Ebenezer UB church in La Ceiba, but always loved traveling with Harold to visit the country churches.

After the war broke out, Harold walked with Guillermo to the city’s soccer stadium, where Salvadoranians were being kept in very poor conditions. Guillermo became a leader among the prisoners, and began holding services. During two months of captivity, over 125 men became Christians.

Meanwhile, Harold and Hondurans at the Bethel church (located across the street from the soccer stadium) brought food and other aid to the prisoners.

After the war, the Salvadoranians couldn’t stay in the country. Most returned to El Salvador. But Guillermo Martinez, with his Honduran wife, couldn’t go there. Instead, God opened a door for them to move to Nicaragua, where the UBs had begun work.

Guillermo and Linda Martinez moved to Masaya, Nicaragua, in March 1970 to start a church. During the first ten months, 60 people found Christ. He later became superintendent of Nicaragua Conference, leading them through the turbulent years of the Sandinista revolution and toward the thriving national conference they are today.

Guillermo Martinez passed away September 18, 2009, from stomach cancer. Just 36 hours earlier, Harold Wust had died.

Harold had been diagnosed with cancer in January 1999. A surgery removed parts of seven organs. But doctors said his liver was filled with inoperable cancer, and he had 6-12 months to live. But three months later at a cancer center in Texas he was told that there was no sign of cancer in his liver. He had been miraculously healed and given another ten years on this earth.

Now, both Harold and Guillermo have been reunited in heaven.

September 15 has significance for our first two Overseas bishops. Duane Reahm (right), who served as bishop 1969-1981, was born on this date in 1917. His successor, Jerry Datema, passed away on this date in 1994.

Many UB churches have come and gone over the years. Interestingly, Reahm spent his life and career in United Brethren churches that, with one exception, remain today…though in different form.

Reahm grew up in the Halladay UB church, which later merged with what is today Sunfield UB church in Michigan. He entered Huntington College in 1935 to become a teacher, but committed his life to Christ as a student and began studying for the ministry.

He started out with three years in Kalamazoo–the only church which no longer remains. That was followed by three years in Fort Wayne, Ind., at Third Street UB church–what is today called Anchor. Then he became pastor of a three-church circuit in Willshire, Ohio–what is now Praise Point UB church. He then spent 13 years in Grand Rapids, Mich., at Banner Street church–today’s Banner of Christ Church.

In 1961, he began 20 years in the denominational office–eight years as director of missions, followed by 12 years as bishop, most of it supervising the Overseas District.

We already told much of Duane Reahm’s story on March 19, the date of his death. He chose to retire in 1981, and he and Leona had planned to do some traveling. But that never happened. Shortly after retiring, Reahm was diagnosed with ALS–Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Something similar happened to his successor.

In 1981, Jerry Datema (right) concluded 20 years of overseas missionary service–six terms in Sierra Leone, one term in Jamaica. He served the next 12 years as the Overseas Bishop, and chose to retire from that role in 1993. He and Eleanore had planned to move to Jamaica to work with the national church in leadership development. Their missionary barrels were already en route to Jamaica. Then illness crashed in.

He’d been experiencing problems for several months, including some weight loss and lack of appetite. A battery of tests in August 1993 proved inconclusive. Then, in September 1993, exploratory surgery revealed the presence of inoperable abdominal cancer. He began a two-month program of chemotherapy. But it was terminal. He would not make another trip to Jamaica. However, the Lord granted Jerry Datema another year of life, during which he spent much valuable time with Eleanore, their four children, and their eight grandchildren. He also devoted much time to writing a history of the United Brethren work in Jamaica. If he couldn’t be there, he would write about it.

The end came very peacefully and without pain on a Thursday afternoon. For several days, his physical condition had been deteriorating rapidly. However, he was able to remain in his upstairs bedroom in their house in Huntington, as he had wished.

Eleanore, along with sons Tom and Dave, were with him when he died. Kyle McQuillen, Director of Missions, spent time with his predecessor that morning. Dr. Richard and Miriam Prabhakar, good friends on furlough from India, visited during the day. So did June Brown, with whom he had served throughout his ministry in Sierra Leone.

Brent Birdsall knew Bishop Datema in several capacities—first as a fellow missionary, then as his bishop, and ultimately, as one of his parishioners at College Park UB church in Huntington, Ind. At the memorial service, he commented on the six months Jerry Datema spent traveling from village to village to preach in evangelistic meetings in Sierra Leone. He was accompanied by two blind African pastors—one playing the accordion, the other preaching.

“Jerry was involved in the ministry of telling people about Jesus Christ. I have talked to him over a number of years about a number of issues of ministry, but I think the ministry he probably enjoyed the most was those six months of evangelistic ministry in the villages of Sierra Leone. He did all kinds of other ministry. He had higher profile positions. But somehow, there was that tone of voice, or maybe there was that look in his eye, as he almost put himself back in the villages around Bumpe and Mattru and Gbangbaia. And somehow, in that elementary but essential work of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Jerry was at his best.”

Francis Scott Key

Francis Scott Key was a United Brethren member. He and a UB preacher named John Snook organized a Sunday school in Keysville, Md. Key donated songbooks and led the singing. They also went on evangelistic tours together, with Key handling the music. Key later became a prominent lawyer in Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

In 1814, during the War of 1812, Key, now 35 years old, boarded the HMS Tonnant to arrange a prisoner exchange; a friend, Dr. William Beanes, was being held aboard the ship. The exchange was successful. However, the British wouldn’t let the Americans leave until they had finished their attack on Fort McHenry in Baltimore, lest Key betray their plans and strength. Fair enough.

Thus, on September 13, 1814, Key had a front row seat to watch the extended bombardment of the American fort. The next day, Key wrote a poem which he titled “Defence of Fort M’Henry.” It was published within a few days in newspapers, and it became a big hit. Key later had the poem set to a popular British tune.

The war ended six months later, and Key returned to his career as a lawyer. A slave-owner until 1820, Key set all of his slaves free and labored fervently against slavery. However, he apparently didn’t remain United Brethren.

“The Star Spangled Banner” became the national anthem by a Congressional resolution in 1931.

Peter Glossbrenner, a second-generation immigrant from Germany, was an artilleryman helping to defend the city of Baltimore. Perhaps he was in Fort McHenry itself–we don’t know. We do know that, somewhere in the city, was Peter’s wife and two-year-old son, Jacob John. Peter died in 1819 after being kicked by a horse. But his son grew up to serve 40 years as a United Brethren bishop–longer than anybody before or since.

Defence of Fort M’Henry

O! say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watch’d, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there —
O! say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?

On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines on the stream —
‘Tis the star-spangled banner, O! long may it wave
O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havock of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul foot-steps’ pollution,
No refuge could save the hireling and slave,
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave;
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.

O! thus be it ever when freemen shall stand
Between their lov’d home, and the war’s desolation,
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the heav’n-rescued land
Praise the power that hath made and preserv’d us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto — “In God is our trust!”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.

George Henry Spayth

Henry Spayth was born on September 13, 1788, in Germany, not all that far from William Otterbein’s old stomping grounds. He was three years old when his parents emigrated to America, probably settling in Maryland. It is thought that he became a Christian through George Geeting, the most influential early UB after Otterbein and Martin Boehm. His name first appears on United Brethren rolls in 1812 as a minister in Maryland and Virginia. He probably knew all of those early leaders.

Spayth played a significant role in the crucial 1815 General Conference. With the founders gone, the ministers spent the first two days awash in discord and harsh words. Finally, Henry Spayth–27 years old, and wise beyond his years–stood and addressed the ministers. They halted everything and held what was described as “such a prayer meeting your humble servant never witnessed before nor since. Brethren with streaming eyes embraced and thanked God.” After that, things went fine. Like night and day.

It was written that from 1815-1845, Spayth did more than anybody else to shape how the United Brethren church operated–its polity. He had that kind of mind. He was well-read, with a broad knowledge (including medicine and history), and had a commanding presence from which he could deploy logic and eloquence to influence people. He had a way of diplomatically bringing diverging factions together.

It helped that Spayth was fluent in both German and English. The westward expansion, which Spayth joined, was almost entirely among English-speaking people. He no doubt attracted English-speaking ministers to the cause.

Spayth is remembered most for writing our first history book, a task given to him by the 1845 General Conference. The book was published in 1851, in English, under the title, “History of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ.”

In 1815, Spayth married and moved to western Pennsylvania, around Pittsburgh. In 1817, he helped organized the Muskingum Conference of eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania. He later moved on to Tiffin, Ohio, where he spent the remainder of his life.

The United Brethren church might have fractured at that discordant 1815 conference, if not for Henry Spayth’s intervention. Imagine what Spayth witnessed during the next 60 years–the denomination expanding from coast to coast, weathering several wars, establishing a foothold in Africa, and starting a publishing house, colleges, and a seminary. By the time Spayth died on September 2, 1873, the church had grown to over 125,000 members.

Spayth saw so much. And he lived to write about it.

Dr. C. Stanley Peters

On September 9, 1959, the name “C. Stanley Peters” first appeared on the masthead as editor of the United Brethren magazine. And there it remained for 22 years, until December 1981, as he oversaw publication of 491 issues of the magazine.

Stan, as everyone knew him, grew up as a UB preacher’s kid. His father, J. Clair Peters, was managing a furniture plant in Hagerstown, Md., but resigned that position in 1926 to prepare for the ministry. He bundled up the family—wife and three children, Stan being the oldest—and moved to Indiana that year to attend Huntington College. Eighteen years later, Stan himself headed off to Huntington College, graduating in 1944 with majors in math and science. He then taught junior high and high school for two years.

In June 1945, Stan married Lola Lee Stites, whom he had met at college. Later that summer, Stan received his quarterly conference license to preach from the North Avenue UB church in Baltimore, Md. He received a Master of Divinity degree from Huntington College’s seminary in 1949, and was ordained in 1950 by Bishop A.M. Johnson. In 1974, Huntington College awarded him an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree.

In 1948, while still a seminary student, Stan began three years as pastor of Third Street UB church in Fort Wayne, Ind. (now it’s called Anchor Community Church). The congregation, which had been meeting in a basement, erected its present sanctuary during that time. Next, he served the St. Paul-Winchester circuit of Monroe, Ind., 1951-53, and then spent a year on the Berne circuit of Monroe and Geneva.

In 1954, Stan and Lola Lee began an exciting five years starting a new church in Kettering, Ohio. Stan visited hundreds of homes in the area, forming a prospect list of over 200 names on whom he concentrated. The congregation grew steadily. In 1959, a Christian education unit was completed under Stan’s leadership.

After 10 years in the pastorate, Stan Peters accepted the editorship of the United Brethren publishing house in 1959.

Over the years, Stan had accumulated a variety of experience in many aspects of the printing business. While in high school, he worked for a local newspaper, gaining experience in nearly every aspect of the operation. He ran his own small printshop during his senior year of high school, using a small letterpress in the upper story of a bank back of their property to crank out letterhead, envelopes, calling cards, and other printing jobs. As a college student, he worked in the college printshop and later in the denominational printshop. He even worked as a pressman in Berne, Ind., while in the pastorate. So he had been around the business.

As editor, Peters wrote, edited, and designed the various publications, including the United Brethren magazine and the Sunday school materials for adults and youth. He also worked on special publications, such as the UB Discipline and the UB hymnal. He traveled throughout the US and Ontario promoting the magazine and Sunday school literature, and helped oversee construction of the new UB headquarters building in 1976.

Stan served the church with dedication and humility. He passed away at age 91 on June 9, 2014.

Joseph and Mary Gomer

Joseph Gomer passed away on September 6, 1892. At that point, he and his wife, Mary, had served under the United Brethren mission board in Sierra Leone for 22 years, superintending our work there the entire time. They were very, very good years. “Within United Brethren mission history,” wrote David Datema in 2016 for a college paper, “the Gomers stand out as elite missionaries.”

We established mission work in Sierra Leone in 1857, but our early efforts were frustrating and virtually fruitless. When the Gomers arrived in January 1871, we had been without missionaries for two years and had almost pulled out altogether. But almost immediately after the Gomers arrived, the work took off. Later that first year came the conversion of the powerful local chief, Thomas Stephen Caulker, who had been a thorn in the side to missionaries. Caulker and others told the Gomers, “We now see that Christianity isn’t just a white man’s religion.”

You see, the Gomers were black–the first black United Brethren missionaries.

Joseph Gomer grew up on a farm near Battle Creek, Mich., and despite the prejudice of white classmates, managed to get some schooling. He served as a cook during the Civil War. After being honorably discharged in 1865, he boarded a riverboat headed for Dayton, Ohio. On board he met a widow named Mary Green, who was also a gifted singer. After reaching Dayton, they were married. Joseph found work as a carpet layer, and later worked as a foreman in a mercantile house. He and Mary became leaders in Third United Brethren Church, a predominantly black congregation in Dayton which Miami Conference had started in 1858 as a mission project.

The Gomers applied for missionary service, but were initially rejected. Historian and former bishop William Hanby implied that their race had something to do with it, but it may have been more a case of Gomer not being a minister and lacking in education. Whatever the case, the Mission board was urged to reconsider the Gomers.

Joseph Gomer was perfect. He was a diplomat, a teacher, a peacemaker among the warring tribes. He became highly respected, and umpired many disputes among the Africans. He taught farming methods, which were applied on the mission’s 40-acre farm (produce, over 5000 coffee and cocoa trees, plus some animals). In 1875, he organized the first United Brethren church in Sierra Leone.

History writers note their abilities, their dedication to the work, and their spiritual fervor. But they also cite the Gomers’ skin color as a crucial difference-maker.

According to David Datema, the Gomers went to Africa during a window of time in the 1800s during which white Christians were open to sending blacks as missionaries–but a window which didn’t stay open long. Datema wrote, “For black Americans serving under white mission boards, signs of racism were prevalent and included lower pay, longer terms, shorter and less frequent furloughs, less promotion, and less educational benefits offered to their children.” Eventually, American mission boards reverted to preferring white missionaries.

Datema noted that the longest term served during that period by a white UB missionary was 3.5 years, compared to terms of six, six, and ten years for the Gomers. Two other African-American UB missionaries appointed during this time were sent for at least five-year terms. So there’s something there. But the Gomers’ longevity in superintending the field–over 20 years–does speak to the confidence placed in them by the UB Mission board.

By 1892, Joseph Gomer’s health was failing and he was planning to retire as mission superintendent. He and Mary had gone to Freetown with a couple who were sailing back to America. At the end of the day, wrote historian J. S. Mills, “in less than an hour Mr. Gomer was seized with apoplexy, and before medical help arrived, though delayed but a few minutes, the soul of the good man had gone to God.”

Mary Gomer stayed in Sierra Leone until 1894, and then returned to the States, where she died on December 1, 1896.

David Datema wrote of Joseph Gomer, “He was without doubt the one missionary that rescued the United Brethren mission from almost certain failure….It is doubtful whether the United Brethren have since produced a better missionary….Today in Sierra Leone, the signature work of the Gomers lives on in thousands of lives who have never heard of them.”