Historical Markers
Boehm's Chapel Historical Marker
Mouse over for marker text

Boehm's Chapel

Hershey/Gettysburg/Dutch Country Region


Marker Location:
PA 272 northbound at Boehms Rd., 1 mile S of Willow Street

Dedication Date:
April 29, 1984

Behind the Marker

Oil on wood portrait of <i>Bishop Francis Asbury </i>, head and shoulders.
Bishop Francis Asbury, by John Paradise, ca. 1812.
Between the late 1730s and the early 1800s, waves of religious revival swept across the American colonies and United States. Traveling ministers preached to eager congregations, most of them not members of the more established Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Congregational churches. The emphasis on emotional devotion to Christ attracted numerous people, especially women and poor and working-class people, including African Americans, who felt uncomfortable in churches dominated by local elites. Itinerant preachers who spoke to groups regardless of formal affiliation traveled far and wide, and the Methodists and Baptists emerged as new religious denominations.
Black and white image of Martin Boehm.
Martin Boehm

In the 1750s the founder of the Methodist church, Englishman John Wesley, who himself had served as a missionary in 1730s Georgia, began to send missionaries to the American colonies. In October 1771, a young English cleric named Francis Asbury arrived in Philadelphia and began a life-long mission that would earn him the title of the "Father of American Methodism." Avoiding the cities, Asbury for decades traveled on horseback up and down the new nation, preaching three to five times a day.

Pennsylvania was home to a great diversity of German-speaking Protestants who had found in William Penn's colony a refuge in which they could follow their beliefs in peace. Prominent among these groups were the Mennonites, who practiced a simple, democratic form of Christianity that stressed community loyalty over religious doctrine. In 1756, Martin Boehm (1725-1812), a Mennonite farmer in Lancaster County, had been chosen by lot to become a minister(Mennonites had no formally ordained clergy.) Believing himself unqualified to preach, Boehm struggled for years with feelings of inadequacy until he had a religious experience while plowing his fields. Empowered by that vision, Boehm became a charismatic preacher.
Oil on canvas portrait of William Otterbein, head and shoulders.
William Otterbein, by Catherine Weiner, ca. 1850.

At a "great meeting" in Lancaster County, Boehm in 1767 preached to a large crowd that included German Reform minister Philip William Otterbein. Otterbein was so affected by the sermon that after the service he greeted Boehm with the words "We are brothers." Together the two men preached to German-speaking settlers throughout eastern Pennsylvania. As his fame grew, Boehm ‘s home became a stopping place for religious circuit riders, including Methodists Francis Asbury and Robert Strawbridge, founder of the first Methodist Society in America.
A black and white reproduction is a print of a rare, original photograph of the Boehm Chapel taken prior to 1883.
Early photograph of Boehm's Chapel

Impressed by these Methodists, Boehm and Otterbein joined with them, and helped fan a religious revival that swept through German-speaking communities in Pennsylvania from the 1790s though the 1810s. Unable to tend to his farm, Boehm sold most of his property to his sons and, in 1791, deeded another parcel to local Methodists "for the purpose of erecting a church, school and burial grounds." Later that year, the congregation built Boehm's Chapel. This remains the oldest Methodist building in use in the state of Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania, since its founding, had been a crazy quilt of religious denominations. In the young republic, Pennsylvanians also embraced new religious denominations that expressed their spiritual values and experiences, and their sense of self. Methodism, in particular, attracted large numbers of working people. In fact, the Methodist Church grew more rapidly than any other church in Pennsylvania between 1775, when only seven congregations with a total membership of 500 existed, and 1850, when 889 congregations included approximately 341,000 members.
Color photograph of Boehm's Chapel and grave stones.
Boehm's Chapel is the oldest existing structure built for Methodist use in...
This phenomenal growth can be attributed to the powerful, itinerant preaching of Methodist ministers who conducted revivalist camp meetings that lasted for days, and on the conferences of laity, ministers, and bishops that organized congregations among new converts.

By 1800, Boehm and Otterbein had joined with fellow itinerant minister Jacob Albright, a German-speaking Lutheran minister who had converted to Methodism to form a new denomination, the United Brethren in Christ. The United Brethren preferred a democratic, congregational structure and more simplicity of manners than the hierarchical and increasingly respectable Methodist Church. Boehm's sons Jacob and Henry later became influential leaders in the church and companions of Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury. Although closely linked to American Methodism, the United Brethren still exist as an autonomous body, and have 550 churches worldwide and some 47,000 members, approximately half of them in the United States.
Back to Top