The Rev. Dr. Ben Mohr Herbster, 80, who from 1961 to 1969 served as the first president of the new United Church of Christ and who was an eloquent and outspoken voice for Christian unity and racial justice, died Dec. 16 at a hospital in Dayton, Ohio. He had Parkinson's disease.
The United Church of Christ was formed by the 1957 merger of the Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church. The Evangelical and Reformed Church had its roots in the German reformation and used a modified presbyterian form of government. Each congregation of the Congregational Christian Church, which traced its history to Pilgrim and Puritan New England, was independently governed.
The union of these two distinct types of churches represented the first time this had occurred in America. Dr. Herbster was elected church president at its constituting General Synod in 1961. At the time, he had been pastor of an Evangelical and Reformed church in Norwood, Ohio, for 30 years.
Although a national organization, the new church drew its greatest strength from small rural areas in the Midwest, New England and Pennsylvania. Its average member was white and middle-class. Under Dr. Herbster's leadership, the new church generally stressed the importance and independence of the local individual church. But this did not mean that Dr. Herbster could not or would not lead.
At the church's 1963 General Synod, he set aside his opening remarks to address the issue of civil rights and the role the United Church of Christ should play.
He said: "Few times in our lives have we faced a greater responsiblity than we face now. The present situation across America, in the way in which our Negro brethren are treated, economically, politically and socially, constitutes a blight from which we must be saved."
His calls for civil rights continued, despite the United Church of Christ's loss of a number of congregations. Later in the 1960s, he addressed a retreat of ministers in which he expressed his reasoning. He said that any division of theology and social action would be "absolutely fatal" for the church. "It makes for a theology without relevance and for action with no great consuming purpose," he said.
Dr. Herbster, who lived in Kettering, Ohio, was a native of Prospect, Ohio. He was a 1926 graduate of Heidelberg College in Ohio and a 1929 graduate of Eden Theological Seminary in Missouri. The following year, he was ordained in the Reformed Church in the U.S.A. He held honorary doctorates from five colleges.
He had served on the central committee of the World Council of Churches, the general board of the National Council of Churches, the executive committee of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the executive council of the International Congregational Council.
Survivors include his wife, Elizabeth Beam Herbster of Kettering; two daughters, Anne Liston of Illinois, and Jane Buehrer of Kettering; six grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.