The "Free"-ing of Methodism

A History of the Free Methodist Church

The U.S. was slipping into a bloody civil war when a conflict over spiritual truth and practice ignited within the established Methodist Episcopal Church. One of those connected to the conflict was an earnest young preacher named Benjamin Titus (B. T.) Roberts. ;xNLx;;xNLx;Converted to Christ in 1844 at age 21, Roberts changed his career path from law to Christian ministry. He enrolled in Connecticut’s Wesleyan University, where in the late 1840s, evangelistic meetings conducted by doctor/preacher John Wesley Redfield fueled revival among many, including Roberts. ;xNLx;;xNLx;Soon after his 1850 ordination in the Methodist Episcopal Church, Roberts attended a camp meeting led by holiness teacher Phoebe Palmer. There he found a deeper level of surrender and consecration — what Methodism’s founder John Wesley termed “entire sanctification.” ;xNLx;;xNLx;Early on, Roberts spoke out against intemperance, slavery, extreme formalism in worship with hired musicians, membership in secret societies, and other marks of the church’s fall from holiness principles. He especially crusaded against the practice of selling or renting pews, which he felt discriminated against the poor. ;xNLx;;xNLx;Despite Roberts’ intelligence and spiritual depth, disgruntled church officials mostly assigned him to small or struggling congregations in western New York These churches subsequently experienced revival. But the pew issue loomed larger with his 1852 assignment to a fashionable-but-dying church in Buffalo with a rented-pew history. ;xNLx;;xNLx;Roberts’ criticism of Methodist Episcopal failings brought censure and his eventually expulsion in 1858. He continued to be an itinerant preacher and, in January 1860, started a revival journal named The Earnest Christian.* He and his wife, Ellen, sold their home to buy a downtown theater for a “free pew” church. The theater could seat nearly 800 and was soon packed with worshippers. ;xNLx;;xNLx;As Roberts’ passion for “free” churches spread, other “free pew” congregations were organized in St. Louis; St. Charles, Ill.; Albion, N.Y. (which boldly built its own church building across the street from the church it left); and Buffalo, N.Y. By late summer 1860, the Free Methodist Church was officially formed, with 37-year-old Roberts chosen general superintendent. ;xNLx;;xNLx;He remained superintendent until his death in 1893 at the age of 69. Seventeen years later, Methodist Episcopal officials formally admitted they had wronged Roberts and restored his original ministerial papers to his son, Benson Roberts. ;xNLx;;xNLx;By then, however, the new denomination had already set its distinctive course, defined in the “1866 Book of Discipline”: “All their churches are required to be as free as the grace they preach. They believe that their mission is two-fold — to maintain the Bible standard of Christianity and to preach the gospel to the poor.”

The Hearthstone History

Free Methodist minister T. B. Arnold noticed orphans roaming the

Apple Orchard Decisions

Riddle: How many apples are in an apple?

General Conferences

"Sacred" Saloon

Roberts established a mission church above a saloon in Buffalo’s notorious Five Points area. Some of the women converted there moved into the Roberts’ family home as a “safe zone” until they could live on their own.

A Paper Chaplain

During the Civil War ...

First FM School

Chili Seminary (N.Y.) began on a ...

Nation's First Rescue Mission

Free Methodist Rachel Bradley offered ...

Denominational Paper

The first issue of The Free Methodist was published January 9, 1868. (It became Light & Life Magazine in 1970 and is still published under that name.)

Making Tracks

On a cold January day in the early 1860s, E.P. Hart, ...

Over the Northern Border

Canadian readers of Roberts’ Earnest Christian expressed interest in Free Methodism. ...

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