Bishop B.T. Roberts: His Life and Witness and the ‘Free Methodist Church’

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June 12, 2006 by Joseph Krohn

Benjamin Titus Roberts was the great bishop and founder of the Free Methodist Church, 1860. He was born in 1823 and throughout his life God was continually drawing Roberts into a relationship with Him, God had a plan for B.T. Roberts. He was converted at the age of 21, in which time he gave up his pursuit of a law degree and was licensed as an exhorter in the Methodist Episcopal Church (1845).

Roberts was determined to pursue his educational studies in his new found faith and attended Geneses Wesleyan Seminary and then he transferred to the Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where he graduate in 1848. In the midst of Roberts educational experience he was influenced by a number of great men and women. He was influenced by such men at Wesleyan University as Dr. Stephen Olin, who led a godly life and was the scholarly president of that institution. Another man that had a great impact upon the young Roberts’ life was the layman, Dr. John Wesley Redfield M.D., whose fervent preaching greatly affected B.T. Roberts. Roberts had such classmates as the future great theologian Dr. Daniel Steele and William C. Kendall, soon to be his comrade for reform in the Genesee Conference. Roberts was selected upon his graduation to give the valedictorian speech and at the young age of 26 was offered the presidency of Wyoming Seminary in Pennsylvania, but on the advice of his mentor Dr. Stephen Olin, he turned it down and instead sought elder’s orders with the Geneses Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church and was admitted on trial.

Roberts’ first appointment was to Caryville, New York, where he meant and married Ellen Lois Stowe. He later went on to pastor Pike, New York. At the 1850 annual conference, he was admitted to full membership and was ordained a deacon. That same year he attended the Collins camp meeting where he was entirely sanctified under the ministry of Dr. and Mrs. Palmer. One year after his ordination as a deacon he was dispatched to Rushford, New York. During these various appointments, Roberts demonstrated that he was against slavery but also realized the dangers of embourgeoisment in the Methodist’s societies. It seemed that Roberts thought that many of the Methodists in his conference and especially the bishops and some of the clergy, “were overly concerned with social prestige than with old-time Methodist standards that aim for ‘growth in holiness’ as John Wesley once said.”

In 1852, Roberts was ordained and elder and sent to the Niagara Street Church, where the conflict began between him and the church officials. It was here that he began the process of making it a “free church.” Bishop Marston said that Roberts identified three main problems in the church with the pew system: “1) it ended the segregation of worship into male and female; 2) It commercialized the church; and 3) it discriminated against the poor.”

From 1853-1854 the lines began to be drawn in the sand, between the Nazarities (led by B.T. Roberts and Joseph McCreery) and the Buffalo Regency (led by the large city pastors, several of whom were Free Masons). The outrage in which B.T. Roberts felt was printed in The Northern Independent, in which he published an article called “New School Methodism,” just days before the 1857 Annual Conference. In this article Roberts stated “exactly where he believed the present day Methodist Episcopal Church to have deviated from its Wesleyan heritage.” Bishop J. Paul Taylor (the Bishop responsible for the Alberta Conference of the Free Methodist Church) summarizes the actions of the next few months:

The antagonism was irreconcilable. The enemies of holiness were enraged. Charges were preferred against B.T. Roberts. He was tried for “unchristian and immoral conduct” because he contended for the higher principles of Christianity and opposed the very things which lead to immoral conduct. He was found guilty of the charges preferred against him and in the face of the verdict was sent to an appointment.

In 1857 he was sent to Pekin, where a local preacher named George W. Estes republished Roberts’ “New School Methodism” in pamphlet form along with transcripts of the 1857 Annual Conference. When the Annual Conference heard about this they viewed this as a defiance by Robert and in the Annual Conference of 1858 they tried him again and found him guilty. His ordination was taken from him, but he remained a member of the M.E. Church and supported his family by traveling and speaking. Roberts was determined to hold of action of leaving the church until his probationary term was up with the church, but in 1860 the final push came and Roberts and all who followed the true heart of Methodism were pushed out of the mother church which was teetering on the edge of apostasy.

On August 23, 1860 the call was given at Pekin, New York for the formation of the Free Methodist Church. There were fifteen preachers and forty-five layman who responded to this call and participated in the organizing of the new denomination. They decided to retain the name Methodist, for they were Methodists and they would had the word “free” to their name for they were “free from slavery, secret orders, worldliness in dress and rigid formality in public worship.” In the same year of the denominational formation, Roberts founded his magazine the Earnest Christian. In 1866 he found Chili Seminary in North Chili, New York, which is called Roberts Wesleyan College, today in his honour. He was elected bishop in 1860 and held that position until his death in 1893.

B.T. Roberts started a stream that has never been able to be quenched, the stream of a purely holiness denomination, with one focus in mind, that of a deeper, more vibrant relationship with their God. Roberts was the man that God used in the hour of America’s greatest need to champion the cause of freedom for God’s people. As the old Methodist song goes: “Salvation! O Salvation! The joyful sound proclaim, till earth’s remotest nation has learned Messiah’s name.”

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