By Christy Mesaros-Winckles
Vast farmland, orchards and rolling hills dot the landscape of western New York.
This is the land of Benjamin Titus (B.T.) Roberts. New York state is where he served as a minister in the Methodist Episcopal Church, where the Free Methodist Church was founded in 1860, and where he built Chili Seminary (now Roberts Wesleyan College).
On Tuesday, July 12, a charter bus of Free Methodist history enthusiasts embarked on a journey to discover their FM heritage. Members of the tour represented states from across the United States along with Chile, Mexico, Brazil, Dominican Republic and Venezuela.
As the tour bus rolled through small towns and past farms, tour guides Wally Fleming, Doug Cullum and Charles Canon shared regional trivia and facts about the FM founders.
Fleming is the lead pastor at Pearce Memorial FMC in North Chili, N.Y. Cullum is academic vice president, dean and professor at Northeastern Seminary. Canon is the archivist at Roberts Wesleyan College. The first stop on the tour was the Pekin Methodist Church, now called Hope United Methodist Church. The church was built in 1856, just a year prior to Roberts’ appointment to the church in 1857. It was his last appointment in the Methodist Episcopal Church before he was expelled from the denomination in 1858.
As Pekin Methodist historian Marcia Rivers explained, the church has always been proud to call Roberts one of its pastors. Rivers’ great-great grandfather John Robinson brought stones from his farm to help build the church’s foundation, and Rivers has found only positive comments about Roberts’ impact on Pekin in the church minutes. Hope UMC still has original stained glass windows in the back of the sanctuary from when Roberts was minister.The building’s history and connection to Roberts had a deep impact on many people on the tour.
Sergio Loyola, superintendent of the Chile conference and supervisor of missions in Bolivia, expressed deep emotional attachment to the building in which Roberts had preached.
“I’m especially liking the Pekin church. I’m still very choked up by the experience. Free Methodism means a lot to me,” Loyola said. “Myself and others, when we left the United Methodist Church looking for a Wesleyan heritage church and found the Free Methodist Church, it was a miracle of God.
“We wrote to the Free Methodist church in the Dominican Republic. I wrote at the beginning of 1985, and he wrote later that year, and we began to find out more about the Free Methodist Church,” Loyola added. “As my wife and I were born and raised in the United Methodist Church, everything in the Free Methodist Church was very familiar to us.”
After stopping at the Pekin church, the tour traveled to Albion FMC in Albion, N.Y., the location of the first Free Methodist congregation. The building’s grand, white exterior is impressive, and the church’s interior was originally constructed to seat 1,000.
Roberts’ friend and fellow Methodist minister Loren Stiles — who defended Roberts at his trial at the Methodist Genesee Annual Conference in 1858 — founded Albion FMC. Stiles was expelled from the Methodist Episcopal denomination in 1859 and proceeded to form a new church called the Congregational Free Methodist Church across the street from the Methodists in 1859, a year before the Free Methodist denomination was formed in 1860. The Albion FMC church currently is the largest Protestant church in Orleans County, N.Y.
As the tour returned to North Chili, the group had a chance to reflect on the impact and legacy of Roberts, Stiles and other early FM leaders. Yet as Kate McGinn, Marston Memorial Historical Center archivist, noted, Roberts’ legacy is not one of pomp and circumstance but of humble service to ministry and his calling to push holy living.
“In reading a lot of the history and putting stuff together for this tour, I think what I really found out is how much a team B.T. and Ellen were — praying together, working together, one supporting the other or taking care of things at home while the other was away. It’s hard to think of them as anything but partners,” McGinn said.
“There was always a sense that it wasn’t about them; it was about God,” she added. “They wouldn’t see what they had done as their handiwork, but God working. I think if they were here, they would only see what God had done.”