From its very beginning, the Free Methodist Church has been particularly devoted to ministry and evangelism among the poor. At its inception in 1860, the newly formed denomination articulated its mission as twofold: “to maintain the Bible standard of Christianity and to preach the gospel to the poor.”
For B.T. Roberts, the theological foundation for this particular concern for the poor was located in Jesus’ ministry as recorded in the gospels. Roberts, following in the footsteps of John Wesley, held a high view of Scripture and viewed it as the primary source for Christian doctrine and practice. In his book “Fishers of Men” (fmchr.ch/btrfish), written to Free Methodist clergy as an exhortation for evangelism, Roberts explained his theological method:
The effort has been to take no position that is not sustained by a fair interpretation of the Word of God. To this Word we bow with the most cordial submission. If our work may be thought by some to be radical, we beg them to bear in mind that the Bible is a radical book.
And later, Roberts instructs his pastors:
Preaching, to promote God’s work, must be Scriptural. One plain text proves more than a dozen arguments. Logic can be met with logic, but from the Word of God there is no appeal.
Therefore, when Roberts read in the Gospel of Luke that the hallmark of Jesus’ ministry was to “preach the good news to the poor,” he mandated that this be the normative practice for all Free Methodist ministers of the gospel.
Perhaps the best illustration of Roberts’ desire to make the gospel available to the poor can be seen in the controversy over pew rental. Roberts, originally an ordained minister in the Methodist Episcopal Church until his expulsion in 1858, objected strongly to the practice of pew rental, which had become a widespread method for raising funds in Methodist Episcopal churches during the mid-19th century. In the 1850s, Roberts’ mother church removed wording from its “Book of Discipline” that forbade members from wearing “superfluous ornaments” and softened the language demanding that churches be built “plain and with free seats” — both rules that ensured Methodism’s historic sensitivity and concern for the poor.
Roberts believed that this shift unfairly discriminated against the poor and publicly demanded that the practice of pew rental be abolished. He wrote scathingly that charging people for the right to sit in church “is not of Christ. It has no warrant in the gospel. It cannot summon a single precept of the New Testament to its support. … To the banquet Jesus has provided all are invited to come and eat without money and without price.” Roberts’ critiques of the Methodist Episcopal Church certainly echo Wesley’s own words of warning about the danger that wealth posed to his growing Methodist movement.
Eventually, Roberts’ vocal opposition to the practice of pew rental earned him the disfavor of his superiors in the Methodist Episcopal Church and was one factor contributing to his expulsion. Throughout the controversy, Roberts refused to compromise, convinced that his position alone was scripturally defensible. In an article published in the Northern Christian Advocate in 1856, Roberts insisted that “several precepts of the Bible plainly require that the house of the Lord should be free for all who may wish to assemble there for purposes of worship” and that charging money for a place to sit does “great violence … to the Scriptures,” amounting to a “perversion of the Divine record.”
He found the practice to be particularly egregious because it introduced a class system into the church and communicated to the poor that they were unwelcome. This controversy over pew rental provides just one example of the ethical centrality of ministry to the poor in Roberts’ mind and the role that Scripture played in defending his position.
Whereas 20th-century evangelicalism frequently divorced the concerns for social justice and personal piety, Roberts and other leaders of the holiness movement believed the two to be inseparable. Salvation involved not only the inner transformation of the heart, but also the outer transformation of human interactions and relationships in community.
1. What new efforts can you and your local church MAKE to show love to others?
2. Is there an issue that’s the modern equivalent of pew rental?
GREGORY R. COATES, a Free Methodist elder, is a Ph.D. student at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and the author of “Politics Strangely Warmed: Political Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit” (fmchr.ch/gcoates) from which this article is adapted.1