Methodists, Free (properly "THE FREE METHODIST CHURCH"). This body, the youngest of the Methodist family, an offshoot of the Methodist Episcopal. Church, dates its existence from Aug. 23, 1860, when it was organized at a convention held at Pekin, Niagara Co., NY., composed of laymen and ministers who were then or had been of the Methodist Episcopal Church.
I. Origin, etc.-The causes for the establishment of this independent body were manifold. Most prominent, however, were a desire for primitive Methodist simplicity, and more faithful adherence to the doctrines and usages of Wesley and his associates. Its' organizers were ministers expelled from the " parent" body because of their course in opposing what they called innovations or departures from the rules of the Discipline. It was and is claimed by those engaged in the Free Methodist movement that the Methodist Church has declined in spirituality since their early history, and that in the rapid progress made by the Church in adding numbers, acquiring property, etc., sufficient care has not been taken to guard its purity, and preserve its primitive power and spiritual efficiency-the toleration of many worldly practices, and a departure from correct doctrine on several important points. In proof of this it is asserted that widely divergent and contradictory teachings are heard from the pulpit on the doctrine of entire sanctification without official rebuke, some preachers claiming sanctification as a work done concomitantly with justification, others regarding it as a result to be reached by a gradual process of spiritual growth,' and yet others preaching it as a second distinct attainment to be received instantaneously by faith. The Free Methodists also hold that hearty and thorough repentance, evinced by honest confession, and complete -abandonment of all sin, is practically not enough insisted on, and that many are accepted as converts who are not even scripturally awakened; that a merely intellectual belief, born of human reason, is allowed to take the place of the supernatural faith taught by Paul and Wesley; that the direct witness of the Spirit is not now enjoyed by multitudes of professed Methodists; that power over all sin is not experienced; that entire sanctification is even professedly a rare attainment; that the execution of discipline is so neglected as to become difficult, and in many societies impossible; that Methodists generally have abandoned plainness of dress, and are as fashionably attired as the world itself; that they are allowed and countenanced in the transaction of unscriptural business enterprises, and transact lawful business on worldly principles; and especially that secret and oath-bound fellowship with societies composed in large part of unsaved men is tolerated and encouraged; and that the relaxing of the rule requiring attendance at class is especially fatal to spirituality. It is also further asserted that other evidences of the spiritual decline of the Church are exhibited by the partial and frequent abandonment of the free-seat system in its houses of worship; and in the substitution of choir singing and instrumental performances for congregational praise; by the reading instead of preaching of sermons; by the building of extravagantly costly churches, and resorting to improper modes of Church support, such as Church fairs, picnics, donation parties, etc.
The movement for the organization of this independent body had its commencement within the bounds of the Genesee Conference (NY.) of the Methodist Episcopal Church. A number of ministers of that body had written and spoken against these alleged departures from the primitive faith of Methodism. By the year 1855 a state of feeling had been engendered which resulted in acrimonious disputes,. accusations, Church trials, etc., and finally, in the year 1858, in the expulsion of the Revelation B. T. Roberts and the Rev. Joseph M'Creery on a charge of contumacy. Mr. Roberts had been tried the previous year by his Conference for alleged "immoral and unchristian conduct." (Said conduct consisted in publishing an article in the Northern Independent entitled "New-school Methodism," in which the writer set forth views such as have been recited above, and which he offered to retract and confess as publicly as they had been promulgated if proved untrue or incorrect.) His article was assumed to be slanderous, however, and he was found guilty, and was sentenced to be rebuked by the bishop. The contumacy charged against him in the following year consisted in publishing and circulating a second edition of New-school Methodism, and a pamphlet signed by George W. Estes, which gave a short account of the trial of the year preceding. On this charge (which was disproved as to the publishing), and on the testimony of one witness (whose veracity was impeached) as to the circulation, Mr. Roberts, in connection with one or two colleagues, was expelled from the Genesee Conference and the Methodist Episcopal Church. This proceeding was regarded as a measure of high-handed persecution by many ministers and laymen of the Church, and during the ensuing year one hundred and ninety- five prominent laymen met in convention at Albion, Orleans County, NY., and passed resolutions expressing their entire and unabated confidence in the expelled preachers, and recommending them to continue to labor for the salvation of souls. This sympathy of the laymen was, shared by many of the ministers of the Conference, and this was so publicly expressed that at the ensuing Conference four of them were expelled on charges of "contumacy," while two others were located for the same cause. A large number of the lay members were also excluded from the Church. The ensuing General Conference, held at Buffalo in 1860, was respectfully petitioned by fifteen hundred members of the Methodist Episcopal Church within the bounds of the Conference from which these expulsions had taken place to investigate the judicial action of said Conference in relation to these matters. A committee was appointed for this purpose; but was finally discharged. B. T. Roberts had appealed from both of the decisions of the Conference in his case. The first only was entertained, and on that, "The verdict of reproof," the appeal committee stood equally divided. The other appeal was not entertained, Thus these ministers and members were shut out of the Church. As they believed that the causes which had led to their expulsion existed more or less in all the other churches bearing the Methodist name, they felt compelled to organize a new denomination, that would, in their judgment, more fully carry out the purposes and designs of Methodism.*
* In adherence to our rule respecting denominational articles, we have permitted our contributor to state his case in his own way. Justice to all parties concerned, however, requires us to add that several of the above statements relative to the origin of the Church in question are made from a partisan point of view, and consequently fail to give a fair representation of the grounds of controversy. This is true, at least, in the following particulars: (1) The original difficulty grew out of a spilt of censoriousness and insubordination exhibited by the parties in question. (2) The expulsion of the ministers from the Annual Conference was in accordance with the regular forms of ecclesiastical discipline; and the private members were dropped, in accordance with an episcopal decision, after they had really abandoned their former communion. (3) The appeal to the General Conference was dismissed, as being unsustained by adequate reasons. In all these proceedings, the Church from which they were excluded acted in the sovereign right of self-defense, and its legitimate authorities mere the ultimate judges of the necessity and propriety of the course pursued. Those who had incurred the penalty had therefore no just cause to complain of the action taken, however severe it might seem to them.-ED.
II. Organization, Doctrines, etc.-In the formation of the new Church, while everything calculated to sustain and cherish the original. spirit of Methodism has been carefully retained, care has been taken to. incorporate into its modes of government everything shown by the progress of Methodism for a century past to be necessary. The Episcopacy is abandoned, and general superintendency substituted; the incumbents of the office are elected every four years. Quadrennial, Annual, and Quarterly Conferences are retained as in the parent body, while the last addition to the machinery of the Methodist Episcopal government, viz. the District Conference, adopted in 1872, has been in use among the Free Methodists from their beginning. In all the before-named Church courts a number of laymen, equal to the ministry, are admitted, and their right to speak and vote is fully guaranteed. The official board is retained, and there is provision for annual meetings. of all members of the societies for the appointment of delegates to the Annual Conferences, and stewards. Class- meetings are held, and attendance is a condition of membership in the Church. The preachers in charge nominate and the classes elect the class- leaders. The office of presiding elder is retained, but the name of the officer is district chairman.
The articles of faith adopted are the same as those of the Methodist Episcopal Church, with two additions, designed to secure uniformity of belief, and guard against the introduction of errors on the important points to which they relate. The first is on entire sanctification, and the first part is in the words of John Wesley, viz.: "Justified persons, while they do not outwardly commit sin, are nevertheless conscious of sin still remaining in the heart. They feel a natural tendency to evil, a proneness to depart from God, and cleave to the things of earth. Those that are sanctified wholly are saved from all inward sin-from evil thoughts and evil tempers. No wrong temper, none contrary to love remains in the soul. All their thoughts, words, and actions are governed by pure love. Entire sanctification takes place subsequently to justification, and is the work of God wrought instantaneously upon the consecrated, believing soul. After a soul is cleansed from all sin, it is then fully prepared to grow in grace" (Discipline, "Articles of Religion," ch. i, § 1, p. 23). This doctrine is regarded as of so much importance that no person is admitted to the full membership of the Church who does not endorse it, and pledge himself definitely to seek diligently the experience thereof. No minister -would be tolerated in the body who could be truthfully regarded as. out of accordance in views or teaching therewith.
The second new article of faith is on future reward and punishment, and reads as follows: "God has appointed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness by Jesus Christ, according to the Gospel. The righteous shall have in heaven an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away. The wicked shall go away into everlasting punishment, where their worm dieth not, and their fire is not quenched" (Discipline, "Articles of Religion," ch.-i, § 1, p. 23).
A noteworthy difference of polity exists between this and all other Methodist bodies in respect to admitting members on probation. None are received simply on expressing "a desire to flee from the wrath to come," but all are required to give evidence of such a desire by confessing a "saving faith in Christ." In other words, none are added to the Church, even on probation, unless it is believed that they "are saved." Free Methodists claim that much of the defection alleged to have taken place in the Methodist Episcopal and other churches is due to the fact that multitudes have joined the Church as seekers of salvation, but have gone no further spiritually.
It is also definitely required of all who join the Free Methodist Church that they shall lay aside all superfluous ornaments in dress, "laying aside gold, pearls, and costly array" (Discipline, ch. i, § 3, I 4). That they shall keep free from connection with all societies requiring an oath, affirmation, or promise of secrecy as a condition of membership therein (ibid. ¶[ 5). ,Also that they shall refrain from the use of all intoxicating liquors, and from the use of tobacco, except as medicine (ibid. p. 31, If 4).
III. Present Condition, etc. — The progress of the denomination is rapid, considering the bold stand it makes against many customs and usages quite popular even in the churches, and the nature of the requirements made of those who become members. During the first years of its history it had to encounter some of the difficulties which beset early Methodism in the form of wild fanaticism and a spirit of insubordination to proper church regulations, and it suffered considerably from the doings and sayings of some who were never members of the Church, but who, taking advantage of the circumstances under which it was formed, and acting somewhat in connection with its movements, promulgated ideas and encouraged practices contrary to pure Gospel; but the young denomination has had power to shake off these parasites, and free itself from these incumbrances, and bids fair to march on its way successfully in the mission of spreading scriptural holiness as understood by Wesley and his immediate coadjutors. The religious services of the Free Methodists are generally characterized by the warmth and fervor so noticeable among early Methodists. Congregational singing is universal.
The Free Methodist Church is at present composed of seven Annual Conferences, embracing portions of nearly every Northern state in the Union. The following is an abstract. of statistics taken from the reports of. the Conferences for the year ending September, 1890; Members, -208,861; travelling preachers, 700; local preachers, 159; Sabbath-schools, 155; scholars, 4894; teachers, 973; value of Church property, $263,550.
Two educational institutions have been started under. the auspices of the Church, one at North Chili, Monroe County, N. Y., the other at Spring Arbor, Michigan. These are conducted with strict reference to the principles and usages of the people by whom they are sustained, and bid fair to become successful.
The publication of a monthly magazine was commenced by the Revelation B. T. Roberts in the year 1860, entitled The. Earnest Christian, devoted to the advocacy of Bible holiness. It has been from the first well sustained, and, though it is an exponent of the principles taught by Free Methodists, is still conducted as an independent enterprise, and regarded as an unsectarian publication. It has a large circulation outside the Church, which supplies its chief patronage. A weekly paper, entitled The Free Methodist, and edited by the Revelation Levi Wood, was started in the interests of the denomination Nov. 2,1867. This also is a private enterprise, though depending on the patronage of the body for support. It is now published at Chicago, Ill., and its present editor is the Revelation L. Bailey. It has a very large circulation.
At present the labors of the Free Methodist Church are -confined to the poor and comparatively uneducated classes of the community, and its ministers are mostly drawn from them. It can scarcely claim much denominational literature. The Revelation E. Bowen, DD., wrote a history, entitled The Origin of the Free Methodist Church, which is rather a plain, straightforward statement of historical facts than an attempted literary monument. The Revelation B. T. Roberts, who has from its organization been general superintendent of the body, having been thrice re-elected to that position, graduated at Middletown, Conn., and is a writer of considerable power. His editorials, tracts, and essays display argumentative ability, and the faculty of uttering truths concisely.