In our conversation, I reminded her of the history of the Free Methodist Church and the reason we are called “Free” Methodists. Actually there are a handful of specified reasons for the word “Free” being attached to the front end of the denominational name. But a primary reason for the use of the word “Free” focuses on a decision that a group of Methodist ministers made in 1858 to take a stand against slavery. Pastor Benjamin T. Roberts attended the Annual Conference that year and attempted to express his concerns on a number of issues within the Methodist Episcopal Church (United Methodist Church today). He was unable to persuade the powers that existed to change their position on slavery. He and several of his fellow pastors were removed from the rolls of the church. They were forced out because they believed adamantly that slavery was a sin and needed to end.
Those who are called Methodists are often referred to as Wesleyans, for the simple reason that such people followed or adhered to the teachings of the Reverend John Wesley, who is attributed by some historians as having prevented England from going through the ravages of revolution which France experienced just a few miles across the English Channel. God so used this man and his preaching that England literally became a transformed nation.
So one evening I pulled a volume off my bookshelf entitled, History of the Free Methodist Church, Vol 1, and perused the section describing the history about the Methodist Church and its spiritual decline by tolerating slavery. Let the record be clear as to Wesley’s stance concerning slavery. The following statement should be sufficient, written by Wesley in 1774. He referred to the heinousness of slavery as “that execrable [disgusting] sum of all villainies commonly called the slave trade.” He wrote a tract, “Thoughts on Slavery,” which he distributed during his travels on horseback (circuit riding) all over England. This tract caused Wesley to fall into wide disfavor among the publishers of newspapers, and among political leaders and leaders of industry. “Its publication brought upon him much censure and opposition, and also subjected him to great ridicule in the various publications of the time.”
The tract that Wesley wrote inflamed the nation, pricking its conscience, and awakening a righteousness that had been suppressed because of the lucrative aspect of slavery. Wesley wrote the tract “before the first society for the abolition of slavery was formed, and seventeen years before the efforts made by [William] Wilberforce and others to abolish the system of slavery under British rule.”
Only four days before his death, March 2, 1791, Wesley “addressed a dying exhortation” to the Parliamentarian, William Wilberforce, known as the British Abolitionist, toppling the evil system of slavery throughout the British Empire. The following is a portion of that exhortation to Wilberforce. “Unless the Divine power has raised you up to be as Athanasius against the world, I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise, in opposition to that execrable villainy, which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature. Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But, ‘If God be for you, who can be against you?’ Are all of them together stronger than God? ‘O, be not weary in well doing!’ Go on, in the name of God, and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.”
Tragically, at the very time that England was ridding itself of the stain of slavery (circa 1800), the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) in America was forgetting its founder’s Abolitionist stance. Over the next several decades, American Methodists, as well as other Christian denominations, slipped into “a compromising attitude and a softened tone respecting this great evil.” Ministers who spoke out against slavery, or attended Abolition meetings, or demonstrated sympathy toward ending this egregious, inhumane policy toward another race of people was met with banishment and defrocking by the church.
Having been expelled from the MEC, Reverend B.T. Roberts and his gutsy band of ministers and their wives, felt led of God to establish a new denomination in 1860, known as the Free Methodist Church. A key tenant of the faith is, “No man has a right to own another man. Every man has a right to be free.”
Unlike the British Empire’s peaceful transition, the fledgling America endured the ravages of a Civil War, 1861-65, over slavery at the cost of nearly 700,000 men.