The powerful example of early Free Methodist women has been having a deep impact on me. As I’ve looked over the archives of the 1890 debate on ordaining women and saw the fiery response of women such as Ida Gage defend her right to ministry and read about the example of Ellen Roberts, who though not ordained served as a pastor alongside her husband B.T. Roberts, I can’t help but feel that the way I live my life is sadly lacking in comparison. I don’t usually like to be self-reflexive on this blog. I prefer to keep my opinions to the interpretation of rhetorical texts, but as I try to illustrate Ellen Roberts passion for holiness, I probably will end up offering a few personal reflections of my own.
Ellen Roberts was born into a family that as she notes in her 1861 testimony were not “pious parents.” Her parents could be considered marginally Christian, attending a Presbyterian church. By her teen years Ellen moved to New York City to live with her uncle George Lane, a prominent Methodist publisher. As Ellen notes, she struggled with what it meant to be a Christian from an early age. Was Christianity cultural, personal – what exactly was a Christian called to do?
Her aunt and uncle’s example led her to a deep conviction that she needed to be saved. As Ellen notes, “During a protracted effort in the Green Street M. E. Church I went forward to the altar for prayers, and thought if I could get religion I would. I did not then see that if was in the way. I tried to find the Savior. Being exceedingly timid I feared to open my mind to any one, and thus did not receive the help I might have done.”
According to Ellen, about a year later she was again convicted at a camp meeting and responded. Yet, for Ellen sanctification was not a one-time event. Throughout her life it was a continual struggle of her will against God’s; a process of repenting, resubmitting and allowing God to work through her.
As a far from perfect individual, it is encouraging for me to know that faith is not static. As we change and grow and struggle God continues to stay with us, pushing us and reminding us that He’s right there looking over our shoulder, ready to remind of us His calling to live out our faith.
After Ellen married B.T. Roberts, she was thrilled to serve alongside him in ministry. Yet, the death of two of her children at young ages and continual physical problems came in the way of her ministry and led her into a state of depression. In her times of health she notes how she often would forget what her calling really was:
God kept me by his power. I found, as my family cares increased, a constant tendency to excuse myself from working for God, except in my family, and outside of that as circumstances would allow.
The Lord suffered me to come once to come to the boarders of the grave, and there I saw work, work in the vineyards of the Lord – souls perishing. I promised the Lord that if he would spare my life, I would live to work for Him.
The things of this world were as small dust compared to the great work of saving souls.
I was brought where I could see only eternity and souls going to hell. My family cares were out of sight; I was conscious that I was at death’s door. Oh! Such fountains of living water as I saw and my soul panting to get to them; but I felt I would rather live to work, and began to recover. As soon as I could I went to the house of God and was in meetings from December till March. We saw many souls saved and sanctified.”
Ellen Roberts had amazing perseverance and faith to continue despite so much personal grief and physical hardship. One point I want to stress is that she, for awhile, put her ministry aside to care for her family. If you read Populist Saints by Howard Snyder you find out that Ellen and B.T. Roberts had to have help in the house to keep up with both their ministry and their children. Yet, I don’t think Ellen’s example should be considered out of the ordinary. If a woman feels called to serve in the church, then it should be the calling of other people in the congregation (and maybe some extra help from her husband) to help the family with other responsibilities they might have. Housework and children should not hinder the call, and perhaps that is one of the most important parts of Ellen’s legacy. Her life-long desire for balance was not an easy task, but one that she never gave up on.
**Ellen Roberts’ testimony was printed in the 1861 September issue of The Earnest Christian. You can read it in its entrity at the Marston Memorial Historical Center’s website