In 1860 when the United States was on the brink of Civil War the Free Methodist Denomination was founded. One of founding beliefs of the denomination was freedom – freedom for slaves and the poor and the socially forgotten. By breaking off from the Methodist Episcopal Church, which rented pews to wealthy parishioners, refused to denounce slavery and made little effort to reach out to the poor. What I have found interesting in my research is that while faith can be divisive and draw attention to difference, it can also serve as a way of empowering and drawing people together. In the narratives of early Free Methodist women leaders I’ve come across the autobiographies of several African-American women who helped build the denomination during its first 50 years. As historian Howard Snyder (2006) notes, many of these stories have been lost. However, a few have been preserved and their stories are worth exploring.
Free Methodist founder B.T. Roberts envisioned Free Methodism as a populist movement that would make Christianity available to everyone. The inclusion of African-Americans in the early years of the denominations formation illustrates this fact. However, as Snyder notes, while many Free Methodists did share Roberts vision of racial equality there was still prejudice and times when visiting African-Americans were made to unwelcome in a Free Methodist congregation. This point is worth noting to show the denomination was not perfect, but it did attempt to address social and racial issues of its time period that is commendable.
The story of Emma and Lloyd Ray draws attention to the positive aspects of Free Methodist ministry and the populist ideals of the early church leaders. In their autobiography Twice Sold, Twice Ransomed, Emma goes into great detail about the sin she and her husband were living in prior to their conversion. Both Emma and Lloyd were born of slave parents. Lloyd never knew his father and Emma lost her mother soon after the Civil War. As a result of growing up in single parent homes, both Ray and Emma had difficult childhoods where they attended school periodically and worked to support themselves, their parent and siblings. Emma describes as she grew older and was able to work how she become focused on elevating her financial position, forgetting completely about anything spiritual:
I was very proud and had no mother to plan my clothing and I wanted to dress and keep up to the fashion. I am surprised now, that Mrs. T. allowed me to wear such, but as long as the servants were clean, they were allowed to take their choice. Older persons told me that I was too young to wear such things. From that time on, for upwards of twenty-seven years, I wore some style of false hair, changing as the fashions changed. As I grew older I became more vain. No more school for me after leaving Mrs. T. I loved to dress and go to theaters.
Wages were better, my father did not need my help, and the home was paid for. My two younger sisters were old enough to work themselves, and in the meantime the sister older than I and the one younger died, also one brother. I found out that I belonged to a tubercular family. But, notwithstanding, I forgot all about my religious training and all I could think about was having a good time. (p.36).
Emma and Lloyd met in 1881, which she doesn’t give their age at the time; she notes that they were young. Their marriage was very rocky. Emma is blunt in describing their faults and Ray’s drinking:
It would not be very long before it would be the same old drink, the same old devil, the same old sin. I had a temper equal to a tigress. And a drinking man and a woman with a high temper make a home a hell. Many a night have I wept all night and wet my pillow with tears. He would always be sorry afterwards and say, “I will never do it again.” But of course the habit was on him, and his associations were bad, and he had not the power within himself to resist the temptation. (p.38)
As Lloyd and Emma’s narrative unfolds the destruction of alcohol is a continual theme in their story. After Both Emma and Lloyd become Christians, Emma becomes an active member of the Women of Color Temperance Union in Seattle, Washington. They both devote their lives to working with addicts, drunks and the poor in the inner city. In future posts, I want to continue to explore the connections between the Free Methodist denomination and the temperance movement of the late 1900s. While the temperance movement has often been viewed as a failed movement, the movement did serve as platform for women to voice their opinions and influence social change. Many of the first wave feminists who would later become part of the women’s suffrage movement began their advocacy career in the earlier abolitionists and temperance movements.