The Vision and Founding of the Free Methodist Church: Separation from the Methodist Episcopal Church Skit

This is a short skit I wrote for the 150th anniversary of the Free Methodist denomination this past August. I’ve found that creatively writing out some of the historic details helps me better understand the history and passion of the individuals I’m researching. Feel free to reproduce this play at your own church, just make sure to give me credit as the author. I’m basing this off the honor system. Minor changes to staging or script are permitted.

Cast:

Narrator 1

Narrator 2

Genesee Conference Delegate

B.T. Roberts

Ellen Roberts

Trial Observers (2 to 3)

Stage Setting: Two podiums (or music stands) on the right and left sides of the stage for the narrators. Center Stage there is a small table and chairs with three to four folding chairs a short distance in front of it (leave room for B.T. Roberts to stand center stage between table and chairs)

Lighting: Sanctuary lights are dimmed for the audience and slightly lowered on stage to allow the spotlight to be seen. Lighting should be minimal to focus attention on the scenes unfolding and help draw the audiences’ attention away from the people next to them and towards the speakers on stage. When lighting direction says to switch lights off to darkness this only applies to stage area for changing scenes. Audience lighting should always remain on.

Narrator 1: (stage left at podium) In 1860 as the tensions escalated in the United States and the Civil War loomed on the horizon, the Free Methodist Church was founded. It was a time of not only national unrest, but of unrest in the Methodist Episcopal Church (forerunner of the Methodist Church). As the church began to turn away from the holiness principles that had been emphasized by founder John Wesley, a defender of Biblical equality and holiness lifestyle emerged – B.T. Roberts. Roberts believed that every human being had the right to be part of the body of Christ. In an era where the Methodist Episcopal Church refused to strongly denounce slavery and the poor were often excluded from churches, Roberts sought to return to the spirit of Wesley’s time when Methodism was a religious movement of circuit riding preachers, open air meetings and holiness living. Methodism should not be defined not by a church building but by a group of individuals united in faith and serving Christ in the community.

Narrator 2: (stage right at podium) To understand the significance of Roberts convictions and the founding of the Free Methodist Church we will need to return to the Genesee Conference of 1858 where Roberts is accused of trying to reform the Methodist Episcopal Church against the will of the leadership.

(Setting: Stage is dark; then lights slowly focus on a man sitting behind a table, B.T. Roberts stands in front of him and three to four people, including Ellen Roberts, sit in chairs behind Roberts on stage)

Genesee Conference Delegate: It has come to the attention of the Genesee Conference that you, Benjamin Titus Roberts, have over the past few years been undermining the authority of the Methodist Episcopal Church. The Conference therefore charges Roberts with the following indiscretions: 1. UnChristian and immoral conduct in the distribution of a pamphlet by George Estes entitled “New School Methodism” which accuses the leadership of this conference of consciously turning away from the teachings of John Wesley 2. In the pamphlet calling the members of this conference a “monster power” which is writhing in slimy folds around the church of God and crushing out its life. 3. For refusing to reform after admonishments at the last conference against speaking out in print against the leadership and teachings of the Genesee Conference (Genesee conference delegate looks uncomfortable during Roberts’ speech.)

Roberts: My attempts to bring the issue of my “immoral and unchristian conduct” to the General Conference in two years has not been heeded. As this conference wishes to decide this matter here and now. Last year when I was first convicted of undermining the Methodist Episcopal Church I felt that trial was a farce, and that decision an outrage. Fifty-two men voted me guilty of “immoral and unchristian conduct” when I knew I was not guilty. Galileo was once compelled by a council that claimed as much wisdom and infallibility as this body of ministers can, to retract his statement that the earth moved instead of the sun. But after his retraction, he was heard to say in an under tone, “but the earth does move after all.” Their saying our planet stands still, did not make it so. Voting a man immoral does not render him immoral…nor could I ever persuade myself that those who voted me guilty of immorality in reality believed this to be the case. Yet these same men who voted me guilty voted to pass my character and allow me to still preach the gospel. I must believe then, that they voted me guilty when they did not believe this to be the case; or, it is their deliberate judgment, expressed in the most solemn manner, that immorality does not unfit a man for being a minister of Jesus Christ!

(Roberts and delegate step to the background, spotlight fades from them, and focuses on Ellen Roberts)

Ellen Roberts: (stands up and faces audience. As Ellen talks have the spotlight on Ellen grow brighter until the end of her speech – symbolizing the Power of God in spite of trouble) When the conference first took up my husband, Benjamin’s case, I didn’t think I could stand it. I asked God to give me nerves like steel and make me like brass that I might be able to sit there unmoved and here it all. Bless His name; He has answered my prayer. I don’t know what the future holds – if Benjamin will be expelled. The future is dark, though we both constantly engage in prayer, interceding to God for guidance. (Ellen pauses) The other night God gave me a vision – we were in a terrible storm in a boat laden with many people. IN the direction we were going it was calm, the sky was so blue and the water so clear. There was another boat and it was going all speed in the direction of the storm till it was lost from our sight in the fog, rain and commotion. While we are in the midst of the storm, I have faith we are heading towards sunlight… (Ellen stands on stage looking to heaven for a couple seconds with spotlight on her slowly fading to darkness)

(Spotlight turns to Narrator 1)

Narrator 1 (at podium stage left): Robert’s passionate defense did not soften the hearts of his accusers. The conference leadership voted 54-33 to expel Roberts from the Methodist Episcopal Church. The lay leaders of the Genesee Conference rose up in protest of the decisions of the bishop and pastors. Several lay leaders conferences were held. Tensions escalated as more pastors who favored Roberts call for to reform the Methodist Episcopal Church were expelled from the denomination. Finally, in 1860 the Methodist Episcopal General Conference chose to ignore the expulsions of Roberts and other ministers and the complaints of the lay leaders. The reformers had no other option but to officially split from the Methodist Episcopal Church- forming the Free Methodist denomination.

Narrator 2 (at podium stage right): Throughout the 150 year history of the denomination the Free Methodist Church has stood firm on the call to complete equality through grace and a holiness lifestyle. B.T. Robert’s devoted his life to calling Christians back to a holiness lifestyle that did not discriminate against gender, race or class. As Roberts noted, the life of a Christian is an uncharted road where we must depend on Christ to light our path. (Off stage hear the voice of B.T. Roberts saying) Two paths were distinctly marked out before me. I saw I might be a popular preacher, gain applause, do but little good in reality, and at last lose my soul. Or I saw that I might take the narrow way, declare the whole truth as it is in Jesus, meet with persecution and opposition, but see through a work of grace go on and gain Heaven.

*Based on historical facts recounted in Howard Snyder’s book Populist Saints and the archives at the Marston Memorial Historical Center

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