When I tell other academics that I’m studying the rhetoric of the early Free Methodist movement I get responses such as “Free Methodists? What is a Free Methodist?” or “I’ve never even seen a Free Methodist Church.” I’ll grant that the denomination is small. Currently in North America the Free Methodist Denomination (as of 2007) estimates membership at 74,000, and worldwide there are about 730,000 members. Yet, this relatively small denomination has a rich history that has been largely unexplored by historians and rhetoricians outside the denomination. I am thrilled that this year marks the 150th anniversary of the denomination’s founding. The bishops are pushing this year’s general conference in New York to be a time of spiritual revival and reflection on our history. General Conference happens only every four years and a 150th anniversary is something to celebrate. Yet, the struggles of Free Methodist women and the denomination’s strong history of women’s involvement is overlooked and not understood by many Free Methodists because it is not taught in our churches. In my archival research at the Marston Memorial Historical Center I’ve found numerous calls throughout the 20th century for denominational education about our history and women’s involvement. Yet, I don’t feel this call has been addressed, even if it has been noted in numerous denominational publications throughout the past fifty years. A few examples of the call to remember Free Methodist ties to women’s right in ordination and equality in home:
- The July 1976 Asbury Seminarian devoted an entire issue to the “Wesleyan Message in the Life and Thought of Today” many of issues dealing with women’s involvement in ministry The Asbury Seminarian 1976 Women in Ministry Issue
- The Free Methodist magazine Light and Life published a series of articles in the February 1981 issue including articles by Free Methodist historian Howard Snyder “Woman’s Place: I Pray that the Church will Repent from What we Have Done to Women” and “An End to Tyranny: B.T. Roberts on Women’s Rights” Snyder’s articles are not only addressing issues of women’s marginalization within the Free Methodist Church but also in evangelical society at large. Conservative voices such as Jerry Falwell and James Dobson have gone a long way in promoting traditional gender roles for women that do not allow room for them to pursue senior leadership positions in churches Woman’s Place
- In the May 1991 Light and Light Linda Adams a FM minister published an article “Stop Pushing the Sisters off the Scaffold!” (see blog roll at the bottom of the homepage for link to article) Adams notes that women need to “Stop bowing to the their culture and begin standing boldly to speak for Christ”
Yet, despite these and other articles, including the most recent Light and Life, which reflects on the history and struggle of women to gain official ordination in the denomination, there is a lack of women stepping forward to pursue senior pastoral positions. Old stereotypes still abound where women are often seen as best suited for children’s ministries. There is nothing wrong with being called to serve children, but women’s roles in the church can extend and should be allowed to extend beyond to realms of traditional women’s ministries.
As I look through the nineteenth century and early 20th century archives of The Free Methodist Magazine (now Light and Life) I see a dialectical tension in the denomination between the cultural norms of conservative Christian culture, which advocate for traditional gender roles and keeping women’s sphere of influence in the home, and the passionate, Spirit filled pleas of women and men who see the potential impact Godly women can have in denominational leadership. This tension and pushback against what was perhaps seen as secular society’s push for gender equality and voting rights for women in the early 20th century led many men at the 1890 General Conference to refuse women the rights of ordination. This fear and dare I say it? An inability to be secure enough in your faith to allow radical spiritual renewal that contradicts elements of conservative Christian culture prevented women for gaining ordination in 1890 and still remains a barrier to accepting and encouraging women to pursue ministry today.
As I look back at our Free Methodist history I see amazing examples of women’s roles in the denomination – Eliza Suggs and Emma Ray are two examples I have written about extensively. In North America we still struggle to gain acceptance for women in the pulpit. I remember this past summer my husband and I preached a sermon together about outreach. We co-serve as outreach directors at our church and after the sermon several people thanked us for the thought-provoking message we had presented. My husband was thanked for his “sermon.” I was thanked for my “talk.” The tension that exists today about women in the pulpit and in other senior leadership positions is not new. It’s been a continual struggle the entire 150 years of our denomination’s history. Yet, we cannot forget our history or this struggle. It is through remembering and reflecting on the past and educating our congregations that we can begin to changes the hearts and minds of people who view the term “Senior Pastor” and “Man” as synonymous.