Fighting for Gender Equality in the 1880s “Free Methodist”

B.T. Roberts, the founder of the Free Methodist Church, served as editor of the denominational magazine The Free Methodist from 1887-1890. During that time period he featured women’s original articles, ministry reports and testimonials. Even prior to the denomination officially buying the magazine at the 1886 General Conference it was not unusual to see women’s writings featured in the publication. However, with Roberts as editor I can’t help but feel he specifically featured some articles to promote his platform of Biblical gender equality and women’s ordination. His tenure as the magazine’s editor was during a crucial time. The 1890 General Conference was set to discuss ordaining women. The “woman question” had already begun to be debated at the 1886 General Conference and now Roberts had the denominational magazine under his control as well as his independent periodical The Earnest Christian. Many early Free Methodist subscribed to both publications. The Earnest Christian, even more than the denominational magazine, featured numerous female contributors. While Roberts also strived to present a balanced perspective in The Free Methodist the article I’m sharing in this post do illustrate that he was also trying to draw attention to issues of gender equality in both ministry and society at large.

The Free Methodist articles written by women between 1887-1890 served numerous purposes. Clara Wetherald’s articles illustrated the capability of women to serve in senior pastoral roles. Whereas other women’s writing drew attention to the larger question of gender roles that always loomed in the background during this time period. In the June 1, 1887 issue of The Free Methodist a Mrs. Southworth from New York wrote an original article regarding women’s submission entitled “Women.” Southworth ponders why only certain portions of Scripture are stressed by men and not other, particularly when that Biblical passage seems to favor them over women:

There seems to be a particular charm in the word obey, to some minds, when it refers to a wife. I heard a Christian young man say that he believed it was the duty of the wife to obey her husband, and if he ever got married, his wife would have to obey him. Great importance is attached to some portions of Scripture while others just as important seem to be overlooked. Reference is often made to the wife being ‘the weaker vessel;’ but why not give just as much importance to the other part of the verse ‘giving honor unto the wife,” Please study the definition of honor, and see where the wife will stand. (2)

Southworth noted in her article that she was not speaking on the issue of women governing in the church, but on the general welfare and status of women in society. Through the ministry reports of women like Wetherald and Southworth, Roberts is able to tie in the large social issue of women’s place in society to women’s place in the church.

In the August 7, 1889, Free Methodist Roberts published the graduation oration at Chili Seminary. The speech was given by Harriet D.W. and focused on the role of women in the church and society. As founder of Chili Seminary in 1866, this was a sly move by Roberts to draw attention to his school and promote gender equality. D. W. states in her graduation address that Christianity allowed women to gain more and more rights in both the church and society at large. Towards the end of the speech she notes that women have already been given the right to vote in England, but not in the United States or in the church:

All that is due woman has not yet been awarded her; but the tide of progress is still rising, and friends of the cause believe that as Christ’s teachings are being better understood, the day, not far distant, approaches when the avenues of learning will be thronged by women of great intellect, every employment and position of usefulness open to her and her rightful position granted without controversy. Her indispensible help in moral reforms is acknowledged and the Christian sentiment of giving honor to whom honor is due is prevailing (498)

D.W.’s speech was only the beginning of a wave of articles published in 1890 about the “woman issue” and as the 1890 General Conference began to approach more women writers filled the pages of The Free Methodist, urging conference delegates to vote in favor of women’s ordination. As we know from my earlier posts women were not ordained and had to wait until 1974 to be granted full-status as elders in the denomination. Yet, the writing  of these women and Roberts’ role as editor illustrate that Free Methodism was not sitting in the background on these important social issues, but helping lead the way in nineteenth century evangelical culture.

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2 thoughts on “Fighting for Gender Equality in the 1880s “Free Methodist”

  1. I’m glad to know about this blog and want to learn more about you and your context. I prepared and taught many women in ministry classes over the years, wrote the paper for the fmcna website called “Wesleyan Perspectives on Women in Ministry,” and a booklet for the FMs with David Kendall. Now I am writing a chapter for a three volume set on feminist biblical interpretation in an evangelical context. In it I will stress the Wesleyan context which is often ignored in the debates between Piper/Grudem et al and the evangelical feminists.

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