Ellen Stowe Roberts: Co-Founder of Free Methodism

Benjamin Titus (B.T.) Roberts is known as the founder of Free Methodism. Yet, standing quietly beside him was his wife Ellen Stowe Roberts. While B.T. Roberts was traveling, preaching, dedicating new churches and attending annual conferences his wife Ellen was back at home at Chili Seminary. While she traveled with him sometimes, her impact on Free Methodism rests in her gentle spirit and quiet witness. I firmly believe that when we note who founded Free Methodism both B.T. and Ellen should be given credit in the same breath. Ellen helped shape B.T. Roberts theology through her connections to Phoebe Palmer and the holiness movement, and she served as B.T.’s spiritual and intellectual equal. She was his sounding board and constant support. To acknowledge the contributions and influence of Ellen Stowe Roberts I want to share some quotes from the February 28, 1905, Free Methodist magazine. The issue was a tribute to Ellen in celebration of her eightieth birthday. As the editor of The Free Methodist explains no one in the Roberts family knew ahead of time that this special issue was coming out and the staff “took special pleasure in thus surprising her and them.” A collection of the articles she wrote for the Earnest Christian magazine are included in the issue, as well as a few tributes from friends and collogues whom she influenced.

Reading through Ellen’s writings it is easy to spot an incredible sensitivity to spiritual issues. In her “Relief in Work” article Ellen tells a story of two camp meetings she had to choose between. Both were being held at the same time. She wanted to go to one of them, but had no desire to attend the other meeting. Yet, she didn’t allow her personal preferences to dictate which meeting she should attend. Instead she explains how she came to a decision:

“I sought to know the will of the Lord; for I Iong since learned that it would not do to go always according to our own inclinations. I found the Spirit of the Lord directing me to the meeting I would not have chosen. I have learned also that good is the will of the Lord. I went cheerfully, gladly, but as I went on the ground, the enemy of my soul met me with a suggestion. ‘What good can come of your being here?’ He suggested many reasons why there could be no good result. I listened a moment and he talked on and on. I did not at first realize it was the enemy. He came in like a flood upon me. I tried to look to Jesus, but could not get my eye fixed on him.”

Ellen goes on to note that she continually struggled against discouragement and lies the devil was telling her. She prayed to God but found no solace. However, hadn’t God called her to this camp meeting – the very meeting she hadn’t wanted to attend? She continued on and the next day decided, that despite still feeling no direct revelation from God, she would talk to camp goers one on one and ask about their salvation.  What she went on to do was remarkable:

“I went and talked to them as I met them. I did not select out of the crowd, but as they came along. I spoke to all classes, from the gray-headed sinner down to the little child. I had not gone far before I felt a calmness and quietness entering my soul, and it increased as I warned and exhorted those I met; and testified to Jesus. Bless His name! Satan flees when we wage an aggressive warfare. I obtained from many the promise of seeking the Lord at once; others said they would return to their father’s house. My heart was melted over many sad stories of backsliding from God. Thus I spent the hour between morning and afternoon service. Jesus had said to the wind and the waves, ‘Peace be still’ and ‘There was a great calm’ in my soul.” (p.3)

Ellen Stowe Roberts’ testimony at the camp meeting illustrates her knowledge of scripture, her ability to be in-tune with the spirit, and the strength of her faith. She was a woman of spiritual power, just as was her husband. Both Ellen and B.T. were gifted writers, and Ellen’s ability to open up her soul and life to the critique of readers and use her own struggles as a way to uplift and inspire other Christians is an incredibly courageous act.

Two personal tributes in the issue further illustrate her impact on early Free Methodism as well as her impact as a Christian witness.

Ellen Stowe Roberts

Mrs. Catherine Cady:

“I do not remember the first time I ever met Mrs. E.L. Roberts, but I will remember the first time the Holy Spirit drew me to her, and put an untold, unearthly love into my heart for her. She was a stranger to me and I began to talk my experience to her. She has ever been true to the Holy Ghost. There is no policy about her. Her spiritual discernment is clear and as sharp as the sword of the Spirit. I have never know her to be mistaken in her judgment of people and their religious state, although in her modesty she has often not expressed her opinions of them. She has never any flattery for people, but she looks out for their external welfare. She has been the truest of friends to me. For over forty years our fellowship has been uninterrupted.”

Adelaide Beers (Beers went on to work for the Free Methodist Church on the West Coast):

She wrote about her experience attending Chili Seminary and boarding with B.T. and Ellen Roberts.

“One of my first impressions, which has been lasting, was the fact that her life was fully given up to the leading of the Holy Spirit. If there is one thing she would regret more than another about the condition of our beloved Zion, it is that so few have learned the inner secret to wholly following the Lord. This she impressed upon me most forcibly by her words and which was demonstrated in her life. If the Lord led her to administer comfort she was quick to obey, and if she felt that reproof was the best thing, she never kept back a word that was needful for any of us. I have often thought of how much higher was a church might stand to-day in spiritual attainment if we would only practice what Mother Roberts preaches and live in the spirit as she certainly does.” (p.4).

Let us not forget that B.T. Roberts did not found the Free Methodist Church on his own. He worked side by side with Ellen and with other early Free Methodists to build a denomination that continues to be missionaly minded, putting the needs of others before our own. It is too easy to gender Christian leadership to favor the leaders who are out front and center, such as B.T. Roberts or other early male leaders in the denomination. However, leadership styles take many different forms. Ellen Roberts’ leadership was one of deep spirituality, love and quiet leadership, which impacted countless Free Methodists and other people she came into contact with. In addition, the perception that she was just a “helpmeet” and not a “partner” to B.T. Roberts needs to be dispelled. She co-edited their magazine The Earnest Christian, wrote for it regularly, served in leadership at Chili Seminary, spoke at camp meetings. She choose to remain quite and in the background, but that does not make her any less equal or less important than other early Free Methodists. However, this is not to say that women’s leadership roles are only in the background.  Godly leadership roles do not distinguish by gender. Men can be quiet and humble in leadership and women can be front and center, prophesying and preaching regularly. The variety of leadership styles and spiritual gifts in early Free Methodism illustrates how a group of godly men and women can come together and build a denomination which has endured 150 years.

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