As the nineteenth century ended the Free Methodist Church began to shift into a period of extended legalism, creating an insular society that little resembled the dynamic, Spirit-filled early history of the denomination. By the 1894 General Conference there was a push back against evangelists and a focus not on sinners but on saints within the church. The massive revivals that spread Free Methodism across the country began to become fewer as the denomination focused on legalistic practices such as simple dress and strict Christian guidelines. Ida Gage’s daughter Edith Gage Tingley illustrates the increasing tension between charismatic faith and legalism in her memoirs. As she notes while the family was at Spring Arbor Seminary for the year (around 1907-1908) some students were so concerned that buttons were “worldly” that they removed all the buttons from their clothes and used hook and eyes instead.
Shifting Culture at the Turn of the Century
This shift to legalism didn’t happen over night. Clara Wetherald’s leaving the denomination and joining the Congregationalist Church was one of the earlier signs of the divisions forming between what I term as the radical sect in the Free Methodist Church, which pushed for social and religious reform, and the rest of denomination which was resistant to social change. Thus, by the late 1890s and through the early twentieth century you have an exodus of some of the most vibrant evangelists in the Free Methodist denomination. These individuals would go on to form other holiness denominations and have successful ministries outside of Free Methodism’s fold. Imagine where the denomination could have gone if it had responded instead of resisted the religious reformers in their midst.
These evangelists left for primarily two reasons. First, they felt the Free Methodists were not responding to the changing social tides of American society fast enough. Denominations such as the Congregationalists were willing to ordain women and give them equal access to ministry by the mid nineteenth century. As pro-ordination proponents noted repeatedly in debates at the Free Methodist General Conferences between 1886-1890 the Free Methodist Church was being left behind and its refusal to find a Biblical solution that would allow women equality in the church (which as I’ve noted in previous posts is possible) was ridiculous. There was a disconnect between allowing women social and political equality and spiritual equality. Secondly, the denomination began to strongly push back against the rise of the Pentecostal movement. It was seen as too charismatic and speaking in tongues was something the church did not want to deal with.
As Edith Gage Tingely noted in her memoirs her Free Methodist church in California viewed speaking in tongues as a sign of demonic power. Edith’s oldest son Glenn was gradually pushed out ministry in the Free Methodist Church in the 1920s and 1930s because his preaching was seen as producing radical results, meaning too many people were becoming saved and filled with the Holy Spirit. His ability to turn a dying Free Methodist Church in California around and draw in crowds was seen as suspicious, largely due to the fact that during this time the Pentecostal movement had gained momentum. It was seen a threat to Methodist theology because some Pentecostal evangelists such as William Durham, who was at the famous Azusa Street Revival, felt that entire sanctification was not Biblical and instead pushed for a combination of both Reformed and Wesleyan theology in the Pentecostal movement. He chose to define salvation through a “Finished Works Doctrine.” Simply put, it is the theological belief that God deals with man’s sins at his initial conversion and through accepting Christ we at once are both saved and sanctified.
Moving from Movement to Organization
What really illustrates the loss of spiritual excitement and revivalism in Free Methodism is an account by theological historian Chas Barfoote in his book Amiee Semple McPherson and the Making of Modern Pentecostalism 1890-1926. The Free Methodists outside of Los Angeles in Hermon, California, resorted to nasty, un-Christ like tactics to upset a Pentecostal revival near their church. As Barfoote describes the revival:
“The best selling point for the Pentecostal saints, however, was the fact that ‘you can pray there as loud as you like. There are wooded hills all about which we expect will ring with the songs and prayers of the saints and shouts of new born souls.’ The Apostolic Faith announcement failed to mention that on top of the wooded hills there was a Free Methodist community of Hermon. Because the wooded hills did ‘ring with songs and prayers of the saints and shouts of new born souls,’ often tents were slashed and guy ropes cut in the middle of the night. The Free Methodists were blamed for most of the harassment, although at least one resident was converted by her new noisy neighbors. ‘A woman in the settlement, was told the meetings were of the devil. As the music and shouts of praise wafted up to her Hermon home, she though to herself, ‘so that is the devil, well the devil has some sweet singers.’ She attended the meetings and received the baptism of the Spirit’.” (149)
In religious history revivalism and reform go in cycles. Less than a century previous to the rise of the Pentecostal movement the Free Methodists broke away from the Methodist Episcopal Church because they felt the church was denying the holiness beliefs of John Wesley, which emphasized caring for the poor and access to religion for all. As Christian theological-ethicist Richard Niebuhr notes, “Denominationalism in the Christian church is such an unacknowledged hypocrisy…it represents the accommodation of Christianity to the caste- system of human society… the division of the churches closely follows the division of men into the castes of national, racial and economic groups. It draw the color line in the Church of Christ.’ (154) It is inevitable that as religious movements become more bureaucratic and create a set of organizational structure and rules that the ability of the Holy Spirit to work and continue to transform the denomination diminishes. Instead, the church members feel bound to follow a set of man made rules that, in some ways limit their ability to grow spiritually.
The Free Methodists lost dynamic evangelists and leaders because of their inability to recognize that outward piety does not mean inward holiness. Thankfully we are emerging from an extended period of legalism in the denomination’s history. However, it is foolish for us as Free Methodists to deny that for a time we lost the spirit-filled power of the early Free Methodist movement under B.T. Roberts. When Roberts’ own book Ordaining Women received more attention from people outside the denomination than from within there was a problem. We cannot deny our history, but we can learn from it. What happened in Free Methodist history is not unique. It illustrates a continual cycle in religious organizations that we should be wary of. Too many rules, regulations, and guidelines do not allow room for Spirit-filled communication.
Chas Barfoot. (2011). Amiee Semple McPherson and the Making of Modern Pentecostalism 1890-1926. London: Equinox Press.
Judith Adams. (1977). Against the Gates of Hell: The Story of Glenn Tingley. Christian Publications.
Unpublished memoirs of Edith Gage Tingley.