BT. Roberts’ Up-to-Date Vision of Earnest Christianity

June 11, 2021
  1. T. Roberts’ Up-to-Date Vision of Earnest Christianity

© Howard A. Snyder [Used by Permission]

Author, Populist Saints: B. T. and Ellen Roberts and the First Free Methodists

Visiting Director, Manchester Wesley Research Centre

Manchester, England

Roberts Wesleyan College – September 21, 2016


Benjamin Titus Roberts always insisted that the mission of the Free Methodist Church was “twofold—to maintain the Bible standard of Christianity, and to preach the Gospel to the poor.”[1] He never lost sight of this throughout his many years of life and ministry.

I invite you this morning to consider the relevance of this mission for our lives personally and for the church today.

  1. B.T. Roberts and the Free Methodist Church were in a broad sense part of the Holiness Movement within American Methodism. This movement was committed to the doctrine and experience of entire sanctification as taught by John Wesley and as interpreted by leaders in the nineteenth-century Holiness Movement.

Roberts shared this concern with sanctification—that is, holy living in every dimension of life. Not everyone in the Holiness Movement however shared Roberts’ particular concern with the poor. In general, early Free Methodists embraced a more radical understanding of holiness as well as a more radical commitment to the poor. Sociologically speaking, the energy that powered early Free Methodism was somewhat separate and distinct from that of the broader Holiness Movement which in the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s was centered mostly within the Methodist Episcopal Church.

I. Roberts’ Theological Foundations

Roberts’ fundamental theology was orthodox at all essential points. He stood in the mainstream of historic Christian orthodoxy on key doctrines such as the Trinity, the sovereignty of God, creation, revelation, the divine-human nature of Jesus Christ, salvation by grace through faith in the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus, and the inspiration and authority of the Bible. Blended with these basic doctrines, however, was a set of radical accents which Roberts believed were biblical and essential for restoring Christianity to its New Testament authenticity and vigor. They were the keys to the church experiencing again the dynamic of early Methodism and similar renewal movements down through history, and to the church functioning redemptively in society.

These radical accents were not add-ons. They gave a particular caste to all Roberts’ theology, making it distinctive, if not unique. These accents may be summarized in six propositions. Though not stated by Roberts in this form, they were in fact fundamental convictions:

  1. Jesus and the Bible as Essential Standard

The life and teachings of Jesus Christ, the experience of the New Testament church, and the Bible generally are authoritative and decisively normative for the church in all ages, without compromise. This is what Roberts meant when he said “the Bible is a radical book.”[2] Roberts was aware of the hermeneutical questions this raises and dealt with them forthrightly.

  1. The Church as Redeemed, Holy Community

The church is a community of the redeemed, and as a voluntary human organization should be composed only of those who are converted and who experience or are seeking holiness.

  1. Mission to and with the Poor

Based on Jesus’ example and teaching, the church’s primary mission is to “preach the Gospel to the poor” and “to maintain the Bible standard of Christianity.” This meant, especially, evangelism among the masses, particularly the poor and oppressed; the building of a community of believers among those who respond; the church’s continuing mission to reach the poor; and doctrine tested by Scripture.

  1. The Life of Holiness

The normative Christian life is one of holiness—being baptized with the Holy Spirit, living a life of separation from the sins and popular fashions of the world and in union with the church, ready obedience to all Christian duty, and engaging in the church’s mission. Holiness meant a deep and abiding sense of God’s presence and guidance day by day and the manifestation of the power of the Holy Spirit in times of prayer and public worship.

  1. Responsible Living in the World

Separation from the world does not mean lack of social or cultural engagement. Quite the contrary. Christians are to be salt and light, first through the integrity of their lives and witness individually and communally, but also through “mental culture” and their legitimate roles as citizens and actors in the cultural and economic realms. They must be especially sensitive to issues of justice and the poor.

  1. The Crisis and Process of History

On the one hand life is ongoing crisis, both personally and culturally, because of human rebelliousness and Satanic opposition to God’s purposes. Yet history is a continuing, long-term reality, ultimately in God’s hands. Though Jesus Christ might return at any time and believers should live in that expectancy, yet there is continuity and significance in history. We live in the midst of present crisis, yet confident in God’s ultimate victory.

This was Roberts’ essential theological framework. In many respects it resembles the historic Radical Protestant or Believers’ Church view that is found also, in somewhat modified form, in John Wesley and early Methodism.[3]

These six points are elaborated more fully in Populist Saints.

II. Theological Influences on Roberts

On these points, B. T. Roberts’ fundamental theology was not markedly different from John Wesley’s. It has significant points of contact also with Jonathan Edwards’ theology. Roberts had an orthodox view of the existence and sovereignty of God, of the moral nature of the universe, and of human probation, responsibility, and gracious possibility.

Nevertheless, when we view B. T. Roberts’ theology en toto, we note that for all his avowed intent to follow in the footsteps of John Wesley (and John Fletcher and other Methodist worthies), in some respects Roberts’ theology represented a narrowing of Wesley’s theology—perhaps even a narrowing of Fletcher’s thought, for Fletcher was closer to Wesley, both in time and in theology, than he was to Roberts.

The main contributing influences to this theological narrowing seem to have been Phoebe Palmer and especially Charles Finney, together with the general ethos of the Methodism in which Roberts was raised (including the influence of Wesleyan University President Stephen Olin and revivalist John Wesley Redfield). In the case of Charles Finney, the influence was more indirect than direct, but no less shaping. It came less from Finney’s formally articulated theology than from the ethos fostered by Finney’s early revivalism and the theology that undergirded it and was diffused by it.

The Finney-Palmer influence both constricted Roberts’ theology somewhat and also intensified it at certain points. Crisis tended to overwhelm process, particularly in Christian experience. It seems to me this is the legacy Roberts received primarily from the revival and camp meeting tradition which so shaped his early life. In many ways he transcended this, as seen in his longer view of history, his concern with ongoing reforms in society, and his commitment to Christian education and character formation. It is as though his default position was the priority of the immediate, deeply emotional experience of God’s Spirit—evidence that God was present and blessing through a strong, almost overwhelming sense of the divine presence.

From this perspective Roberts’ theology might be called proto-Pentecostal (in the sense of later Pentecostalism). Roberts of course would have described it as simply being Pentecostal in the proper biblical sense!

Yet in significant ways Roberts transcended this and exhibited a broader perspective. It is this breadth which gives complexity and nuance to Roberts’ theology. This can easily be missed. This is why it is important to see his doctrinal teaching grounded in the soil of his total life and ministry, as I attempt to do in my book Populist Saints.

III. Biblical Christianity and the Gospel for the Poor

As I mentioned, Roberts always said that the mission of the Free Methodist Church was “twofold—to maintain the Bible standard of Christianity, and to preach the Gospel to the poor.” He kept this focus central, even when overburdened with pressing and distracting administrative matters.

Commenting in 1862 on the unfortunate location of the St. Charles, Illinois, Free Methodism church building “at one end of the village,” Roberts said, “Free churches, of all others, should be in a central position, accessible to the poor from all quarters of the town.”[4] Toward the end of that year when the Marengo, Illinois, Free Methodist church building was dedicated, Roberts noted: “The house was crowded . . . and the seal of Divine approbation was set upon the efforts of God’s children, to provide a place where the Gospel could be preached to the poor—a place where the seats are free for all who wish to participate in the worship of God.” He added, “Let us have plain, free [church buildings] or none.”[5]

But what did Roberts really mean by “the gospel to the poor”? Let me clarify how Roberts understood “the poor” and the church’s special mission to them, and also relate this to the doctrine of holiness, or sanctification.

  1. By “the poor,” Roberts meant “the masses,” particularly in distinction from “the rich” who were gaining increased political and economic clout in his day. For Roberts, “the poor” constituted at once a moral and an economic category. He did not speak of a middle class, but rather saw society as divided largely between rich and poor. His concern seems to have been with those who suffer most, and especially with the victims of political and economic injustice.
  2. Roberts’ concern with the poor was related to his economic interests and theories. His economics were a part of his theology, as his book First Lessons on Money makes clear. In this book he presupposes the interrelationship of economic and spiritual principles and argues that economic justice is a primary duty of government.
  3. Roberts’ emphasis on simplicity, sobriety, and plainness of dress also needs to be understood in light of his concern for the poor. Donald Dayton insightfully notes that Free Methodists urged Prohibition in part because [drinking] was perceived to generate poverty and to oppress especially the poor. Simple dress was adopted not primarily for modesty or simplicity, but in an effort to make the poor feel comfortable in church if they could not afford fine clothes or jewelry—a consistent Free Methodist dresses down to go to church! Congregational singing and the banishment of musical instruments from worship was an effort to maintain a more populist style against the emerging cultivated tastes for a “higher class” of music represented by choirs and paid musicians.[6]

As this missional accent on the poor later faded, plain dress tended to develop into a legalism, a sort of mark of spirituality. Even so, in Free Methodism’s first half-century it also signaled solidarity—solidarity internally with one another, first of all, but also solidarity with the poor. Perhaps it is this, more than anything else, that accounts for the remarkable chain of Free Methodist city missions and rescue homes that grew up just before and after 1900. “It was not uncommon for even small Free Methodist congregations to sponsor rescue missions or homes for unwed mothers, hold street meetings, or, at least, circulate religious literature among the poor,” notes William Kostlevy.[7]

For the first two or three generations, Free Methodism was primarily a church of the poor, or at least of the lower middle class. In many towns and smaller cities its plain wood-frame church buildings were found on the “wrong” side of the tracks. Kostlevy notes,

Free Methodists were generally lower-middle-class property owners, although poor people did make up a sizeable part of the total Church membership. Among the poor within the Free Methodist congregations, one could frequently include the pastor. The 1906 religious census indicated that Free Methodist pastors, with an annual salary of $370 were, along with Wesleyan Methodist pastors, Salvation Army officers, and the pastors of a number of predominantly African American Churches, the lowest paid clergy in America.[8]

In other words, Free Methodists continued to be in fact, socioeconomically, more a church of the poor than of the rich or the upper middle class. Douglas Strong posits this as one reason for greater sensitivity to the poor: “Since holiness churches were comprised of the economically poor more often than the increasingly-bourgeois mainline Methodist churches, the holiness folks more easily embraced the causes and struggles of their lower class constituency.”[9] Yet theologically Free Methodists gradually forgot Roberts’ specific mission to the poor.

  1. Roberts’ views on wealth, poverty, and preaching to the poor were essentially those of John Wesley and Francis Asbury. Roberts saw himself as a defender of historic Methodism as much as a reformer. His concern was to be Wesleyan, and in fact his writings contain many echoes of Wesley’s comments on preaching to the poor and his warnings about the dangers of riches. Roberts was also echoing Francis Asbury, who frequently referred to the Methodist mission to the poor. Asbury wrote in 1789, “To begin at the right end of the work is to go first to the poor; these will, the rich may possibly, hear the truth: there are [some people] among us who have blundered here.”[10]

Did B. T. Roberts make any specific theological connection between entire sanctification and evangelizing the poor? Or do these two concerns run, in effect, on separate tracks?

I cannot find that Roberts made any explicit theological connection between sanctification and mission to the poor, other than to claim that both are essential to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Roberts’ basic posture was that the Methodist Church in his day was departing from historic Methodism, and that both the gospel for the poor and entire sanctification were essential parts of the Wesleyan message. In this sense the question really traces back to Wesley himself. For Wesley, both entire sanctification and ministry to and with the poor were grounded in his theology of God’s grace—salvation which is “free for all and free in all.” Thus the conjunction of sanctification and concern for the poor in Roberts was something he inherited. And it was a heritage he was committed to maintain. This is the gospel which must be preached.

There was, however, an inherent logical link between Roberts’ concern for the poor and entire sanctification. The link was Christological. Entire sanctification makes the believer like Jesus Christ. The faithful disciple does the works of Jesus—and Jesus preached the gospel to the poor. “An individual who is holy cannot consistently belong to a Church that despises the poor,” Roberts wrote.[11] Roberts was emphatic on this point. He wrote in 1881, “St. Paul says, ‘Now if any man have not the spirit of Christ he is none of his.’ If we have the spirit of Christ we shall do according to our opportunities and circumstances the work that Christ did. His work among men was teaching the ignorant the way of salvation, preaching the gospel to the poor, and relieving the distressed.”[12]

To Roberts, this was self-evident! Neither he nor other early Free Methodists felt the need to elaborate this connection theologically.

Once Roberts had passed on, however, this was a problem. Partly because Roberts did not make explicit the connection between holiness and reaching the poor, once he was gone, the denomination could with little or no sense of betrayal continue to emphasize holiness without equally stressing the corresponding accent on the gospel to the poor. The accent on the poor could drop out seemingly without doing any damage to the doctrine of entire sanctification. This is in fact what happened in Free Methodism, particularly after 1893. However it is a betrayal of true Wesleyan theology.

Roberts always had a broader theological, reform, and evangelistic vision than did the Free Methodist church generally. Once the denomination was formed, much energy went into developing denominational structures and patterns. Roberts was severely overworked, and few other leaders in the denomination fully shared his vision. Within thirty years, and particularly after 1890, much of the denomination shifted into an inwardly-focused counterculture with a considerably lessened reform and evangelistic focus. The disciplines of early Free Methodism developed into legalisms. Most of the concern with reform and preaching the gospel to the poor either waned or was channeled into the emerging foreign mission enterprise, scattered missions and rescue homes, and into the youth movement known as the Pentecost Bands, which then in 1895 left the denomination and became an independent entity.

One key person who certainly did share Roberts’ passion for the poor was the abolitionist revivalist John Wesley Redfield, in many respects the cofounder of Free Methodism. A number of the first Free Methodist churches sprang up as fruit of Redfield’s revivals in the 1850s. Redfield shared many of Roberts’ convictions, including abolitionism, simplicity, and women’s right to preach.[13] Redfield’s impact on Free Methodism doubtlessly would have been much greater had he not died in 1863, just as Free Methodism was beginning.

Redfield’s biographer, J. G. Terrill, was converted under Redfield. Terrill noted that Redfield “labored to bring all [people] to the gospel level by noticing the poor, and especially the colored poor.”[14]

IV. Christian Faith and Socio-Economic Impact

  1. T. Roberts’ theology and praxis were not confined to personal evangelism, rescue work, and denomination building. He also had a passion for social reform and social justice.

One clear example is his small 1886 book, First Lessons on Money. Here Roberts called for national economic reform, particularly in light of the disputed monetary question and the amassing of huge sums of capital and political influence by rich businessmen.

Roberts’ philosophy on such matters is aptly summarized by a quotation from William Penn, which Roberts included on the title page of First Lessons: “A man should make it a part of his religion to see that his country is well governed.”

First Lessons on Money was started, Roberts wrote, “several years ago when silver was demonetized.” The 160-page book is a tract on national economic policy, but was intended also as a short primer on practical financial management. The book is partly an explanation of basic monetary economics and partly a call for fundamental economic reform.

Roberts’ main concern was that “The people should see to it that their representatives in Congress pass laws in their interest, and not in favor of the moneyed class and rich corporations in the injury of community generally.”[15] His intended audience was much broader than the Free Methodist Church. It was, in fact, the whole U.S. public.

In First Lessons on Money, Roberts quotes Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and draws also upon Francis Walker and Richard Ely (1854-1943), two young reform economists of the day. Ely was a professor at Johns Hopkins University; one of his students was Woodrow Wilson.

Noting the political influence of money, Roberts protests that money power “controls legislation until it becomes so oppressive that the people rise up against its control. It places men, simply because they are rich, in official positions for which they are totally unfitted.” The $308,000,000 currently tied up in government bonds should be released for industrial development, Roberts argued. “The resources of this country, to a great extent, are yet undeveloped. There are plenty of men willing to work but no man hires them. The capitalist, who should set the unemployed to building and manning ships, and railroads, and working mines and farms and factories, spends at his office an hour or two a day examining securities, reckoning his interest, and cutting off his coupons”—in other words, making money from money rather than from useful employment-producing business. Releasing capital for productive industry “would make many homes comfortable that are now destitute. It would increase immensely the wealth of the country, by encouraging labor, the only source of wealth,” Roberts writes.[16]

Roberts argued that property and business should be spread equitably among the populace for the best interest of all. “Good order and general prosperity prevail in our cities in proportion as the business is divided up among the inhabitants,” he wrote. “The greater the proportion of men who work for others, the greater danger there is of riotous disturbances. It is as advantageous to the city, as it is to the country, to have the property and the business divided up among a large number of owners.”[17]

Roberts did not expect total economic equality. But he did see the Old Testament economy, and particularly the Jubilee laws, as providing principles for economic life. He wrote,

It is impossible that there should be an equality of property among a people free to act and possessing an equality of rights. If an equal division of the property of the country were made among the people, there would be great difference in the amounts which different persons would possess in a year afterward. In the old Jewish republic, the greatest possible precautions were taken that each family should possess a competence. The land was divided among them. Every one had a farm, a homestead, in the country. If one was compelled to sell his inheritance, he could alienate it from his family for only fifty years at the longest. At the year of jubilee debts were cancelled and inheritances restored. Yet in their palmiest days they had their poor among them. But they had none, while the republic lasted, enormously rich, and probably none who suffered from poverty. All, while obedient to God, were in comfortable circumstances.[18]

The same year that Roberts published First Lessons on Money, he applied the biblical Jubilee principle to a contemporary situation in a Free Methodist editorial entitled “Indian Lands.” Commenting on possible government policy options, he said that to give Indians individual title to their land, as some advocated, would be a disaster. That would entail the right to sell, and whites would quickly swindle Indians out of their land. “The stronger white race would soon dispossess them,” reducing them to “a landless, homeless race of vagabonds.” This is in fact precisely what happened.

Quoting from Leviticus 25, Roberts said that the “one system of land tenure” that God prescribes ensures perpetual family access to land, “from generation to generation.” Thus the Jubilee system would be better than that of absolute ownership, for the whites as well as the Indians. But it would be impossible to effect a change in the system of land tenure among the whites of this country. Our present system has prevailed too long to be easily overthrown. But with the Indians it is different. Their lands are still held in common. Let them continue to be. If not divided among the families, . . . then let each have what land he will improve and till.

Concerned citizens, Roberts said, should support such a policy. “Let the dominant race which has dispossessed [the native population] treat them with justice and magnanimity.”[19]

In First Lessons on Money, Roberts went on to argue that “vast accumulations of fortune in the hands of a few” were detrimental and brought civil unrest. “All laws which specially favor the gaining and the holding of great fortunes should be changed,” he said.[20] He called for regulations on joint stock companies, stock speculation, and monopolies. It should be illegal, for example, for the owners of the New York Central Railroad to own any part of the Erie or the West Shore railroads. Similarly, laws of inheritance should be much more restrictive. Roberts wrote:

Our laws should make provision for the breaking up of great estates upon the death of the owners. The steady aim of our Government should be to afford to all, every just and proper facility for acquiring a moderate competence. To do this, the whole bent of our laws must be unfavorable to the acquisition of a vast amount of property by any one person, and to the handing of it down unbroken from generation to generation.[21]

Roberts’ next-to-last chapter in First Lessons on Money is entitled “How to Make Money.” He suggests seven ways to making money legitimately: 1) Do not aim at getting rich; 2) Be diligent in business; 3) Be careful about going into debt; 4) Never become responsible for the debts of others; 5) Maintain good habits; 6) Be willing to commence business on a small scale; 7) Be benevolent in the use of money. Roberts concludes with Wesley’s three rules on money, “Gain all you can. Save [that is, economize] all you can. Give all you can.”[22]

First Lessons on Money amounted to a fairly radical challenge to the dominant business practices of the day. And yet, many of his proposals were enacted into law over the next generation, including the nation’s first anti-trust legislation.

It is hard to know how much impact Roberts’ book had, either within Free Methodism or more generally.[23] It initially sold well. Benson Roberts noted that the book “had a rapid sale and was read widely, especially in the West where the financial distress was felt the most keenly.”[24] The book was reprinted at least twice in 1886; the copy I have bears the imprint, “Third Thousand.”[25]

One reason I elaborate Roberts’ economic views here today is the obvious fact that these issues are still with us in 2016, still waiting for the rise of an informed and balanced, not nativistic or xenophobic, populist movement to arise.


  1. The Nature of Roberts’ Radicalism
  2. T. Roberts’ writings and activities show that he and Ellen were committed to a wide range of social reform efforts—women’s rights, a sound monetary system, and the temperate use of alcohol among them. Roberts viewed his opposition to the use of tobacco as a social and moral reform as well as a matter of personal holiness.[26] And of course he worked constantly for the revival and renewal of the church. In Roberts’ mind, revival and reform were intimately connected. “A revival of Christianity, if genuine, is always attended with a reformation,” he wrote.[27]

Roberts argued that an uncorrupted Christianity will always transform society—not by targeting specific social maladies but by transforming human hearts, “curing man of his inhumanity to man.” Early Christian preachers “never posed as reformers,” Roberts wrote, but “reformed society by converting men and women to God. They reformed the individual,” and as “the individual, the unit of society, was sanctified to God, society was reformed.”[28] Here Roberts focuses on individual transformation. However, a number of his specific reform efforts show that he believed also in corporate action to address corporate ills.

The point is: In Roberts’ mind, true, radical Christianity always transforms society. “No other institution that has appeared among men produces such radical changes in society as the religion of Christ,” he said. “It is revolutionary in its character.” This he wrote in an 1890 essay entitled “Gospel Reforms.” Unleash the gospel, and you unleash reform; “wherever the Gospel plow breaks up the soil, schoolhouses and churches, and colleges and asylums for the insane, the blind and the dumb, spring up in its furrows as if by magic,” Roberts wrote. The gospel has a built-in tendency in fact “to unsettle every false foundation of the social edifice.”

Roberts noted that “the reign of peace” brought by the gospel has at times overcome war. He added: “Among professedly Christian nations, which still resort to war, though the Gospel forbids it, atrocities have been greatly mitigated, and terrible as [war] is, it has lost many of its most inhuman features” due to the influence of the gospel.[29]

Roberts cites a number of examples of Christian-inspired social reform, beginning from the time of the Roman Empire. If gospel impact is less evident today, he said, it is because “our Christianity has become corrupted.” This is why a revival of biblical Christianity is urgently needed.[30]

Roberts life and actions show that he was in fact a radical reformer, and he saw himself as such. But never primarilya reformer.

Note, however, that Roberts’ radicalism was in some ways different from that of much of late-nineteenth-century Free Methodism. In the 1880s and 1890s, the Free Methodist Church saw itself as a “radical” holiness body. Although it maintained some contact with the broader Holiness Movement, the denomination’s leaders and writers often warned against too low a standard of holiness—that is, a holiness experience that did not go deep enough, was not sufficiently world-denying, and that compromised with the amusements and ostentations of the age.

Among most Free Methodists, the term “radical” had a positive connotation. This is suggested by the article “Radical Holiness,” reprinted approvingly from The Christian Witness in The Free Methodist in October, 1894. Pointing out that “radical” means “root” and that “Sin has a root in man,” the author observed: “We are sometimes charged with being radical on the subject of holiness. We gladly confess judgment, and would justify our position. We firmly believe that we would be radically wrong not to be radical on this subject.”[31]

Free Methodist authors called for “a thorough work” and warned against “popular holiness.” Free Methodist Vivian Dake and his Pentecost Bands were radical in this sense, but also in the sense that Dake argued for aggressive, innovative measures in evangelism and missions. For him and for people like Free Methodist evangelist E. E. Shelhamer (who started out in the Pentecost Bands), radical holiness had a keen evangelistic edge.

Increasingly however, especially after Roberts’ death in 1893, “radical” referred more to the experience of holiness manifested in renunciation of “worldliness” in dress, entertainment, and personal behaviors, and less to a radical commitment to evangelism or ministry to the poor.

We see here a shift in focus away from B. T. Roberts. Roberts’ radicalism was rooted in a pre-Civil War vision not only of personal holiness but also of the transformation of society by the power of the Holy Spirit poured out in revival.[32] Like J. W. Redfield, Roberts believed the gospel could both purify the church and reform the culture. Roberts never gave up this vision. But by the late 1880s it seems not to have been the vision of the denomination generally. Holiness, though “radical,” was increasingly understood inwardly and privately—as the character of the church demonstrated in a fairly small range of specific behaviors, with little expectation of present social transformation.

For Roberts, reformation was most fundamentally based on the righteousness and justice of God, and on God’s requirement of righteousness on earth. Outer righteousness, and therefore the promotion of righteousness and justice in society, was part of inner holiness. Roberts wrote in 1884,

We must awake to the importance of promoting righteousness. Conversion amounts to nothing unless those converted turn fully to the right [i.e., righteousness and justice] in everything. Wrong principles and wrong practices must be fully and forever forsaken by everyone who would become a disciple of Christ. A revival without a reformation is one of Satan’s devices to perpetuate his kingdom.[33]

For Roberts, holiness itself created an impulse toward social reform. “One effect of true holiness,” he wrote in 1885, “Is to make us deeply interested in various benevolent enterprises. It takes us out of ourselves. It enlists our energies in behalf of interests that have no direct bearing on our personal affairs. We give our time and money for that which brings us neither profit nor reputation.”[34]

Roberts saw thoroughgoing revival as the primary way to achieve such transformation. Revival meant not simply holding “extra meetings,” he said, but required a genuine moving of the Holy Spirit, as at Pentecost. “Armful after armful of green wood will not of itself warm a room in a cold day. To do any good it must be brought into contact with enough fire to set it on fire.” This is what happened at Pentecost, Roberts believed. He saw the “revival which began” then as “the model for Christian revivals” ever since. Like Finney, J. W. Redfield, and most of the great revivalists of history, Roberts believed that genuine revival and awakening begins with the church and works outward: “An awakening among the professed people of God will be attended by an awakening among sinners.”[35]

These views on holiness, revival, and reform give a certain prophetic edge to all Roberts’ published. He was constantly trying to push the meaning of holiness into life in the public sphere.

VI. Assessing Roberts’ Reforming Role

The nature of the reforming radicalism of Roberts’ mature years is best seen in his most significant explicitly political involvement—that is, his key role in founding the Farmers’ Alliance, and thus helping shape the Populist Movement, which Lawrence Goodwyn called “the largest democratic mass movement in American history.”[36]

This story is so significant that I give it a major chapter in Populist Saints. We don’t have time to tell that story now. However, the documented history of the Populist Movement shows clearly that Roberts was a key figure in the rise of the Farmers’ Alliance in New York State. Roberts played a catalytic role at a strategic time, helping to inspire, shape, and give a particular direction to the movement.

Further, because of the national influence of New York farm leaders at this time, Roberts contributed indirectly to the formation of both the Northern and Southern Farmers’ Alliances, and thus to the rise of the American Populist Movement. He would not have agreed with everything that Populism became, of course. But his was a key voice that inspired the movement.

Several conclusions may be drawn from Roberts’ Farmers’ Alliance initiatives. These conclusions apply more generally to all Roberts reform efforts, and have relevance today:

  1. Roberts saw direct political involvement for the sake of enacting just laws as a proper expression of Christian discipleship. He had no problem cooperating with those who were not explicitly Christian, or with specifically political organizations (as long as they did not have vows of secrecy), in order to achieve political ends.

Roberts was not of course unique in this regard. Many Populists were Christians and worked from Christian convictions. As Daniel Pope notes, “evangelical themes infused . . . the Farmers’ Alliances, and [the] People’s Party” as well as the Knights of Labor and similar groups.[37]

Roberts’ involvement with the Farmers’ Alliance was different from his support of the National Christian Association, which opposed secret societies. Unlike the National Christian Association, the Farmers’ Alliance was not explicitly Christian. Although Roberts’ Alliance activities were based in his Christian convictions, he seems to have seen them more as an expression of responsible citizenship than as explicitly Christian ministry.

  1. For Roberts, the overriding issue was justice. Securing justice in the social and political realm, he felt, was a legitimate end for Christians action. Thus his work for justice for farmers in the 1870s was consistent with his support for the abolition of slavery in the 1840s and 1850s and for other causes such as temperance and women’s rights. It paralleled in the political sphere his rejection of pew rental within the church.

It was this key theme of justice, as well as Roberts’ concern for vital Christian mission, that undergirded his constant outspoken advocacy of full and equal rights for women in every area of life, including preaching, business, politics, and marriage.

In light of his reform efforts and his support of women’s rights, it is appropriate to call Roberts a Populist. In current political debate, “populism” is often viewed negatively. However the essence of Populism is simply that the people—all the people, fairly represented, and especially the common people and the oppressed—should control the government. The test of faithful, legitimate government is the people’s general welfare. As the secretary of the Texas Colored Farmers’ Alliance wrote in 1890, the Farmers’ Alliance was “peculiarly a movement of the people, by the people and for the people.”[38]

This is the very ideal enshrined in America’s founding documents. But by the 1870s and 1880s, it sounded radical and even subversive. Among some people today, it still does.

  1. Roberts’ role in organizing the Farmers’ Alliance is an instructive example of leadership and influence. Roberts devoted a relatively small amount of time to the Alliance. He apparently was little involved once the movement was launched. It was never his main focus. The fact that Roberts gave it as much attention as he did shows his depth of conviction on the issues.

In the midst of a grueling schedule, Roberts took time to attend farmers’ meetings, agitate for a new organization, and write editorials on farmers’ issues. His role in organizing the Farmers’ Alliance is a lesson in what can be accomplished through brief, focused, intelligent intervention at a strategic time.[39]

This is also consistent with the philosophy of reform Roberts articulated years earlier. He wrote in 1870,

Political reform is greatly needed. Our Legislatures are utterly corrupt; our administrators of justice are bought and sold far more shamefully, and almost as openly, as the negroes were in the days of slavery. . . .

But if a reform is effected, a few impracticable radicals, who consult only [righteousness and justice], must take the lead; and when the cause becomes popular so that their help is not needed, the co-operation of the [popular] ministers and churches of the day [and, presumably, citizens generally] may be expected.[40]

In working to establish the Farmers’ Alliance, Roberts was addressing a vital issue that in fact continues to be of great relevance. How can power—particularly economic and political power—be harnessed and channeled for the public good? For the benefit of all, and especially those with little or no power? How can the people control their political and economic institutions so they exist for the public good and are not exploitive or co-opted for the benefit of special interests?

This is the essential focus of Populism. In the twenty-first century it is an issue writ large due to the globalization of business, commerce, and technology. Roberts firmly believed that it is the role of government to regulate business for the common good, and it is the role of citizens to make the government responsive to the people.

Roberts was always concerned with the people (the essential meaning of Populism) and especially with people who were poor and oppressed—socially, politically, and economically as well as spiritually. His involvement with the Farmers’ Alliance was as much an expression of his theology as of his political philosophy. As important as the question of his role or influence is the simple fact that Roberts was being true to his convictions.

In the end, and in fact from the beginning, Roberts understood that his ministry as a preacher and church leader was ultimately more important and strategic than was political reform. And yet his efforts at political reform, in this case as in others, was part and parcel of his ministry—his sense of calling as a Free Methodist minister, a citizen, and as Jesus’ disciple responsibly “seeking first” God’s kingdom and its justice.


Today, I would summarize B. T. Roberts’ vision of earnest Christianity with these four accents:

  1. Earnest Christianity means living out, personally and publicly, “the biblical standard of Christianity.” We are called to Jesus-centered discipleship. The church’s mission is to lead people to justifying faith in Jesus Christ and on into holy living, applying Scriptural Christianity in all areas of life and society.
  2. Earnest Christianity means we are called to form countercultural communities on the road to the kingdom of God, and to help lead people and be led ourselves into the fullness of the Holy Spirit. Together we live practical holiness in private, communal, and public life.
  3. Earnest Christianity means bearing the gospel to, with, and among the poor. Planting churches that bring the poor into the Christian fellowship and together living out the “justice, mercy, and truth” that John Wesley so emphasized. Earnest Christianity means viewing social, economic, and political issues—all of culture, in fact—from the perspective how they affect the poor and oppressed.
  4. Earnest Christianity means recognizing and affirming the gifts of all Christians, without distinction of gender, race, or socioeconomic position. All are called both to Christian faith and to employing the Spirit’s unique gifts in our lives to honor Jesus Christ and to contribute to God’s will being done on earth as in heaven. The long-standing Free Methodist commitment to liberal-arts education, which B. T. Roberts exemplified, means using our God-given powers to explore all areas of learning, bringing “captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor 10:5).
  5. T. Roberts was sometimes described as “a symmetrical man.” The point was: He could see how the varying dimensions of truth held together, and he worked mightily to hold them together. This applies to his understanding of earnest Christianity.

Picking up on this idea, I would say there are three main dimensions to Roberts’ conception of earnest Christianity: Sincere personal devotion, the church’s mission in discipleship, holy living, and faithful church multiplication, and active Christian witness for social justice.

I want to be careful not to over-emphasize any one of these. All are important: Personal piety, the church’s mission, and cultural engagement. In fact, these three dimensions symbiotically fit together in a trinitarian ecology that, properly understood, constitutes wholistic, integral discipleship.

In the end, perhaps the most enduring legacy of B. T. and Ellen Roberts is the gracious paradox of their large-souled spirit combined with their radical commitment to Jesus and his kingdom. Maybe that’s what happens to anyone who truly and deeply knows Jesus.

— END —

[1] The Doctrines and Discipline of the Free Methodist Church (Rochester: The General Conference,1870), pp. ix-x.

[2] B. T. Roberts, Fishers of Men; Or Practical Hints to Those Who Would Win Souls (Rochester: G. L. Roberts & Co., 1878) 8.

[3] See Howard A. Snyder, The Radical Wesley: The Patterns and Practices of a Movement Maker (Franklin, Tenn.: Seedbed Publishing, 2014), pp. 125–37. Of the seven elements of the Radical Protestant model that I outline in The Radical Wesley, all are found to greater or lesser degree in Roberts’ theology. As one would expect, generally the shades of difference from the Radical Protestant model in Roberts’ theology are similar to those in Wesley.

[4] [B. T. Roberts,] “Trip to the West,” The Earnest Christian 4, no. 1 (July 1862): 29.

[5] [B. T. Roberts,] “Dedication,” The Earnest Christian 4, no. 5 (Nov. 1862): 158.

[6] Donald W. Dayton, “Reclaiming Our Roots: The Social Vision of B. T. Roberts” (unpublished manuscript, 1992), 9.

[7] William Kostlevy, “Benjamin Titus Roberts and the ‘Preferential Option for the Poor’ in the Early Free Methodist Church,” in Anthony L. Dunnavant, ed., Poverty and Ecclesiology: Nineteenth-Century Evangelicals in the Light of Liberation Theology (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1992), 66. Kostlevy details some of this work. See also Howard A. Snyder, “A Heritage of Caring: Early Free Methodist Social Ministry” in Snyder, “Aspects of Early Free Methodist History” (1994), 53-55.

[8] Kostlevy, “Benjamin Titus Roberts,” pp. 56-57.

[9] Douglas M. Strong, “‘The Deliverance of God’s Oppressed Poor’: The Ambivalent Legacy of Nineteenth Century North American Perfectionist Social Reform” (unpublished Working Group paper, 1992 Oxford Institute of Methodist Theological Studies), 3.

[10] Elmer T. Clark, ed., The Journal and Letters of Francis Asbury, 3 vols. (London, UK: Epworth, and Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1958), 1:601.

[11] B. T. Roberts, Holiness Teachings, p. 71.

[12] B. T. Roberts, “Preface,” in Jane Dunning, Brands from the Burning: An Account of a Work among the Sick and Destitute in Connection with Providence Mission, New York City (Chicago: T. B. Arnold, 1881), iii.

[13] In a letter to Ellen Roberts in early 1860 Redfield said he was expecting a great revival and was “sure that God will open this era by means and instrumentalities quite out of the old stereotyped forms. Among these instrumentalities I believe woman is to take a very prominent part.” Terrill, Redfield, 438.

[14] Joseph Goodwin Terrill, The Life of Redfield, M. D. (Chicago: Free Methodist Publishing House, 1912) 259.

[15] B. T. Roberts, First Lessons on Money (Rochester: B. T. Roberts, 1886), 160.

[16] Roberts, First Lessons on Money, 16, 75-76.

[17] Roberts, First Lessons on Money, 122-23.

[18] Roberts, First Lessons on Money, 121-22. It is interesting that Roberts describes the OT Hebrew economy a “republic.”

[19] B. T. Roberts, “Indian Lands,” The Free Methodist 19, no. 20 (Dec. 15, 1886): 8.

[20] Roberts, First Lessons on Money, 127.

[21] Roberts, First Lessons on Money, 142. See “Why B. T. Roberts Favored the ‘Death Tax,’” Free Methodist Historical Society Newsletter 3, no. 1 (Summer/Fall 2002): 1.

[22] Roberts, First Lessons on Money, 143-57.

[23] See Leslie R. Marston, From Age to Age a Living Witness: A Historical Interpretation of Free Methodism’s First Century (Winona Lake, Ind.: Light and Life Press, 1960), 391-97.

[24] Benson Howard Roberts, Benjamin Titus Roberts. Late General Superintendent of the Free Methodist Church (North Chili, N.Y. “The Earnest Christian” Office, 1900), 529.

[25] It is not likely that Roberts’ modest book had any significant impact on the national debate. I have not found references to his book in sources that discuss the economic history of the period, and the book is extremely rare today.

[26] [B. T. Roberts,] “Tobacco and Holiness,” The Earnest Christian 47, no. 4 (Apr. 1884): 126–27. Roberts claimed that The Earnest Christian was the first, or one of the first, holiness journals to advocate this “great reform.”

[27] [B. T. Roberts,] “Reformation,” The Earnest Christian 42, no. 5 (Nov. 1881): 161.

[28] B. T. Roberts, “Gospel Reforms,” The Earnest Christian 59, no. 5 (May 1890): 134–35.

[29] Roberts, “Gospel Reforms,” 134–35.

[30] Roberts, “Gospel Reforms,” 133–36.

[31] “Radical Holiness,” The Free Methodist (Oct. 3, 1894): 6.

[32] It is instructive that Roberts did not make an automatic transference after the Civil War, as many others did, from abolitionism to prohibitionism as the major focus of his reforming concern. The range of his concern was considerably broader, as I show in Populist Saints.

[33] B. T. Roberts, “Awake!” The Earnest Christian 48, no. 2 (Aug. 1884): 39.

[34] [B. T. Roberts,] “Follow On,” The Earnest Christian 50, no. 1 (July 1885): 34.

[35] [B. T. Roberts,] “Revivals,” The Earnest Christian 47, no. 1 (Jan. 1884): 31. This might be called the “standard model” of Protestant revivalism. Roberts added, “The great revivals under the labors of Wesley were confined mostly to the members of the established church.” In a later editorial he commented that Christians should pray and work ardently “to contribute towards having a revival of religion of the Pentecost type.” [B. T. Roberts,] “Revived,” The Earnest Christian 61, no. 1 (Jan. 1891): 29.

[36] Lawrence Goodwyn, The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), vii.

[37] “Introduction” in Daniel Pope, ed., American Radicalism (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), 13.

[38] Pope, American Radicalism, 197.

[39] This account is also instructive in terms of movement dynamics, though this is another matter that can’t be pursued here.

[40] [B. T. Roberts,] “Political Reform,” The Earnest Christian 19, no. 5 (May 1870): 156.