From the President







  My Response

  Letters to the Editor

  Online Bulletin Board

  Contact Response

  Submit Footnote

  Submit Letter to Editor

  Address Change

  Back Issues

  Response Home

  SPU Home

Summer 2003 | Volume 26, Number 3

What’s “Free” About
“Free Methodist”?

THE WORD “FREE” can mean different things to different people. “Cheap” as in “Cheap Methodists” is how one uninformed wag understood the word. “Free” can connote irresponsibility, the lack of boundaries and discipline. But that kind of “free” hardly applies to John Wesley, serious-minded founder of the 18th-century Wesleyan movement. He and his “Holy Club” colleagues at Oxford lived such disciplined lives that in derision they were called “Methodists.”

The irresponsible kind of “free” also does not fit the deeply committed missionaries from New York who founded Seattle’s First Free Methodist Church in 1880. Eleven years later, this “mother church,” along with the 16 other congregations in Washington and Oregon, founded Seattle Pacific University, first known as Seattle Seminary.

Free Methodist missionaries crossed the country from east to west, not only starting churches, but also launching schools. B.T. Roberts, founder of the Free Methodist denomination, was known as a champion of the liberal arts. About the new school in Seattle, he was concerned, writes Don McNichols in Seattle Pacific University: A Growing Vision, that “the institution must not be too strictly denominational; rather, it should be competitive with public education.”

To Roberts and the other 1860 upstate New York founders of the Free Methodist Church, “free” highlighted their reasons for separating from the parent Methodist Episcopal Church. Actually, Roberts along with his associates in the ministry and among the laity were excluded from the parent church because of their protest against theological liberalism, lack of concern for pressing social issues and loss of spiritual vitality.

Freedom from slavery was one of the freedoms these spiritual and social reformers called for. Freedom to speak the truth openly was another concern, leading these early Free Methodists to avoid membership in secret societies. Another commitment was to free pews. In that time and place, church pews were often rented or sold, thus relegating the poor to benches in the back or in the balcony. Think of it! Now, people can sit anywhere they want in a worship service; in a worship service; they can choose the back or the balcony! Social issues have changed since 1860, but Free Methodists continue to have a sensitive social conscience.

A commitment to freedom from worldliness led early Free Methodists to espouse simplicity in life and in worship. Wary of formalism, Free Methodists for instance did not sanction musical instruments in their worship services till the middle of the 20th century. The denomination’s quests for freedom from sin’s domination and for freedom in the Spirit were in close harmony with the emphases of John Wesley. Free Methodists to this day continue to pursue vitality in worship and holiness of life.

Today’s stated denominational mission is “to make known to all people everywhere God’s call to wholeness through forgiveness and holiness in Jesus Christ, and to invite into membership and to equip for ministry all who respond in faith.”

The mission statement encapsulates Free Methodism’s vision of itself in the 21st century. Free Methodists today desire to be faithful both to orthodox Christian faith and to the legacy of the 18th-century Wesleyan movement. In this, Free Methodists resist the revision and reduction of classic orthodoxy frequently evident in more theologically liberal brands of Methodism. In this, Free Methodists today continue to highlight John Wesley’s classic doctrine of Christian holiness.

At the recent 34th General Conference of the Free Methodist Church, held on the campus of SPU, considerable discussion and preliminary approval was given to a new statement on “sanctification.” This statement retains the high goal of sanctification as the Holy Spirit’s re-creation of God’s people “after the image of God … conforming them to the image of Christ.” The new statement, however, more clearly recognizes not only the decisive moment(s) of response to God, but also the ongoing process of Christian growth.

Far from the irresponsible meanings of “free,” today’s Free Methodists desire freedom in Christ — and freedom to be the people God calls them to be.


H. Mark Abbott has served as senior pastor of Seattle’s First Free Methodist Church, located adjacent to the SPU campus, since 1982.

Back to the top
Back to Home