The Free Methodist Church was organized at Pekin, New York, in 1860. The founders had been members of the Methodist Episcopal Church but were excluded from its membership for too earnestly advocating what they saw as the doctrines and usages of authentic Wesleyan Methodism. Under the leadership of the Rev. Benjamin Titus (B. T.) Roberts, a graduate of Wesleyan University and an able and eloquent preacher, the movement spread rapidly. Societies were organized, churches built and the work established.
At the 1910 session of the General Conference of the Methodist Church at Rochester, New York, a full acknowledgement was made of the wrong done to Roberts fifty years before, and the credentials unjustly taken from him were restored in a public meeting to his son, Rev. Benson Roberts.
Before the founding of the church, Roberts began publication of a monthly journal, The Earnest Christian. In 1868, The Free Methodist (now Light & Life) was begun. A publishing house was established in 1886 to produce books, periodicals and Sunday school curriculum and literature.
The name "Methodist" was retained for the newly organized church because the founders felt that their misfortunes (expulsion from the Methodist Episcopal Church) had come to them because of their adherence to doctrines and standards of Methodism. The word "Free" was suggested and adopted because the new church was to be an anti-slavery church (slavery was an issue in those days), because pews in the churches were to be free to all rather than sold or rented (as was common), and because the new church hoped for the freedom of the Holy Spirit in the services rather than a stifling formality. However, according to World Book Encyclopedia, the third principle was "freedom" from secret and oathbound societies (in particular the Freemasons).
Free Methodist headquarters were located in Winona Lake, Indiana, until 1990 when the denomination moved its headquarters to Indianapolis. The church has about 77,000 members in the United States and an average attendance of 107,000 at its Sunday services. Worldwide its membership is over 800,000 with large segments of membership in the Democratic Republic of Congo, India, and Rwanda (with around 120,000 members).
In doctrine, Free Methodists’ beliefs are the standard beliefs of evangelical, Arminian Protestantism, with distinctive emphasis on the teaching of entire sanctification as held by John Wesley, to whom the Free Methodist Church traces its origins.
Many question the difference between the United Methodist Church and the Free Methodist Church. Both denominations share a common heritage linked to the Methodist revival in England during the 18th century. There is very little difference in doctrine. There are more differences in practice and polity.
The tolerance of the United Methodist Church for allegorical hermeneutics has caused it to be generally thought of as liberal whereas the Free Methodist Church is usually considered conservative. As concerns worship style, the Free Methodist Church is less ceremonial than the United Methodist Church and is less likely to follow even a modified liturgical format during worship. While some clergy in the Free Methodist Church wear the pulpit robe, others do not wear vestments of any sort during worship.
The first general superintendent, B. T. Roberts, was in favor of ordaining women, but never saw it take place in his lifetime. Out of his own conviction he wrote Ordaining Women: Biblical and Historical Insights. The impact of his writings eventually prevailed in the church. The Free Methodist Church affirmed the ordination of women in 1911. As of June 2008, out of 2,011 ordained clergy, 216 were women (11 percent). Twenty-six percent of all ministerial candidates are women.
Free Methodists recognize and license unordained persons for particular ministries. They mandate lay representation in numbers equal to clergy in the councils of the church.
As a reaction to paid musicians in the Methodist Church, early Free Methodists enjoyed a capella congregational hymns during worship. However, the General Conference of 1943 voted to allow each Conference to vote on whether or not their churches could have instrumental music. As a result, pianos and organs became common across most conferences. Currently, many churches have worship teams composed of vocalists, drums, keyboards, guitars, and other instruments.
The Free Methodist Church's highest governing body is the World Conference, which is composed of representatives, both lay and clergy, from all countries with a Free Methodist General Conference. As the church in each country develops, its status progresses from Mission District to Annual Conference to General Conference. There are currently 13 General Conferences in the world, which are linked together through the articles of religion and common constitution of the first two chapters of the Book of Discipline and the World Conference.
International Child Care Ministries (ICCM), a child sponsorship initiative serves more than 21,000 children in 29 countries around the world. Through education, meals and medical care, children in need are given an opportunity for a better life. Each sponsored child is connected to a Free Methodist congregation or ministry at a local level.
Sustainable Empowerment through Economic Development (SEED), a micro-enterprise and livelihood ministry of Free Methodist World Missions, facilitates self-sustaining businesses, training in business skills and Christian discipleship. Focused on economically vulnerable members of the Free Methodist world family, it provides an international market for products produced by Free Methodist artisans.
Volunteers in Service Abroad (VISA) connects volunteers from the Free Methodist Church in the U.S. and UK with Free Methodist World Missions for hands-on ministry internationally.
The church currently has ministry in 82 countries around the world. These are:
B. T. Roberts began what is now Roberts Wesleyan College in 1866. Spring Arbor College followed in 1873, Seattle Pacific University in 1891 and Greenville College in 1892. Central College began in 1914, a continuation of Orleans Seminary begun in 1884. Azusa Pacific University was formed by a merger with Los Angeles Pacific College and other small denominational colleges.
The denomination currently maintains a relationship with the following educational institutions:Central Christian College, McPherson, KS
Greenville College, Greenville, IL
Roberts Wesleyan College, Chili, NY
Spring Arbor University, Spring Arbor, MI
Seattle Pacific University, Seattle, WA
Azusa Pacific University, Azusa, CA
In addition, the Free Methodist Church is one of several denominations supporting Azusa Pacific University (Azusa, CA). Wessington Springs College is a former, now closed institution which was located in South Dakota. Internationally, there is Osaka Christian College of the Japanese Free Methodist Church, Hope Africa University, a recently founded school in Bujumbura, Burundi, and the Faculdade de Teologia Metodista Livre, São Paulo, Brazil.
Through the John Wesley Seminary Foundation (JWSF) graduate students who are preparing for full-time ministry in the Free Methodist Church are provided a grant or loan at the following affiliated schools:Asbury Theological Seminary – Wilmore, KY and Orlando, FL campuses
Azusa Pacific University Graduate School of Theology, Azusa, CA
George Fox Evangelical Seminary, Portland, OR
Northeastern Seminary at Roberts Wesleyan College, Rochester, NY
Seattle Pacific Seminary, Seattle, WA
Wesley Biblical Seminary, Jackson, MS
Like John Wesley before him, B. T. Roberts recognized the Christian’s responsibility for publishing.
Before the founding of the church in 1860, B. T. Roberts began publication of a monthly journal, The Earnest Christian. In 1868 The Free Methodist (now Light & Life Magazine) began. A publishing house was established in 1886 to produce books, periodicals and Sunday school curriculum and literature.
Early leaders, T. B. Arnold and B. T. Roberts privately financed and produced several publications.
The official publishing institution was established by the church at the 1886 General Conference. The church purchased the publishing business built by Rev. T. B. Arnold for $8,000. Arnold was named first publisher and B. T. Roberts was elected editor of The Free Methodist. The Free Methodist Publishing House is recognized under its trade name Light and Life Press.
The Free Methodist Publishing House operated at three locations in Chicago, Illinois. In February 1935, it moved along with Free Methodist Headquarters to Winona Lake, Indiana.
During its history, the Free Methodist Publishing House built up a plant and accumulated property worth several hundred thousand dollars. It also contributed thousands of dollars out of its profits to other activities of the church.
Over the years, as the ministry of the Free Methodist Church expanded, various departments of the general church gradually moved into Free Methodist Publishing House accommodations. This was provided at vast cost and without the investment of any capital by the general church.
In 1960, the Free Methodist Publishing House board issued a deed in favor of the general church, whereby the church became the owner of the old property, plus nearly eight acres of land. For this the general church paid nothing, but agreed to make payments of $5,000 per year over a ten-year period to the Free Methodist Publishing House.
Arnold’s Commentary was published from 1894–1980. In the late 1950s and early 60s the church pioneered fully graded church school materials. In 1960 the Aldersgate Biblical Series was developed as the only inductive curriculum of its time.
A fully equipped printing area consisting of letterpresses, offset press, cutters, folders, bindery, linotypes etc. contributed toward making the church independent of commercial printers for the production for its printing needs at that time.
Acting on the recommendation of its executive committee, the board voted in 1988 to phase out printing operations. This decision and the 1989 General Conference decision to move the Press and Headquarters from Winona Lake to Indianapolis in 1990 shifted the focus of the Press. Where formerly, the Press produced and published Sunday school curriculum, this venture is now carried on in cooperation with other holiness denominations.
Beginning in 2008, the Wesleyan Publishing House, publishing arm of the Wesleyan Church, began serving the distribution and customer service needs of Light and Life Press.
Light & Life Communications [LLCOMM], the official publishing aim of the Free Methodist Church, is a not-for-profit corporation that exists to serve in partnership with its parent body, the Free Methodist Church. Its primary purpose is to publish and distribute materials that enable the church to fulfill its stated mission. Light & Life Communications also offers its services and materials to all who seek to make Christ known.
Free Methodist Communications is the publishing division of the Free Methodist Church. Publications may also be printed or distributed under the name Light & Life Communications.
Light & Life Magazine [LLM] is the official magazine of the Free Methodist Church in the United States and is also available online. The magazine has a monthly circulation of 53,000 English copies. Each issue is also translated into Spanish and published concurrently as Revista Luz y Vida, which has a monthly circulation of 6,000 copies. Jeff Finley is the magazine's managing editor.
Free Methodist World Mission People is a quarterly magazine about world missions offered free of charge upon request.