Monday, March 18, 2013

What does it mean to be a "Free" Methodist? Part 1

As part of my History and Polity course before I can be ordained as a Free Methodist minister (which I see more as an affirmation of my call than anything else) I was given the choice to do a final project, and what I chose to do was develop a small group study on how the Free Methodist Church of the 21st century could remain faithful to its 19th century roots without undermining the reasons why it was founded or seeming archaic and out of touch.

I chose to look at "The Five Freedoms" on which the Free Methodist Church was based: Freedom from Slavery; Freedom and Simplicity in Worship; Freedom from Pew Fees; Freedom from Secret Societies; Freedom from Sin. In the next few blog posts I will post what my thoughts are on each of those freedoms, as originally expressed, and how they might be seen today. Feel free to comment.

Freedom From Slavery

In 1860, just prior to The Civil War, the issue of whether someone could be the property of another was a much hotly debated topic. Though it would be somewhat simplistic to say that it was the only issue leading up to the war, it was an issue that drew out fiery and impassioned arguments both pro and con. The largest Christian denomination in the United States at the time, the Methodist Episcopal Church, with much of its base in the Southern United States, supported the institution of slavery in order to retain its membership.

Close to twenty years prior, some Methodist Episcopal ministers based in the North broke away from the denomination and formed the Wesleyan Methodist Connection due to this issue. Yet, the ME Church continued to uphold the slavery. The church split did not have the desired effect on the larger church.

Benjamin Titus Roberts however took up the cause again, and believed that slavery was both in violation of the gospel message and of their history and doctrine as Methodists. The ME Church responded by revoking the preaching licenses of Roberts and several others and removing their credentials in 1858.

Undeterred, Roberts and his banished brethren met in Pekin, NY, the place of his last appointment as a Methodist Episcopal minister and by 1860 had formed what would be known as the Free Methodist Church, with one of its earliest “freedoms” being that a person could not be owned by another.

Since that time our country has gone to war where that was an important (though not the sole) issue, and while slavery was eventually outlawed and slaves were granted their freedom, the fundamental underlying issue remained, and slavery became a trickier issue. Case in point, the “truck system” tended to re-enslave a person by giving them work but paying them a substandard wage in currency that could only be used at a “company store”, or in some other commodity. While the person may have been technically free, in that they could leave the job any time, the cost of getting out and starting over elsewhere would have been too great, making them slaves in essence. In addition, “Jim Crow Laws” upheld a “separate but equal” that tended to re-enforce the “separate” part but lacked greatly on “equal”. It was these laws that gave momentum to groups such as The Niagara Movement (which met not far from where the the first Free Methodist church was founded) and culminated in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's.

It would be shortsighted of us today however that the issue of slavery be thought of as a dead issue in our world. While the United States may have largely moved away from the idea that it is acceptable for someone to be owned by another for the purpose of working in the fields, cleaning houses, etc, slavery is far from being a dead issue.

There has been in the last several years a rise in the awareness of sex trafficking, where people might be captured and sold as sex slaves from the time they are children or just a little older. Sadly, the United States is not immune to this expression of slavery, as it is as alive here as it is anywhere else in the world.

As Free Methodists, we see opposing this and bringing an end to it as being fully in line with our historical roots. Some Free Methodist ministers have even taken an active role in not only shedding light on such a vile practice, but also doing what they can to stop it.

Is it however enough to say that slavery exists only in concrete terms? Couldn't slavery be just as much an abstract concept as it is black and white (no pun intended)?

It could be suggested that slavery did not die out at the end of the Civil War, it just found a new expression. The motives of the former slave owners had not changed, they just found a legal way to do what they had done previous. It might be said that, if slavery does not exist as a concept but only as a physical reality, that it would have ended in 1865. We know that is not the case.

So, what if we saw as an extension of our stated freedom from slavery as applying to abstract concepts such as addiction? Or debt? Aren't those just as capable of enslaving someone?

We as Free Methodist may not be on the front lines anymore of declaring freedom for those of African decent, but there is still slavery that must be stood up to in both real and physical ways, and in the abstract.

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