Free Methodism

This is not the symbol of a Klan meeting on a windy day; its the great badge of global Free Methodism. I was brought up in the Free Methodist Church and it’s a denomination in which I continue to have an interest. Back in the seventies, some Lancastrian evangelical Methodist ministers left the old denomination and allied themselves to an American breed of Wesley’s children. It currently has a rather hyperactive Facebook page manager, who regularly tweets black and white photos of good-looking young people singing and greeting each other, with multiple hashtags all beginning with 'free'.

It certainly appears to be thriving and growing. A recent initiative has seen the planting of new congregations and there’s even a button on the website with ‘JOIN FM’ on it, so lonely churches can affiliate. I notice that at least one of the congregations to have recently fled moribund British Methodism has affiliated- what was once Westhouse. I’m sure they made this decision carefully and prayerfully, yet I now favour independency as a style of church government rather than full denominationalism. Free Methodism refers to itself as a ‘movement’ but it really is a denomination in the basic sense of the word: each individual church’s property is owned by the wider denomination (with the deeds held in Indiana) and a hierarchy of superintendents and bishops have final authority (the UK churches’ bishop resides in America, bizarrely). All denominations decline with time, so I’d be reluctant to hand over any property rights to some central committee, no matter how benign and sound its current management. Furthermore, many of its churches are large and expanding. I recently toured Garstang FM’s lavishly redesigned building. Fulwood FM has expanded several times as has Crown Lane. Judging by the publicity, ambitions and media presence, there is a bright future ahead.

Is it losing its values?

Although it remains evangelical and outward-looking, I am not convinced it is fully embracing its rich heritage. The word Free in its name once referred to free seating, opposition to slavery and freedom from Methodist control, as well as an objection to the yoking of secret societies. None of those are particularly hard to not fulfil in 2020, but its theological emphases are less obviously faithful. Benjamin Roberts broke away from the mother denomination on several grounds, including its lack of regard for Wesley’s doctrine of entire sanctification. This is the belief that the believer can be free from sin this side of death. Although I do not accept it myself, I suspect that many of its modern critics have misunderstood it, arguing against strawmen rather than Wesley’s actual teaching. Still, this was a principle on which the denomination was founded yet it is an idea strangely absent from Free Methodist pulpits. I don’t lament its loss because it’s a pet doctrine, but because it is a Free Methodist distinctive which has all but disappeared. Although formally a holiness denomination, its British churches never seem to espouse such; the most you’d get is the seeking the Holy Spirit’s filling. The Cornish cluster of churches does mention its holiness tradition, but there's little to no explanation that goes with it. 

Attending a typical FM church is just like attending any other semi-charismatic denomination with its Hillsongs and worship bands. By charismatic I don’t refer to doctrines about, or practises of, spiritual gifts but an emphasis away from formal worship and a strict, primacy of preaching. Here is a Wesleyan church which generally ignores its huge inheritance of Wesleyan hymns, one stanza of which generally contains more theology than an hour's spiel from a typical pulpit. Some of the online sermons I’ve listened to from FM pastors have been all about ‘setting people free to fulfil their destiny’ and that type of thing, though others, to be fair, have offered good expositions of the Biblical text.  

Here’s the gospel explanation found on the main website’s Free Methodist Handbook:

Instead we believe in a God who

loves us so much that He himself

bought our freedom. He gave

His own life so that we could

know His healing power in our

lives and no longer be trapped

by sin, fear or regret.


Being set free from the past is

only the start of what we believe

God has for us.

We believe the Word of God has

power to change the trajectory of

a person’s life and to transform

their mindset. It calls us to live life

beyond the ordinary trappings of

this world and into the freedom

God originally intended for us.

It’s all true, and I understand the oft-use of the word freedom to fit in with the denominational name. Yet I’m not fully convinced that one would fully comprehend the gospel from this statement: Christ died a substitutionary death to pay for sin. Sin isn’t just a bad past from which we can be released, it’s far worse than that. It is a contamination and death sentence from which we cannot naturally recover. Of course, this document is no formal creed, and one needn’t fully explain every doctrine all the time, but it is increasingly typical of some FM churches.

I owe a huge debt to Free Methodism. It was at Heysham Free Methodist Church’s mission at Lancaster at which my grandmother was converted. It was at Lancaster Free Methodist I was converted myself. At their Garstang church I was baptised and at Crown Lane I first preached. Its inter-church youth work gave me a Christian social life while a teenager, keeping me among God’s flock when I was at that age most likely to wander. Modern Free Methodists, while being contemporary to their times, are presumably ashamed or ignorant of their holiness heritage. I may not teach entire sanctification myself, but I would rejoice to hear an FM pastor be so inspired by it that he urged me to seek it. A Church preaching utter devotion to the Lord, utter hatred of sin, utter love for Jesus Christ, would utterly change the lives of those attending. So may Benjamin Roberts, the Church’s founder, have the last words:

As a denomination, we are just as liable to fall by corrupting influences, as any were that have flourished before us.

And that which he said of Methodism could be true of the Free Methodists within a generation:

It needs no prophet's vision to foresee that Methodism will become a dead and corrupting body, endeavouring in vain to supply...the manifested glory of the divine presence, which once shone so brightly in all her sanctuaries.

I pray God's blessing upon the Free Methodists, but I also hope they remain true evangelicals, even embracing their own great holiness heritage. 

Image: By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use,