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March 21, 2018

The Life of BT Roberts: An Earnest Story

“As we celebrate his life, we would do well to love the things he loved, keeping them before us however we can.” P.117 Timothy Vande Brake

B. T. Roberts was a visionary minister, academic, activist and administrator who advocated for simplicity, generosity, and Christian mission. A prophet of dissent, he vigorously promoted abolition, prohibition, economic justice, and the equality of women. He left behind a church, community and state that were profoundly changed. Out of concern for the poor and Biblical witness, he patiently yet firmly moved his church towards reformation and freedom.  When it was not ready for this change, he was unwillingly dis-fellowshipped and defrocked.  Through it all, when people experienced his integrity and vision, they rallied to work and worship with him. In ensuing years Roberts not only founded the Free Methodist Church, but his conviction that Christianity should impact every sphere of life led him to establish missions, camp meetings, the New York State Famers’ Alliance, and a manual labor school grounded in the liberal arts known as Chili Seminary, which would grow into the sister institutions Roberts Wesleyan College and Northeastern Seminary.

The Earnest Project

In August 2016, in concert with 150th anniversary of the founding of Chili Seminary in 1866, Pickwick Publications released Earnest: Interdisciplinary Work Inspired by the Life and Teachings of B.T. Roberts, a volume conceived of and written by faculty at Roberts Wesleyan College and Northeastern Seminary. The following month, at the Earnest Christian Conference, over 1400 participants explored B.T. Roberts’ visionary ideas with faculty presenting cutting-edge work across eleven academic disciplines.

The origins and fruition of this project revealed not only the vibrancy of B.T. Roberts’ ideas for academic work and holistic mission today, but also the spirit of community at Roberts Wesleyan College and Northeastern Seminary.

Roberts: Vision, Obstacles, Faith and Community

Roberts’ life was one of faith and vision overcoming obstacles with the help of community. As a 16-year-old schoolmaster and law student, Roberts’ plan for his life involved the pursuit of worldly success.  Here Roberts encountered a particularly immovable obstacle, God himself.  God confronted Roberts from an early age with a call to ministry. Reluctantly, and not without serious delay, Roberts yielded to this call right before his 21st birthday. 

When God gives the call, he also supplies the means, and B.T. and Ellen Roberts found this to be true time and again. For every obstacle, there was a provision through faith and community. After Roberts lost his ministerial position, parishioners supported him with free-will offerings and enabled him to start publication of the Earnest Christian magazine. As a young minister called to establish a street mission in Buffalo, NY, but without resources for a down payment, God sent a wealthy layman and supporter of the fledgling Free Methodist mission, Edward P. Cox, to enable him to purchase the property.  At every step of the way, God provided real estate partners such as Asa Allis, Hart Smith, Asa Abell, and Thomas Hannah to further the Christian mission to which Roberts was called.

In November 1868, during one of the largest economic recessions since the Civil War, the first Seminary building (on the site of the current Northeastern Seminary building) was established through thousands of individual donations from readers of the Earnest Christian magazine. Most students were not from wealthy families; they worked in the fields or in the laundry to make ends meet.  Tuition was kept affordable through the legendary financial sacrifices of the small and dedicated staff.  Major donations later from Cox and A.M. Chesbrough enabled the campus to grow and provide scholarships for indigent students. In 1890, the seminary building burned to the ground.  Again, the sacrificial generosity of many faithful enabled the classrooms to be rebuilt and the mission of the college continued.

The Earnest Project and Community

The same themes of vision, obstacle, faith and community are revealed in the coming to fruition of the Earnest book and conference project.  One of the most fascinating chapters in the Earnest book is “B.T. Roberts and Debt,” written by humanities professor Matthew D. Moore, based on original research by his father, Carl C. Moore, Jr.  Professor Moore recounts how his father spent decades researching the life and financial transactions of B.T. Roberts, often spending days in local archives, searching church basements, measuring abandoned ruins, collecting original documents and creating reams of documentation.  Carl Moore, however, was not able to complete his work, succumbing to a quickly advancing form of dementia starting in 1985.

Professor Moore reveals, however, how a community of caring and faithful people enabled this moving and insightful work to be preserved, advanced, and eventually shared with all of us as Chapter 4 in the book, Earnest. Family friend Neil Pfouts saw the credence of Carl’s work, and former president of the college Dr. William Crothers championed the preservation of the book, keeping a copy of it in his safe. At his behest, the research was painstakingly entered into electronic format by Edna Ogden and Mary Lou Bates. In the over 40 years that Carl Moore’s work took to complete, archivist Carlie Canon and librarian Al Krober gave invaluable support for both Moore and his son. What moves us about the Earnest project is the same thing that moves us about the life of B.T. Roberts. We see the strength of community in the call of God.

Humble beginnings

It is fitting that the Earnest project grew, as did Roberts’ life accomplishments, out of humble beginnings and uncertain prospects.  In the Fall of 2013, a few faculty members, the remains of the Biennial Academic Conference Planning Committee, convened a meeting on the second floor of the Smith Science Center.  The college was in a financial downturn and regretfully no money could be made available to continue the academic conference series for 2014, a tradition that had brought the campus community together for vibrant discussions of crucial societal issues from interdisciplinary perspectives.

Since an academic conference would not be possible in 2014, the team conceived of a new project, creating a book and an academic conference inspired by B.T. Roberts’ life and teachings, to coincide with our 2016 sesquicentennial, the 150th anniversary of our institution.  The book would involve cutting-edge research into Roberts’ life and teachings as well as the trajectory of that heritage and relevance of those ideas for modern scholarship across the disciplines.  Rather than hiring outside speakers for the 2016 conference, there would be a call for papers to our own faculty and support for them in their research. This would provide practical support for faculty scholarship, a challenging and inspiring academic conference for our community, and an opportunity to celebrate and advertise the vitality of Roberts Wesleyan College and Northeastern Seminary at a very important milestone in our history.

Most importantly, the Earnest project promised to connect the Roberts community more deeply to our singular heritage of devotion, evangelism and justice. In order for an institution to flourish, it must be in touch with its essence.  By rediscovering our original vision, we could celebrate and further it. The essays in the first part of this book would deepen our understanding of our beginnings and those in the second would show the vitality and relevance of Roberts’ ideas as we seek new insights for our current day. As Literature Professor Timothy Vande Brake would later write in the book to come, “As we celebrate his life, we would do well to love the things he loved, keeping them before us however we can.”

The team presented this idea to Bob Zwier, then Provost of the college.  The specifics of the proposal included funding $1500 stipends for ten faculty at Roberts, delivered in $500 increments as each project progressed.  More funds would be required for publication costs and for the academic conference when the time arrived three years out. Provost Zwier loved the idea, and encouraged the team. The committee was expanded in hopes of keeping the vision alive and finding a solution.  Dr. Andrew Koehl and Dr. Michael Schillaci were joined in their efforts by art professor Romy Hosford, professor of psychology Paul Stevenson, and vice-president of the seminary Lisa Bennett, while gaining valuable input from former chair of the committee, Sharon Harris-Ewing.

There still remained, however, the issue of funding. When it came time for the conference in 2016, perhaps there would be more resources available, especially as a part of the sesquicentennial celebration. In the moment, however, there were none.  And for this project to be a success, the larger community would have to take it on their shoulders.  As it turned out, this enterprise took a path that resonated with the life and experiences of our founder. 

In the Spring of 2014, at the suggestion of Bob Zwier and college deans David Basinger and Stanley Pelkey, the committee decided to go directly to faculty to seek support for the project. Committee representatives attended faculty senate and division chair meetings, asking divisions if they might have any funds remaining in their administrative budgets and faculty members if they might be willing to donate some of their own professional growth funds. (Professional growth funds are supplied on a yearly basis to enable faculty to attend conferences and buy research materials.) 

While waiting for these requests to be answered, the committee issued a call for papers. Time was running short.  Given how long it would take for faculty to conceive of projects, do research, write drafts, edit, present at conferences, and finalize their chapters, the committee felt as though the initial awards would have to be made no later than May of 2014.  Charlie Canon assembled a bibliography of works by and about B.T. Roberts for our prospect authors to consult, and Romy and Paul started receiving submissions on behalf of the committee. 

As the months went by, donations started to trickle in. The trickle became a stream by the end of May. The Division of Business and the departments of Language and Literature, Music, and Religion-Philosophy departments all made large contributions, as did Northeastern Seminary and the Cultural Enrichment Committee.  Individual colleagues such as Timothy Dwyer, Maryalice Gillette, and Sharon Harris-Ewing made donations from their own growth funds, forgoing opportunities that would have been personally and professionally enriching.

By mid-May the committee had collected donations of over $6600, enough money to give initial stipends for nine faculty members to begin research that summer and to seed the next round of stipends due the following year. This response was so encouraging, given how tight budgets were across campus.

During the academic year of 2014-5, the work progressed steadily, and efforts continued towards securing funds for the second and third installment of the stipends.  In the Spring of 2015, the committee again contacted faculty: “Last May we received a great deal of help from you and from your departments in partially funding the first grants for nine of our colleagues to work on the book and conference project, Earnest, honoring the life and work of our founder, B.T. Roberts.  We are hoping that we can pull together again this year in order to complete the funding for the grants for our fellow faculty working on this project.  If you think that you will have unused funds in your faculty growth budget this year, would you be willing to share it with the Earnest project?” As in the previous year, support was strong and the committee was able to assemble enough funds to pay the second installment of what was needed for the project.

The Final Stretch

B.T. Roberts’ ministry was kept afloat by a small number of faithful Christians who recognized God’s call on his life until the ministry could be advanced through major donations such as those from the Cox and Chesbrough families. In a similar way, the Earnest project that had proceeded through its first two years on the love of the faculty for Roberts, his heritage, and for the work of their colleagues found major support for the home stretch as the college began its preparation for the celebration of its 150th to be held in the Fall of 2016. Through the leadership of David Basinger, Ruth Logan, and President Porterfield, funds were found to complete the commitment made previously to the authors, to pay for publishing costs, and to provide support for the development of the academic conference.

Two chapters were also added to the book during this year, Jack Connell’s work “B. T. Roberts as Social Entrepreneur” and Professor Andrew Koehl’s “Christian Belief and the Challenge of Threats and Inducements.” Dr. Basinger also agreed to co-edit the volume with Andrew Koehl. The final version of the book, therefore, would include ground-breaking analyses of the move of the Free Methodist Church towards women’s ordination, an analysis of the rhetoric of B.T. Roberts in Ordaining Women, an exploration of the social entrepreneurship of B.T. Roberts, and a study of the relationship between Roberts and early environmentalists as well as with social gospel pioneer Walter Rauschenbusch. In the application section, it would include current developments of Christian work in the fields of biblical studies, philosophical epistemology, psychology, nursing, and social science.

In the Summer of 2016 Kathryn Kvasnica was hired to coordinate the Earnest Christianity Conference for the fall, and on August 27, 2016, Earnest was published by Pickwick Publications. On September 21st, 2016, during homecoming week, The Earnest Christian Conference was held on campus. Each chapter author held concurrent sessions. Howard Snyder, Professor of History and Theology of Mission at Asbury Theological Seminary, and author of the esteemed book on Ellen Stowe and B.T. Roberts, Populist Saints, led the morning plenary session. The afternoon plenary session was conducted by historian John S. Walker, pastor of Rochester’s Christian Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, who discussedthe role of African-American church in North America and similarities and differences in relation to the Free Methodist church. Over 1400 people attended the conference. Michelle Cronk organized a series of 30-minute B.T. Talks over the ensuing sesquicentennial weekend held by Earnest chapter authors.

The original idea, conceived of by a handful of Roberts’ faculty, pursued by a larger team, and supported by the entire community, had come to fruition.  Now, 150 years after the founding of our institutions, those of us who have been grafted into this powerful legacy of faith and transformation are being connected to B.T. Roberts and Ellen Stowe Roberts in new ways, and to the hundreds of faithful people who have carried, magnified, and applied their Christian vision to “every relation of life,” to the holistic academic mission of the college and seminary.

The Earnest Christian Book

Roberts was a learned academic, a brilliant rhetorician with an intuitive awareness of audience, and a bold real estate entrepreneur with admirable legal, financial, and management acumen. A lover of the liberal arts who also was committed to manual labor and social change, Roberts was a fitting founder for a school that now trains students in multiple classical disciplines as well as professional programs. His passion for teaching and education ensured that, as much as was possible, his vision and character have been multiplied in lives and eras beyond his own.

The first section of the book focuses on Roberts’s ideas and on his actions—consistent choices of a powerful personality, under the daily veil of pain and uncertainty, issuing from his carefully and consciously chosen character, in pursuit of truth and the kingdom of God. The essays in the second section apply Roberts’s holistic Christian worldview to contemporary academic issues in multiple disciplines.

I. Section I – Equality, Holiness,  Social Transformation

  • Ch. 1 - Doug Cullum - "Fanatical Women: The Struggle toward Public Ministry in the Early Free Methodist Church"
  • Ch. 2 - Elvera Berry - "Ordaining Women: Discourse of Dissent at the Intersection of Text and Context”
  • Ch. 3 – Jack Connell – “B.T. Roberts as Social Entrepreneur”
  • Ch. 4 - Matthew Moore - "B. T. Roberts’s Real Estate Debts"
  • Ch. 5 - Tim Vande Brake - "Roberts and the Roots of Environmentalism"
  • Ch. 6 - Jeffrey McPherson - "Religious Reform in Western New York: B. T.  Roberts and Walter Rauschenbusch on Revival and Social Change. “
  1. Section II – Every Relation of Life
  • Ch. 7 - Richard Middleton - "From Primal Harmony to a Broken World: Distinguishing God's Intent for Life from the Encroachment of Death in Genesis 2-3"
  • Ch. 8 – Andrew Koehl “Christian Belief and the Challenge of Threats and Inducements”
  • Ch. 9 – Rod Bassett - "Amazing Grace in the Life of the Earnest Christian"
  • Ch. 10 - Susanne Mohnkern - "Piety, Virtue, Industry and Economy: The Values of B.T. Roberts and Christian Nursing Education"
  • Ch. 11 - Lori Sousa - "Faithful Engagement: The Role of Spirituality and Religion in Social-Policy Practice"

The faculty who contributed to this book hope that it will contribute to a fuller understanding of the academic and pastoral life of B. T. Roberts, for those who know him well and for those who might become new acquaintances. Most of the issues that were of concern to Roberts are just as pressing today as they were 150 years ago, and the book is designed to open new lines of inquiry and fresh vistas of hope. The authors believe readers will discover an almost physical sense of the man as well as the vitality of his values and ideas for the present day.


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