By Christy Mesaros-Winckles
Spring Arbor University Professor Paul Patton brings Free Methodism’s principal founder to life in a series of short plays “Rescue the Perishing: The Road Traveled by B.T. and Ellen Roberts” each evening at 5 p.m. during General Conference 2011 (GC11).
Patton wrote, directed and stars in the productions as Roberts. He is joined by his wife, Beth Patton, as Ellen Stowe Roberts, Grace Patton as a new convert, and Todd Holton in various roles.
He will also speak at the Saturday Historical Luncheon at 12:15 p.m. in the Ellen Stowe Roberts Dinning Room. Prior to GC11, Patton sat down with Light & Life to discuss his vision and inspiration for the productions.
LLComm: How did the plan to produce these plays about Benjamin Titus (B.T.) and Ellen Roberts come about?
Patton: Howard Snyder and Bishop Emeritus Gerald Bates asked if I would write a play to be performed during conference, and right afterward they asked me to be B.T. Roberts in the play.
At first I was thinking B.T. Roberts was this gigantic guy, but they said, “No, he’s only 5’ 9” and 180 lbs. I’m about 5’ 10” and 175 lbs. So, I said “Okay, okay I’ll do it.” Little did I know at the time that Roberts’ words and actions and choices and deeds would be an actor’s dream.
Clearly he was one who was passionate about the things of God, redeeming zealously every moment, deeply loving his wife, committed to kindness and forgiveness, winning the lost. This was a guy that was and has been an honor to play.
LLComm: What moments in B.T. and Ellen Roberts’s story attracted you the most as you wrote these scenes from their lives?
Patton: His courage, his hatred of any form of human bondage, his early despising of slavery and of the Christian fundamentalist habit of dismissing women in ministry, his regard for the poor, his courageous warnings to the rich, his deep, deep affection, even romantic demonstration, towards his wife from the time she was 23 and won his heart to the time he died at 69; his affection, love for and commitment to his children. (He had seven children, three of whom died prior to adulthood.) His passion for interracial justice, all of these things attract me to him. He was also a great preacher — a great expositor of the word of God — and he was an excellent writer. So, all these things have drawn me to him.
LLComm: Throughout writing, directing and acting in these plays, what has affected you the most?
Patton: Becoming more familiar with a man who preached the Word in and out of season and who passionately redeemed the time and was about the last, the lost, the least. The other thing I love about him is that he embodied a wise motto (he didn’t say it), but “Love your wife and serve the church.” I love how much he loved his wife, how much he revered her and how that profoundly shaped his temperament and his ministry.
LLComm: Do you have any favorite Roberts quotes?
Patton: My two favorite B.T. Roberts quotes are: 1) “Stop complaining and go visit the sick” and 2) “We must live in constant readiness to exchange worlds.”
Play One: “Their Romance”
The love story of B.T. Roberts and Ellen (Stowe) Roberts
Patton: The first play focuses on how they met each other. So we talk about their first meeting; their first walk. It just so happened that Benjamin chose a path that was very familiar to Ellen Stowe. They stopped at a tree with a lower branch type of bench. She had been there many times; it was probably her favorite tree. So, we are reenacting that date, where he recites the poetry of Henry Kirk White and finds out she likes Henry Kirk White too. So, he climbs the tree and recites this poem to her. If you know Henry Kirk White, he was not one that would be on any Hallmark card, that’s for sure.
When he gets Ellen’s commitment to write him there are nine months of letters going back and forth between New York City and Lodi, N.Y. They met late July/August of 1848. He got her to commit to correspond with him through the mail. They were falling very fast and headlong for each other. She says early on that she likes the “tone of his mind.” She liked his spirit. This was in contrast to other men who clearly had pursued her that she was just not as impressed with.
So, he asked her marry him through the mail on November of 1848. She says yes, even though is afraid of being married at some level. She’s afraid of this romantic tumble, fearing primarily that her love of Benjamin Titus will be greater than her love for God, which is not a unique fear of different evangelical leaders and especially women. The first play goes up to the day they are married.
Play Two: “Their New Home”
B.T. and Ellen help a convert after an evangelistic service in Buffalo, N.Y.
Patton: We will be reenacting an event that we know occurred, but we don’t know the details. An unfortunate woman comes forward, about 16 or 17, an orphan parented by some evil people like right out of Les Miserables. It reenacts the decision of the Robertses to make sure she did not return to the brothel. The woman is a fictitious character, but we know that they did this, and it was even when they had little boys in the home.
So, they did not own a home in Buffalo, where the scene occurs. They were living in community with other Free Methodist workers. It’s not to say they hadn’t owned homes or that they were against, in some socialistic way, private property, but at that time living in Buffalo they did not own a home.
Soon after — long before social services had such a ministry and even before the Salvation Army when William Booth did the same in London — Roberts started finding homes and sisters in Christ who would lead these homes for wayward people.
Play Three: “The Roberts Family”
The Roberts family’s joys and sorrows
Patton: When you’re a dramatist you’re looking for conflicts. You’re looking for any comedy you can find — anything that makes the history enlivened in the present. One of the things we’re doing is telling the story about the loss of two of their children. (Actually three of their children died, two in infancy and one at thirteen.) Just so you have an opportunity as an audience to see the strength of their relationship, even through loss.
Play Four: “B.T. Roberts’ Last Day”
Patton: This one is primarily a monologue. We know what he did and what he said. Ellen was not there when he died on February 27, 1893. You realize that even in death he was a man of great courage and conviction.
At each production Spring Arbor University English professor Dan Runyon will have copies of the new, abridged version of Howard Snyder’s definitive work B.T. and Ellen Roberts and the First Free Methodists for sale at the GC11 price of $8. Runyon will also be available to sign books at each production.