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Remembering Francis Asbury

Remembering Francis Asbury

There is an engaging new biography of Francis Asbury by John Wigger of the University of Missouri, American Saint (Oxford University Press, 2009) which will be enjoyed by laity and clergy.

A lanky figure standing 5' 9" who was fond of wearing a light blue frock coat and knee breeches with leggings and shoe buckles, Asbury had been an apprentice metalworker in England who became one of John Wesley's lay preachers.  He was sent by Wesley as a missionary to America in 1771 (because he was available and expendable, according to Wigger).  He died in Spotsylvania County, Virginia  (a rural area between Washington, D.C. and Richmond) at age 70 after having preached his last sermon in Richmond seven days earlier.

He became one of the best-known Americans in his lifetime, although he was forgotten in popular culture fifty years after his death.  Gradually he increased his standing among American Methodists until he was elected as the first bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1784.

Dr. Thomas Coke was the other man elected bishop in 1784, but he was never more than, in his own words, "a shadow bishop."  Coke was never involved in appointing the preachers or administering the Church.  He probably would have played a more prominent role except that he was frequently absent from America, tending to work in Great Britain and founding foreign missions.  Coke's greatest contribution to Methodism was inspiring Methodists to embrace a global mission. 

Wigger's biography tells the story of Asbury's life and the evolution of American Methodism.  It is largely the story of the non-married circuit riders who fanned out across the Eastern seaboard and the frontier to preach the Gospel and establish Methodist congregations.  Asbury himself was the most dogged of all the circuit riders.  Annually he rode between 5,000 and 6,000 miles.  He not only preached, but he also presided over the annual conferences and the General Conferences and appointed all of the preachers.  Most men "located" and left the itineracy after about 10 years because of the hardships.  Asbury was traveling until the day he died on March 31, 1816.  For much of his life he was not well.  Wigger explains that he suffered from strep throat and congestive heart failure with all of its symptoms.  Yet Frank (as his oldest friends called him) never stopped for long, but proved his dedication in his service.

Wigger's assessment of Asbury was that he became respected and often loved not only for his determination, but also for his strong faith and his ability to relate to persons individually and in small numbers.  Asbury was no intellectual.  He was not a charismatic preacher or even a coherent one.   Especially as he got older, his sermons often had a stream-of-consciousness quality.  Nor did he ever speak much at any of the conferences.  Rather, he presided fairly and allowed the members to have their say.  Wigger judges that the oft drawn picture of Asbury as an autocrat is not fair.  Sometimes he was stern, and mostly his vision for the Church prevailed, but, at the same time, he understood the American committment to democracy, and he preferred to work with strong people who were often more talented than himself.  His greatest strength was his ability to appoint the right preacher to the most strategic mission.

One of the interesting aspects of this story is Asbury's dilemna about slavery.  He abhorred slavery and knew it should be abolished.  Yet he discovered that the Church's outspoken stand against slavery only resulted in Southerners prohibiting the Methodists from meeting with African-Americans.  In South Carolina, a statement against slavery by the General Conference provoked mob violence against Methodists in Charleston and a legal clamp-down on meetings of slaves.  This was the most serious tension between culture and Christianity which Asbury felt and had to face all his life.

Asbury had no interest in politics, but he was a real admirer of George Washington.  He met with him  to plead for the abolition of slavery and to ask him to free his slaves.  Washington agreed slavery should be eliminated eventually, but he was also concerned about civil peace.  Washington was the only Founding Father who did free his slaves--by his will after he was dead. 

There were always tensions and problems in the Church, primarily regarding how democratic the structures of the Church should be.  There were inevitable complaints from preachers about their appointments; Asbury developed the habit of reading the appointments and then escaping through a rear exit where his assistant had his horse ready for his departure.  At one low point in 1799, burdened by illness and cares, Asbury decided to retire--to "come down from a Joyless height"--and just be a traveling preacher again, but he never did.

This biography gives some insight into the culture of the early American Methodists.  For example, the Methodists did not pray for healing, but looked upon illness as a trial of faith.  (Belief in healing came as a result of the influence of the Holiness and Pentecostal movements later.)

The Church began to grow rapidly in 1800.  The growth was not the result of all the strenuous efforts of everyone, but the effect of a spontaneous revival known as the Second Great Awakening.  Because of their efforts and system, the Methodists were well placed to reap the harvest of the revival.

By the time Francis Asbury died, his Church was already changing--less emotionalistic, more afflulent, much less ascetic.   Asbury liked none of it.  He was, as they would say then, an "apostolical" man for a unique period in American religious life.