The Magazine

On the Circuit

Francis Asbury was the tireless face of Methodism in America

May 10, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 32 • By MARK TOOLEY
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American Saint

On the Circuit

Francis Asbury
and the Methodists
by John Wigger
Oxford, 560 pp., $39.95

Francis Asbury was probably the most influential American religious leader during the republic’s first several decades. He took a small flock of several thousand Methodists at the time of the Revolution and made it the nation’s largest church by his death in 1816. He was a chief founder of American evangelical populism, which was the dominant religious force of the 19th century and has, once again, become the largest religious movement in 21st century America.

Not many non-Methodists would recognize Asbury today, except as the name of local churches and occasional towns. Maybe this very competent biography will help rectify that. During Asbury’s 45-year ministry, in an era lacking recognizable celebrities, and before most politicians traveled extensively, he was one of America’s most identifiable figures. He surely was America’s best traveled, achieving more than 130,000 miles and traversing the Appalachians at least 60 times. (Few of America’s major Founding Fathers crossed them even once.)

Asbury was anointed by John Wesley (whom Asbury referred to as “Old Daddy”) in England to colead a new Methodist Episcopal Church after America’s break with England. Wesley, Oxford-educated and ordained in the Church of England, had been adamant that British Methodism, led primarily by lay preachers, serve as a renewal movement within the established church. But the partial collapse of Anglicanism in America after the Revolution left many Methodists without access to ordained clergy and the sacraments. Asbury had come as a 26-year-old lay missionary to America in 1771 and was the only British Methodist preacher to remain in America during the war. Dramatically, he explained his refusal to go home to England:

It would be an eternal dishonor to the Methodist, that we should all leave three thousand souls, who desire to commit themselves to our care; neither is it the part of a good shepherd to leave his flock in time of danger; therefore, I am determined, by the grace of God, not to leave them, let the consequence be what it may.

Wesley did not help by very publicly denouncing the Revolution, causing American Methodists often to be seen as subversive. During the war, Asbury himself mostly lay low in Delaware, preaching only to local audiences and living in the home of an influential patron.

Whether or not Methodism could recover after the war was an open question. But Wesley ordered that 39-year-old Asbury be ordained as cosuperintendent in 1784, serving along with a more recent arrival from England, Thomas Coke. The famous Methodist “Christmas Conference” in Baltimore founded the church and made Asbury’s role official, though Asbury insisted the assembled Methodist preachers elect him and Coke rather than merely accept Wesley’s instructions. American Methodism also named Asbury and Coke as bishops, which displeased Wesley, who noted that he never presumed that title for himself. Coke was much better educated than Asbury, polished, sometimes fussy and even “womanish,” lacking Asbury’s grave “apostolic deportment.” He was also less focused than Asbury, crisscrossing the Atlantic many times, unsure whether he belonged in America or Britain or the Caribbean, and even targeting India at life’s end.

Asbury therefore became the mostly undisputed chieftain of American Methodism. He ruled authoritatively but shrewdly and benignly across three decades, appointing and superintending thousands of mainly very young preachers to evangelize a young America. He largely prevented schisms and any proposed merger with the Episcopal Church. The established Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists of the East Coast were often slow not only to reach the frontier but also to reach immigrants and even the East Coast native-born of the fast-growing new nation who were unattached to institutional Christianity. Most of Asbury’s preachers were circuit riders, responsible for 25 to 30 preaching appointments per round, across a circumference of 200 to 500 miles, necessitating almost constant travel—and paid sparingly.

But almost no preacher would equal Asbury in fervor, energy, or length of years and number of miles on the uninterrupted circuit. Except during extreme illness, which was not infrequent, and the tense war years, Asbury was in constant movement across five decades, almost always preferring a horse to a carriage, which often could not navigate the abysmal frontier roads. Until he died at 70 Asbury never had, or desired, a home. His belongings were limited usually to only a few items of clothing, books, and a horse. Even more so than Wesley, who made and gave away greats sums from his popular publications while living modestly (if comfortably) in a small London townhouse, Asbury was dedicated to poverty and complete self-denial for the benefit of Methodism.

Asbury was also devoted to celibacy. Wesley had several furtive romances as a young man and began an unhappy marriage in middle age. His brother, Charles, the famous hymn-writing fellow Anglican clergyman and Methodist enthusiast, was married long and happily. Methodism’s rules affirmed married clergy, but Asbury saw marriage as impractical for dedicated circuit riders who could be home only a few days a month. Wives and children required higher salaries for preachers, and pensions for widows. Most Methodist preachers could only endure circuit riding while still very young, and later either left the ministry or “located” to a settled congregation. Asbury was exasperated by the domestic considerations of his preachers but tried to accommodate them. He lived scandal-free, and had possibly only a brief flirtation back in England, to which he referred cryptically in a letter to his parents. Late in life, he confided to his assistant that he had entirely died to the “lusts of the flesh,” thanks partly to the “powers of nature” having been “broken by disease.”

Wesley had no biological children but many siblings and relatives, his relatively long-lived and sophisticated parents, and a wide circle of well-connected friends. In contrast, Asbury was the only child of a village gardener, who may have been a drunkard, and a pious mother. After leaving England in 1771 he never saw his parents again, though he corresponded and sent money. Unassisted by formal education, money, family, or special contacts, Asbury was a self-made religious entrepreneur whose exertions led to a 200,000-member church in a nation of eight million. He equaled Wesley in organizational genius and in his own personal discipline, rising every morning before dawn for devotions. He seems not to have been as great a preacher as Wesley, but was captivating in small groups, combining humor (of which he was somewhat ashamed), warmth, and rustic intellect. And unlike Wesley, who wrote and published on a wide range of theological, political, philosophical, dietary, and even medical topics, Asbury never published anything significant, except for his massive journal, which he sustained across 45 years as the primary record of Methodism’s advance in America. It records his silent journeys through snowstorms and across ice-choked rivers, in brutal tropical heat, up and down the East Coast and across the mountains into Kentucky and Ohio, as well as into Canada. Even as an elderly man, he spent nights in cabins, sharing space and often a bed (if not the floor) with large families and animals. He preached to small circles in living rooms and on courthouse steps to thousands.

Asbury visited Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and other seaboard cities, including Charleston, which he regarded as the most wicked. But his greatest evangelistic successes were usually in the back country or the countryside of the Middle Atlantic states, such as Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. He had some wealthy supporters, but he, like Wesley, saw Methodism as primarily a low-church ministry for common people. Late in life he was distressed about Methodist church buildings with steeples and pews, preferring unadorned preaching houses with simple benches and no choirs, only a robust congregation.

Wesley met some of the great English personalities of his day, including George III, and he conversed with Samuel Johnson as an intellectual equal. Asbury did not seek out or even express much interest in American elites. The one significant exception was George Washington, that “matchless man” whom he deeply admired, and whom he may at least partially have emulated as the austere founder of a new movement. After becoming bishop, Asbury met with the general at Mount Vernon to urge endorsement for an antislavery petition. Washington sympathized but declined. Later, Asbury met Washington during his presidency to offer Methodism’s support for the new republic and praising the “most excellent constitution of these states, which is at present the admiration of the world.” When Washington died, Asbury hailed him as a “true son of liberty in all points,” especially for having freed his slaves.

In their declining years, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson agreed that a rational Unitarianism was America’s likely dominant faith. They did not understand or sympathize with the evangelical revivals boiling around them, nor did they likely appreciate that Asbury, during their presidencies and after, was vigorously ensuring that America’s future was, at least for the next century, firmly evangelical.

Methodism’s culture-shaping role in early America involved slavery. Wesley and the early Methodists, especially the British ones, fervently opposed it; but after his petition effort with Washington, Asbury began slowly to back away from public activism. He remained firmly antislavery but uncertain of the political solution. He did become certain that Methodist antislavery activism would shut off most of the South to Methodism, especially blacks, who were deeply drawn to it. Asbury decided that eternal salvation was more important than temporal freedom. Asbury ordained probably the first black minister in America, Richard Allen, who eventually founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the nation’s first black denomination. Allen was forcibly removed from a Philadelphia Methodist church when he refused to remain in the balcony with other blacks and founded his own congregation down the street, where Asbury later spoke. Asbury decided that blacks would have greater freedom and authority within their own churches rather than accepting subordinate status in white congregations. He preached often to black congregations, free and enslaved, and in his later years, when enfeebled by illness and grueling travel, black audiences often wept at the mere sight of him, recognizing the scars of his suffering for the Gospel.

Accepting his illnesses as divine tests, Asbury continued to travel and preach until the very end. He died almost literally with his boots on, in 1816, en route to one more conference, seeking refuge in a farmhouse. His funeral in Baltimore attracted 20,000-plus mourners. His limited estate was left to dispense Bibles to any child named for Asbury; over a thousand little Asburys got Bibles well into the 1830s. Four years after his death, Methodism had a quarter-million members; 10 years later it had doubled.

Asbury continued to be revered in Methodism, even as it became a middle-class church full of the money and respectability of which he was so suspicious. In the early 20th century, especially during Prohibition, Asbury was portrayed as an autocratic prude whose exertions imposed a suffocating Victorian morality on America; others characterized him as an apostle of American democracy. At the dedication of an Asbury statue in Washington in 1924, Calvin Coolidge hailed him as one of America’s Founding Fathers. Few Washingtonians today, passing the caped horseman clutching a Bible in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, have any idea who Asbury is.

John Wigger’s lively account is admiring without becoming hagiographic. Asbury seems to have been a poor public speaker but harbored a dramatic flair, advising ministers to “preach as if you had seen heaven and its celestial inhabitants and had hovered over the bottomless pit and beheld the tortures and heard the groans of the damned.” A woman recalled watching an aged Asbury helped into the pulpit. The sermon was disjointed, but the force of the elderly Asbury’s personality and faith still filled her with “awe.”

Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, is the author of Taking Back the United Methodist Church. 

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