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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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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.

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