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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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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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