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.