Francis Asbury: Super Circuit Rider II

Francis Asbury: Super Circuit Rider II

Francis Asbury: Super Circuit Rider II

Charles Ludwig (1918-2002)
November/December 1979
Good News

“America! You go to America and, and leave Elizabeth and me alone?” exclaimed Joseph Asbury, straining across the butterfly table. “You can’t do that. … Mother and I are getting old. It won’t be long until we can’t work. Already –”

“The Lord has spoken,” interrupted Francis, firmly.

An agonizing silence followed. Loud ticking of the grandfather clock hammered through the modest English cottage. Then it boomed the hour. Boom …. Boom …. It was midnight.

“How many people are there in America?” managed Joseph.

“Ten years ago there were 1,700,000.”

“Then why should you go?” A hopeful smile crossed Joseph’s lean face. “We have almost 8,000,000 here in the United Kingdom. Besides, 300,000 of the people in America are black slaves. I read that just yesterday.”

“Because I must be obedient to God,” replied Francis.

“How much money will you make?”

“Have no idea. John Wesley and I didn’t discuss that.”

“If God has called Francis, then he should go,” broke in Elizabeth, forcing the words beyond the lump in her throat. “I’ll miss him. Oh, yes, I’ll miss him.” She began to sob. “But we must remember, Joseph, I had a vision from the Lord that one day Francis would be a great preacher. And it seems like yesterday when he was saved from that near fatal fall ….”

As his ship eased into the wide Atlantic on September 4, 1771, Francis struggled with his emotions. Would he ever see his aging parents again? He kept his eyes focused on St. Mary Redcliffe Church until the coastline disappeared. This sanctuary on the hills above Bristol had served as a landmark for centuries.

John Wesley had encouraged his preachers to keep journals. Up until August 7, the opening day of the conference in Bristol in which Francis was selected to go to America, he had neglected to do this. Now he opened his newly purchased notebook and thrust his quill into the ink. Included in his first notation are the lines: “I spoke my mind and made an offer of myself. It was accepted by Mr. Wesley and others, who judged I had a call. (It was my duty to go where the conference ordered; only one or two objected.)”

He did not touch the journal again until September 4th. This time he wrote about his embarkation: “… we set sail … and having a good wind, soon passed the channel. For three days I was very ill with seasickness; and no sickness I ever knew was equal to it. …”

His next notation was on the 12th. This time he wrote: “Whither am I going? To the New World. What to do? To gain honor? No, if I know my heart. To get money? No: I am going to live to God, and to bring others so to do. … The people God owns in England are Methodists. The doctrines they preach, and the discipline they enforce, are, I believe, the purest of any people now in the world. The Lord has greatly blessed these doctrines and this discipline in the three kingdoms: they must therefore be pleasing to Him ….”

Three days later, on the 15th, Asbury opened a window to his character by scribbling, “Our friends had forgotten our beds, or else did not know we should want such things; so I had two blankets for mine. I found it hard to lodge on little more than boards ….”

Money and personal comfort were always secondary to Francis Asbury.

When Asbury landed in Philadelphia on October 27, he was unknown. His five years of circuit riding in England had not been heralded in the New World. Indeed, he was not even asked to preach on the day of his arrival – even though it was Sunday. But always a gentleman, he took his seat in St. George’s Church and listened to Joseph Pilmoor, one of the pair John Wesley had dispatched to America two years before.

Those who listened to Asbury’s sermon the next Monday saw a slender young man, five-feet, nine inches tall, with exceedingly blue eyes and blond hair that brushed his shoulders.

After about two weeks in the Quaker city, Asbury went to New York to work with Richard Boardman. This city of 18,000 had a strong Methodist congregation and Asbury was welcomed with enthusiasm. Manhattan, then, was an interesting place. He visited spots made famous by peg-legged Peter Stuyvesant; dropping in at the former home of Peter Minuit who had purchased Manhattan for $24 worth of beads, and stopping at Wall Street where slaves were sold at auction.

He was intrigued with history, but after two weeks in New York he was restless, unhappy. Missing a saddle and the music of the constant click of a horse’s hoofs, he confided in his journal: “At present I am dissatisfied. I judge we are shut up in the cities this winter. My brethren seem unwilling to leave the cities, but I think I shall show them the way ….”

Two days later, and without requesting permission from anyone, he borrowed a horse. Together with Richard Sause he rode to Westchester, some 20 miles away.

There, he preached in the courthouse. Alone, he continued on to West Farms, New Rochelle, Rye, Mamaroneck, Philipse Manor. Soon he had formed a circuit. Each night he slept in a new bed. It was hard work, but he enjoyed being tired in the work of the Lord. Such tiredness was refreshing.

Having established a circuit, Asbury then turned it over to another preacher and set about creating a new one. To him, every mountain, every new settlement, and every home offered an invitation to preach the gospel. Sometimes he preached to thousands; on other occasions to only a handful. But to Asbury, the size of the crowd did not matter. God had called him to preach; and that is what he determined to do.

As Asbury’s circuits expanded, so did his troubles. The mood of rebellion in the American Colonies continued to deepen. This made things awkward for the Methodists.

After all, the followers of John and Charles Wesley were merely an arm of the Church of England, and the head of the Church of England was none other than His Majesty, King George III!

The political situation for Francis Asbury, and other Methodist preachers born in England, was extremely hard. All of them had to be – at least on the surface – loyal to England. And to make things worse, John Wesley had reissued Sam Johnson’s book, Taxation No Tyranny, under the title A Calm Address to Our American Colonies. This book stressed loyalty to English authority, so it was like a match lighting a fuse. Having issued it under his own name, Wesley was accused of plagiarism. And since it had a great sale in America, all Methodist preachers were suspected of being Tories – or even English spies. Indeed, the political atmosphere became so tense that many Methodists – especially preachers – were tossed into prison. Asbury himself was once forced to hide in a swamp to escape arrest. (This was an irony, for Asbury’s sympathies were secretly with the Americans.)

Following the Revolution, American Methodists were in an uncomfortable position. They were American citizens – but at the same time they were paying at least lip service to George III. Because of Methodism’s connection to the crown through the Church of England, Wesley’s church had two alternatives. Either the Methodists in America could become an arm of the Protestant Episcopal Church, the American branch of the Church of England, or they could become an independent body.

But if the Methodists became independent, how were they to receive Holy Communion? This was an urgent question, for Wesley had insisted that no Methodist should receive the sacraments unless they were served by an ordained Anglican priest.

Pondering this problem, Wesley finally decided that he would personally ordain Dr. Thomas Coke and send him to America to ordain Asbury, and eventually others.

This was clearly against English church law. In protest to his brother’s action, Charles wrote a poem:

How easy now are Bishops made

At man or woman’s whim!

Wesley his hands on Coke hath laid,

But who laid hands on him?

Learning that Coke was coming to America to ordain him, Asbury came up with an ingenious strategy. He agreed that he would accept ordination, but only after the circuit riders had voted on it. This was a daring idea, for the circuit riders were scattered throughout Pennsylvania, Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas. Moreover, messages spread very slowly in those days before radio, TV, and quick transportation.

How, then, were the circuit riders to be contacted in time to get to the specially-called conference at the Lovely Lane Church in Baltimore announced for Christmas Eve, 1784? The answer was Freeborn Garrettson! This preacher, who had freed his slaves before Methodists were required to free their slaves, was afraid neither of judges, devils, poverty, nor distance. With less than six weeks to fulfill his errands, he started out. But busy as he was, he preached along the way as he rode from place to place, alerting preachers to the important meeting in Baltimore.

Although Asbury and Coke never exchanged a cross word, a struggle for power simmered below the surface in their relationship. Asbury knew and understood the circuit riders. Coke did not. Nevertheless, when the circuit riders reached Baltimore, Coke would have the advantage because he was completely new to them. Asbury did not thirst for power. Still, Coke, a rich, inept doctor of laws from England, could easily make mistakes that would set American Methodism back a dozen years. Ah, but there was a way out.

While awaiting the approach of Christmas Eve, Asbury encouraged Coke and his assistants to ride some circuits and meet the people. Such work would be helpful – and also it would expose Coke’s talents to the Americans.

At the time, Asbury was 39 and Coke was 37. Both were bachelors.

Writing about this conference, Dr. Coke got to the point: “On Christmas-eve we opened our conference which has continued 10 days. I admire the body of American preachers. We had nearly 60 of them present. The whole number is 81. …” The circuit riders agreed that Asbury should be ordained superintendent. But because of the Discipline, he could not be elevated to that high position all at once. So Asbury was ordained a deacon on Saturday; an elder on Sunday; and superintendent (bishop) on Monday!

It was at this conference that the Methodist Episcopal Church was born. Among those who laid hands on Asbury at the ordination service was Rev. Philip Otterbein of the German Reformed Church. The leaders of the new American denomination still felt loyal to John Wesley; and they made a solemn pledge that “during the life of Rev. Mr. Wesley we acknowledge ourselves his sons in the Gospel, ready in matters of church government to obey his commands.”

That pledge, however, was not honored for long. Three years later the circuit riders met for another conference. This time they not only refused to make Wesley’s nominee, Richard Whatcoat, superintendent, but they also voted to drop Wesley’s name from the minutes! However, they still loved and honored John Wesley. But they were members of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Moreover, they were on their own as a church, declaring independence even as their new nation had freed itself from English domination.

Asbury, now recognized as bishop, continued to ride herd on the growing army of Methodist preachers. He ruled kindly, but with an iron hand. His salary was the same as that of the circuit riders. Being a bachelor, he encouraged his riders to remain bachelors also.

Like Wesley, he was highly organized and methodical. Asbury maintained stated hours for prayer, reading, writing, and relaxation. He seldom laughed. Troubled with ill health during most of his ministry, he relied on his own medicines – and prayer.

Asbury dressed like his preachers. He “wore a low-crowned, broad-brimmed hat, a frock coat, which was generally buttoned up to the neck, with straight collar. He wore breeches or clothes with leggings. Sometimes he wore shoebuckles.” His one luxury was that whenever possible, he wore blue.

Always on the go, Asbury became one of the best-known men of his times. He knew President Washington, stayed with Governor Van Courtland, and sometimes vacationed in the homes of the wealthy. Being a celebrity of his age, letters addressed: Francis Asbury, U.S.A., were delivered to him on schedule.

Bishop Asbury refused to give up, to retire. When weakness settled over him, he resorted to crutches. He had hoped to preside over the General Conference which was to meet in Baltimore on May 2, 1816. He never made it. After a rain storm in Granby, South Carolina, he wrote the last entry in his Journal: “We met a storm and stopped at William Baker’s, Granby.”

After resting in Granby for a few days, Asbury boarded a carriage and headed for Baltimore. Friends begged him to rest. Instead, he preached two or three times a day en route. When he reached Richmond on March 24, 1816, he was nearly blind and unable to walk. Still, he insisted on preaching.

Sitting on a table in the old Methodist Church, he preached on the text: “For he will finish the work, and cut it short in righteousness: because a short work will the Lord make upon the earth” (Romans 9:28). This was his last sermon, but he insisted on going to Fredricksburg to preach again. After four days of travel, he was forced to give up at Spottsylvania – a mere 20 miles from his objective.

While resting in the home of George Arnold he collapsed. On Sunday morning he summoned the family to his bedside. His text was the twenty-first chapter of Revelation, but he was too weak to read it. After a few sentences, uttered with great effort, he raised his hands above his head. Moments later, Bishop Francis Asbury stopped breathing.

The conqueror of the long trails had received his last call – and he was ready. The date was Sunday, March 31, 1816. The time was 4 p.m.

 Charles Ludwig (1918-2002) was the author of more than 50 books, including Francis Asbury: God’s Circuit Rider (1984).

Francis Asbury: Super Circuit Rider II

When Mr. Asbury Preached

When Mr. Asbury Preached

By Jesse Lee (1758-1816)
Excerpt from a Short History of the Methodists (1810 edition, reprinted in 1974 – Academy Books)
September/October 1979
Good News

During the time of the conference, we were highly favored of the Lord, and souls were awakened and converted. On Sunday the 14th of September [1788] at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, Mr. Asbury preached in Mr. Otterbein’s church; and the people were generally solemn and much affected; he then asked another preacher to pray and conclude: and whilst he was praying, an awful power was felt among the people. Some of them cried out aloud. The preachers went among them and encouraged the mourners to look to the Lord, and prayed with them; and in a little time there was such a noise among them that many of the Christian people were measurably frightened, and as there was no opportunity for them to escape at the door, many of them went out at the windows, hastening to their homes. The noise had alarmed hundreds of people who were not at the meeting, and they came running to see what was the matter, till the house was crowded, and surrounded with a wondering multitude. In a short time some of the mourners lost the use of their limbs, and lay helpless on the floor, or in the arms of their friends. It was not long before some of them were converted, and rose up with streaming eyes giving glory to God that He had taken away their sins. This meeting continued about two hours and a half, after the sermon was ended; in which time about twenty persons professed to be converted. This day of the Lord’s power will never be forgotten.

There were about 20 persons more who were converted in the course of that week, and the heavenly flame began to spread through the town pretty generally; and many of the people began to enquire the way to heaven, with their faces thitherward.

The Sunday following there was preaching in the Market house on Howard’s-hill, at 5 o’clock, where some thousands of people attended. The presence and power of God was wonderfully displayed among the people, and hundreds were bathed in tears. We afterwards found out 15 persons that were awakened and brought to the knowledge of the truth by that sermon. From that time the revival of religion became more general in Baltimore.

Some of the young men in Cokesbury college were also stirred up to seek religion.

The preachers were uncommonly zealous; but none of them so much and so heartily engaged as the preachers in the South parts of the connection; where the greatest displays of the divine presence had been made manifest. Yet in every place the preachers were encouraged, and their expectations were raised, and they were looking out for greater depths of grace in themselves, and in their hearers. And the Lord gave them seals to their ministry, and souls for their hire.

Jesse Lee (1758-1816) was a widely-travelled Methodist preacher who was considered the “apostle of Methodism to New England,” traveling companion of Francis Asbury, was elected as both chaplain to the House of Representatives for four sessions, and, in 1814, he was chosen to be chaplain of the U.S. Senate. He was ordained by Asbury in 1790. He preached primarily in New England and his native Virginia. He was the author of A Short History of the Methodists in the United States of America in 1810.




Francis Asbury: Super Circuit Rider II

Francis Asbury: Super Circuit Rider – Part I

Francis Asbury: Super Circuit Rider – Part I

By Charles Ludwig
September/October 1979
Good News

The story of Bishop Francis Asbury – zealous for Christ, autocratic, tireless in the saddle, he criss-crossed early America preaching, exhorting, establishing classes and circuits. He was prime mover in the phenomenal growth explosion which began the Methodist Episcopal Church.

On a cloudless October 15, 1924, eager masses shoehorned into the triangle formed by the intersection of 16th Street and Columbia Road, N.W. in our nation’s capital.

It was an orderly and yet intense crowd. Many had traveled thousands of miles. Why the excitement? Dreams were being fulfilled. Francis Asbury, a school dropout, and the son of poverty-stricken parents, was about to be honored by the entire nation. And it was about time, for the often-ailing bishop had been dead for over 107 years!

There was an almost electrical excitement in the air as leading clergymen, high government officials, and the President of the United States took seats in the grandstand which had been erected close to the centrally located bronze statue of Francis Asbury, recently completed by Augustus Lukeman. The famed bishop sat astride his horse which was mounted on a 55-ton granite pedestal quarried in Maine.

Then serving his first elected term as President, Calvin Coolidge was the main attraction in the unveiling ceremony. To some it seemed strange that the few-worded Congregationalist from Vermont would be the main speaker honoring a Methodist. But Coolidge felt that the circuit-riding bishop belonged to all Americans rather than just to the followers of John Wesley.

Speaking of the way Asbury rode his horse from one place to the other, the man from the White House said:

“He came to America [in 1771] five years after the formation of the first Methodist Society in the City of New York. … At that time it is reported that there were 316 members of his denomination in this country. (* some historians estimate this number to be as high as 600). The prodigious character of his labors is revealed when we remember that he traveled 6,000 miles each year, or in all about 270,000 miles, preaching 16,500 sermons and ordaining more than 4,000 clergymen. … The highest salary he received was $80 a year for this kind of service, which meant exposure to summer heat and winter cold, traveling alone through frontier forests, sharing the rough fare of the pioneer’s cabin, until his worn-out frame was laid to rest. But he left behind as one evidence of his labors 695 preachers and 214,235 members of his denomination ….

“What a wonderful experience he must have had, this prophet of the wilderness! Who shall say where his influence, written upon the souls of men, shall end. How many homes he must have hallowed! What a multitude of frontier mothers must have brought their children to him to receive his blessing. It is more than probable that Nancy Hanks, the mother of Lincoln, had heard him in her youth. … How many institutions of learning, some of them rejoicing in the name of Wesleyan, all trace inspiration for their existence to the sacrifice and service of this lone circuit rider! He is entitled to rank as one of the builders of our nation ….

“His piety was fire shut up in his bones; it had to come out, and once in the open it bulged too large for boundaries. He was always on a journey. No pent-up chapel could restrain him. He took to travel. He said, ‘I must ride or die.’ He printed the map of his ministry with the hoofs of his horse ….”

Today, scholars are agreed that Francis Asbury was not the intellectual genius that John Wesley was assumed to have been. He was not an eloquent preacher nor a brilliant writer. Nevertheless, he made it a point to read 100 pages every day, and he learned Hebrew on his own while riding on his horse. His genius was that of administrator. He was so effective in recruiting and organizing circuit riding Methodist preachers that he evangelized much of America. Indeed, he was so effective it was sometimes said on the frontier, ‘‘There’s nobody out today but crows and Methodist preachers!”

During most of his American ministry, Bishop Asbury, like his circuit riders, received only $64 a year. And that was when they could collect it. After 1800, however, he and his preachers received a substantial raise. From that point on until the time of his death he and his follow ministers received $80 a year. That works out to $1.39 a week. (Of course in those days a coffin could be purchased for $3.)

We are fortunate that such a man as Francis Asbury lived in our midst. He laid the foundations for American Methodism, and is thus the man whom God chose to guide the beginning years of a denomination which grew to include [at one point] over 40,000 churches and 10,000,000 members. Even so, he has been more or less neglected for almost one and a half centuries. In 1958 Abingdon Press published his journals and collected letters in three volumes. In addition, the National Historical Publications Commission of the United States government included the bishop in a list of those whose works should be edited, published, and preserved. Among the other 65 are such distinguished names as Daniel Webster, John C. Fremont, William Allen White, the Mayo brothers, and Woodrow Wilson.

Francis Asbury was born in England on either August 20 or 21, 1745, into the home of Joseph and Elizabeth Asbury. At the time, the Asburys lived in the Black Country just north of Birmingham. In this soot-filled country, rimmed with industrial chimneys, Joseph worked as a gardener. He barely made a living. His wife, Elizabeth, a descendant of a Welsh family named Rogers, was both intelligent and a strong leader. The Asburys were Anglicans and attended the nearby parish church. But Joseph was as indifferent to Christianity as Elizabeth was ardent.

Elizabeth claimed that she had had a vision from the Lord which assured her that her son would be a great religious leader. With this in mind, she often rocked young Francis to sleep by the fireplace as she sang to him such hymns as “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” written by the still-living Isaac Watts.

Before Francis was three, his sister Sarah died just after her fifth birthday. Concentrating her affection on Francis, Elizabeth specialized in telling him stories and reading to him from the Bible. Among the stories, she undoubtedly told him how John Wesley, when a small boy, had been rescued from the rectory fire at Epworth. And then one day Joseph came in from the garden after a hard day’s work.

“Where’s the lad?” he demanded.

“Oh, he’s upstairs,” replied Elizabeth.

“You mean in the attached room?”

Suddenly their eyes met and their faces whitened. Wiping her hands on her apron, Elizabeth followed her husband as he raced out the door and up the steps in the outside room.

For sometime Joseph had been storing heavy farm equipment on the second floor of this room. Eventually the tools had worn a hole in the floor and so he had started placing these tools by the hearth directly beneath the hole.

The upper room was completely empty.

“Then he’s fallen through the floor!” shrieked Elizabeth.

Thinking of the ax, plow, and razor-sharp scythe which normally stood by the hearth, Joseph was almost numb with fright. But when he got to the place, he found that he had inadvertently stored the tools in a separate corner and had moved a tub filled with ashes under the hole. Francis was in the ashes. Holding him close, Elizabeth sobbed, “He was saved by the hand of the Lord just as John Wesley was saved by the hand of the Lord!”

Francis was sent to school at Snails Green, a short distance from the Asbury cottage. The tuition was a shilling a week – the price of three pounds of butter. Gardeners earned only 8 to 12 shillings a week, and so this strained their budget, but the Asburys didn’t mind. They wanted their son to have the best education available.

Unfortunately, the teacher was a very cruel man. He enjoyed beating F rands in front of the class and the children made life difficult for him. They sneered at Francis, calling him the “Methodist Parson.”

At the age of 13 Francis had had enough. Against his parents’ will, he dropped out of school. But he did not leave the school uneducated. His mother had taught him to read even before he started to school, and Francis had a passion for books. Especially he loved the historical parts of the Bible and spent many a happy hour with Moses and David and Jacob.

Soon he became an apprentice to a buckle maker.

About this time, Francis had his first religious experience. Years later, he told a friend what had happened. The story was recorded by John Wesley Bond:

“At about thirteen years of age, I was brought under deep concern for my soul. And about this time there came a man in the neighborhood; a traveling shoemaker, who called himself a Baptist, and professed to be converted. He held meetings, in our neighborhood, and my mother who was a praying woman, and ready to encourage anyone who appeared to wish to do good, invited him to hold a prayer meeting at my father’s house. At that meeting I was convinced that there was something more to religion than I had ever been acquainted with. And at one of these meetings, held by this man, I obtained the comfort I had been seeking.”

In the normal ups and downs of youth, however, Francis did not remain content. “I feel that something is missing,” he complained. His mother then advised him to go to a Methodist service at nearby Wednesbury – the scene of former riots in which the mobs tried to drive John Wesley out of town.

Remembering the services in the plain meetinghouse, Asbury later wrote:

“I soon found that this was not the Church [of England], but it was better. The people were so devout, men and women kneeling down, saying ‘Amen.’ Now behold! They were singing hymns, sweet sound! Why, strange to tell! the preacher had no prayer book, and yet he prayed wonderfully! What was yet more extraordinary, the man took his text and had no sermon book: thought I, this is wonderful indeed ….”

Still, Francis admitted: “I had no deep conviction, nor had I committed any deep known sins.” He continued occasionally to attend meetings in Wednesbury; and yet, apparently he did so without renewing his faith. Sometime during the winter of 1760, a converted baker by the name of Alexander Mather came to Birmingham for special meetings. Asbury wrote about the occasion, “I was about fifteen; and, young as I was, the Word of God soon made deep impressions on my heart … and soon showed me the excellency and necessity of holiness.”

In spite of this insight, his spiritual problems continued. There were times when it seemed he was with Moses on Mt. Pisgah; but more often he felt downcast, forsaken, and friendless. Then he and an old friend – probably William Emery – stepped into an unpainted barn on the verge of collapse. There, with the smell of animals and bits of hay about them, Francis had a profound religious experience. Researchers don’t know what happened exactly. Asbury, himself, wrote: “I experienced a marvelous display of the grace of God, which some think was full sanctification, and I indeed was very happy ….”

At the time, Francis Asbury was about 16.

Alarming words soon began to cross the Atlantic from America. An American statesman by the name of James Otis had declared that “Taxation without representation is tyranny.” Many in the distant colonies had nodded their heads. Trouble was starting in America.

Francis continued his apprenticeship. But deep in his heart he knew that God was calling him to mount a horse and ride circuit for the Methodists.

Charles Ludwig was the author of more than 50 books, including Francis Asbury: God’s Circuit Rider (1984).