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).


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