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).



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