Archive: What Francis Asbury Believed

Setting a decisive pattern for the church he launched, the first American bishop apparently took little time to write about the essentials of faith. Instead, he busily put Scriptural Christianity into action.

by Robert D. Wood

On a September Tuesday in 1781, Francis Asbury paused for a day of reflection, a respite from his rounds among the Methodists in northern Maryland along the Chesapeake. He wrote in his journal:

I have little leisure for anything but prayer; seldom more than two hours in the day, and that space I wish to spend in retired meditation and prayer: riding, preaching, class meetings leaves but little for reading or writing, and not always enough for prayer: something might be gained could I pore over a book on horseback, as Mr. Wesley does in England; but this our roads forbid.

Whether the roads, the press of duties, primitive conditions of a frontier society, his health, or lack of ability or drive, the fact is that Asbury did almost no writing. Apart from his journal and letters he left little else except abridgements of a few important works for the benefit of his preachers. In 1808 he wrote to Thomas Coke in England:

You need not wonder that I am amiss in writing, since I have to ride on horseback 5,000 miles in eight months, and to meet seven conferences that comprehend 600 preachers.

Asbury, unlike John Wesley, did not leave behind a body of writing in which his theology could be discerned. Rather the reverse. The theology of Francis Asbury must be inferred from his journal and letters. His day-by-day jottings reveal profound concern for his own relationship with God and the state of his own soul. He wrote in 1771 of his desire to spend his life “for Him who spilt His blood for me!” Four years later he deplored his “cumbersome body” but rejoiced that his “soul is united to Jesus.” “Christ abides in me,” he told his journal in 1778. That’s about the extent of his written Christology.

Of the sacraments he said little, apart from the controversy with Strawbridge and others, particularly in Virginia, over the impropriety of unordained preachers administering baptism and Communion. The early Methodists were expected to attend services and participate in Holy Communion as often as possible at Anglican churches, as Asbury himself did.

First and foremost, Asbury was an evangelist, second an administrator. Written expression of his theology came trailing along last of all. He enjoyed extraordinary success in evangelism and church development. When Wesley sent him to America in 1771, Asbury found six preachers and 600 members of the societies. Forty-five years later at his death in 1816, he left an established denomination with 700 preachers and 200,000 members with enough momentum to thrust them into the forefront of American religious life by mid-century. His stress, therefore, was on working with theology, rather than writing about it.

He accomplished all this in a wilderness society through which he moved almost constantly. “I set out on my way in great weakness of body,” he reported in August 1781, “but I could not be satisfied to be at rest while able to travel.” Keeping up with a westward- moving population’s growing needs for more preachers, more circuits, and more meeting places severely limited the scope of Asbury’s emphases.

Asbury’s journal contains outlines of about 175 sermons. They fall generally under four major classifications: repentance and justification, sanctification, good works, and judgment. In a spring 1784 report to Wesley, Asbury wrote, “I see the necessity of preaching a full and present salvation from all sin.” And to Dr. Coke, he penned, “I hope you are plain and pointed upon justification, and the witness of the Spirit, and on sanctification.”

There was no doubt that Asbury was “plain and pointed” in his own preaching. He did so with an earnestness that consumed him, even though he was often laid up with a “putrid” sore throat continually irritated by loud speaking occasioned by the urgency of sinners being warned of a coming judgment. Asbury punctuated his journal with reports of his intensity:

I preached long, and perhaps a terrible sermon. … I was very alarming … sinners, Pharisees, backsliders, hypocrites, and believers were faithfully warned … it was an awful talk, and the people were alarmed; let them look to it.

As important to Asbury as the salvation of others was his own relationship with God. “May the Lord sanctify me wholly for Himself, and every moment keep me from all appearance of evil,” he wrote in 1774. And at least twice he stated his favorite text was I Timothy 1:15, which he seemed to regard autobiographically:

This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. (KJV)

Subject to frequent depression, Asbury noted in 1783,

Rose early to pour out my soul to God. I want to live to Him, and for Him; to be holy in heart, in life, in conversation: this is my mark, my prize, my all—to be, in my measure, like God.

The pioneering bishop spoke often of judgment. He recorded several instances of people who spoke evilly of preachers or the Gospel or who spurned the message and who, usually within days, died strange or violent deaths. He noted in 1774 the

melancholy account of a poor abandoned wretch, who staggered into a brothel at night, and was found dead the next morning … there was reason to suspect he was murdered. Thus we see the vengeance of God frequently overtakes impenitent sinners, even in this life. How awful the thought! that a soul, in such a condition, should be unexpectedly hurried to the judgment seat of a righteous God!

Condemnation would be the final fate of all opposers of the Gospel. He frequently noted he had preached to “stupid and unfeeling” congregations. But those who irked him most were “Calvinists on the one hand, and Universalians on the other.” Asbury believed irresistible grace leads to Antinomianism[1] (“if salvation comes by grace alone, moral laws are irrelevant”). He was no Pelagian,[2] as Wesleyans have sometimes been accused. Asbury taught good works are essential (Ephesians 2:10), and the best assurance against falling into apostasy[3] is “to go on to perfection.”

In a sermon warning against backsliding, preached in 1793 only about 30 miles from Wilmore Kentucky, the site of the present Asbury College and Asbury Theological Seminary, Asbury pointed out what he called the degrees of apostasy. On the basis of Hebrews 6:4-8, Bishop Asbury showed that recovery is impossible once one reaches “a certain degree of wickedness.” Those who are not “recoverable” have denied “the work [of the Gospel] to be of God, persecute, and say the devil was the author of it.” Those who can be reclaimed recognize God as the author of Gospel work and “have regard for [God’s] people.” “To sin against the remedy, is to be undone without it.”

On the other hand, Asbury marked the hand of Providence just as frequently as he did the hand of the Righteous Judge. When he was thrown from his carriage or when ruffians met him, or when he forded swollen streams without drowning, it was all of God. Providence ordered the weather, saw him safely through the forest, arranged his “chance” encounters.

After dinner with Philip William Otterbein in 1782, Asbury borrowed a young horse,

and as I rode along with my hands in my pockets, she blundered and fell; in the scuffle I had thoughts of throwing myself off, but did not; after some time she recovered, and I praised the Lord who had preserved me in such imminent danger … which I ought to remember with gratitude.

Bishop Asbury accepted without question the doctrines of the Trinity, original sin, and inerrancy of the Scriptures. Yet he developed none of these or other doctrines systematically in written form. He knew what he believed; what he preached in 1771 he also preached in 1815. His stress was upon doing, apparently laid on a solid foundation of what John Wesley called the plain truths of Scripture.

What about social conscience? Asbury inveighed frequently against the evils of hard liquor. And he made a number of protests, often caustic ones, against the horrors of human slavery. He noted one day that “sons of oppression” will be called to account by “the great Proprietor of all.” In eastern North Carolina in 1796, he scrawled in his journal:

My spirit was grieved at the conduct of some Methodists, that hire out slaves at public places to the highest bidder, to cut, skin, and starve them; I think such members ought to be dealt with: on the side of oppressors there are law and power, but where are justice and mercy to the poor slaves? … I will try if words can be like drawn swords, to pierce the hearts of the owners.

In 1783, after witnessing at his host’s home “such cruelty to a Negro that I could not feel free to stay,” he called for his horse, “delivered my own soul, and departed.” There is no record of his being entertained at that home again, though the family had been friends of the Methodists for some time.

Yet Asbury was anything but a social activist. He refused to become embroiled in the politics of the American Revolution, but the day came when he was the only English Methodist preacher left in the colonies except for some who slipped behind the British lines and served the Methodist societies in New York. Political activity, he felt, would divert his attention from his call to preach the Gospel. This distinction is implied in a remark he made at the close of 1795. Though slavery “is awful to me, God is able of these stones [the slaveholders] to raise up children unto Abraham.” Asbury would not jeopardize his chances to preach salvation to slaveholders, angering them by remarks about the evils of “the peculiar institution.” He would not risk their turning deaf ears to him and his Gospel message which he regarded as first priority. He saw that Methodism’s first order of business was redeeming people so that Christ might then cause them to love their neighbors.

At the same time, credit probably belongs to Asbury for the fact that in 1789, when the General Rules of Methodism were first included in the Discipline, they contained a prohibition against Methodists “buying or selling … bodies and souls of men, women, or children, with an intention to enslave them.”

What were the sources of Asbury ‘s theology? Foremost, of course, was the Bible. Ezekiel Cooper, in his oration at Asbury’s funeral, declared,

[Asbury’s] doctrines embraced all those divine truths contained in the Sacred Scriptures. … He was careful to regulate all his religious tenets and doctrines by the Book of God, and to discard everything that was incompatible with divine law and testimony.

Cooper went on to point out what the journal clearly indicates, that Asbury’s theology was expressed in Wesley’s writings, Fletcher’s Checks to Antinomianism, the Anglican/Methodist Articles of Religion, and the Apostles’ Creed.

The Rev. Nicholas Snethen traveled for years with Asbury. In his judgment,

[Asbury] was a great preacher; he was a better preacher than he was supposed to be. The extent of his pulpit resources were not generally known. He was master of the science of his profession. He knew the original languages of the Bible. His mind was stored with the opinions of the most eminent Biblical writers and commentators.

To Francis Asbury, modern United Methodism owes an enormous debt. Because he insisted upon freedom to create everexpanding circuits and to station preachers as he determined the need, the movement kept pace with the frontier.

But the price our church has paid for this tradition of ceaseless activity is a diminished emphasis upon serious theological thought and reflection. Asbury himself was orthodox; he insisted upon orthodoxy in his preachers and churches. Yet the situation confronting us today in the denomination Asbury started is like a menu of doctrinal dishes from which one selects whatever suits the taste. The father of American Methodism would not feel at home in our “doctrinal pluralism.” What Francis Asbury believed is what historic, Biblical Christianity has always believed. Good News works and prays for the recovery of this tradition in the modern church.

[1] Antinomianism: the belief that because one is saved, he or she can safely sin without· fear of condemnation.

[2] Pelagian: one who believes the individual is freely able to choose to do right or wrong, and thus the crucial factor in salvation is one’s free choice rather than God’s saving initiative, seen in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

[3] Apostasy: denial of saving truth formerly believed.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Join Our Mailing List!

Click here to sign up to our email lists:

•Perspective Newsletter (weekly)
• Transforming Congregations Newsletter (monthly)
• Renew Newsletter (monthly)

Make a Gift

Global Methodist Church

Is God Calling You For More?


Latest Articles: