|Born||August 20 or 21, 1745|
|Died||March 31, 1816 (aged 70)|
Francis Asbury (August 20 or 21, 1745 – March 31, 1816) was one of the first two bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States. As a young man in October 1771, the Englishman traveled to America and, during his 45 years there, he devoted his life to ministry, traveling on horseback and by carriage thousands of miles to those living on the frontier.
Asbury spread Methodism in America, as part of the Second Great Awakening. He also founded several schools during his lifetime, although his own formal education was limited. His journal is valuable to scholars for its account of frontier society.
Francis Asbury was born at Hamstead Bridge, Staffordshire, England on August 20 or 21, 1745, to Elizabeth and Joseph Asbury. The family moved to a cottage at Great Barr, Sandwell, the next year. His boyhood home still stands and is open as Bishop Asbury Cottage museum. Wanting him to become the Archbishop of Canterbury, his mother read the Bible to him, sang him hymns, and prayed over him. Asbury worshipped as a Methodist at nearby Wednesbury. He had an apprenticeship as a blacksmith.
Asbury became a local lay preacher for Methodist meetings at age 18. At age 22, John Wesley appointed him as a traveling preacher. In 1771 he volunteered to travel to America. Ashbury's first sermon in the Colonies took place with the Methodist congregation in Woodrow, Staten Island. Within the first 17 days of being in the colonies, Asbury had preached in Philadelphia and New York. During the first year he was Wesley's assistant and preached in 25 different settlements. When the American Revolutionary War broke out in 1776, he and James Dempster were the only Methodist ministers to remain in America.
"During his early years in North America, Asbury devoted his attention mainly to followers living on the eastern shore between the Delaware River and the Chesapeake Bay. Bishop Asbury was a good friend of the Melsons and was their guest many times on his rounds. When the American revolution severed the traditional ties between the American Thirteen Colonies and Great Britain, Bishop Asbury, in the interest of his religious tenets and principles and in an attempt to remain aloof from the political and military fervor that swept the country, announced he would, to keep the embryonic Methodist congregations neutral, refrain from endorsing either Great Britain or the newly formed United States of America government and urged all his followers to do the same. This request placed almost all of his followers, especially those living in Maryland, in an untenable position. The State of Maryland had enacted a law requiring all citizens to take an Oath of Allegiance to the newly formed American Congress. It addition to this, it stipulated all non-residents within its boundaries also had to take and sign an Oath of Allegiance. Those refusing were summarily incarcerated for treason. Asbury, after proclaiming his neutrality, fled to Delaware, where taking an oath of allegiance was not a requirement. His adherents in Maryland suffered the rancor of the proponents of the Oath." He remained hidden during the war, and ventured occasionally back into Maryland. Sometimes this had the effect of compromising his parishioners.
In 1780, he met the freedman Henry "Black Harry" Hosier, a meeting Asbury considered "providentially arranged". Hosier served as his driver and guide and, though illiterate, memorized long passages of the Bible while Asbury read them aloud during their travels. He eventually became a famous preacher in his own right, the first African American to preach directly to a white congregation in the United States.
In 1784, John Wesley named Asbury and Thomas Coke as co-superintendents of the work in America. The Christmas Conference that year marked the beginning of the Methodist Episcopal Church of the United States. It was during this Conference that Asbury was ordained by Coke. For the next 32 years, Asbury led all the Methodists in America. However, his leadership did not go unchallenged. His idea for a ruling council was opposed by such notables as William McKendree, Jesse Lee, and James O'Kelly. Eventually a General Conference to which delegates could be sent was established on the advice of Coke in 1792.
Like Wesley, Asbury preached in myriad places: courthouses, public houses, tobacco houses, fields, public squares, wherever a crowd assembled to hear him. For the remainder of his life he rode an average of 6,000 miles each year, preaching virtually every day and conducting meetings and conferences. Under his direction, the church grew from 1,200 to 214,000 members and 700 ordained preachers. Among the men he ordained was Richard Allen in Philadelphia, the first black minister in the United States.
In the fall of 1800, Asbury attended one of the events of the Revival of 1800 as he travelled from Kentucky into Tennessee. The combined Presbyterian and Methodist communion observance made a deep impression on Asbury as an early experience with multi-day meetings which included camping on the grounds of the meeting house. The experience, recorded in his journal, illustrates an early identity between religious revivalism and what would later become a staple of nineteenth-century Methodism, the camp meeting.
In 1813, Asbury wrote his will. This was a time when "the greatest membership gain in the history of the church" was achieved. In 1814 his health started to fail and he became ill. In 1816 he started to regain strength and continued his preaching journey. He "preached his last Sermon in Richmond, Virginia" on March 24, "and died at the home of George Arnold near Fredericksburg" on March 31.
In an exciting time in American history, Asbury was reported to be an extraordinary preacher. Biographer Ezra Squier Tipple wrote: "If to speak with authority as the accred messenger of God; to have credentials which bear the seal of heaven ... if when he lifted the trumpet to his lips the Almighty blew the blast; if to be conscious of an ever-present sense of God, God the Summoner, God the Anointing One, God the Judge, and to project it into speech which would make his hearers tremble, melt them with terror, and cause them to fall as dead men; if to be and do all this would entitle a man to be called a great preacher, then Asbury was a great preacher." Bishop Asbury died in Spotsylvania County, Virginia. He was buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery, in Baltimore, near the graves of Bishops John Emory and Beverly Waugh.
"Francis Asbury had a great distrust of personal popularity, and equally marked distaste of personal publicity". Not being a vain person, he did not care to have his image preserved. He had been in America for 23 years, and a bishop for 10 years before he had let a portrait be made of him. His friend James McCannon persuaded him to have it done. Asbury had had a portrait painted of him for his mother in 1797. His last portrait was made in 1813 by an unknown artist in Strasburgh, Pennsylvania.
Asbury had times when he tended to have gloomy thoughts and opinions. He believed himself to be "a true prophet of evil tidings, as it suits my cast of mind". Although he was pessimistic, those who knew him considered him an extremely sensitive person. In his journal he recorded more failures and misgivings than success in his ministry. He loved simplicity and had "frequent spells of morbid depression". He tended to use cynical sarcasm in his preachings. One of the typical prayers he would say, even on his way to America, was "Lord, we are in thy hands and in thy work. Thou knowest what is best of us and for thy work; whether plenty or poverty. The hearts of all men are in thy hands. If it is best for us and for thy church that we should be cramped and straitened, let the people's hands and hearts be closed: If it is better for us; for the church,—and more to thy glory that we should abound in the comforts of life; do thou dispose the hearts of those we serve to give accordingly: and may we learn to be content whether we abound, or suffer need".
He rose at 5 every morning to read the Bible. He was impatient with those who did not do the tasks assigned to them as soon as the task was assigned. He was "one of the wisest and most farseeing men of his day".
On September 4, 1771, at the age of 26, Francis Asbury began his journey to Philadelphia from Pill near Bristol. "It cost him much to leave home and kindred, as is witnessed by his affectionate letters and sacrificial remittances home: but the call of God was not to be denied". Before he left, he wrote a letter to his family. "I wonder sometimes how anyone will sit to hear me, but the Lord covers my weakness with his power…. I trust you will be easy and more quiet. As for me, I know what I am called to. It is to give up all, and to have my hands and heart in the work, yea, the nearest and dearest friends…. Let others condemn me as being without natural affection, disobedient to parents, or say what they please…. I love my parents and friends, but I love my God better and his service…. And tho' I have given up all, I do not repent, for I have found all". On this voyage he began a journal. "In his journal he pours out the feelings and impulses of the moment, but often without giving a clue to either the offender or the offense". He became seasick for the first week but had recovered. He was "poor in material things, but rich in the spiritual atmosphere created and maintained by his mother". He also spent a lot of time studying and reading the Bible and books written by Wesley. On September 22, September 29, and October 6, he preached to the ship's company. Finally, on October 27, he landed at his destination in Philadelphia. His journal also contains some references to opinions of ministers who disagreed with the Methodist leadership, such as Rev. Charles Hopkins of Powhatan County, Virginia who had rejected the Methodist ideals several years before.
This article needs additional citations for verification. (October 2018) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)
Asbury's travels in America are amply noted in his three-volume journal, The Journal and Letters of Francis Asbury. However, his travels in England are much harder to piece together. Several small articles and references to Asbury in the journals of other circuit-riding preachers in England are limited, at best. One source is attempting to piece together the accurate details of the Francis Asbury circuits in England. Writing about Asbury's circuits in England is a subject about which very little information exists. Previous authors have written what is documented. Men like John Wigger in, American Saint, his biography on Asbury, provide some details. The particulars offered are cultivated from the little that exists. Several articles and references in dusty books give some clue to Asbury's travels but the available information always seems inadequate.
Asbury's circuits in England began the spring of 1765. Before this, Asbury had spent nearly two years leading the class of faithful at the West Bromwich Wesleyan society. On occasion, Wesleyan itinerant and one of Asbury's mentors, Alexander Mather would call on Asbury to preach or lead a class in the local area. In addition to his duties as leader of the two dozen individuals who regularly attended in West Bromwich, he also led a band meeting made up of himself and five close friends. Those friends were Thomas Ault, James Mayo, James Bayley, Jabez Ault and Thomas Russell. In 1761, the band formed after Pastor Mather urged the sixteen-year-old Francis to form a band with his friends. Francis was occasionally preaching before this date. However much Asbury preached and taught for the past two years, this call in March 1765 by Scottish itinerant, Alexander Mather, signaled Asbury's official call into the Wesleyan itinerancy. It also the beginning of his circuits in England.
For the next 11 months, the twenty-year-old Asbury circulated his preaching and teaching efforts among the high round of the Staffordshire circuit. The circuit consisted of small Wesleyan societies in West Bromwich, Wednesbury, Walsall, Wolverhampton, and Billbrook. These areas were the foundation of Methodism in the Black Country.
During this initial phase of his circuits around England, two Wesleyan preachers offered the majority of the young preachers mentoring. The first was the already mentioned Scottish itinerant, Mather. The second was an English preacher from Bedfordshire, James Glasbrook. These two taught Asbury, John Wesley's basic requirements for a Wesleyan itinerant preacher.
In January 1766, Asbury was approached by Mather once again. The superintendent of the local forge where Asbury worked full-time, and itinerant Mather pull Asbury aside to discuss an urgent matter. The urgency is the fact that Mather was offering Asbury the opportunity to quit the forge and join the Wesleyan movement as a full-time itinerant on trial. Almost without hesitation, the twenty-one-year-old Francis gratefully accepted.
During a meeting immediately following the appointment, Asbury discovered in greater detail what would be required of him as a full-time traveling preacher. He was to read extensively during the five hours a day that Wesley suggested be set aside by his preachers for their edification. Wesley provided for the movement's preachers by stocking the shelves in London, Bristol and Newcastle. He aimed to educate the masses through his traveling preachers. The somewhat challenging list included several Divinity Books: the Bible, Wesley's tracts, the works of Boehm and Francke. There were also practical books, on Natural Philosophy, Astronomy, History, Poetry and Latin Prose." At this point, Asbury appeared slightly overwhelmed. He loved to read, other than Wesley, the two writers mentioned he had never heard of. Unknown to Asbury, Boehm was a German chaplain to the British Court earlier in the eighteenth-century and August Hermann Francke a German Lutheran leader at Halle. Boehm informed Wesley of Francke's writings. Other than History, the additional subjects mentioned were foreign to a simple nailer from the West Midlands. There were also books on Latin Verse, Greek Prose, including the Greek New Testament, Greek Verse - including Homer's Iliad, and the Hebrew Bible.
Wesley's advice to those who didn't like to read was to develop a taste for it through practice, or return to your trade.
For the next five months, during his circuits in England Asbury teamed with William Orpe, a young preacher who was the Hebrew teacher at Wesley's Kingswood School in Bristol. Asbury and Orpe covered the large Staffordshire circuit. They were clearly shorthanded; the circuit encompassed not only the Black Country towns of Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Willenhall, Walsall, Wednesbury, Darlaston and Billbrook, there is also an extended portion to the south in Worcestershire, Tewkesbury and Gloucestershire. An immensely large circuit spanning nearly 120 miles in a straight line. The pair did their best, Asbury primarily in the Black Country, Orpe handling Worcester and Gloucester. April 1766, they received word that there is an additional preacher assigned to Staffordshire. The plan was to meet him in Billbrook on the first day of May. Despite his happiness with his new career, Asbury struggled with a sense that his efforts were somewhat limited. In his mind, he had not sufficiently ventured out. He was still living with his parents, he was preaching in places that had heard him preach for the last five years, some earlier when he was allowed to preach as a young teenager. He expected more travel and more responsibility. He looked forward to the meeting in Billbrook where he thought he might be reassigned to the low country. Despite Asbury's wishes, he was not assigned to the low round of the Staffordshire circuit. Instead, he was told to remain in the circuit in which he had been preaching since he was sixteen years of age. After his next preaching engagement in Billbrook, Asbury disregarded his assignment and ventured out on his own.
The subsequent letter from William Orpe at the end of May in 1766 is one of the more famous letters in Asbury's experience preaching in England. It was also not what Asbury expected. In the letter, Orpe disciplined Asbury for abandoning his circuit. Asbury wisely decided to continue the familiar circuit until the August conference signaling the end of summer in 1766.
Ignoring Orpe's rebuke, Asbury pushed Mather to overrule Orpe's command to return to his previous circuit and to assign Asbury to the low round of the Staffordshire circuit. Reluctantly, Mather gave Asbury exactly what he wanted just after the 1766 conference. For the next 12 months, near-death experiences and the permeating doubts drove Asbury to his lowest point emotionally. More than a year after forcing the Scottish itinerant to assign him on the low round, Asbury found himself face to face with Mather. The young and shaken Asbury is relieved to find his mentor. Mather sent him home for a short break.
After a couple weeks home, Asbury received instructions to head for London.
In London, Asbury once again found several leading women involved with Wesley's outreach to the destitute of this capital city. He had met them on a previous preaching trip with Mather to Ashbourne, Derbyshire when he was a local leader leading the West Bromwich society. These brave women who cared for the homeless also represent the first women preachers of the Methodist movement.
The London conference of 1767 assigned Asbury to the Bedfordshire circuit.
In London, it seemed likely that Asbury met George Whitefield when he attended worship at Whitefield's Tabernacle. Tottenham Court Road Chapel, the "Tabernacle" as the locals refer to it, was the religious structure erected by Whitefield in response to his ejection from the chapel in Long Acre by the Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields. The Vicar disfavored the radical evangelical efforts and success of Whitefield. Built of brick in 1756, within four years, the Whitefield faithful rendered the 70 feet by 70 feet square building too small.
Through the donation of Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, Whitefield arranged for the building to receive an octagonal extension toward the front. Soon, other private donations from the Tottenham congregation erected 12 almshouses and a chapel house adjacent to the Tabernacle. At the time of Asbury's arrival to London, Whitefield was entertaining several special guests. At the Whitefield home was American leader Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was staying in London at the time, his friendship with Whitefield established years earlier during one of Whitefield's trips to America.
Along with Franklin in Whitefield's home were Connecticut colonial leaders including a Mohegan Indian named Samson Occum and his traveling companion from America, Princeton College Presbyterian minister Nathaniel Whitaker, Lord Dartmouth, and the merchant Dennis De Bert.
Occum and Whitaker were in the middle of a two-year stay in England. Their intention was to raise money for their Indian Charity School in Lebanon, Connecticut. Eleazar Wheelock, a 1733 graduate of Yale owned the institution. The noted preacher and educator was a determined man in his efforts to educate the young Native American children of the eastern border of America. Occum and Whitaker were well on their way to acquire more than 10,000 pounds, the equivalent of two-million dollars in twenty-first century money. Occum's companions raised the funds that would eventually launch Dartmouth College. Spending a couple months in London before the August conference, it is very likely that Asbury not only heard Samson Occum speak at The Tabernacle, but also had opportunity to meet this unique group.
August 18, 1767 the conference in London began at John and Charles Wesley's Foundry Church. At this conference, Wesley assigned Asbury to the sprawling Bedfordshire circuit. In addition to Bedfordshire, Asbury was officially admitted on trial and teamed with Bedfordshire native, James Glasbrook.
The next stop on the Asbury circuits in England tour has Glasbrook and Asbury preaching the rambling Bedfordshire circuit and its several promising locations. Different from the large and lively London society with its magnificent chapels, these rural spots support small intimate classes of the country-side faithful. The key locations on this portion of the Asbury circuits in England are Hertford, Luton, Sundon, Millbrook, Bedford, Clifton and Northampton. On Asbury's return to the Bedfordshire circuit in 1770, he will also attend the Northamptonshire towns of Towcester, Weedon and Whittlebury.
In lieu of attending the 1768 conference in Bristol, Asbury is given instructions to wait in London. There Wesley will send word of his next assignment.
Asbury's short stopover in London occurs at the same time that an American visitor from Philadelphia is staying with George Whitefield. This young man will eventually appear as a dear friend to Asbury when he ministers in Philadelphia. One has to speculate that the future relationship had to have its beginnings while Asbury was awaiting his 1768 assignment in London attending both churches of Whitefield and the Wesleys. The young visitor from America was Dr. Benjamin Rush. Rush was an invited guest by Whitefield after young Benjamin finished some medical studies in Edinburgh, Scotland. Asbury and Dr. Benjamin Rush would have been the same age, twenty-three years old. Each would have attended services at both Whitefield's Tabernacle and Wesley's Foundry Church. This encounter can easily explain the future relationship in Philadelphia between Asbury and Dr. Rush.
The word from the Bristol conference in August 1768 is not good. Wesley assigns Asbury to the only circuit tougher than the Staffordshire low Round. The notification comes with unique instructions of how to deal with smugglers. Wesley's pamphlet, A Word to a Smuggler, is handed to Asbury. He is familiar with the writing. It was read at the 1767 London conference. Wesley's messengers are adamant; preach against the evil act.
The 50 mile trip from London to Colchester once again places Asbury within the betterment of an ancient Roman Road. The track leaves London heading to the north east. The roadway with the characteristic camber crafted for proper drainage, travels through the towns of Ilford, Chadwell, Romford, continues northeast passing through Brentwood and Shenfield, on to Ingatestone, Chelmsford, Boreham, Hatfield Peverel, Witham, Kelvedon, east of Feering, Marks Tey, west of the Stanway heath, finally at the 50 mile mark into Colchester. From Colchester, it is a nine-mile ride through Ardleigh and Lawford to Asbury's first stop in Manningtree.
Asbury will preach along the southern coastline of the River Stour, from Manningtree to Harwich. As beautiful as the scenery is, the area sours with rampant smuggling. The River Stour is a wide waterway, running mostly east to west and connecting directly to the southern tip of the North Sea where it meets the northern tip of the English Channel, one-hundred miles due west of Belgium and the Netherlands. Along the river's route, the shallow-sloping shorelines gently run for several yards to the dry ledge above.
Perhaps out of worry for the young itinerant and the dangerous territory he travels, after two months on the Colchester circuit, Asbury receives word to relocate to the Wiltshire circuit.
The one-hundred-forty-mile journey from Colchester to Salisbury in Wiltshire is a difficult trip. Emotionally for Asbury, it has been almost two years since he was home. His relationship with his female friend Nancy Brookes is not doing well. Letters from his mother back home beg for him to return. In the face of fierce opposition, self-doubt of his abilities as a preacher furthers this emotional descent.
The three main cities of the Wiltshire circuit are Salisbury, Winchester and Portsmouth. In Portsmouth, it is highly likely that Asbury began his study of Hebrew through the large Jewish settlement that coexisted with the Portsmouth Methodists.
The Jewish community in Portsmouth is an interesting group. Clearly the result of the English Civil War one-hundred years before and the proclamation by the victorious Oliver Cromwell lifting the four-hundred-year ban on Jewish residents in England. The new arrivals were mostly young men drawn to the busy seaport towns of Dover, Plymouth, Bristol, Liverpool, Hull, Chatham and Portsmouth. In Portsmouth, the majority of the Jewish settlers reside in Portsea, also known as Portsmouth Common, the same area as the Methodists. The men mostly are traders and silversmiths, selling their wares to the lower ranks on board the numerous ships of the British Navy.
In Salisbury and Winchester, two large cathedrals tower above the historic cities. In both of these settlements, Asbury preaches. For the next ten months, he remains on the Wiltshire circuit.
August 10, 1769, word from the Leeds Conference arrives for Asbury in Salisbury. In the chapel on St Edmund's, Church Street, several of the local families surround him. They are saddened to see the young man leave. They have grown fond of him. Word from Wesley is that the next circuit is Oxfordshire. There he teams up with his friend from Staffordshire, Richard Whatcoat.
In Oxford, Asbury and Whatcoat occasionally preach from St Giles Church. St Giles' is a church built in the Norman style. It sits north of the end of St Giles Street- where it forks into two different roads, north of the city wall.
As they are young men themselves, it seems obvious that the pair would have had dealings with some of the local students studying to be Church of England priests. Asbury and Whatcoat remain in Oxford until Christmas. They both assign to preach the Bedfordshire circuit in the new year. January 1770, Asbury's tour continues with a return trip to Bedfordshire. In addition to returning to Northampton, Asbury will travel to the smaller Wesleyan societies in Towcester and Whittlebury. He also spends time in Weedon. For the next eight months, Asbury will preach on the western portion of the Bedfordshire circuit. Despite the assignment, one detour during this time occurs.
Sunday, March 18, 1770, Wesley makes his way on horseback from Birmingham to West Bromwich. At 1:30 in the afternoon, Wesley finally arrives to the Methodist Meeting house on the heath. With word that the meeting room is too crowded for the large crowd gathering to hear Wesley, the word goes out that Wesley shall preach outdoors. The news of Wesley preaching in West Bromwich inspires Asbury to return home. After nearly three years away, his family and friends once again embrace him.
After his visit home, Asbury returns to the western portion of the Bedfordshire circuit. In addition to Towcester and Whittlebury, he continues to preach in the town of Weedon.
August 7, 1770, the London conference opens in its usual fashion. Inside, the singing by the locals joins the robust voices of the traveling preachers. The weary itinerants endlessly pour in from Ireland, Scotland and England. Twelve women who unofficially preach in the Wesleyan movement are here also. Obviously present because of the rumor that Wesley will address the issue of women preaching. With them is their vocal leader, Sarah Crosby. She gathers several of the arriving itinerants, eagerly inquiring if they have any word on Wesley's plans. None have an answer.
The 1770 conference was controversial for two reasons, one of which was the issue of women preachers. The other issue was brought about inadvertently by Wesley himself. Several of his comments at the end of conference were mistaken for a works doctrine. They thought he was saying that human works were required for salvation. The controversy nearly sinks the Wesleyan movement. Aside from the two issues above, the conference for Asbury introduces a return assignment in the Asbury circuits in England tour. Wesley once again assigns Asbury to Wiltshire. It is this assignment where Asbury is abandoned by his assigned helper. The somewhat melancholy John Catermole exits the Wiltshire circuit after his dealing with a disorderly lay leader who threatens violence to Catermole and Asbury.
A visit by Wesley to the struggling Wiltshire circuit results in Wesley asking Asbury to visit the Isle of Wight. Not much has been written about Asbury's visit to the Isle of Wight. What little information there is, places his visit to the island at about the time of Wesley's preaching in Wiltshire.
It is also on this portion of the Asbury circuits in England tour that he learns of the unexpected death of Whitefield. August 1771, it is at this conference in Bristol where Asbury volunteers for the circuit simply called, America.
I found a school, you a college. Nay, and call it after your own names! Oh, beware!
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Francis Asbury.|