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Francis Asbury

Francis Asbury

Francis Asbury (1745-1816), English-born American clergyman, broke with the English Methodists in 1787 and established the Methodist Episcopal Church in America.

Francis Asbury was born on Aug. 20 or 21, 1745, in Staffordshire, England. His mother exerted great influence over Francis. She taught him to read the Bible before he was 6 years old and instilled in him a strong fear of sin. A shy, introspective boy who was intimidated by bullying classmates and a harsh schoolmaster, he had only 6 years of formal education.

Asbury had a religious awakening at the age of 14, after which he began to attend meetings of the Methodist Society. He soon became an exhorter and later a preacher. At the Bristol Conference of the Methodists in 1771, he volunteered to go to America as a missionary. He arrived in Philadelphia on Oct. 27, 1771, and went to New York to work under Richard Boardman, one of the first missionaries sent to America by the Methodist Society.

Asbury found church discipline lax and the city sinful. Without asking Boardman's permission, he borrowed a horse and rode into the countryside, thus making his first circuit in America by going to several New York communities.

A morose and solemn man, Asbury constantly subjected himself to spiritual and physical flagellation. A variety of physical problems plagued him during the 45 years in which he traveled the American continent; nevertheless, he rode at least 5,000 miles a year, preaching and exhorting at every opportunity.

Asbury's prestige grew as his circuit widened. He preached first in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia and later in the South and the West. In October 1772 he received a letter from John Wesley informing the preacher that he was to replace Boardman as Wesley's assistant. The following year he was in turn succeeded by Thomas Rankin. There was constant tension between Asbury and Rankin, a result, in part, of Rankin's jealousy of Asbury and, in part, of Asbury's inability to work under anyone. Wesley ordered both to leave America during the Revolutionary War. Rankin returned to England but Asbury chose to remain in America, despite the fact that Methodists were suspected of Tory sympathies. He spent 6 months in seclusion at the Delaware home of Judge Thomas White, but his urge to preach overcame his caution and he returned to circuit riding. By 1780 his influence at the Baltimore Conference was forceful enough to defeat a group of Methodists from the Southern states in a dispute over the Sacraments. He became the acknowledged head of the Methodist Church in America, and when, on Dec. 27, 1784, he was ordained superintendent, he became the titular head.

Asbury ruled his ever-increasing flock imperially, calling himself "bishop." The Methodist Episcopal Church was formally established in America in 1787, when he broke with the English Methodists. His dominance was seriously threatened only once: in 1792 a group of dissidents led by James O'Kelly refused to submit to Asbury's rule and left the Methodist Church to form the Republican Methodist Church.

Eventually Asbury became so ill that he was compelled to accept the appointment of an associate, Richard Whatcoat. In a very real sense, Asbury was the founder of American Methodism. When he became superintendent in 1784, there were 83 traveling preachers and less than 15,000 Methodists. When he died on March 31, 1816, there were 212,000 Methodists, 2,000 local preachers, and 700 circuit riders.

Further Reading

Francis Asbury's own Journal and Letters, edited by Elmer T. Clark and others (3 vols., 1958), is an invaluable primary source. Herbert Asbury, A Methodist Saint: The Life of Bishop Asbury (1927), is a solid biography, and L. C. Rudolph, Francis Asbury (1966), provides additional detail. An excellent reference is Emory S. Bucke, ed., The History of American Methodism, 3 vols. (1964).

Additional Sources

Asbury, Francis, Francis Asbury's America: an album of early American Methodism, Grand Rapids, MI: F. Asbury Press, 1984.

Ludwig, Charles, Francis Asbury: God's circuit rider, Milford, Mich.: Mott Media, 1984.

Smeltzer, Wallace Guy, Bishop Francis Asbury, Field Marshal of the Lord, Pittsburgh?: Commission on Archives and History of the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church in cooperation with the author; Denver, Colo.: Available from W.G. Smeltzer, 1982. □

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Asbury, Francis (1745-1816)

Francis Asbury (1745-1816)

Sources

Methodist circuit rider and bishop

Frontier Clergyman . Over the course of his long career as a Methodist minister and bishop, Francis Asbury traveled over 300, 000 miles on horseback, crossed the Appalachian Mountains more than sixty times, preached 16, 500 sermons, and ordained 4, 000 other Methodist preachers. Asburys heroic labors were only an extreme case of the incessant traveling of itinerant ministers all over the American backcountry. These men together made Methodism the fastest-growing Protestant denomination in early national America.

From England to America . Asbury was born in England in 1745 and apprenticed to be a blacksmith. After he experienced a conversion, Asbury became a Methodist lay minister instead. He immigrated to Pennsylvania in 1771 as a missionary and was the only Methodist missionary to remain in the United States during the Revolutionary War. Methodism was suspect during this period because of the views of John Wesley, its English founder, who opposed American independence. Asbury struggled to maintain contact among the scattered American Methodists during these years and was rewarded as the war ended, leaving him the leader of a movement poised for intense growth. The English Method ist leaders appointed Asbury a joint superintendent of American Methodism, together with Thomas Coke, whom they sent to America to ordain him. Asbury shrewdly seized the initiative, however, calling the Christmas Conference, a gathering of leading American Methodists, in Baltimore on 24 December 1784, to discuss the matter. The conference formed the Methodist Episcopal Church as a separate American denomination. The delegates then chose Asbury as their first bishop.

Shaping American Methodism . As bishop Asbury devoted himself to the growth of the denomination, especially on the frontier. He encouraged the practice of circuit riding, urging the Methodist clergy to travel from place to place, seeking converts everywhere rather than remain settled in one church. And he endorsed the camp-meeting style of revivals as another tool for bringing people to Christianity. During his tenure Methodism became the largest and fastest-growing denomination in the United States as thousands were drawn by its optimistic message and populist feel. Despite his leadership duties, Asbury never gave up traveling and preaching himself, and he died doing missionary work in Spotsylvania, Virginia, on 31 March 1816.

Sources

Russell E. Richey, Early American Methodism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991);

L. C. Rudolph, Francis Asbury (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1966).

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Asbury, Francis

Francis Asbury (ăz´bərē, –bĕ–), 1745–1816, Methodist bishop in America, b. England. The Wesleyan conference in London sent him in 1771 as a missionary to America, where he promoted the growth of the circuit rider system that proved so eminently suited to frontier conditions. His powerful preaching, his skill in winning converts, and his mastery of organization had, by the end of the Revolution, established Asbury as the leader of American Methodism. In 1784, John Wesley ordained Dr. Thomas Coke as superintendent of the societies in America; Asbury was to be associate superintendent. At the American conference held that year, however, Asbury was the dominant figure and was made superintendent. He then assumed the title of bishop and took steps to institute a centralized church government. Although tormented by ill health, he maintained personal supervision of the expanding church, traveling on horseback over 5,000 mi (8,047 km) each year and strongly entrenching Methodism over the entire area of the new nation. His journal is valuable for its account of contemporary society as well of his personal life.

See his journal and letters (3 vol., 1958).

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