Born August 20?, 1745 (Staffordshire, England) Died March 31, 1816 (Spotsylvania, Virginia)
Francis Asbury was North America's first Methodist bishop. He left England in 1771 and during his forty-year ministry traveled over more of America than any other person of his generation. Bishop Asbury was one of the most respected men in the newly formed United States. While spreading the Methodist message, he established educational institutions and argued against slavery. The detailed journals he maintained give an intimate look at home life in the young nation, especially on the frontiers, and the prevailing social and moral conditions in early America. More than a century after Asbury's death, President Calvin Coolidge (1872–1933; served 1923–29) recognized Asbury as one of the key builders of the nation.
"I feel my spirit bound to the New World, and my heart bound to the people, though unknown."
A pilgrim's progress
Francis Asbury was born into a family of comfortable means in Staffordshire, England, on the twentieth or the twenty-first day of August 1745. The exact date of his birth is in doubt because no record exists of his baptism in the church parish records, the primary means of recording births in eighteenth-century England. The birth of his sister, Sarah, was recorded two years earlier, in 1743. His parents, Joseph Asbury and Elizabeth Rogers, called their son Frank when he was a young boy. Elizabeth, known as Eliza, was from a respectable Welsh family that had immigrated to England. Joseph was a skilled farmer and gardener employed by several wealthy families. Through his hard work, the family lived comfortably. When Sarah died before her fifth birthday, Eliza sank into a deep emotional depression. Young Frank experienced both his mother's grief as well as the loss of his sister and playmate. He became a thoughtful child who was serious beyond his years.
Interested in giving their only son all the advantages of an education, the Asburys moved into a cottage in Newton, a hamlet closer to the city of Birmingham, and enrolled him early in school. By the time Francis was seven, he could read from the Bible. However, his formal education did not last long. The schoolmaster was an abusive disciplinarian, and Frank's schoolmates made fun of him for his mother's strong religious faith. Eliza was a devout Methodist who often opened her home to religious meetings. Francis dropped out of school before he was twelve but continued reading and studying on his own.
The Asburys arranged for Francis to serve as an apprentice. This position provided on-the-job training, and Francis learned a skill that allowed him to work. His initial apprenticeship did not last very long; but his second apprenticeship worked out well, and he remained in the position from 1759 until 1765. It is uncertain what trade Francis practiced during those years. Some records show he worked as a harness maker, and others indicate that he was employed as a blacksmith. However, all agree he was apprenticed to a Methodist family who treated him like a son. Francis enjoyed the work but soon decided that religious activity was his chief interest.
Called to serve
The Church of England was the official state church when Francis was a youth. Though the Asburys were members, they attended additional meetings associated with the Methodist movement. This group encouraged people to develop a personal relationship with God, and its membership grew under the leadership of John Wesley (see box). Francis found himself deeply satisfied with the Methodists. In the summer of 1760, he dedicated himself to Methodism.
By the age of fifteen, Francis Asbury was a Methodist society member in the Church of England. He attended services at the Parish Church of West Bromwich, called All Saints, where he heard many distinguished speakers, including John Wesley. Because the number of Wesleyan Methodists had grown so large, Wesley needed local and traveling preachers to go out and meet with the new societies that were forming everywhere. He developed a plan to supervise unordained men (nonclerical religious leaders) who would preach on circuits (regular routes) in nearby communities. This opportunity was a perfect fit for Asbury, as he lacked the university training required of Church of England clergymen.
Asbury began leading prayer meetings at his home and in his neighborhood while he continued with his apprenticeship trade. He gave his first sermon at a Methodist meeting when he was sixteen, and by the time he was eighteen, Asbury was preaching up to five times a week. His gift for preaching was apparent, but some were drawn to hear him because of the novelty of his extreme youth. Asbury's desire was to go into full-time ministry. In 1766, the twenty-one-year-old applied for and was granted a nine-month trial assignment as a traveling preacher in Staffordshire. In 1767, he was appointed, but not ordained, as a touring minister and spent the year riding a circuit on horseback and preaching. His appointment was renewed every year until 1771, when he attended the annual Methodist Conference of preachers at Bristol, England.
A voice in the wilderness
At the Bristol conference in August 1771, John Wesley called for volunteers to journey to the American colonies as missionaries. Asbury, now twenty-six, stepped forward. He bid farewell to his beloved parents and prepared for the journey. Asbury then traveled back to Bristol, where he met preacher Richard Wright, who had also volunteered for the assignment. They boarded a ship on September 4. Local Methodists raised enough money to buy Asbury some clothes and blankets for the trip. He had no bed on board, so he spread the blankets on the ship's bare planks in order to sleep. During the passage, the two men spent much of their time studying and ministering to their fellow travelers. Wesley encouraged his preachers to read and to write, so Asbury began a journal of his experiences as he left his homeland for places unknown.
Asbury had been interested in going to the American colonies as a missionary long before Wesley asked for volunteers. Methodist missionaries who had already visited the colonies returned with positive reports about the New World. The first Methodist services in the colonies took place in New York City in 1766, the same year Asbury had begun working as a traveling preacher in his native land.
John Wesley's Revival
John Wesley (1703–1791) was a dominant figure in eighteenth-century religion. His work brought hope and religious revival to Great Britain and the New World in America. Wesley emphasized God's free grace, meaning that individuals were free to accept salvation (forgiveness for their sins) and a personal religious rebirth. Wesley's teachings eventually became known as Methodism. The Methodist movement began as a small society of students and teachers who met on the Oxford University campus in England between 1729 and 1735. John Wesley became their leader, though it was his brother Charles who originally gathered the group together to practice Christianity. John Wesley was a teaching assistant at Oxford's Lincoln College and had been ordained an Anglican priest in 1728.
Initially, the group's detractors referred to them as the "Holy Club," the "Godly Club," the "Bible Moths," and the "Enthusiasts." But because of their methodical (consistent and carefully thought-out) actions, the group finally became known as the "Methodists." The exactness and regularity of their lives and studies were noteworthy. They even read together from a bible written in an ancient Greek language. They fasted and prayed and gave their income to charity. They visited prisoners and invalids, offering comfort and religious hope. Their standard of righteousness insisted that outward behavior should match the inward conversion of the heart. In 1735, the Wesley brothers adjourned their club for a year while they traveled to Georgia in the American colonies as missionaries for the Anglican Church.
In the early years of his ministry, Wesley and others won many converts to Methodism in Great Britain, but he also met with a great deal of hostility. Their teachings were not consistent with the Church of England, the official state church. Methodists through much enthusiasm emphasized individual choice and relations with God. Their teachings contrasted sharply to the emotionless Church of England that emphasized that individuals had no control in their relation to God and to world events attributed to God. Anti-Methodist sentiment erupted in riots and violent mobs. Methodist converts were encouraged to remain close to one another for safety. By 1757, most of the violence had stopped, and Methodists were allowed to exist without fear for their lives. By 1769, there were reportedly more than one hundred Methodist preachers and a membership of nearly thirty thousand Methodists in Britain.
In 1771, Francis Asbury (1745–1816) was one of two missionaries sent by Wesley to the British colonies in America to establish the Methodist movement. Asbury guided the Wesleyan societies through the years of the American Revolution (1775–83). Then, in a move sanctioned by Wesley, the American Methodists announced an official split from the British Wesleyan societies. The Methodist Episcopal Church was now a distinct entity from its parent church in England. The Methodist Episcopal Church in America ultimately became the United Methodist Church in 1968, following a merger with several other denominations.
After a voyage of eight weeks, Asbury and Wright arrived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on October 27, 1771. Philadelphia was America's social and commercial center at the time; in 1774, it became the seat of the First Continental Congress, the federal government of the thirteen colonies and, later, the new United States. Asbury enthusiastically began his career as an itinerant (traveling) preacher. He assumed leadership of the four Methodist workers already in America and established the Methodist Episcopal Church. He employed the Methodist pattern of organization that included local classes, preaching circuits, and general conferences. In order to accomplish all he desired, Asbury continued his habit of rising at four in the morning and retiring from his tasks at midnight. Like Wesley, Asbury insisted that those claiming a call to preach must study five hours each day or return to their former profession.
Those who accepted the challenge to work as itinerant preachers faced tremendous hardships. Few roads were available for reaching the widely scattered population, and easy communication between the different sections of the country was impossible. Asbury believed that preachers should go where the gospel was most needed. This included the wilderness as well as the populous areas of America. To help the church grow, Asbury organized a system that bound eastern Methodist communities to missionary outposts on the frontier. He sought no special comforts for himself, instead setting an example for other itinerant ministers with his deep dedication to his work.
In 1775, life took a significant turn for Asbury with the beginning of the American Revolution. Methodism faced an uncertain future in America because of its association with the Church of England. The relationship between the Methodist Church and the Church of England made American Methodists seem unpatriotic and disloyal to the United States. Some Americans suspected the Methodists of sympathizing with the British cause and possibly acting as spies. Methodists in England were quite vocal in their opposition to the rebellion going on in the colonies. John Wesley himself wrote and published a paper asking the colonists to reconsider their uprising against the British authorities. When violence broke out in 1775, most British Methodist missionaries returned to England.
Asbury asked the Methodist leaders in Britain to remain in America, but times were difficult. In 1776, Maryland authorities fined Asbury for preaching and banished him for not signing a loyalty oath to the new state government. Asbury saw himself as a missionary, not a politician. (In fact, many of the major events of the war are not even mentioned in his journal.) However, as the recognized leader of Methodism in America, he was considered by some to be an enemy of the Revolution. After being forced to leave Maryland, Asbury took refuge with friends in Delaware.
The pioneer bishop
When the war was over, the Methodists met in Baltimore in 1784 for their annual convention. Approximately eighty preachers and fifteen thousand members attended. Both American and English Methodists agreed it was time for a new beginning as each country now faced different issues. By the end of the conference, a formal yet friendly split was declared between the American Methodist Episcopalians and the British Wesleyan societies.
At the conference, Asbury was elected bishop of the Methodists in North America and was ordained by the American church. Asbury did not care for titles, but he took on the additional responsibilities that came with the bishop position in order to promote his message.
For the rest of his life, Asbury continued and even expanded his own preaching circuit, frequently covering 5,000 or 6,000 miles each year. Asbury rarely stayed more than a few days in one town and each year visited most states in the union. He became so well known to the people that a letter from home addressed to "The Revd. Bishop Asbury, North America" was delivered to him by the post office. Asbury never became a U.S. citizen, but he also never returned to his homeland in England. He asked for leave to visit England in 1812, but conference leaders discouraged him from traveling there, because the War of 1812 (1812–15) had erupted between the two countries.
Over the years, Asbury traveled over a quarter million miles, mostly on horseback. His rigid schedule eventually wore down his health. He developed rheumatism, which was worsened by repeated exposure to cold, wet weather. Unable to ride a horse any longer, he switched to a carriage in 1814. A respiratory disease further disabled him in his final years, and he had to be carried wherever he went. Asbury had begun with a handful of preachers in 1771 and now supervised over seven hundred who ministered to a congregation of over a quarter million Methodists.
It is estimated that Francis Asbury preached over seventeen thousand sermons during his forty years of journeying in America. He preached his final sermon in Richmond, Virginia, in 1816. Anticipating that death was near, Asbury called his friends to his room on March 31 of that year for the usual hour of singing hymns and praying. He died the same day at the age of seventy in the home of a friend, George Arnold, in Spotsylvania, Virginia. After services attended by a large crowd of mourners, Asbury was buried in the Arnold family cemetery in Virginia. His remains were later moved to Baltimore, Maryland. Asbury was further honored when Asbury College and Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, and the town of Asbury Park, New Jersey, were named for him.
For More Information
Duren, William L. Francis Asbury: Founder of American Methodism and Unofficial Minister of State. New York: Macmillan, 1928.
Noll, Mark A. A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1992.
Rudolph, L. C. Francis Asbury. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1966.
Strickland, William Peter. The Pioneer Bishop: The Life and Times of Francis Asbury. New York: Carlton & Porter, 1858. Reprint, 1958.
Tipple, Ezra Squier. Francis Asbury: The Prophet of the Long Road. New York: The Methodist Book Concern, 1916.
Hallam, David. "America's Favourite Englishman." www.FrancisAsbury.org.http://www.FrancisAsbury.org (accessed on August 11, 2005).
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.
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).
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. □
First Methodist bishop in America; b. Handsworth, England, Aug. 21, 1745; d. Spotsylvania, Va., March 31, 1816. His parents were poor, and after a scanty common school education, he was apprenticed to a blacksmith. In 1763 he was converted and became a lay preacher, while continuing to work at the forge. In 1766 he was asked to take the place of an ailing Methodist itinerant and thereafter devoted himself entirely to preaching. At the Bristol Conference in 1771, he volunteered for America; he arrived at Philadelphia, Pa., on Oct. 27, 1771. He set out at once on a preaching tour of New Jersey and southern New York, forming new congregations and strengthening old ones. Devoted to John wesley's principle of itinerancy, he never again had a home and, with one brief exception, continued these missionary journeys until his death. Between 1772 and 1776 he preached in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. Because of war conditions, he was in partial retirement in Maryland and Delaware until 1780; in the ensuing years he continued preaching from North Carolina to New York.
In November of 1784 Thomas Coke and Richard Whatcoat arrived from England to discuss proposals for the organization of an independent Episcopal Church. At the Christmas conference in Baltimore, Asbury was chosen superintendent with Dr. Coke and on three successive days was ordained deacon, elder, and finally superintendent on Dec. 27, 1784. Asbury later used the title bishop, although this was repugnant to Wesley. The Form of Discipline was adopted in 1785 and the Arminian Magazine was begun in 1789. Throughout this period, Asbury continued his itinerant ministry, visiting existing congregations and penetrating South Carolina (1785), Georgia and Tennessee (1788), and New England (1791). He was able to block Coke's efforts at reunion with the Protestant Episcopal Church in 1791; his insistence on itinerancy made the remarkable growth of Methodism possible. He was less successful in his efforts against slavery. In 1785 he petitioned the Virginia Assembly in favor of general emancipation and sought to make abolitionism a principle of the Methodist Church. He ordained Richard Allen as the first African-American Methodist minister in 1799 but was unable to prevent the change from separate black congregations (1793–95) to a wholly independent African Methodist Episcopal Church. He was an early advocate of camp meetings and made them a fixture of American Methodism. Despite his continual journeys, his health was always precarious, and in 1800 Bishop Whatcoat was chosen to assist him. He continued his missionary labors, however, and died on a preaching tour.
Bibliography: f. asbury, Journal and Letters, ed. e. t. clark et al., 3 v. (Nashville 1958). h. k. carroll, Francis Asbury in the Making of American Methodism (New York 1923). w. l. duren, Francis Asbury (New York 1928). w. c. larrabee, Asbury and His Coadjutors, ed. d. w. clark, 2 v. (Cincinnati 1853). w. p. strickland, The Pioneer Bishop (New York 1858). e. s. tipple, Francis Asbury: The Prophet of the Long Road (New York 1916).
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Asbury, Francis (1745-1816)
Francis Asbury (1745-1816)
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. Asbury’s 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.
Russell E. Richey, Early American Methodism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991);
L. C. Rudolph, Francis Asbury (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1966).
ASBURY, FRANCIS (1745–1816), chief architect of American Methodism. Raised on the fringes of Birmingham in England's "Black Country," where the industrial revolution was beginning, Asbury became a lay preacher at eighteen, eager "to live to God, and to bring others to do so." In 1766 he was admitted as one of John Wesley's itinerant preachers, and in 1771 he was chosen as one of the second pair of volunteers to serve in America. Asbury proved a tough and dedicated pioneer, a stable and influential leader in the manner of Wesley, whose writings saturated his mind. During the Revolutionary War he endeared himself to native-born Methodists by his refusal to return to England, and he restrained those who wanted to break away from Wesley. In 1784 Wesley named the absent Asbury a member of the "legal hundred" to administer British Methodism after Wesley's death, and he also appointed him to receive ordination as "superintendent," or bishop without pomp, at the hands of Thomas Coke. Asbury refused such ordination without the summoning of a conference of his colleagues, who thereupon elected him to that office.
At first Asbury and Coke jointly administered the new Methodist Episcopal Church, but Coke's frequent absences from America increasingly left authority in the hands of Asbury, who was in any case much more fully identified with the American preachers and laity. Asbury was noteworthy for his own tireless travels, both in settled areas and along the expanding frontiers, and his constant recruiting and nurturing of native preachers. He maintained that Methodism would succeed in its mission only through the retention of a disciplined itinerant system and an authoritative but sacrificial episcopacy such as his own. His preachers accepted his discipline because they recognized in him the true marks of the apostle of American Methodism.
The Journal and Letters of Francis Asbury, 3 vols., edited by Elmer T. Clark and Jacob S. Payton (London and Nashville, 1958), is an authoritative collection of annotated autobiographical materials. No first-rate biography exists, although L. C. Rudolph's Francis Asbury (Nashville, 1966) is useful. Additional insights can be gained from chapters 7 and 8 of my book From Wesley to Asbury: Studies in Early American Methodism (Durham, 1976).
Frank Baker (1987)
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).