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Prophet of the long road: the life and ministry of Francis Asbury

March 2016 | by Michael Haykin

In October 1924, Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of the United States, spoke at the dedication, in Washington DC, of a statue of a lowly Methodist preacher seated upon his horse.

The pose of the horse, with its head swung downwards and licking its knee, was quite an unusual one for an equestrian statue. But the sculptor, H. Augustus Lukeman (1872–1935) — famous for his depiction of a trio of Confederate leaders at Stone Mountain, near Atlanta — wanted to capture something of the tiredness of the animal. He purposefully avoided portraying the horse prancing or in full gallop, lest he convey the idea of pomp or showy splendour.

As for the rider, he appears absorbed in meditation, possibly on a Scripture passage he has just read, for his right hand clutches a Bible against his chest.

In the words of author Al DeFilippo, there is a ‘theme of gritty perseverance’ about the entire statue, which is confirmed by the inscription on the back of its base, ‘The Prophet of the Long Road’.

Nation’s builder

At the dedication of this statue, President Coolidge detailed some of the remarkable accomplishments of the man, and then rightly concluded that he is ‘entitled to rank as one of the builders of our nation’ — reason enough for there being such a statue in the nation’s capital.

The Methodist depicted by Lukeman in this equestrian sculpture, regarded by some at the time as ‘a memorial of unusual beauty and distinction’, was none other than Francis Asbury (1745–1816). And President Coolidge was right to draw attention to his remarkable achievements.

When Asbury landed in America from England in 1771, there were but a few hundred Methodists in the colonies and only four Anglican ministers who identified with the Methodist cause, despite the fact that the Great Awakening had made an enormous impact on the American religious scene.

In fact, when the American revolutionary war began four years later and the deep political conservatism of John Wesley (1703–1791), the dominant figure in the Methodist world, led him to write a number of vehement tracts against the revolution, all of these ministers, save Asbury, sailed back to Great Britain.

It must have seemed doubtful to any contemporary observer that American Methodism would survive, let alone thrive. Yet 45 years later, in 1816 — the year of Asbury’s death — there were more than 200,000 committed Methodists, out of a total population of around 8 million, and several thousand more, north of the border, in Canada!

And within four years of Asbury’s death, Methodism claimed half a million adherents in the United States, one-twentieth of the country’s population, and was now the largest Christian body in the nation. Humanly speaking, if there was one individual responsible for this remarkable growth, it was Francis Asbury.

Early days

Unlike the English Methodist leader John Wesley, Asbury never wrote a book, although he did write thousands of letters and kept a daily journal throughout his American ministry. In fact, whereas Wesley was university trained, Asbury had nothing more than six years of formal education.

He had grown up in Great Barr, a small village just north of the great industrial centre of Birmingham, England. His father, Joseph, worked at a brewery, and appears to have been guilty of a significant moral lapse, such that later in life his son rarely spoke of him. His mother, Eliza, on the other hand, found spiritual solace among the Methodists, whose preaching was making a deep impact throughout the West Midlands.

At the age of 12, Asbury was apprenticed to a local metal-worker and he entered the world of artisans that was transforming Birmingham and the so-called Black Country. It was a world in which flexibility and innovation were key to material success, and Asbury imbibed these qualities and they became central to his ministry in America.

A year after he began his apprenticeship, Asbury met an itinerant Baptist preacher, through whom Asbury was awakened to his need for faith in Christ.

He began frequenting All Saints Church in West Bromwich, where, over the next couple of years, he heard a number of evangelical Anglican preachers, including Henry Venn and Thomas Haweis.

In time, Asbury started to attend Methodist meetings in Wednesbury, where he heard the godly John Fletcher preach and was deeply impressed with the zeal of the Methodists in worship.

By the time he was 15, Asbury had experienced conversion and within the year professed what Methodism denominated as ‘Christian perfection’, namely, a form of sanctification in which one claimed to live wholly in love and not consciously sin in thought, word or deed.

Asbury’s Calvinistic contemporaries, men like George Whitefield and women like Anne Dutton, had serious doubts about the reality of this experience, but there is no doubt that it set many Methodists like Asbury on what they liked to call ‘the stretch for holiness’. One of the key reasons for Asbury’s impact later in life was his noteworthy godliness.

American Methodist leader

When Asbury was 17 or so, he began to ‘exhort’, that is, encourage fellow believers, and then, in time, to preach. By the time he was 20, he was beginning to itinerate, and, in August 1767, was appointed as an itinerant preacher in the Bedfordshire circuit.

Over the next four years he went on to serve and preach on the Colchester circuit, and then the Wiltshire circuit, 100 miles or so from his home in the West Midlands. Finally, in 1771, he was chosen by Wesley at the annual Methodist conference in Bristol to go to America.

A tearful parting from his parents followed — he never saw either of them again in this world — and on September 4 he sailed for America.

Over the next 45 years, Asbury became the leader of the American Methodist movement, travelling more than 130,000 miles on horseback — the quintessential Methodist circuit rider on the American frontier.

There was great wisdom in this itinerancy for, in 1795, some 95 per cent of Americans lived in settlements with fewer than 2500 residents. ‘We must draw resources from the centre to the circumference’, Asbury wrote in a letter in September 1797.

John Wigger, the author of American saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists (Oxford University Press, 2009),a recent definitive life of Asbury, estimates that he preached more than 10,000 sermons in his itinerant ministry and ordained 2000-3000 Methodist ministers.

Yet, as Wigger notes, Asbury was actually quite a poor speaker, whose sermons were often disjointed and hard to follow. Nathan Bangs (1778-1862), a prominent Methodist evangelist who ministered for 12 years in upper and lower Canada, first heard Asbury preach in 1804 and noted that his preaching was ‘disconnected’ and ‘slid from one subject to another without system’.

He attributed this to Asbury’s ‘many cares and unintermitted travels, which admitted of little or no study’. Another reason was that Asbury was actually quite uncomfortable in public settings. And, although he was a voracious reader, his education was very limited, as noted above; and he cannot be considered an intellectual leader in the way that the Wesley brothers were, for example.

Leadership qualities

What then were the keys to his leadership? John Wigger notes four. First of all, there was his piety. He would regularly rise at four or five in the morning to pray for an hour or so.

He never married, never owned a home, and lived a life of voluntary poverty, owning only as much as he could carry in the saddlebags on his horse. Due to the fact that he was constantly travelling and having to stay in people’s homes, this piety was seen and observed first-hand by all kinds of people, and especially by the Methodists.

There was thus a visibility and authenticity about Asbury’s piety that endeared him to the Methodists. Second, like Wesley, he had a genius for administration. He was a ‘managerial genius of enormous tenacity’, to use the words of historian Dee Andrews, who teaches at California State University.

Then, Asbury knew popular American culture well and sought, without violating biblical principles, to shape Methodism in the fledgling nation to fit the mould of that culture.

He had learned to be flexible as an apprentice in the booming Industrial Revolution in England, and he put this to good use as a ministerial leader, later in life. He thus recognised, early on, the value of camp meetings, and utilised them to great effect.

Methodist meetings in the Southern states were so boisterous that the Swiss theologian and church historian Philip Schaff (1819–1893) once complained that they were marred by ‘jumping and falling, crying and howling, groaning and sighing … so that it must be loathing to an educated man, and fill the serious Christian with painful emotion’.

Asbury, on the other hand, was quite prepared to work with this emotionalism and use it to attract people. This would establish a religious tradition of the public display of emotion that has persisted in the various movements of twentieth-century Pentecostalism, a child of Asbury’s Methodism.

Cultural adaptation

The one area where this adaptation to culture led Asbury to a fundamental break with British Methodism was in the realm of slavery. Wesley had been in the forefront of the evangelical condemnation of slavery. In the English Methodist’s words, slavery was an ‘execrable villainy’ and ‘the scandal of religion’.

Asbury initially sought to uphold British Methodism’s condemnation of slave-owning, but eventually gave way to the demands of Southern Methodists to retain the institution. To the end of his life, though, Asbury knew that he had compromised with an evil.

Finally, Asbury had a tremendous ability to connect with people in small groups and one-on-one. In such settings, his magnetic personality would shine through, and even people who met him only once in such a setting would remember their meeting with joy. Asbury kept in touch with many of these people through the thousands of letters he wrote in his lifetime.

As Wigger points out, the closer people got to him, the more they loved him. He was also relentless in talking to everybody he met along the paths of his itinerating and, by the time that he died, had probably met more Americans than anyone else in his day.

Marked by Asbury’s piety, organisational genius, cultural sensitivity and genuine love of people, Methodism became the most powerful religious movement in America throughout the nineteenth century.

Michael A. G. Haykin is professor of church history and biblical spirituality and director of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist studies at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.

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