The unexpected leader

Francis Asbury (1745–1816) grew up in a rough neighborhood. A traveler passing through his hometown of Great Barr, England, in 1741 noted a number of metalworking shops in which he saw “one or more females, stript of their upper garments [topless], and not overcharged with their lower, wielding the hammer with all the grace of the sex.” Taken aback, he asked if these women “with smutty faces, thundering at the anvil” shod horses, but was told that they were all “nailers” (i.e., they made nails).

Asbury would have seen all this (he probably made nails himself) as well as the constant traffic of drovers (whose job was to move large herds of sheep and cattle on foot) passing by his home or stopping at the pub across the street for drinks and gambling. His own father probably did the same. Yet despite his unremarkable beginnings, the younger Asbury lived one of the most remarkable lives in American history—a life that many admired but few envied. Perhaps no religious leader in American history left a more enduring legacy than Francis Asbury, though many have forgotten his contributions today. The lower-middle-class son of a forgettable father would one day be elected a bishop at the founding conference of America’s most explosive church movement, Methodism.

America’s most famous man

Under Asbury’s leadership American Methodism grew at a remarkable rate, rising from a few hundred members in 1771 to more than 200,000 in 1816, the year of his death. During his 45 years in America, Asbury traveled at least 130,000 miles by horse and crossed the Allegheny Mountains some 60 times. For many years he visited nearly every state once a year and traveled more extensively across the American landscape than anyone else of his day.

Landlords and tavern keepers knew him by sight in every region. People called out his name as he passed by on the road. Asbury was not born in America, but he came to understand ordinary Americans as well as any of his contemporaries.

Asbury’s childhood gave few hints of what he would later accomplish. Growing up in the West Midlands of England, he had no expectations of a life beyond practicing a trade in his small village. His father, Joseph, was a gardener and agricultural laborer.

Joseph also exhibited some kind of moral failing—something that everyone acknowledged, but no records identify. Sometime around 1796, American preacher Jeremiah Minter posed the following question to Asbury: “Mr. Asbury, I have often heard you mention your mother, but never heard you mention your father—is he living or is he dead?” Although Asbury’s father, Joseph, was still alive, Asbury did not reply. Another preacher answered for him: “It may be that he has no father.” At least not one that he cared to discuss.

The Asburys lived in a small cottage in the village of Great Barr, about four miles outside Birmingham. Methodism came to the area through the preaching of John and Charles Wesley in 1742 and 1743; their success in gaining converts also garnered opposition, including, in October 1743, the mob that attacked John and nearly tore his hair out. In the following months, local Methodists suffered almost £500 in damage done by rioters.

A brewery owned the Asburys’ cottage—indicating that Joseph Asbury worked at the brewery and suggesting that his problem may have been drinking too much. Though Joseph was generally good-natured, he was also known to squander money, so perhaps he also gambled, a common component of cockfighting and other popular recreations of the day.

Asbury’s mother, Elizabeth, faced her own demons. She sank into a deep depression following the death of six-year-old Sarah, her only other child, when Frank (as the family called him) was just three. For years Elizabeth dwelled “in a very dark, dark, dark day and place,” Francis later remembered. This may explain why she became possessive of her son and had a hard time letting go.

Asbury’s parents provided for his education as best they could. By age six his mother had taught him to read the Bible, and he went to a free school at Sneal’s Green, about a quarter mile from their cottage. Unfortunately the school’s master was “a great churl, and used to beat me cruelly,” Asbury later recalled. His severity “filled me with such horrible dread, that with me anything was preferable to going to school.”

Young Francis quit school at about age 12. A year later he entered an apprenticeship to a local metalworker. The six and a half years he spent in this trade left an indelible mark on him. Birmingham was a center of the early Industrial Revolution, and West Midland manufacturers had a keen eye for what would sell. Asbury later applied this same market sense to the American religious landscape. Having seen a consumer revolution in material goods up close, he was prepared to appreciate a consumer revolution in spiritual ideas, which is exactly what he would encounter in the new land.

Searching for salvation

The death of Asbury’s sister, Sarah, drove his mother to search for deeper spiritual meaning in life. Elizabeth soon gained a reputation for seeking out almost anyone with evangelical inclinations, including local Methodists. Asbury’s religious convictions grew along with his mother’s. She directed the boy to Methodist meetings in nearby West Bromwich and Wednesbury, where Asbury was impressed by the zeal of the preachers and their audiences.

After an intense search for an assurance of salvation, he experienced conversion at about age 15 and sanctification, or something close to it, a year or so later. (For early Methodists, sanctification was becoming so thoroughly changed by God’s grace that one lived out of perfect love to God and neighbor, an act they felt could occur in an instant, though the ramifications lasted a lifetime.)

Asbury conversion not only brought him to Christ, it dramatically expanded his world. As a metalworker he probably would have lived out his life within a few miles of Birmingham. As the Methodist preacher he soon became, his horizons were boundless.

Asbury next joined a class meeting. These were small groups created by John Wesley to nurture spiritual formation and community (see “Dwelling in the suburbs of heaven,” pp. 12–15). At about 17 he began to exhort and then preach in public. (Exhorters spoke general words of spiritual encouragement, while preachers expounded a biblical text more closely.) At 21 he took the place of the traveling preacher assigned to the Staffordshire circuit.

For the next four years, Wesley assigned Asbury to mostly rural circuits in the south of England, none of which was particularly easy. Asbury stuck with it, showing a resiliency that would characterize his entire career. At the Bristol Annual Conference in August 1771, at age 26, he answered Wesley’s call for volunteers to go to America. No one, including John Wesley, expected him to do anything extraordinary there.

How wrong they were.

“His preaching was not edifying”

As a metalworker’s apprentice and the son of a common laborer, Asbury understood the lives of working people. Once he arrived in America in 1771, he established a close bond with Methodists already there. Methodists had begun immigrating to America in the 1760s, and the vast majority of them came from the lower and middling ranks of society (see “Preachers, fighters, and crusaders,” pp. 35–38).

While America’s first and most respected Protestant leaders, the Anglicans, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians, had been drawn from the ranks of the educated and successful, American Methodism’s earliest preachers started as farmers, schoolteachers, blacksmiths, shoemakers, carpenters, and artisans of other kinds before turning to preaching. Asbury was not a highly educated Anglican priest like Wesley. He was one of the common people.

Religious leaders are often lumped into three broad categories: intellectuals, charismatic communicators, and autocrats. Asbury was none of these. Though he read voraciously, he was not educated beyond the sixth grade and, unlike the movement’s Oxford-educated founders, could never pass as an intellectual. He wrote thousands of letters and kept a journal throughout his career, but he never wrote a book. Nor was he an autocratic leader in Wesley’s mold, imposing his will on others.

Asbury was also a surprisingly bad preacher. He was well known for disjointed sermons that were nearly impossible to follow, and he seldom spoke at the annual and general conferences where the preachers met to do the business of the church. Writing on the occasion of Asbury’s death, Nicholas Snethen admitted that people generally did not find Asbury’s preaching “edifying.”

This was more or less what everyone said. Nathan Bangs (see “From John Wesley to Ben-Hur,” pp. 28–30) heard Asbury for the first time at the New York Annual Conference in June 1804: “His preaching was quite discursive, if not disconnected, a fact attributed to his many cares and unintermitted travel, which admitted of [i.e., made time for] little or no study. . . . He slid from one subject to another without system. He abounded in illustrations and anecdotes.” His reticence in public was rooted in a fear of rejection that he never entirely overcame.

In short, Asbury had none of the prerequisites to become what we usually think of as a great American leader; yet that is what he did. If he was not a scholar, could not preach, and did not rule others with his will, what made Asbury such a brilliant leader?

The democratization of American culture in the wake of the American Revolution required a leader who could inspire, persuade, and build consensus—exactly where Asbury excelled. He communicated his vision for Methodism in four enduring ways that came to define much of evangelical culture in America for decades to come.

Riding, praying, and visiting

The first way can be seen in his legendary piety and perseverance. Throughout his daily life of traveling, preaching, talking, and writing, Asbury essentially lived as a houseguest in thousands of people’s homes across the nation. During his 45 years in America, he rarely spent more than a few days in any one location.

This manner of life “exposed him, continually, to public or private observation and inspection, and subjected him to a constant and critical review . . . from day to day, and from year to year,” wrote Ezekiel Cooper, who knew Asbury for more than 30 years. Asbury had no privacy. If his devotion had been half-hearted, it would have been difficult to hide from the tens of thousands who saw him up close. On the contrary, the closer people got to Asbury, the more they tended to like and respect him.

What did Asbury’s personal piety look like up close? He usually rose between 4:00 and 5:00 a.m. to spend an hour in prayer in the morning stillness. He ate sparingly—in part because of frequent illnesses brought on by exposure to weather, questionable food, and poor housing, but also as an expression of spiritual discipline.

At its core Methodism meant holding to a pattern, a method, so as to live a more holy life. This included practicing voluntary poverty. Though Asbury spent his life on the road, he insisted on riding unexceptional horses (which he nevertheless named and doted on) and using cheap saddles and riding gear. His clothes were generally presentable but also plain, inexpensive, and limited to what he could carry (see “Did you know?,“ inside front cover).

Asbury gave away almost all the money that came his way, often to people he met on the road. Once, in Ohio, he came across a widow whose only cow was about to be sold for debt. Declaring, “it must not be,” he gave her what he had and solicited enough from bystanders, including some who had probably come to bid on the cow, to pay the woman’s bills.

Even those who had not known Asbury long testified to his piety. John Wesley sent Anglican priest Thomas Coke to the United States in 1784 to ordain Asbury and to assist him as a bishop in the new denomination. Wesley preferred the term “general superintendent,” disliking the historical implications of “bishop,” but the Americans ignored him. In fact, they even named their new church “Methodist Episcopal Church” because it had bishops.

The first time Coke met Asbury, he wrote in his journal: “I exceedingly reverence Mr. Asbury: he has so much simplicity, like a child; so much wisdom and consideration; so much meekness and love; and under all this, though hardly to be perceived, so much command and authority; he is exactly qualified for a primitive bishop [i.e., one from the early church.]” Coke returned to England several times and eventually became a missionary in the West Indies.

From 1793 on Asbury suffered from steadily worsening congestive heart failure, probably brought on by strep throat and rheumatic fever that damaged his heart valves. This led to swelling in his feet, made worse by the long hours on horseback when his dangling feet became too swollen to fit in the stirrups.

At times he experimented with using sulkies (small, two-wheeled vehicles) and other small carriages. But he disliked limiting himself to roads suitable for a wagon: “The advantages of being on horseback are: that I can better turn aside to visit the poor; I can get along more difficult and intricate roads; I shall save money to give away to the needy; and, lastly, I can be more tender to my poor, faithful beast,” Asbury wrote in 1810, when he was 65 and still traveling up to 5,000 miles a year.

Laughing “most heartily”

The second way Asbury communicated his vision was through his ability to connect with ordinary people. He was legendary for the way he could draw people to him in close conversation late at night or while riding a solitary road. Asbury often chided himself for excessive “levity,” particularly at night, and considered his love of talking in these settings a drain on his piety. In reality it was one of his greatest assets, allowing him to build connections across the Methodist movement and feel closely the pulse of the church and the nation.

Henry Boehm, who traveled some 25,000 miles with Asbury from 1808 to 1813, recalled, “In private circles he would unbend, and relate amusing incidents and laugh most heartily.” People loved having him in their homes. “He was full of interesting anecdotes, and could entertain people for hours,” remembered Boehm. Early Methodists did not associate laughing or even talking very much with the spiritual life, so it is remarkable that this is what people remembered about Asbury.

Cultural Innovator

The third conduit of Asbury’s vision was the way he understood and used popular culture. Asbury did not come to America until age 26, yet he came to understand American culture as well as anyone of his generation. Like John Wesley, Asbury was deeply committed to making the Gospel relevant in his time and place. His annual tours regularly took him from Charleston, South Carolina, to New England to the western frontier and everywhere in between.

Asbury used those extensive travels and his ability to connect with people to develop a deep understanding of American culture in its various settings. He talked with an endless array of people—which, given the communication technology of the time, was an effective way to keep up with current trends. He appreciated the vitality of raucous southern worship in the early 1770s when Wesley’s other missionaries from Great Britain found it distasteful, and he immediately grasped the potential of camp meetings in the early nineteenth century.

Soon after attending his first camp meeting in 1802, Asbury began urging his preachers to hold them whenever possible. “They have never been tried without success . . . this is fishing with a large net,” he wrote to the presiding elder of the Pittsburgh District in December 1802 (see “Camp meetings: a Methodist invention?,” p. 16). Asbury was usually quick to pick up on these kinds of innovations and to promote them across the church, even when they did not appeal to him personally (he was rarely among the shouters at camp meetings).

At the same time, cultural adaptation sometimes undercut his leadership, as it did over the issue of slavery. During the mid-1770s (shortly after he first visited the South), Asbury came to believe that slavery was a moral evil: “I have lately been impressed with a deep concern, for bringing about the freedom of slaves, in America, and feel resolved to do what little I can to promote it. . . . I am strongly persuaded, that if the Methodists will not yield in this point, and emancipate their slaves, God will depart from them,” he wrote in February 1779.

As a result of these convictions, during the 1780s Asbury backed a drive to exclude slaveholders from the church, one that was ultimately unsuccessful. By the turn of the century, the weight of southern inflexibility had pushed him to accept that the church could not remain in the South without accommodating slavery. It was a bitter disappointment that haunted Asbury for the rest of his life.

Superior talent to lead

The fourth way that Asbury communicated his message was through his organizational abilities. He inherited a complex and systematic Methodist structure from the Wesleys, but it suited him well: he was a brilliant administrator and a keen judge of human motivations. He had a “superior talent to read men,” as itinerant preacher Peter Cartwright (see “Preachers, fighters, and crusaders,” pp. 35–38) put it. He was not quick on his feet, but had a tenacious memory and a great deal of patience.

As Asbury crisscrossed the nation year in and year out, he attended to countless details of doctrine, finance, discipline, and staffing. Yet he never lost sight of the people involved. It did not trouble him that many of his preachers were better speakers than he was. Indeed he hoped that they would be. His constant traveling and careful notes made it possible to keep tabs on thousands of preachers and lay leaders. Most were young, in their teens or twenties. Of the 334 circuit preachers in 1809, only one-third had more than five years’ experience. By 1812 Asbury was supervising nearly 500 itinerant preachers and many more lay leaders (see “Did you know?,” inside front cover).

A constantly moving circuit

At the center of the system was the itinerant connection. Itinerant Methodist preachers, called “circuit riders,” did not serve a single congregation but rather ministered to a number of congregations spread out along circuits that they continually rode on horseback.

Under Asbury the typical itinerant rode a predominantly rural circuit, 200 to 600 miles in circumference, typically with 25 to 30 preaching appointments per round. A common circuit of 400 miles took four weeks to complete. This meant that circuit riders had to travel and preach nearly every day.

Asbury understood what it would take to keep up with America’s postrevolutionary population growth—and he hammered Methodist structure into a system designed to do just that. In 1795, 95 percent of Americans lived in places with fewer than 2,500 inhabitants.

The itinerant system was perfectly balanced to keep pace with a rapidly expanding frontier where growth was more extensive then intensive. If Methodist leaders had stayed in the cities on the East Coast, they would have missed this opportunity. “We must draw resources from the center to the circumference,” Asbury wrote in 1797.

Asbury’s vision for Methodism as pious, connected, culturally responsive, and effectively organized worked its way deep into the fabric of American religious life. Many other groups copied the Methodist example—so many that a commitment to those values as norms for church life exists in thousands of churches today that may never have heard Asbury’s name.

Asbury’s legacy can also be seen in the thousands of preachers whose careers he shaped one conversation at a time and in the tens of thousands who saw him up close and were inspired by his example. There was no blueprint for what he did: building a large organization led by ordinary people, many unpaid, in a pluralistic society where religions competed in the marketplace. Asbury did more than maintain the Wesleyan message in America. He adapted the Wesleys’ practice to fit a new social and cultural setting. The result shaped religion in America and around the world.

Saints are tough acts to follow. None of Asbury’s successors rose to his stature, but it is a testament to his leadership that the church did not need them to. By 1876 there were more than 4,000,000 Methodists in the United States, and Methodism continued to grow faster than the American population up until the end of the 1950s. While mainline Methodists are declining in numbers today, other groups derived from the Wesleyan heritage, including Pentecostalism, are thriving—as is much of evangelical culture in general. No one did more to push all of this along than Francis Asbury. C H

By John Wigger

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #114 in 2015]

John Wigger is professor of history at the University of Missouri and author of American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists.
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