EVERY GENERATION PRODUCES a forgotten character that is foundational to the experience of later generations. Such was Francis Asbury
(1744-1816). The great Methodist biographer, Abel Stephens, wrote, “No one man has done more for Christianity in the western hemisphere” than Francis Asbury.
A student of George Marsden, historian John Wigger, in his book, American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists, contends that Asbury is the most important American Christian that no one knows anything about today.
Historians call the nineteenth century the Methodist Century. The reason is simple. Under Asbury’s leadership the Methodists grew from 300 souls, when he arrived in 1771, to about 200,000 members and 3 million attendees by the time of his death in 1816. Thirty years after his death, Methodists occupied one out of three church buildings in America.
This influence was not due to Asbury’s pulpit eloquence. He was not a good preacher. It was due to the power of his example. He was a servant of massive proportions. Riding 5,000 miles per year on horseback, never taking more than $65 salary per year, he was an apostle of the Christian religion. In other words, he was a modern Paul. He trained and disbursed circuit riders throughout the U.S. during its westward expansion. They traveled circuits of remote home-churches, preaching and pastoring on the way. Eventually they became local churches. The hardships Asbury endured to accomplish this task were remarkable.
Traveling conditions were always difficult in the backcountry, and Georgia was no exception. He preached nearly every day while riding about 30 miles a day. “Frequently we have not more than six hours’ sleep; our horses are weary, and the houses are so crowded, that at night our rest is much disturbed,” he complained on March 4, after preaching near the banks of the Ogeechee River. “Jesus is not always in our dwellings; and where he is not, a pole cabin is not very agreeable.” (Pg. 187).
He was fruitful. As the nation expanded West the Methodists did also, riding on the backs of Asbury’s fiercely loyal, dedicated, band of itinerants. These men were well-suited for frontier life. Long after Asbury’s death they were still imitating his example. While the Presbyterians, Anglicans, and Congregationalists rooted themselves in their East coast congregations, sent their young men to seminary, and lived the genteel life, Asbury’s boys were taming the western frontier. This despite the fact that most of them had little formal education.
I was personally challenged by this book in several ways. First, by the example of Asbury’s single-minded dedication and holiness. Second, Asbury’s willingness to risk all by sending very young men (19-22) into full time ministry challenged me. We would not do this today. Are we missing something? Third, I was challenged by Asbury’s willingness to overlook the necessity of formal education. He believed in formal education, and so should we, but he was unwilling to see it as a necessary precedent to ministry, and so should we.
Asbury had weaknesses. He tended toward asceticism. He could be impatient. In addition, although he and his men were crystal clear on the gospel, as a group, they were not theologically oriented. In succeeding generations this proved to be a significant limitation.
Nevertheless, I heartily recommend this book. I profited greatly from it. You will also. The author concludes,
Asbury wasn’t an intellectual, charismatic performer or autocrat, but his understanding of what it meant to be pious, connected, culturally aware, and effectively organized redefined religious leadership in America (pg. 13).