1745 -- 1816
As he embarked for America in 1771 the twenty-six year-old wrote
in his journal, "Whither am I going? To the new world. What to do? To gain
honour?...To get money? No. I am going to live to God, and to bring others to do so."
Francis Asbury grew up in the Birmingham area, England, where
Methodism flourished, as it customarily did wherever the human ravages of the Industrial
Revolution were worst. Only two years before Asbury's birth, near-by Wednesbury had seen
dreadful riots, memories of which would be healed wholly only in heaven. Homes had been
pillaged, shops looted, bodies broken, women raped. For more than a century Methodists in
this area would preserve hacked furniture as a tribute to the courage and sacrifice of
their foreparents in faith.
An intellectually gifted boy, Asbury was set upon so viciously at
school that he had to be withdrawn, only to become servant to a vulgar, affluent family
whose riches were matched by their ungodliness. Escape was provided when he was taken on
elsewhere as apprentice metalworker.
When he was sixteen Asbury became aware of a deeper work of grace
within him and began to preach, speaking up to five times per week, walking several miles
to get to each appointment. In order both to preach and retain his livelihood he found it
necessary to rise at 4:00 am and retire at midnight -- a practice he employed for the rest
of his life.
His abilities widely known now, he was assigned to assist James
Glassbrook, himself a forceful Methodist minister. Glassbrook had been
travelling-companion to John Wesley, and no doubt informed his protege of what had
befallen him and Wesley in their roving together. For instance, an Irish magistrate had
vindictively flailed at Glassbrook with his walking-stick until he had broken it over the
Glassbrook's arm, so irate was he that the latter had protected Wesley against a mob which
the magistrate himself had incited!
Meanwhile help was needed desperately in America. In 1771 Wesley
challenged, "Who will go?" His word became the Word of the Lord as Asbury
stepped forward. (Four "affectionate sisters", as they described themselves,
wrote his mother of their dismay at this turn of events!) His last service on English soil
found him preaching on Psalm 61: "From the end of the earth I will cry unto
In no time he reflected the practicality of American life,
putting behind him the old world's concern for pretentious titles and social position.
Concerning slaveowners who would not free black serfs he announced without hesitation,
"God will depart from them." A minister was someone who did the work of the
ministry and was manifestly used of God in that work; to forsake the ministry for a less
rigorous job and expect to retain "Reverend" was ridiculous. Ordination at the
hands of the church conferred nothing; it merely acknowledged that someone had been
ordained at God's hand already. At the same time he was upset at the scarcity of qualified
preachers, and startled that many without qualification assumed none was needed. Like
Wesley before him, Asbury insisted that those claiming a call to preach must study five
hours per day -- or return to shop and farm. When resisted by older ministers whose ardour
had diminished and who preferred to minister amidst comfort, Asbury stated, "I have
nothing to seek but the glory of God; nothing to fear but his displeasure.... I am
determined that no man shall bias me with soft words and fair speeches." He sought no
comfort for himself as he preached everywhere: a widow's rented room, a tavern, a cabin
filthy as a stable, an orchard, a paper-mill, a crowd at a public hanging, a wagon
carrying men to their execution. When many Methodist clergy left America during the
Revolutionary War Asbury remained -- and never renounced his British citizenship!
In 1784 Wesley named him superintendent of the entire Methodist
work in America. Yet Asbury knew that old world authoritarianism had no place in the new;
he had his colleagues elect him superintendent -- a clear indication that ministry in the
new world needed new wineskins. ("Superintendent" was translated
"bishop" in America, a title which Wesley opposed inasmuch as it suggested
spiritual sterility, worldly pomp, and a measure of wealth inexcusable in any Christian!)
Asbury's work took him far afield. He crossed the Allegheny
mountains sixty times, often through trackless underbrush. No house provided shelter at
night. His rheumatism, worsened by repeated drenchings and cold winds, left his feet
grotesquely swollen; someone lifted him onto his horse, his dangling feet unable to get
through the stirrups. Incapacitated as well by asthma and pleurisy in the last two years
of his life he had to be carried like a child everywhere. When urged to give up travelling
he replied that "Come" had always been the operative word he used with younger
preachers, never "Go". He loved the young ministers as his family, naming them
aloud before God in anguished prayer, interceding for them in view of the suffering they
could not avoid.
Under his leadership Methodism had grown from 5000 members in
1776 to 214,000 at his death. Little wonder that in 1787 a letter addressed to "The
Revd. Bishop Asbury, North America" had found its way to him.
When reminded that he had been unable to stand up to preach for
the last seven years of his ministry -- only one of the hardships he had endured for the
sake of the kingdom -- he replied, "But what of this? I can trust in nothing I have
done or suffered. I stand alone in the righteousness of Christ."
Victor A. Shepherd