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Francis Asbury & The Rise of American Methodism

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Francis Asbury was so well-known in early America that letters addressed to “Bishop Asbury, United States of America” were delivered to him. During his life, Methodist Bishop Asbury (1745-1816) is said to have preached well over 16,000 sermons and traveled nearly 300,000 miles on horseback alone. The explosion of Methodism in the United States after the American Revolution, and during the Second Great Awakening is well documented in the history of the church. When Asbury arrived in the colonies, Methodists numbered at most a few thousand, but most likely were fewer than that. By the time of Asbury’s death, the Methodist Episcopal Church was the largest denomination in the U.S. with more than 200,000 members.

Asbury’s dedication is renowned, he was a man who rose everyday at 4 a.m. for prayer, devotion, and to teach himself biblical languages. Asbury was self-educated, and he organized schools for young people. Many of his days he spent on horseback, where he traveled far and wide to bring the Good News to the American frontier. Asbury was famous for being seen on American trails, riding and reading at the same time, in order to not have any idle moments. In fact, just by the sheer physical demands of his travels, it had a serious effect on his health. Always pushing himself to the end, he was so weak by the end of his ministry, he had to be carried to his carriage after his last sermon.

Mark Tooley of IRD, looks back at Asbury’s influence in America with an article for The American Spectator, “Asbury, Itinerant Leader.” His article recalls President Calvin Coolidge’s dedication speech of the Asbury statue in Washington. Tooley also reminds us of the importance of faith in the history and founding of our nation. Tooley says:

Today, almost nobody notices the Asbury statue any more, and few outside of diehard Methodist circles even remember who Asbury was. But the Coolidge dedication and speech were front page news in Washington, D.C. newspapers in October 1924. Coolidge called Asbury a “prophet of the wilderness” who is “entitled to rank as one of the builders of our nation.” But the President also exploited the opportunity to speak more largely about the role of religion in American civic life.

Comparing Asbury with some mainline denominational leaders, Tooley also notes of Asbury:

Unlike some of his modern mainline Protestant successors, who advocate a stale 20th century Social Gospel, Asbury had little direct interest in politics, despite living during some of history most revolutionary times. “Methodist preachers politicians! What a curse!” he once remarked. Asbury’s 50 years of journaling barely mention the momentous events of his day. He never mentioned Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison or Andrew Jackson, though he likely met them and many other great statesmen. Estimated to travel about 6,000 miles every year, Asbury was probably the most traveled American of his era.

During the outbreak of the American Revolution, Asbury was the only Methodist minister to remain in America. Mark Tooley correctly notes of Asbury’s views, saying, “When [John] Wesley, an ardent Tory, denounced the Revolution, Asbury remained publicly silent, while privately lamenting that the ‘venerable man ever dipped into the the politics of America.'”

Tooley also addresses the Methodist character which was so influential in early America:

While the early Methodist Church mostly stayed out of politics, it created an ethos that deeply shaped early American life. Methodism encouraged thrift, hard work, entrepreneurship, private philanthropy, and civic righteousness. Even if the church itself did not become politically active, Methodist individuals became renowned for their reforming zeal. But their main focus was always on the Gospel.

“He did not come for political motives,” Coolidge rightly observed of Asbury. “He came to bring the Gospel to the people.” Asbury preached to whites, blacks and Indians. He opposed slavery and was indifferent to wealth. He confirmed to early Americans that morality and religion were inextricably linked.

Tooley’s article brilliantly notes the zeal of American Methodists, who contributed greatly to the early days of our Republic. While Asbury knew and conversed with famous politicians of his day, his main mission was to win souls for Christ. He sacrificed worldly comforts to travel and preach the gospel, often in what we would describe as deplorable conditions. His legacy can be seen by the fact there are Methodist Churches in almost every American community to this day. He organized and led the famed Methodist Circuit Riders, who pushed themselves out deeper and further in the frontier, so that no American souls would miss the chance to hear the Good News of Christ. American Methodism would do well to recapture the spirit and fortitude of Francis Asbury.

Ray Nothstine is opinion editor of the the North State Journal in Raleigh, North Carolina. Previously, he was managing editor of Acton Institute's Religion & Liberty quarterly. In 2005 Ray graduated with a Master of Divinity (M.Div) degree from Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. He also holds a B.A. in Political Science from The University of Mississippi in Oxford.


  • anonymous

    It seems odd for the IRD to lift up as a hero a man who ignored politics since the IRD stands for joining politics and faith together!?!?!

  • Mark Summers

    It is not odd that someone from the IRD would lift up Francis Asbury.

    Let’s first consider that the IRD’s stated mission is to “rescue churches from political orthodoxy”. By political orthodoxy they define this as the policies of mainline protestant denominations to an activist federal government including, but not limited to the churches’ support of the welfare state as adhering to Christian doctrine.

    The issue here is not whether you agree with the IRD or not, but rather the consistency of Mr. Tooley’s beliefs with that of Francis Asbury. Mr. Tooley, the IRD, and I suspect many within the Acton institute (although it is a Catholic group)hold the “left leaning” or “activism” of mainline Protestant churches responsible for the decline in church attendence amongst those groups.

    Most of the people who read this blog are probably aware that Methodism sprang from the Anglican faith. And as such it was “tainted” in revolutionary circles with “loyalism” or “Toryism”. It is true that John Wesley denounced the American “rebels” and called his ministers back. And while Asbury was no John Witherspoon it is very important to remember that he refused to leave his post.

    No historian would argue that Asbury would be mistaken for a member of the Sons of Liberty…BUT his refusal to leave his post like many of his loyalist collegues is essential to the rise of American Methodism.

    American Methodism became a force due to the 2nd Great Awakening. Despite the early lukewarm reaction to revoultuion by the Methodists their church exploded because of it.

    Consider the disestablishment of the Anglicans in the 13 states, the Bill of Rights, and the general anti-authoritarian “frontier spirit” of the early American republic. It was this perfect formula of place, politics, and population that led to the great revivals in the American South and West.

    Methodism grew ten fold in number between the Revolution and the Civil War. Could this have been possible had America been loyal to Britain? Would this frontier formula been in place?

    I would argue that the very growth of methodism and other Protestant faiths was directly tied to the principles of Revolution. Those principles were anti-authoritarian, anti-elitist and anti-big government. The American Methodists not only cast off their political king, but also the kingly idealogy of their methodist ancestors. Much as men like George Washington and George Mason didn’t cease to be Anglican because of their Revolutionary beliefs.

    Sure these American Methodists even turned against Asbury himself for seeming a “tyrant”, esp. in the South. Maybe even men like James O’Kelly and Devereux Jarratt would seem more consistent with the beliefs of IRD conservatives.

    However when one looks at todays Methodism and its increasing ties to the centralized state one sees a parrallel to its decline in population. When one looks at the 2nd Great Awakening that Asbury was central to one sees an increase in attendence parrallel to the decrease in central power.

    While Asburys neutrality was a far cry from “Crossing the Delware” his refusal to abandon his revolutionary flock and his numerous own river “crossings” put the methodists in line to benefit from the American Revolution. That is why conservative evangelicals hold him in such regard.

  • This is an excellent article on Asbury and though not Methodist I appreciate it greatly and very much appreciate John Wesley’s ministry. I didn’t know much about Asbury, but find this a very stimulating introduction.

    How sad that we have forgotten that Christianity transforms people and nations. In the mainline we have given up on preaching the Gospel to change people and now rely pathetically on political coercion!

    God help us to be like Francis Asbury and preach the Gospel and trusting that Jesus Christ and God’s Word will change nations!

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