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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.

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