Faithful Heroes: Frances Asbury, father of American Methodism

Today ministers have sound systems, radio and TV Cameras to help them spread the gospel.

Frances Asbury

However, in the early days of the United States, ministers did not have all of these luxuries. Most ministers traveled by horseback.

One such minister was Francis Asbury, known as the father of the Methodist Church in America.

Francis Asbury was born on August 20 {or 21st}, 1745 in Staffordshire, England. He was the son of Joseph and Elizabeth Asbury. Shortly after his birth the family relocated to Sandwell, England.

His mother longed for him to become the Archbishop of Canterbury and sang hymns to him, prayed over him and read the Bible to him starting at a young age. He was raised in the Methodist faith.

Frances Asbury ordination

While he apprenticed to be a blacksmith, he was a local lay preacher by the age of eighteen.

When he was twenty-two, John Wesley appointed him as a traveling preacher.

In 1771, he volunteered to travel to America and was soon preaching in the colonies upon his October 1771 arrival. He stayed as Wesley’s assistant and continued staying, but Wesley eventually returned to England.

When the American Revolution broke out in 1776, Francis Asbury and James Dempster were the only two Methodist ministers in America.

During the American Revolution, he announced that he would “refrain from endorsing” either Great Britain or the United States. He urged all of those in the Methodist faith to do the same thing. However, this caused trouble for many parishioners at times.

He had to flee from Maryland, where it was required to take an oath of allegiance to the new nation, to Delaware, where it was not mandatory to take an oath.

Frances Asbury, the circuit riding preacher

In 1780, he met and became friends with a freedman Henry “Black Harry” Hosier and schooled the man in the Bible. Hosier would eventually become the first African American to preach directly to white congregations in the United States.

John Wesley named Francis Asubry and Thomas Coke as co-superintendents of the Methodist Church in 1784. That year the Christmas Conference set up the Methodist Episcopal Church of the United States. At the conference, Francis Asbury was officially ordained by Coke. Within six months, Thomas Coke had returned to England.

Frances Asbury quote

Francis Asbury led the Methodist Church in America for the next 32 years, although he was not without challengers from time to time. Asbury used the title of bishop, over the title of superintendent, which John Wesley preferred and advised him to use.

Asbury rode over 6,000 miles a year, preaching “virtually every day”, conducting meetings and conferences and holding services anywhere he could find a place to gather, such as courthouses, tobacco houses, public houses, public squares and fields. He was said to be an extraordinary preacher. He was described as “one of the wisest and most farseeing men of his day”.

Frances Asbury sermon

Under his leadership the church grew from 1200 to 214,000. Asbury ordained 700 preachers over the years. He was known for his organizational skills and organized districts of churches, which were served by circuit riders.

Asbury also launched five schools and promoted Sunday schools, which taught children reading, writing and arithmetic.

He also petitioned George Washington to “enact antislavery legislation.”

In 1814, he became ill and had to slow down. By 1816, he was preaching again. He preached his last sermon on March 24, 1816 in Richmond, Virginia. He is said to have been so weak by the end of the sermon that he had to be carried to a waiting carriage.

Frances Asbury quote

He died in Fredericksburg, Virginia one week later on March 31.

When he arrived in America, the Methodist church was less than a decade old in the new world. By his death, forty-five years later, he had shaped and expanded the church to one of the largest denominations within the United States.

The cottage where he grew up in Sandwell, England is now open as the Bishop Asbury Cottage museum.

Frances Asbury statue in Washington, DC

His travels in America are detailed in his three-volume journal, The Journal and Letters of Francis Asbury.

For all of his accomplishments the Methodist Church calls him the architect of the American Methodist Church.

 

 

 

 

 

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