History Is His Story
Francis Asbury: Spartan Apostle of Early America
By William P. Farley
In October 1771, 5 years before the American Revolution, Francis Asbury (1745–1816), a 26-year-old Methodist missionary, disembarked from a British sailing vessel in Philadelphia. He was poor, uneducated, and unknown, but he was destined to become one of the most influential Christians in American history.
When Asbury arrived, there were only a handful of Methodists in North America.1 Most Christians were Presbyterians, Congregationalists, or Anglican. But by 1850, 79 years later, 34 percent of Christians in North America were Methodist.2
“When Asbury came to America in 1771,” observed Mark Noll, “four Methodist ministers were caring for about 300 laypeople. When he died in 1816, there were 2,000 ministers and more than 200,000 Methodists in the States, and several thousand more in Canada.”3
During Asbury’s short life, Methodism grew from a small organization to America’s largest Protestant denomination. Because of this growth, notes Nancy Pearcy, some historians call the 19th century “the Methodist Age.”4 Asbury’s Herculean labors, staggering self-sacrifice, and tenacious self-denial energized this tremendous expansion. Who was Francis Asbury, and how did he get such amazing results?
Asbury was born in England in 1745. His parents, converted under the ministry of John Wesley about the time of their son’s birth, were fervent Christians. Under his parents’ faithful teaching and example, Asbury matured.
His father was poor and illiterate, so Asbury received little formal education. He was converted at age 13. By age 18, he was called by Wesley to preach. He began rising at 4 a.m. to pray and read Scripture. He continued this practice the rest of his life.
In 1771, he and four other men answered a call from Wesley to become missionaries to North America. His father, believing he would never see his son again, wept at his sailing. His intuition proved correct.
When Asbury arrived at Philadelphia, the few Methodists living in America were in big coastal cities such as New York and Baltimore. The colonial population was beginning to migrate west into the sparsely settled coastal plain between the Atlantic seaboard and the Alleghenies. The future was westward. Those living outside the big cities were disbursed across large areas and had little contact with other Christians. Asbury saw an opportunity and, like most entrepreneurs, capitalized aggressively.
Using Wesley’s methods, Asbury formed preaching circuits in rural areas. He recruited and ordained young men to preach to congregations that formed near each circuit. They preached wherever hearers would gather: in barns, fields, living rooms, or later, at camp meetings. Congregations often numbered only 10 to 25 people.
After America had won her independence, Asbury mobilized his people. Prior to the Baltimore conference of 1784, Methodism was a lay movement attached to the Episcopal Church. At Baltimore, delegates formed a separate denomination, which they named the Methodist Episcopal Church. Asbury and Dr. Thomas Coke were the church’s first appointed superintendents. However, Asbury’s organizational talent, inspiring vision, and dedication quickly won the allegiance of his peers.
Asbury was now the de facto bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and he was determined to lead by example. Like Jesus, he became the servant of all. He denied himself worldly comforts, such as marriage and a home. He never earned more than $80 in a year. He traveled by horseback an average of 5,000 miles per year, and often 50 miles a day. He crossed the Alleghenies 62 times. He never owned more than he could carry in his saddlebags. He preached daily, answered voluminous correspondence, and ordained hundreds of associate ministers.5
Asbury traveled most of the year, only resting a few weeks each winter in Charleston, South Carolina. He averaged 20 miles (about 5 hours) per day in the saddle. He wore out six horses, several dying under him. He traveled in muggy southern heat and New England’s snow and ice. Nothing deterred him. Much of what is known about early America and Asbury comes from his journal. A typical winter entry reads: “The water froze as it ran from the horses nostrils. … I have suffered a little by lodging in open houses this cold weather; but this is a very small thing when compared to what the dear Redeemer suffered for the salvation of precious souls.”6
In Asbury’s day, there were few hotels in the backwoods of America. When nightfall came, Asbury and his traveling companion would seek shelter by knocking on the closest door. They were seldom refused, but the accommodations were not great. Often they slept in drafty cabins, a piece of buckskin separating them from the cold, dirt floor. Flea-and lice-infested animals often bedded a few feet away. Dry bread and hemlock tea were served for breakfast.
In spite of his many illnesses, Asbury maintained this routine for more than 30 years until 1816, when, at age 71, he died. Christian History Magazine notes, “It is estimated that in Asbury’s lifetime he preached well over 16,000 sermons, ordained more than 4,000 preachers, traveled on horseback or (when he was too old for that) in carriages 270,000 miles.”7
He persevered despite the arthritis, tuberculosis, and liver failure that came with old age. Asbury’s life epitomized Jesus’ words: “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20).
When Asbury died, he was still attempting to travel his 5,000-mile annual circuit. What motivated him to work this relentlessly? Passion for the lost. When faced with a choice of studying or itinerating, Asbury said: “If you can do but one, let your studies alone. I would throw by all the libraries in the world rather than be guilty of the loss of one soul.”8 In this pursuit, he and those he ordained traversed every rural trail and rutted path looking for any settler who had not heard the gospel. In about 1800, a frustrated Presbyterian preacher in Kentucky wrote: “For several days I traveled from settlement to settlement, on my errand of good, but into every hovel I entered, I learned that the Methodist missionary had been there before me.”9
Asbury’s example brought forth the same heroic exertions from his disciples. He never asked them to do anything he did not do first. When the average Congregational pastor made $400 per year, Asbury paid his itinerant pastors $60 and expected them to live a life of self-denial. The stamina and self-denial of Asbury’s troops is legendary. Most were poor, uneducated, and single. The hardships of their itinerant lifestyle took their toll.
In 1855, Abel Stevens studied 672 circuit riders. Fifty-seven percent lasted less than 12 years on the job. Half died by age 30, 200 in the first 5 years. Most died by age 40.10 Asbury and his men were the Marines of the Christian life, the Spartans of Christian brotherhood, and ascetics given arduously to the great task of evangelism. God used them greatly.
“What is remarkable about Asbury’s career,” writes Historian, Nathan Hatch, “is his success in stamping personal convictions indelibly upon an emerging movement.”11 For a generation after his death, Asbury’s example continued to motivate this kind of dedication and sacrifice.
Asbury’s impact on American Christianity was nothing less than phenomenal. As the population spilled west over the Alleghenies into Kentucky, Indiana, and beyond, the Methodist circuit riders rode the crest of this wave, extracting spoils for Christ and His kingdom.
Their success did not come at the expense of the message. Asbury and those he ordained preached vigorously on the Judgment Seat of Christ, the terrors of God’s law, the horrors of hell, the awfulness of sin, and the majestic mercy of a redeeming Savior. This message, rather than causing an impediment to church growth, was enormously successful.
Asbury’s power of perseverance and his single-minded devotion to Christ’s cause were exemplary. Nothing but significant health problems deterred him from his arduous schedule. He continued in spite of violent and persistent headaches, constant hemorrhoids (a significant problem for a man on horseback), bouts of depression, dissensions in leadership, and criticism.
His humility is legendary. He was quick to forgive, quick to overlook an insult, and the first to admit faults in conflict.
His self-denial and willingness to suffer to reach the lost made him stand out among his peers. Passionate love for those without Christ drove him. Like Paul he could boast, “Death is at work in us, but life is at work in you” (2 Corinthians 4:12). And, like Paul, the amazing resurrection life that followed Asbury’s ministry was in direct proportion to his death.
He was zealous for personal holiness. Like most Methodists, he believed in the possibility of sinless perfection through instant sanctification by a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit.12 So, he strove relentlessly for personal holiness in thought, word, and deed. His biographer notes, “The quest for holiness is the primary thesis of his journal, which is quite possibly the most exhaustive account of introspective spiritual formation that we have from any American before the Civil War.”13 Men who traveled with him and knew him well remarked how utterly dead to the world and its allurements he had become.
Asbury’s greatest strength was his example. He motivated a small army of dedicated followers to heed Christ’s words: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
Like all great men, he was imperfect. Many complained of his autocratic, sometimes overbearing, personality. The power of the Methodist Episcopal church resided with Asbury, and sometimes he was too quick to criticize, make decisions, or bring judgment. “Asbury offended most of the leaders with whom he worked, sooner or later,” notes his biographer. He spent much time trying to resolve conflict.
He suffered from acute restlessness. “Resting,” observes Salter, “was something for which his temperament had no toleration.”14 At times he needed to rest, but he could not. His inner compulsions drove him. Like many of us, his strength was also his weakness.
Last, Asbury’s ministry suffered from his lack of interest in theology. Although he read prolifically, taught himself Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, he had little interest in the formal study of God. He was too busy being busy. “A systematic doctrine of God does not exist in Asbury’s writing; he was interested only in the operation of God within the soul,”15 observes his biographer. For Asbury, “theology was not about who God was; it was about what God did.”16
Ultimately, Asbury’s failure to grapple with the doctrine of God probably contributed to his restless moralism. It also contributed to an anti-intellectualism that has hindered American Evangelicalism ever since.17
Lessons From Asbury For Today’s Pastor
The first lesson pastors can learn from Asbury is the power, importance, and impact of personal example. Asbury reproduced himself in his followers. His cadre was “bound together by strict rule and discipline under one leader, a sort of religious military order,” notes Hatch.18 Behind this success was the personal magnetism of Asbury’s self-denying example. Asbury took to heart Paul’s injunction to his followers, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).
Asbury knew that for a Christian leader, holiness is the chief thing. He was convinced that his actions must not contradict his message.
The second lesson pastors can learn from Asbury is that there is a place for celibacy. For Asbury, marriage would have been a disaster. God called him to remain single, and he responded. Is it possible that some 21st-century ministries might be conducive to the celibate life?
The third lesson pastors can learn from Asbury is that God uses earthen vessels. He delights to magnify His power through human weakness. Many might criticize Asbury’s autocratic leadership, but God used him greatly, and through him gave the church a glorious legacy. God uses different and diverse personalities to accomplish his work. But ultimately, love is the test of any leader. Asbury was a man matured in the love of God.
Historian Paul Johnson has observed, “Great events in history are determined by all kinds of factors, but the most important single one is always the quality of the people in charge.”19 Methodism prospered, grew, and dominated early American Church history because of one factor, the quality of Francis Asbury’s leadership. May God raise up men like him today.
History is His Story!
William P. Farley is pastor of Grace Christian Fellowship in Spokane, Washington. He is the author of For His Glory, Pinnacle Press, and Outrageous Mercy, Baker. You can contact him at 509-448-3979.
1. Some sources say 600, others 300 active members. In any case, the numbers were small.
2. Mark Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 153.
3. Ibid., 173.
4. Nancy Pearcy, Total Truth (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2005), 259.
5. Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven, Conn.: Yale, 1989), 86.
6. Noll, 173.
7. “Apostles on Horseback,”Christian History and Biography, 1989, 23.
8. Hatch, 89.
9. Darius Salter, America’s Bishop (Nappanee, Ind.: Evangel, 2003), 205.
10. Hatch, 87.
11. Ibid., 86.
12. Salter, 145.
13. Ibid., 147.
14. Ibid., 179.
15. Ibid., 332.
16. Ibid., 333.
17. Pearcy, chap. 9–11.
18. Hatch, 82.
19. Salter, 359; quoted from Paul Johnson, A History of the American People (New York: Harper Perennial, 1999), 128.