Guest Essay by David Martinez: Francis Asbury: Early American Methodist Leader

Guest Essay by David Martinez: Francis Asbury: Early American Methodist Leader April 1, 2016

Commemorating the 200th Anniversary of the Death of Francis Asbury

By David Martinez

“The love of Christ our hearts constrains,

And strengthens our unwearied hands,

We spend our sweat, and time, and pains,

To cultivate Immanuel’s lands”[1]

Yesterday (March 31) marks the 200th anniversary of the death of Francis Asbury (1745-1816), the relentless Bishop who indeed spent himself in spreading Methodism in America.  And oh how he pained!  Church historians acknowledge the impact John Wesley’s theology – “an Arminianism combined with pietism and burning with revival fire”[2] – had on North America.  While many factors contributed to the success of this revival, Francis Asbury was unquestionably the key figure fanning these revival flames in America during the late 18th and early 19th century.

During the yearly conference in Bristol in 1771, when Asbury volunteered to travel to America and help the Methodists there, John Wesley could not have imagined what Asbury would later become: a symbol of unremitting persistence and America’s first Methodist Bishop.  After a heartbreaking good-bye to his parents, whom he would never see again, he sailed to America at the age of twenty-six.  When he arrived, there were four Methodist preachers caring for about 300 Methodists in the colonies.  Forty-five years later, by the time of his death, there were over 214,000 Methodists, directly caused by his labors.  Simply put: No Asbury – no American Methodism, along with its Arminianism.  The facts are compelling, especially when one considers the obstacles Asbury had to overcome, not the least of which accompanied the suffering life of being an itinerant preacher at that time.

Asbury never married and never had a place to live.  He stayed in over 10,000 homes throughout the course of his ministry.[3]  By reading his published journals one can get an idea of just how gruesome it was to stay at some of these places.  Through icy blizzards, sweltering heat, lonely wildernesses, treacherous hills, Asbury rode over a quarter of a million miles on horseback (greatly compromising his physical health!) and crossed the Allegheny Mountains some sixty times.[4]

When John Piper categorized Asbury among the “very passionate, and persuasive, and powerful preachers of Arminian theology” [5] he was right.  However, Asbury wasn’t known for his preaching; he was known for his personal piety and commitment to the growth of Methodism and all that comes with it – e.g., the Arminian perspective that believes God actually wants everyone to be saved[6].

As great and influential as John Wesley was, his brand of Christianity would not have had the impact it did on America had it not been for Asbury.  By being rooted in the Anglican Church, Methodism was too easily seen as necessarily pro-England.  To say that the Wesleys’ published appeals, tracts, and poems criticizing the American Revolution didn’t ingratiate Methodism with the Americans would perhaps be an understatement.  All of the missionaries Wesley sent to America returned to England.  Asbury stayed.  “To leave such a field for gathering souls to Christ…would be an eternal dishonor,” he wrote, “neither is it part of a good shepherd to leave his flock in time of danger.  Therefore, I am determined, by the grace of God, not to leave them, let the consequences be what it may”[7] The success of the establishment of Methodism and all the Arminian theology it promoted in America vindicates Asbury’s sacrifices.

Asbury’s story is fascinating and too much too get into here but I encourage you to read about who this great man was.  There are many great and edifying biographies about Asbury that are lively and paint a clear picture of who he was.[8]  In 1924, the then President of the United States said of Asbury, “he is entitled to rank as one of the builders of our nation”[9] Today, on the 200th anniversary of his death, I simply say, “Thank you, Bishop Asbury.”

 

 

[1] October 23, 1775; The Journal and Letters of Francis Asbury, I, p. 165.

[2] Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), p. 510.

[3] Roberts Liardon, God’s Generals: The Revivalists (New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 2008), p. 207.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ask Pastor John Podcast (Episode 238)

[6] 1 Timothy 2:4

[7] John Wigger, American Saint: Francis Asbury & The Methodists (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 90.

[8] The most up to date and thoroughly detailed biography is John Wigger’s, American Saint: Francis Asbury & The Methodists, published by Oxford University Press (2009)

[9] President Calvin Coolidge. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=24170

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