Francis Asbury: Circuit Rider

Chapter 1
Lying Low

The meeting over, Francis Asbury stood at the door of the old wooden barn where he had just preached. As he said goodbye to the men in attendance, he knew that he might never see some of these dedicated young preachers again. There was a good chance a number of them would get caught up in the war between the Patriots and the British. Nonetheless, Francis encouraged the American-born preachers to go about the business of preaching the gospel as boldly and as best they could under the circumstances.

Soon Francis was left alone with his thoughts. It was a bitter moment. The men were going off to ride circuits and preach and teach while he was holed up in a house in a remote corner of Delaware. More than anything else he wanted to be out riding the circuits. That was what he had come to the American colonies to do. For seven years he had roamed freely about the countryside, preaching and teaching and establishing Methodist Societies wherever he went. All that had changed. He was an Englishman caught in the Americans’ war with the British for their independence.

Francis had been in the colonies long enough to appreciate the stand the Patriots had taken against Great Britain. He even agreed with most of their complaints. But it was the spring of 1778, and the British still occupied Philadelphia, which they had captured from Patriot forces several months before. Because of this, fear and anxiety gripped Americans living in the surrounding colonies, such as Maryland and Delaware. These Americans were unsure what the British army’s next move might be. As a result, any Englishman caught riding through the countryside was immediately considered to be a Tory—an English sympathizer—and perhaps even a British spy. More than a few Englishmen had been arrested or killed.

As an Englishman, Francis found this to be a big problem. His fellow English Methodist preachers had solved the problem by getting on ships and returning home, but not Francis. He felt that God had called him to remain in America. But now he wondered whether he’d made a mistake. Perhaps he should have left for England with his best friend, George Shadford, the month before. If he had, he wouldn’t be stuck in Delaware, lying low and unable to move about freely, simply because he was an Englishman. He had always been permitted to travel as a Methodist preacher, and he hoped that would never change.

Chapter 2
Apprenticed to God

Twenty-year-old Francis Asbury, or Frank as everyone called him, paced nervously up and down the living room floor. A bushel of ripe green apples sat on the table, waiting for his mother to turn them into pies, but for once that didn’t bring a smile to his face. Today Frank had grim business to take care of. He took a deep breath and peered out the open window, wondering why his father was taking so long getting home from Hamstead Hall, the big estate down the road where he worked as a gardener.

His mother too—where was she? Probably praying with a neighbor, Frank decided. Ever since he was seven or eight, his mother seemed to be out praying or reading the Bible to someone nearby.

Frank stared out the window. It was dusk, and as usual the road to Birmingham, England, was busy with weary drovers guiding packhorses laden with coal. Many of the drovers would stop at the Malt House Inn and Brewery for the night, and already Frank could hear them calling to the inn boys to unload and feed their horses. The call was a sound he was familiar with, as the Asburys’ two-story, redbrick cottage shared a wall with the Malt House Inn and Brewery.

Finally, his parents, Joseph and Eliza Asbury, both arrived home.

“I’m not surprised to see you here,” Joseph said, shuttering the window for the night. “I assumed that you would want to have a talk now that your apprenticeship is over.”

“Yes,” Eliza agreed. “It’s hard to believe seven years have passed and you’re a tradesman now, a buckle maker no less.”

Frank could hear the pride in his mother’s voice. Not all the boys in their small village of Newton, located four miles outside the large industrial city of Birmingham, had the tenacity to sign up for an apprenticeship at thirteen years of age and work hard to become a tradesman in the allotted seven years.

“I suppose it’s on to your own workshop now, lad?” his father said. “Your mother and I have managed to save up a little to help you start out on your own—if that’s what you want to do, of course. Or you could stay with Mr. Griffin if he’s asked you to. That would be alright as well.”

Frank cleared his throat. “Actually, Father, I had something quite different in mind.” He spoke fast, before his courage failed him. “I’ve decided to become a Methodist preacher—a traveling preacher.”

After a long silence, just as Frank expected, his father exploded.

“A preacher? Are you out of your mind, son? How is a preacher supposed to earn his keep? You’ve a good trade now, one that took you seven years to learn. Surely you’re not telling us you would throw all that away to gallop around on a horse preaching and praying with people. Where will that get you?”

Joseph stopped to take a breath, and Frank could see the veins in his neck pulsating. “It’s wrong of those Wesley brothers to encourage the likes of you. What do they know of your situation? They are both ordained ministers with a way to make a living, but you? You’ll be nothing, unrecognized by the church. You’re signing on to be poor your whole life. Tell me, lad, how will you support a wife and children on the meager collections of a Methodist preacher?”

“I’m not sure, Father,” Frank said. “I just know that’s what God has called me to do, and I dare not go against it. The Bible tells us God will supply all our needs, and I will trust Him to do so.”

“But,” his father sputtered, “your apprenticeship! Why throw that away?”

Eliza spoke up. “It’s true, Joseph. Frank has been apprenticed as a buckle maker these past seven years, but he has also been apprenticed to God. Now that he is a grown man, he should be free to decide which line of work to take up.”

“Aye, that’s what you would say, Eliza,” Frank’s father grumbled. “You always have favored the boy and his strange religious leanings. Too much coddling has done this to him.”

The room was silent again. Frank walked toward the door. “I do not mean to bring trouble to the house,” he said. “I just wanted you to know that I am called by God, and I intend to follow Him.”

“We understand,” his mother said.

His father glared at the fireplace. “You might, Eliza, but I don’t,” he retorted. “Have you thought about your mother?” he said as he turned to Frank. “If something happens to me, who will take care of her if her only son is off roving around the countryside? No, boy, you have God-given responsibilities here. Face them like a man.”

Frank took a deep breath. He knew it was useless to argue. “I need some night air,” he said, opening the door and walking out into the autumn evening. He could smell the blackberries in the hedgerow as he made his way across the yard to the barn, which was in ruins now. Over the past seven years, since his decision to become a dedicated Christian, Frank had found the barn a place of spiritual solitude.

Frank knew that a lot of people found it hard to understand his decision. After all, it was 1765 and Protestant Christianity was the law of the land. British citizens were subjects of King George III, a devout monarch who was also head of the Church of England. Yet when Frank was thirteen years old, something had happened to him that he could not fully explain. In fact, he’d always been a sensitive child, shaped in part by experiencing grief at a young age.

When she was five years old, Frank’s only sibling, Sarah, had come down with a sudden fever and died. Frank was three at the time, but he could still remember his mother’s wailing and his father lifting his sister’s lifeless body into the coffin. Sarah was buried in the graveyard at St. Mary’s in nearby Handsworth, and Frank accompanied his mother there many times. Eliza would sit on the grave and weep. Not only did she cry at the grave, but she would also spend hours each day at the house with her head in her hands, crying. It was all a shock to Frank. In one day he had lost his older sister and playmate along with the happy home he’d known since birth.

Frank was aware that his mother had tried everything she could think of to shake the terrible depression that had settled over her. Eliza met with the local Church of England priest and said special prayers, attended church regularly, and gave to the poor, but nothing seemed to help. However, during a visit with relatives in the nearby village of Wednesbury, Eliza had encountered a Methodist preacher who preached the Methodists’ fourfold gospel: (1) All need to be saved. Every person is born with original sin and in need of redemption. (2) All can be saved. Every person in the world can be saved through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ if he or she so chooses. (3) All can know in their hearts that they are saved. (4) All can be saved to the uttermost. That is, every Christian can grow in his or her faith to the fullest.

Hearing this message changed Eliza’s life. Someone had finally explained to her how she could overcome the fear and grief she carried and know that she was saved. From that day on, Eliza Asbury was a changed woman. She became an enthusiastic Christian and spent hours each day in prayer and Bible reading. She often read aloud to Frank, who loved hearing the daring adventures of such Old Testament heroes as David and Daniel.

It was not until just before his fourteenth birthday that Frank felt the need to put his own life in God’s hands. His mother had invited a traveling Baptist shoemaker to hold meetings in the Asbury home. There was something about the way this Baptist preacher spoke about God’s gift of salvation that appealed to Frank. He had heard it all before, many times, but this time Frank knew he had to respond. After the meeting he went out to the barn and prayed a simple prayer, placing his life and future into God’s hands.

Now, as Frank pulled open the creaking door to the old barn, he hoped that he was still following the path God had for him. His father had made many good points—points Frank had also thought about. It was true he did not have the background to make anything of himself as a Methodist preacher. The men he hoped to be like, including John and Charles Wesley and George Whitefield, were learned men who had all graduated from Oxford University. They were also ordained ministers in the Church of England. By contrast, Frank had attended several years of charity school in the neighboring hamlet of Snail’s Green. His teacher had taunted him mercilessly because the Asbury home was known as a center of Methodist worship in the area. The other boys in the class followed the teacher’s lead. They called Frank “the Methodist parson” and made fun of him because he would not join them in swearing and fighting.

After three years at school, Frank could no longer take the taunting and left. He was able to read and write but had little idea of any other subjects. He hadn’t traveled more than a few miles from home—only as far as Wednesbury, three miles to the west, and occasionally south to Birmingham. It was certainly not the kind of traveling that would prepare him to become a Methodist circuit rider, going great distances on horseback to preach the gospel from village to village around England.

The Methodists were not a church but were an evangelical community within the Church of England known for their disciplined lives. Methodist preachers openly preached to any crowd that gathered, but to be a member of a Methodist Society, a person had to attend meetings regularly, be accountable to his or her leader, give money, study the Bible, and pray every day. The Methodist band leaders and preachers issued “tickets” of good standing to members. These tickets, valid for three months, gave the person entry to Methodist Society meetings. At the end of the three months, each society member had to apply for a new ticket by proving that he was carefully following the ways and practices of the society.