Francis Asbury: Circuit Rider

In late December 1776, Frank heard news that made his stomach churn. This time it concerned Thomas Rankin and Captain Webb. The two were both strong Loyalists and supporters of King George III, and Webb had gone so far as to spy for the British. Webb was assigned to the Methodist circuit in New Jersey, and he had secretly crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. There he learned that Washington was planning a daring attack at Christmas on the British troops wintering over at Trenton, New Jersey. Captain Webb rushed back to his home in New Jersey, where Thomas was staying with him, and told what he had learned about the secret attack.

Together Webb and Thomas had gone to the British commander and reported the plans. Fortunately for the colonists, the British did not believe Webb’s story. Unfortunately for the British, Washington’s troops did secretly cross the Delaware River on the night of December 25 and attack the unsuspecting British troops on the morning of December 26. The battle was a resounding victory for Washington and the Continental army. Following the battle, when they learned of Webb’s treachery, militiamen in New Jersey tracked Webb down and expelled him from the colony. Thomas managed to avoid arrest and headed for Pennsylvania.

When Frank heard what the two Methodist leaders had done, he was dumbfounded. The Methodists were already under increased suspicion because of their close association with the Church of England. How could they take such a stand and put the life of every Methodist preacher, including his own, in jeopardy?

Throughout 1777, Frank remained in Maryland riding the circuits and preaching, but it was not easy. As an Englishman associated with the Church of England, he had to be constantly vigilant of those who assumed he was a Loyalist.

As the war with the British raged on, the Continental army experienced defeats and victories, sending the emotions of the colonists up and down depending on the latest fighting report. In late September tensions ran high in Maryland as British troops, under the command of General William Howe, captured and occupied Philadelphia. Good news, however, arrived in Baltimore. Continental army forces had defeated British General John Burgoyne’s forces at Saratoga in New York , causing Gentleman Johnny, as the general was nicknamed, to surrender his army of nearly seven thousand men to the Americans.

With the British close at hand in Philadelphia, things became even more difficult for Frank. Any Englishman in the area was now a perceived threat. Several incidents did not help Frank’s situation. One involved a man who had been associated with the Methodists. Chauncey Clowe had formed a company of about three hundred Loyalists who tried to fight their way through Continental army lines to join the British. Their attempt failed, and Clowe was captured, tried, and executed. Because of Clowe’s connection with the Methodists, however, colonists were hardened in their belief that all Methodists, and particularly English Methodist preachers, were British supporters.

In October 1777, Martin Rodda began handing out tracts supporting the British. Members of the Continental army tracked him down, and he barely managed to escape with his life. If a slave had not helped him escape to a British ship, he would surely have been tried and hanged for treason. Thomas Rankin preached one last sermon against the colonial rebels and then slipped behind British lines into Philadelphia, where he spent the winter. Meanwhile, Captain Webb, who had been banished from New Jersey, chose to return there. He was promptly arrested and placed in an internment camp in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Two months later, Washington exchanged him for a Patriot prisoner, and Webb was allowed to return to England.

George Shadford, who was still in Virginia, and Frank were the two last English-born Methodist preachers actively preaching in the American colonies. As he contemplated his situation, Frank wrote in his journal, “Three thousand miles from home—my friends have left me—I am considered by some as an enemy of the country—every day liable to be seized by violence, and abused. This is just a trifle to suffer for Christ, and the salvation of souls. Lord, stand by me!”

Frank had come to North America to preach the gospel, and he was determined to continue doing so. He realized, though, that given the present circumstances, this was going to be a challenging task.

Chapter 9
Under Suspicion

By March 1778, reports had filtered back to Baltimore from Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, where Washington’s Continental army of twelve thousand soldiers was wintering over. The reports were grim. Apparently twenty-five hundred soldiers had died during the winter from war wounds, disease, and malnutrition. The Continental army was ill equipped to face the harsh winter conditions. Still, Washington and his senior officers were doing all they could to keep morale up. As Frank heard the reports, he wondered how much longer the Patriots could carry on. There were no soft edges to the war now. All glamour had been stripped away, leaving only the harsh realities of hardship and death, victory and defeat.

At the beginning of the rebellion in the American colonies, only about one colonist in three had supported the rebels’ cause. By now, many of those who disagreed had left for Canada or the Caribbean Islands, returned to England, or fled westward across the mountains into Indian country. As the war dragged on, the Patriots tried desperately to root out British sympathizers in their midst. In Maryland it became a requirement that every man between the ages of sixteen and sixty prepare himself for military service as well as take an oath to defend the colony and report anyone he believed to be a traitor to the cause.

No man could now preach in the colony without taking the oath. This posed a problem for Frank. Purely on religious grounds he would not take the oath or bear arms. So if he stayed in Maryland, it was only a matter of time before he would be arrested. The decision was obvious to Frank but difficult to make. Despite his desire to keep riding the preaching circuits in Maryland, he needed to find somewhere to lie low for a while.

Frank quietly made his way to the home of Judge Thomas White in Kent County, near Dover, Delaware. Judge White, a devout Methodist with whom Frank had often stayed in the past, offered him refuge. The judge’s home was a safe place to be. In Delaware preachers were not required to take an oath of allegiance as they were in Maryland. As an Englishman, however, Frank knew he still had to be very careful.

Shortly after Frank arrived in Delaware, his friend George Shadford visited him at Judge White’s home. George brought news that Thomas Rankin had recently left Philadelphia to return to England. Frank and George talked about their predicament as English preachers in North America. Both men loved to teach and preach, but it was becoming harder for them to do so openly. They talked long into the night, but they found few answers to their situation.

“Let’s have a day of prayer and fasting for the Lord to direct us. We’ve never been in such circumstances as Methodist preachers before,” George said.

“Let’s do so indeed,” Frank agreed.

The next day the two men fasted and prayed. Several times Frank walked into the thick woods that surrounded Judge White’s house and knelt to pray. In the evening Frank and George got together to discuss what God had shown them.

“And what did the Lord reveal to you regarding our future?” George asked.

“I do not see my way clear to return to England,” Frank replied.

“And I cannot stay,” George said. “I believe I have done the work here for which I was called, and I feel that I am to return home. I feel this to be the right direction for me now as much as I did when I first felt called to come to these shores.”

“Then one of us must be under a delusion,” Frank said, his brow furrowed. “Surely God will direct us both the same way.”

“Not so,” George retorted. “I have a call to go, and you a call to stay. We must obey the call of Providence to each of us.”

Frank knew that George was right. God had placed separate calls upon their lives, and Frank’s was to remain in America.

The next two days were painful for Frank as he prepared to say goodbye to his closest friend. He had no idea if the two of them would ever see each other again. Frank also realized that when his parents learned that all of the English-born Methodist preachers had returned home from America except him, they would be worried. He wrote a long letter explaining his decision to stay behind. George agreed to deliver the letter.

When the time came to separate, George mounted his horse and rode away from the White estate, leaving Frank to watch him disappear among the trees. Later George wrote of the departure saying, “We saw we must part, though we loved each other as David and Jonathan.”

It was a wrenching moment for Frank, who was now the last English Methodist preacher left. As he watched George ride away, Frank felt very alone. Yet he knew he had been called to stay for a reason, and as best he could, given his circumstances, he would focus back on his ministry.

Judge White’s nephew, Edward White, lived about a mile away from his uncle. He urged Frank to use his home and barn if he needed to. The large wooden barn proved to be a good place for the Methodists to hold their quarterly meeting. It was cold and drafty, but it was away from prying eyes. Even though no one had been appointed as the leader of the Methodists with the departure of the English preachers, everyone looked to Frank to guide them. After all, he was now the only Methodist preacher in the colonies directly sent out by John Wesley. Frank assumed the role. He preached to the crowd that had gathered for the meeting on the last three verses of Psalm 48: “Walk about Zion, and go round about her: tell the towers thereof. Mark ye well her bulwarks, consider her palaces; that ye may tell it to the generation following. For this God is our God for ever and ever: he will be our guide even unto death.”

As he preached, Frank was aware that some of those listening to him could well be killed in the fighting before they had the chance to meet again. Nonetheless, he encouraged the American-born preachers to go about the business of preaching the gospel as boldly and as best they could.

When the conference was over, Frank was left alone with his thoughts. It was difficult for him to watch everyone leave, going off to preach and teach, while he was holed up in a house in Delaware. He poured his thoughts out in his journal: “My temptations were very heavy, and my ideas were greatly contracted in preaching, neither was my soul happy as at many other times. It requires great resignation for a man to be willing to be laid aside as a broken instrument.” By the following day Frank had resigned himself to his new life, writing, “I applied myself to the Greek and Latin Testament; but this is not to me like preaching the gospel. However, when a man cannot do what he would, he must do what he can.”

One of the men who had been at the conference in the barn was named Freeborn Garrettson. He was an energetic, intelligent twenty-five-year-old who was thoroughly American, being the third generation of his family born in the colonies. The Garrettson family owned land in Hartford County, Maryland, where Freeborn had first encountered Methodist ways when he heard Robert Strawbridge preach. Frank was glad when Freeborn agreed to take over riding the Kent circuit in Delaware. Like Frank, Freeborn had refused to take the oath of allegiance in Maryland, which precluded him from preaching there. Frank hoped that Freeborn, as an American-born preacher, would not be a target for mob violence.

Within days of Freeborn’s departure to ride his circuit and preach, news filtered back to Frank that a Queen Anne County judge had confronted Freeborn, knocking him off his horse and beating him senseless with a stick. Freeborn stayed with local Methodists long enough to recover from the beating. As he then rode on, a mob, including a man with a gun, accosted him. Several women riding with Freeborn leaped from their horses and wrestled the gun from the man’s hands, allowing Freeborn to escape.