Francis Asbury: Circuit Rider

Such news made Frank pray more than ever. The times were challenging for Methodist preachers. With British troops occupying Philadelphia, the suspicion was more palpable than ever, as were efforts to root out Loyalists. No one garnered more suspicion than Francis Asbury did. Frank continued to lie low at the White home.

Within a month of Frank’s taking refuge in Delaware, a group of local militiamen barged into the Whites’ mansion. Frank stayed out of sight in an upstairs room, though he could hear all that was going on below. The militiamen demanded that Judge White go with them. As Frank covertly looked out the window, he could see the militiamen push his host into a waiting carriage. As soon as they left, Frank hurried downstairs. The judge’s wife and several of his children sat weeping, afraid they would never see him again. Frank prayed with them and fasted for the judge’s safe return.

After staying three more days at the White home, Frank decided it was too dangerous for the family to shelter him any longer. He packed his saddlebags, bade the family goodbye, and rode off feeling like Abraham, not knowing where he was going or what he would do.

After riding fifteen miles north, Frank stopped at a cabin in the woods. An unusual amount of activity was taking place around it. Frank soon realized that the people who lived there were preparing for a funeral service, but they had no one to lead it. Frank used the opportunity to preach to those gathered about eternal life. Following the funeral, Frank headed off again in a northwesterly direction and crossed into Maryland. That evening a stranger took him in for the night, and the following day Frank moved on. Since there were rumors of Patriot mobs in the area, Frank headed for nearby swampland. He felt like a runaway slave. When he reached the edge of the swampland, he dismounted and waited until far into the night before continuing.

Frank found his way to the home of John Fogwell near Sudlersville, Maryland. John was a dedicated Methodist who had been a drunkard before being converted by the preaching of a blind evangelist named Mrs. Rogers. Frank was grateful when John invited him to stay for a while, even though he knew the risks of doing so. But all went well, and Frank spent the next three weeks praying and studying his Greek New Testament. When Frank finally learned that Judge White had been paroled, he cautiously made his way again to the Whites’ estate in Delaware.

Thomas White and his family warmly welcomed Frank back. Judge White explained that he had been arrested on suspicion of being a Tory, or Loyalist supporter, but at his trial he had been cleared of any wrongdoing. Frank was glad his old friend was safe, although upon his return to Delaware he learned that many Methodists had been jailed for preaching in Maryland. One of them, Joseph Hartley, was sentenced to three months in the Talbot County Jail for preaching without a license. Even though he was in prison for preaching, he would not give up. He passionately preached to fellow prisoners and to passersby through his cell window. So many people were converted that the jailer feared Joseph would influence the entire town if he were kept in prison much longer! Although Frank was concerned about Joseph, he smiled as he imagined him preaching his heart out from his jail cell.

Throughout 1778, Frank tried to use his time wisely. He prayed hourly for every preacher on a circuit; studied Greek, Latin, and Hebrew; and read through many of the spiritual books that Judge White and his nephew owned. He also held meetings in Edward White’s barn and in neighboring homes. Still, Frank wanted to do more. It was hard for him to be hiding out, unable to travel and preach freely. For a while he even considered leaving America and going to the Caribbean Islands, where he felt he could be useful. But as he prayed, Frank felt he was to stay where he was and do what he could to strengthen his Methodist brothers and sisters. Sometimes, though, he found himself thinking of England and wondering whether George had delivered the letter to his parents.

The war with the British seemed to be at a stalemate, with neither side able to muster enough military resources to deliver the winning punch. However, a couple of bright spots appeared during 1778. First, the Americans entered into a treaty with France, Great Britain’s old rival, which would provide French troops to help them fight the British. And in June, the British ended their occupation of Philadelphia, withdrawing their troops and marching overland to New York to strengthen the British forces there. With the British no longer breathing down their necks, people throughout the region relaxed a little.

The year 1778 gave way to 1779, and in March, after staying with the Whites for a year, Frank received some good news. Early on in the rebellion he had written a letter to Thomas Rankin in which he expressed his thoughts on the war. Frank wrote to his superior that he believed it would not be long before the colonies were a free and independent nation and that he felt too bound to the Americans to leave them. Unbeknownst to Frank, the letter had been intercepted by rebel officials and made its way to the attention of Governor Caesar Rodney of Delaware. When the governor read the letter, he realized that Francis Asbury was not a British supporter, and he issued an order allowing Frank to travel freely within Delaware.

Frank was relieved to know he could travel farther afield within Delaware and be more open in his actions. One of the first things he did was organize a conference for northern Methodists (those living north of the Potomac River) to be held at Judge White’s estate on April 28, 1779. He learned that the southern Methodists in Virginia and North Carolina were planning to hold their own conference. Frank wished he could attend this conference too, but although he could now travel within Delaware, he did not yet feel he could travel freely in other states.

The outcomes of the two conferences were far-reaching. The northern conference reaffirmed its support for the Methodist rules and practices as laid down by John Wesley and committed to continue to operate as a religious society. But in the southern Methodist region, conditions were different. As a result of the revival in Virginia and North Carolina, several thousand Methodists now lived throughout that area. The problem was that as a result of the struggle with Great Britain for independence, most Church of England ministers had returned to England. In fact, the legislature of Virginia had officially removed the Church of England’s status as the established church of the state. This meant that few ministers were in the region to administer the sacraments of baptism and communion to the new converts. Confronted with this reality, the Methodist preachers at the southern conference voted to ordain Methodist preachers to do this themselves.

Frank had a heavy heart when he heard the decision of the southern conference. The southern Methodists had chosen a path that would take them in a very different direction from that of their northern brethren.

Throughout 1779, Frank traveled around Delaware. It felt good to him to be once again free to move about. As he traveled, Frank kept an ear out for news of the war, but little seemed to be happening, at least on the battlefield. Then the fighting heated up again in April 1780, when the British attacked and occupied Charleston, South Carolina.

At the time he learned of the British attack on Charleston, Frank was preparing for a special meeting of the northern Methodists to be held in the new Lovely Lane Chapel in Baltimore, Maryland, on April 24, 1780. By now Frank’s friends and associates had decided that it was safe for Frank to travel beyond the borders of Delaware, and Frank was eager to be moving.

The main conference for all Methodist preachers—northern and southern—was to be held in Manakintown near Richmond, Virginia. Frank had called the special meeting in Baltimore to make sure that all of the northern Methodist preachers were agreed that they should not be baptizing people or administering communion to them. The northern Methodists were firm in their resolve, as was recorded in the minutes of the meeting:

Question: Does the whole Conference disapprove the step our brethren have taken in Virginia?

Answer: Yes.

Question: Do we look upon them no longer as Methodists in connection with Mr. Wesley and us till they come back?

Answer: Agreed.

Question: Shall Brothers Asbury, Garrettson, and Watters attend the Virginia Conference and inform them of our proceedings in this and receive their answer?

Answer: Yes.

Question: What must be the conditions of our union with our Virginian brethren?

Answer: To suspend all their administrations for one year, and all meet together in Baltimore.

When the meeting of the northern Methodists was over, Francis Asbury, Freeborn Garrettson, and William Watters left together to ride south to Manakintown, Virginia. Frank had only one prayer on his lips for the upcoming conference: God, please help us to stay together as one people. Do not let our divisions tear us apart.

Chapter 10
A Compromise

On May 9, 1780, Frank stepped into the house of Thomas Smith in Manakintown, Virginia, where the Methodist Conference was about to begin. He felt a chill in the air as he shook hands with the gathered southern preachers. As the day progressed, groups of men met to whisper in corners or stroll in small groups outside. Some failed to look Frank in the eye when he spoke to them, and others told him to his face that they thought he was wrong to side with John Wesley on the baptism and communion issues. It was a difficult two days of conference for Frank, two days he likened to being in a wasp’s nest.

Frank knew that if he agreed that the southern preachers could administer communion and baptize people, he would be breaking the bond John expected to exist between Methodist Societies and the Church of England. If the Methodists set themselves up to do these two things, they were, in fact, setting themselves up as a separate denomination. The Methodists would stop being a society and instead become the Methodist Church. That was a monumental step, one Frank found unacceptable. He had come to North America to help establish the Methodist pattern, not reinvent it. If the southern preachers insisted on making their own rules, Frank knew he would have no choice but to cut them off from fellowship and return to England to explain how things had gone so wrong in the colonies. That was a terrible thing to contemplate.

Frank hardly slept during the first night of the conference. He understood the point of view of the southern preachers, even agreeing with them on many points. Yes, because of the war a large number of Church of England ministers had fled back to England and their churches had been closed, leaving many new members of the Methodist Societies with no one authorized to baptize or administer communion to them. Yes, the society members in remote areas appreciated having communion. Yes, some Church of England ministers who hadn’t fled were corrupt and unworthy to give communion. Even when confronted with these arguments, Frank remained a close follower of the pattern for the societies laid down by John Wesley, and John did not want Methodist preachers assuming the role of Church of England ministers. At least Frank assumed John still didn’t. Given the turmoil in North America, it was difficult to know for sure, and it had been four years since he had received a letter from John.

By the last night of the conference, it was obvious that the southern Methodist preachers were not prepared to give in on the matter of administering the sacraments. They had seen the advantages of acting like a church, and they made it clear they would not go back to society status.

Frank was heartbroken and bitterly disappointed. He did not know how he was going to break the news to John. As soon as he could be alone, Frank sank to his knees and, with tears coursing down his cheeks, poured out his heart to God. He barely slept that night, knowing that the next morning he would have to say goodbye to the southern Methodist preachers—perhaps for the last time. There would be no point in their meeting together after this, since they had decided to go their separate way from the rest of the Methodists in North America.