Francis Asbury: Circuit Rider

After the conference, Frank was once again on horseback, riding the Methodist circuits to encourage society members and preachers alike. In 1783, with the expansion of settlements across the Allegheny Mountains in the west, he appointed Jeremiah Lambert as the first Methodist to cross the mountains and establish the Holston Methodist circuit in the region of the headwaters of the Tennessee River. Frank wanted to ride with Jeremiah across the Alleghenies, but he could not make the journey because of a severely ulcerated foot. Once his foot had healed, Frank continued to ride the circuits in both the North and the South.

As fall approached, Frank learned that on September 3, 1783, the Treaty of Paris had been signed between Great Britain and the new United States of America, formally ending the war and acknowledging the independence of the United States from Great Britain. With the war finally settled, Frank looked forward to 1784 and all of the hope and promise it held.

Throughout the war, despite the challenges of the revolution, the number of Methodist Societies and those attending them had stayed strong, even increasing in some areas, particularly Virginia and North Carolina. In 1780 there were forty-two Methodist preachers, twenty circuits, and 8,504 society members. But when the fighting ended, Methodism began to grow rapidly, until in 1784 there were eighty-three preachers, forty-six circuits, and fifteen thousand Methodist members. All of this kept Frank busy as he oversaw the growth and development of Methodism in the new United States. He was grateful for the caliber of the American-born preachers who had been raised up to ride the circuits and care for the spiritual well-being of those they served.

As he worked away, Frank waited patiently for news from his parents. They had written to him sporadically before the war, but he had not received a letter from them in seven years. Six years had passed since Frank had sent a letter home to them with George Shadford. Frank longed to hear how his parents were doing. He even wondered whether they were still alive. Then in June 1784, a letter arrived from Great Barr, England. Frank scanned the envelope as a wave of relief washed over him. He eagerly read the letter to learn that both his parents were still alive. They were now in their late sixties, and Frank’s father was tired and worn and no longer able to work as a gardener at Hamstead Hall. Meanwhile, Eliza Asbury begged her son to come home and visit before she died and to write home more often now that the war was over.

Frank replied to the letter right away, telling his parents that he would not be leaving America to return to England anytime soon: “I am perfectly happy in the circumstances I am under; believing the hand of God has been signally displayed, in bringing me to and preserving me in America.” He went on to say, “You want to see me. I make no doubt, as I do you. My constitution is now remarkably seasoned to the country. I enjoy an uncommon share of health, under much labour of body and mind. I trust my dear parents, you have not wanted yet. In my travels I visit the parents of preachers, and think so will others do to mine.”

In regard to his mother’s query as to whether her thirty-nine-year-old son was married yet, Frank explained that he was still single and intended to stay that way. He pointed out that the life of a traveling preacher’s wife was not an easy one. Besides, he did not have the money to keep a family and send money home to his parents. There would be no grandchildren in the Asbury household, and no trip back to England in the foreseeable future. Frank concluded his letter by saying, “You think, ‘Could I see my child again, I should be happy, and die in peace.’ Yes, if I could stay with you, but how painful to part. I am under some thought that America will be my country for life.”

About the same time that Frank received the letter from his parents, he received another from one of John Wesley’s assistants, though this letter raised more questions than it answered. Instead of instructing Frank what to do next, the letter informed him that John was sending Dr. Thomas Coke to America with a very special mission. Frank had not met Thomas, though he had heard of him. Thomas was an ordained Church of England minister who had been pushed out of his church in 1776 by parishioners unhappy with his Methodist sympathies. Thomas then became John Wesley’s right-hand man. In fact, rumor had it that Thomas was being groomed to take eighty-one-year-old John Wesley’s place when he died. Frank waited anxiously for word that Thomas had arrived in North America.

While Frank was traveling in Maryland, he received word that Thomas and two other men were in New York City. He arranged for the men to travel south to Delaware to meet some of the local American Methodist preachers. The meeting took place at Barratt’s Chapel, ten miles south of Dover, Delaware, on the afternoon of November 14, 1784. Frank was running late by the time he made it to Barratt’s Chapel. He had hoped to be early so he could greet Thomas before the meeting started, but his horse had thrown a shoe, forcing Frank to stop, find a blacksmith, and have the missing shoe replaced.

The meeting was already under way when Frank arrived at the large, square redbrick building. As he opened the side door to the chapel, Frank felt nervous. He was about to learn what the special mission was that John Wesley had for the Methodists in North America. Frank slid into a pew and waited for his eyes to adjust to the dim light. A short, stout man, whom Frank judged to be about his own age, was preaching from the pulpit. He spoke in a high-pitched voice with a Welsh accent.

“It’s the Reverend Thomas Coke,” the man next to Frank leaned over and whispered.

Frank nodded. He’d guessed as much. Two men were sitting beside the pulpit. As he squinted, Frank recognized one of them as Richard Whatcoat. Richard was twelve years older than Frank and had been a leader in the Methodist Society in Wednesbury, where Frank had preached many times as a member of Richard’s Methodist band. Frank could hardly sit still throughout the rest of the meeting. He was eager to talk to Richard and hear any news he might have about Frank’s parents and friends. Frank waited impatiently for Thomas to stop preaching, but when Thomas stopped, something strange happened. Frank watched as Richard and the other man took the communion cup and invited the hearers to come forward and take communion.

Frank was shocked as he watched the scene. As far as he was aware, Richard was not an ordained minister; only Thomas was. So why was Richard serving communion while Thomas watched? Frank sat back, trying to imagine why this was happening. These men had been sent out directly by John Wesley, yet they were going against John’s express order that Methodist preachers were not to administer the sacraments. How could it be?

As soon as the meeting was over, Frank stepped forward to greet the newcomers. It was a wonderful moment when Frank and Richard embraced. “How good it is to see you!” Frank exclaimed. “We have been praying for news from England, and that you should bring it is an added blessing. Have you seen my parents recently?”

Richard grinned and nodded. “They are still living,” he said. “Your dear mother still holds the door open for any Methodist preacher who comes by. Every night she prays for you.”

“And I for her,” Frank replied.

“Frank, this is Thomas Vasey,” Richard said, introducing his partner in ministry.

As Frank embraced Richard’s partner and welcomed him, he noticed Thomas Coke walking toward him. Frank reached out his arms and embraced him as well. “Brother Coke, I am Francis Asbury.”

“I knew it was you,” Thomas said. “What a joy to meet you.”

“And you too,” Frank replied. “I know we have much to talk about, especially after communion was administered this afternoon by Methodist preachers. But first, the Widow Barratt has invited us all to dinner. Let us eat together and then talk.”

Frank, Thomas Coke, Thomas Vasey, and Richard joined a dozen other preachers for a delicious dinner. Afterward Frank and Thomas Coke slipped outside into the brisk evening air to continue their conversation.

“The truth is,” Thomas confided in Frank, “John Wesley did everything he could to keep the American Methodists as part of the Church of England. He tried to convince Dr. Lowth, the bishop of London, to ordain some of the Methodist preachers, but he refused because they were not scholars.”

“I see,” Frank said, suddenly remembering that Thomas was a brilliant scholar himself with a doctorate in civil law from Oxford University.

Before Frank could think of something to say, Thomas went on. “Wesley spoke to the bishop quite plainly. He said ‘It’s not that I despise learning, I do not, but what is learning compared to piety? Does your lordship examine the applicants to see if they serve Christ or the devil? Whether they love God or the world? Whether they have any serious thoughts about heaven or hell?’”

“He is to the point,” Frank said, happy to hear that John had lost none of his fire, even in old age.

“Yes,” Thomas continued. “He didn’t stop there either. When the bishop refused to consider ordaining any of our preachers, Brother Wesley wrote to him and said, ‘Can you see your way to ordain any of our men to minister to the little flock in America? I note that your lordship does ordain men who know Greek and Latin but know no more about saving souls than of catching whales!’”

“I am sure that comment did not help the cause.”

“The cause was lost by then, anyway. It was clear that we were not getting any help from the Church of England, so, as difficult as it was for John Wesley, he took the only route open to him,” Thomas stated.

“And what might that be?”

“Just before we sailed, John Wesley ordained Richard Whatcoat and Thomas Vasey as elders and me as superintendent, well, co-superintendent, really. As soon as possible, I am to lay hands on you so that we can labor together as the co-superintendents of the Methodist Church in America.”

Frank’s head reeled. He was not so shocked to think that he might be chosen by John Wesley to lead the Methodist Societies in North America, but the Methodist Church!

“You did not use the word society,” Frank pointed out to Thomas.

“No, I did not. In light of this extraordinary revolution, John Wesley has come to the conclusion that the cause of Christ can best be served by setting the Methodists in America free from the Church of England. They will have two superintendents—you and me—and we will be able to ordain anyone we please to serve communion and baptize others. Brother Wesley has sent some documents along with me. I am sure they will guide us well as we set up our church in America.”

Frank could scarcely believe it. “I thought John Wesley would go to his grave being loyal to the Church of England,” he blurted out. “To think he has cut us loose! It’s hard to imagine.”

“That it is,” Thomas agreed, unfolding one of the documents. “But here it is quite clearly stated: ‘As our American brethren are now totally disentangled, both from the State and the English hierarchy, we dare not entangle them again, either with the one or the other. They are now at full liberty simply to follow the Scriptures and the primitive Church. And we judge it best that they should stand fast in the liberty wherewith God has so strangely set them free.’”

“I never thought I would see this day,” Frank said. “This is certainly an answer to prayer but not the answer I was expecting. The Methodists to the south will be very happy with this news. Now those preachers can carry out all the work of the Lord without hindrance. How extraordinary!”

“It is,” Thomas agreed. “But it has not come without a price. It has caused quite a rift between John Wesley and his brother Charles, but John is convinced he has the Lord’s mind on this and will not be swayed.”

“What do we do now?” Frank asked.

“I would like to lay hands on you and ordain you, possibly tomorrow,” Thomas replied.

Frank’s head spun. There was so much to take in, but even so, one thought lodged in his mind: If this is to be an American church, we must involve all the American preachers. This cannot be seen as something that the British Methodists have imposed on us.