Francis Asbury: Circuit Rider

For a long while, Frank was silent before speaking again. He cleared his throat. “I think we had best start as we mean to continue, by involving the Americans in their own destiny. What say we call a meeting as soon as possible to discuss the future of the Methodists in America and put my ordination to the vote? If I have the support of both the northern and southern preachers, I will be honored for you to ordain me as coleader.”

“You are a man of America, I am not,” Thomas said. “I will agree to those terms. Yet it is a matter of some urgency. Where and when should we meet?”

Frank thought for a moment. It was mid-November. If a man left on horseback now, he could reach the most outlying areas in Virginia and the Carolinas in four weeks and take two weeks to get directly back again. “With God’s help, I think we could be assembled by Christmas. Let’s meet at Lovely Lane Chapel in Baltimore. It’s central, and the roads there are still passable after snow.”

And so it was agreed.

Later that night Frank asked Freeborn Garrettson to ride out the following morning, locate as many of the Methodist preachers as he could find, and urge them to meet in Baltimore at Christmas. He also arranged for Thomas Coke, Richard Whatcoat, and Thomas Vasey to see some of the American work before the conference. Harry Hosier would accompany them around a thousand-mile circuit that included much of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia.

Later that evening Frank opened the document pouch Thomas Coke had given him. He realized that he was holding in his hands the founding documents of the first church denomination to be established in the United States of America. The documents consisted of a letter from John Wesley, instructions on how to order a church service, a list of twenty-four articles of faith, rituals for baptisms and for serving communion, and a hymnal. Frank settled into a straight-back wooden chair and began with the letter:

Bristol, September 10, 1784. I have accordingly appointed Dr. Coke and Mr. Francis Asbury to be Joint Superintendents over our brethren in North America, as also Richard Whatcoat and Thomas Vasey, to act as elders among them, by baptizing and administering the Lord’s Supper. And I have prepared a Liturgy little differing from that of the Church of England (I think, the best constituted National Church in the world), which I advise all the traveling preachers to use on the Lord’s Day in all the congregations, reading the Litany only on Wednesdays and Fridays and praying extempore on all other days. I also advise the elders to administer the Supper of the Lord on every Lord’s Day.

If any one will point out a more rational and scriptural way of feeding and guiding those poor sheep in the wilderness, I will gladly embrace it. At present I cannot see any better method than that I have taken.

Frank put down the letter, bowed his head, and wept.

Chapter 12
An American Bishop

Frank looked at his pocket watch. It was exactly ten o’clock on the morning of Friday, December 24, 1784. He prayed silently as he looked around at the sixty preachers seated at the first session of the Christmas Conference in Lovely Lane Chapel in Baltimore. A sense of expectation filled the air. By now most of the preachers had heard the news. John Wesley had paved the way for Methodists in the United States to elect their own superintendent. It felt right to the participants. The war had freed their country from English rule, and now John Wesley was freeing them from domination by English ministers.

For his part, Frank still found it hard to believe that John Wesley had instructed them to form their own denomination. He remembered John telling him he would rather commit murder than serve communion without being an ordained minster. But times had changed, and John Wesley had changed with them.

As the meeting began, Thomas Coke stood and offered an opening prayer.

This is as it should be, Frank thought as Thomas prayed. For now he is John Wesley’s representative to us, but not for much longer.

The first order of business at the conference was for Thomas Coke to read aloud the letter from John Wesley in which he released Methodists in North America from his leadership. This was followed by a discussion on what to call their new church. Several suggestions were offered before the group settled on the Methodist Episcopal Church. Frank was happy with the choice. Since they were already known as Methodists, it seemed a good idea for that to be the first word in their official name.

Next came long conversations over the structure of the church. As members of the Church of England, the Methodist preachers had firmly believed that God had set the king over them as their spiritual leader, and they were willing to submit to him. But what now? The questions flowed. How would they know whom God wanted to put over them? Was it appropriate to hold a vote for this person? Should they limit how long the person would be in office, or was it for life? Did the act of voting make it seem more like man’s appointment than God’s choice? Who should be in charge of what, and who should be answerable to whom?

These were difficult questions to work through, but after long, serious conversation, the men made progress. They started at the bottom with the unordained lay preachers. These men would establish and maintain circuits, with the goal of constantly expanding their evangelism to bring new areas under the influence of Methodism. Each lay preacher would make his way around his circuit once every two weeks, preaching and teaching at a different place each day. Once a quarter the local preachers would gather for a two-day meeting. At this meeting the offering money they had collected while circuit riding would be turned in, and there would be preaching, praying, singing, testifying, exhorting, and a love feast.

An elder would be responsible for organizing the quarterly meeting and overseeing the work of the lay preachers. He could baptize people and serve them communion. He would also travel around each circuit under his oversight once a quarter, encouraging the preachers and helping them with their congregations. It was decided that Thomas Coke should ordain twelve elders, who would be the equivalent of Church of England priests. Frank was one of those chosen to be ordained as an elder.

One of the others chosen to be ordained as an elder was William Black, a Yorkshire man living in Nova Scotia. William had written to John Wesley asking for help in establishing Methodist Societies throughout Nova Scotia. John had written back, suggesting that William attend the American conference where Thomas Coke was authorized to ordain him.

Following the ordination of the elders on Christmas Day, Frank had a long conversation with William Black. William was twenty-four years old and reminded Frank of himself when he was younger. While William had had little formal education in his youth, he now had a drive to make up for this lack. He was teaching himself Latin and Greek and systematically studying the Bible. Frank listened attentively as William explained how he had been converted five years before and then started preaching when he was twenty years old. He had read everything he could get his hands on written by John Wesley, and he tried hard to follow the Methodist way. William had created his own circuit among the scattered hamlets around the bays of Nova Scotia. He encouraged his converts to form bands and pointed them in the direction of whatever Christian church existed in the area. Frank was not alone in admiring the dedication of this lone Methodist preacher in Nova Scotia. In fact, the conference voted to send two of their strongest preachers, Freeborn Garrettson and James Cromwell, to Nova Scotia to assist William. The conference also ordained Jeremiah Lambert and assigned him to go as a Methodist preacher to Antigua in the West Indies.

As the discussion of the formation of the Methodist Episcopal Church continued, it was agreed that all men employed by the new church, whether they be preachers, elders, or bishops, should receive the same salary of sixty-four dollars a year. This meant there would be no pressure for a preacher to accept or reject a posting based upon the money he would be paid. Frank was happy with the yearly amount. He had few needs beyond food, clothing, and keeping his horse fed.

Later in the day a vote was taken to determine who would be the superintendents of the church, or bishops, as the conference members had decided they should be called. Both Frank and Thomas Coke were unanimously elected. The following day Frank prepared himself to be ordained as the coleader of the new denomination. His friend William Otterbein, a German minister, assisted Thomas Coke in the ceremony.

Frank was nervous as he knelt at the front of the church while Thomas laid his hands on him and said, “Know all men by these presents, that I, Thomas Coke, Doctor of Civil Law; late of Jesus College, in the University of Oxford, Presbyter of the Church of England, and Superintendent of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America; under the protection of Almighty God, and with a single eye to his glory; by the imposition of my hands, and prayer . . . set apart the said Francis Asbury for the office of a superintendent in the said Methodist Episcopal Church, a man whom I judge to be well qualified for that great work. And I do hereby recommend him to all whom it may concern, as a fit person to preside over the flock of Christ.”

As Frank stood, he arose as Bishop Francis Asbury, a designation that he, trained to be buckle maker and with three years of schooling, never imagined would be possible.

With the task of ordination complete, the conference began to look at other pressing issues, of which there were many.

The first issue to be dealt with was one that had haunted Frank for a long time—slavery. Two black delegates were present at the conference. Richard Allen, a twenty-five-year-old Methodist preacher, had been born a slave in Philadelphia but ended up in Delaware when his family was sold to a plantation owner there. While still a slave, Richard had become a Christian after his master allowed him to attend Methodist meetings in the area. Later Richard was able to strike a deal with his master and work for his freedom. Now, as a freed slave, he was an enthusiastic Methodist preacher who had ridden circuits in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. On a number of occasions Frank had ridden circuits with Richard. The second black delegate at the conference was Harry Hosier, the dynamic preacher who had traveled with Frank when he visited all the circuits in the South four years earlier.

Frank started the conversation about slavery by telling the preachers that he believed slavery was a terrible sin, one for which God would judge the United States if it did not change its laws. Thomas Coke agreed that slavery was a great stain on the new country, and he wanted the Methodists to take strong action against it right away. He urged everyone present to vote for the new Methodist Episcopal Church to take a public stand against the practice, denouncing anyone who owned slaves.

Frank was a little less sure of this path. He had ridden the circuits in Virginia and the Carolinas and knew how entitled many white people felt about owning slaves. Without slaves the entire lifestyle of the South would have to change, and many people feared such change. Frank thought it wiser to take a slower, less aggressive approach to the practice, but Thomas insisted on pushing for radical measures. Much as Frank expected, Thomas’s stance drew a lot of argument, especially from some of the southern preachers. A number of these preachers felt that God had given them the right to own slaves and resented Englishmen telling them it was wrong to do so.

Everyone seemed to have an opinion on the matter. Some of the southern delegates pointed out that slaves were viewed as economic assets, much like horses or cows, and freeing them would mean losing a lot of money. Others said slaves needed time to adjust to the idea of freedom. They needed a plan to work toward so they would not be left destitute and homeless when given their freedom.