Francis Asbury: Circuit Rider

Nonetheless, the preachers were Methodists first, and they knew that the decisions they made at this first Christmas Conference would set the tone of the new church for decades to come. In what Frank viewed as a miracle, they talked and prayed until they came to an agreement. It was a radical plan intended as an example for all American slave owners to follow.

The agreement that the conference hammered out decreed that no one could remain a Methodist without a plan to free any slaves he owned. Every Methodist slave owner was given one year to sign a plan that promised that every slave between ages forty and forty-five would be freed upon reaching forty-five. Those between the ages of twenty-five and forty would be freed within five years, and those between twenty and twenty-five would be freed by age thirty. Those younger than twenty had to be freed by the time they were twenty-five. Within ten years, no Methodists would own slaves.

As the Christmas Conference moved into the seventh day, the discussion turned to an idea Frank had been considering for quite a while—a school for the sons of Methodist preachers. Frank thought it was best for preachers to be single men, as he was, free from having to worry about money and family matters. But in truth, a number of his preachers wanted to marry and continue circuit riding. This would put a strain on their wives, especially when children were born. Without a father at home, the children were in danger of becoming unruly and undisciplined, which, as far as Frank was concerned, would not do for the children of a Methodist preacher.

To help the families of Methodist preachers cope, Frank dreamed of a boys’ school modeled on John Wesley’s Kingswood School near Bristol, England. In that school, strict discipline was maintained, and the boys had the opportunity to learn practical skills along with book learning.

Several wealthy Methodists had already donated land near Abingdon, Maryland, for such a school along with a sum of money to help build it. However, Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke imagined two very different schools. Thomas’s school was more like a college, teaching advanced Latin and Greek and grooming young men to be gentlemen. Frank was more motivated to produce hardy, horse-riding Methodist preachers. The two men described their different visions for a school to the conference delegates, and in the end Thomas’s vision won their support.

Although this was not Frank’s original dream, he was happy to go along with the changed plan. He knew how it felt to be embarrassed about a lack of education and how difficult it was to learn Latin and Greek. The delegates voted to begin erecting a three-story building on the site and find two well-educated teachers, possibly from England, to oversee the boys.

As soon as the conference was over, Frank set out to help the newly appointed elders arrange their circuits. He seemed to be everywhere. In less than three months, he toured Maryland, Virginia, and as far south as Charleston, South Carolina. Along the way he met with many Methodists, baptizing those who had not yet been baptized in the Church of England and serving them communion.

On May 26, 1785, Frank met up with Thomas Coke in Alexandria, Virginia, to attend a conference of the Methodist leaders of the state. Following up on the slavery issue, during this conference a petition was drafted calling for the “immediate or Gradual Extirpation of Slavery.” The petition stated, “Justice, mercy, and truth, every virtue that can adorn the Man or the Christian, the Interest of the State, and the Welfare of Mankind, do unanswerably—uncontrollably plead for the removal of this grand Abomination.” As the preachers spread out across Virginia, they would present the petition for people to sign. It was agreed that Frank and Thomas would also present a copy of the petition to George Washington and ask him to sign it.

Together the two bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church set out toward Mount Vernon to visit George Washington, who had resigned as commander-in-chief of the Continental army seventeen months before. Frank had heard that Washington was sympathetic to the idea of abolishing slavery in the new country and wanted to enlist his support. He was hopeful that Washington would persuade members of the US Congress to abolish slavery as they made new laws for the United States.

With a firm handshake, Washington welcomed the two bishops into his lavish home at Mount Vernon on the bank of the Potomac River. The preachers were treated to a wonderful dinner, after which they sat on the porch and looked out on the river. In this beautiful setting Frank presented Washington with the petition calling for the abolition of slavery in Virginia. He urged Washington to sign it, but that was a tall order, since Washington himself owned slaves and relied on them to keep his home running and his farm productive. Still, Frank sensed that Washington could see the problems with allowing slavery to continue, not only in Virginia but also in the rest of the country, and that in his heart he sincerely wanted change. Washington politely refused to sign the petition, but he did agree to present it to the Virginia Assembly.

The result was not the one they had hoped for, and Frank left Mount Vernon with a heavy heart. He was greatly impressed by George Washington. Yet he feared for the future of the country if its citizens continued owning people as if they were mere cattle. Frank promised himself that he would keep fighting to end slavery and would encourage the free black Methodists to preach to slaves. As slaves, their bodies might be in bondage, but Frank longed for them all to know that their souls were free to worship God.

Chapter 13

The weeks following the visit to George Washington were busy for Frank. Almost immediately Thomas Coke returned to England to take care of other Methodist business. Besides overseeing the Methodist work in North America with Frank, Thomas oversaw the Methodist work in Ireland. Thomas’s departure left Frank to single-handedly oversee the new Methodist Episcopal Church. One of Frank’s first official acts was to lay the cornerstone for the new college being built in Abingdon, Maryland. The conference had elected to call the school Cokesbury—a combination of Coke and Asbury—in honor of the two bishops.

In his new position, Frank had been furnished a clerical robe, which he wore to the event. But even as he laid the new cornerstone, he felt out of place in the robe. Before long Frank stopped wearing it altogether. He was much more at home dressed like the people he served, in a plain pair of knee breeches, shirt, waistcoat, frock coat, and broad-rimmed hat. Frank stored his robe at Perry Hall, the Goughs’ home outside Baltimore. Since he had no fixed home of his own, the Goughs had insisted that a room of their home be set aside for Frank. He was grateful to have somewhere to keep his journals and records of the meetings he attended.

With the cornerstone at Cokesbury laid, Frank climbed back onto a horse and set out to do the work he was called to do—riding the circuits and encouraging and organizing preachers. Wherever he went, Frank saw possibilities. He told his preachers, “We must reach every section of America—especially the raw frontiers. We must not be afraid of men, devils, wild animals, or disease. Our motto must always be Forward!

Of course, Frank knew that this was a hard message. Records showed that half of the Methodist preachers died before they reached thirty years of age. Frank, who was now forty years old, often felt his life would soon be over. As a result, he was determined to make every minute count for God.

As 1786 began, Frank found himself in Charleston, South Carolina, where he took time to write to his parents. By now he realized that he would never return to England. His heart belonged to the United States, and he was sure that was where he would labor until his death. Nonetheless, he felt a strong sense of obligation to his parents and regularly sent them half of his meager pay. He hoped the money would be enough to feed and keep them in their old age. To his parents he wrote, “If Providence will so dispose of us as that we shall not see each other in time, let us live for eternity, and labor to meet in Glory. . . . Remember for many years, I lived with and labored and prayed for you. I at this distance of time and place, care for and send to your relief, and cease not night and day to pray for you, who am as ever your most unworthy but dutiful son in the Lord.”

From Charleston, Frank headed north to western Virginia and entered the Ohio River Valley, where the Redstone circuit had been established the year before. This circuit, which took six weeks to ride, had continued to grow and now had thirty preaching spots. In this sparsely populated area, many pioneers had come to rely on Methodist preachers as their only source of spiritual guidance. They waited eagerly for a preacher to come and perform weddings and baptisms. As a result, Methodist preachers had gained the reputation of going where no other religious groups would go. As one observer wryly noted, “If they were welcomed, they made Methodists of everyone in sight. If they were opposed, they did the same. If they were ignored, they did the same.” A common saying had developed: “The weather is so bad today that nothing’s out but crows and Methodist preachers.” Frank smiled when he heard this saying for the first time. Nothing made him more proud than to know that his “cavalry of preachers” was doing its job.

Traveling back through Virginia on his way to Baltimore, Frank learned that George Washington had honored his word and presented the Methodists’ petition calling for the end of slavery in the state to the Virginia Assembly. Unfortunately, the assembly failed to even read the petition, much less act upon it. Frank was disappointed. He’d hoped for more. Yet he had done his best on the issue, and he would not stop raising it whenever he could. He longed for the day when every citizen of the United States would be free.

As superintendent, Frank had arranged three conferences for the Methodist preachers during 1787. The first would be held in Salisbury, North Carolina, on May 17; the second in Petersburg, Virginia, on June 19; and the third in Abingdon, Maryland, on July 24. But on September 6, 1786, Frank received a letter from Thomas Coke, who was still in England. In his letter Thomas set earlier dates for the three conferences Frank had planned. He also included quoted instructions from John Wesley in the letter: “I desire that you would appoint a General Conference of all our preachers in the United States to meet at Baltimore on May 1, 1787, and that Mr. Richard Whatcoat may be appointed superintendent with Mr. Francis Asbury.” The letter went on to say that John Wesley also wanted Freeborn Garrettson, who had recently returned from two years serving in Nova Scotia, to be appointed superintendent of the Methodist work there.

Frank was appalled when he read the letter, not because he thought appointing Richard Whatcoat or Freeborn Garrettson to the various positions was a bad idea, but because John Wesley felt it was his right to call a meeting in the United States and appoint superintendents. Richard’s appointment as superintendent, Frank suspected, was a first step in recalling Frank to England. But Frank knew the American preachers better than Thomas Coke did, and he was sure that they would not agree to someone in England, even John Wesley, telling them what to do.

Thomas Coke arrived back in North America just in time for the conference on May 1, 1787. Just as Frank had predicted, the American preachers were indignant at Thomas and the notion that Methodist leaders in England thought they could make decisions for Methodists in the United States. They scolded Thomas and insisted that he sign a statement acknowledging he could make decisions regarding American Methodists only when he was present in the country. Like Frank, the conference attendees were suspicious that elevating Richard to the position of superintendent was the first step in recalling Frank to England, which none of them wanted to happen. As a result, they refused to appoint Richard to the position. And Freeborn refused to be appointed as the superintendent of the Methodist work in Nova Scotia unless the Canadian preachers voted and elected him to that position.