Francis Asbury: Circuit Rider

In the end, the conference voted to appoint Freeborn as the elder overseeing the Methodist circuits on the Delmarva Peninsula, occupied by most of Delaware and portions of Maryland and Virginia. The conference delegates went even further, affirming a resolution that stated the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States was to be governed solely by people appointed in the United States.

Following the conference in Baltimore, the Methodist preachers returned to ride their circuits with new vigor, which translated into more and more circuits being added. At the start of 1786 there were fifty-one Methodist circuits, but as 1788 approached, that number had risen to seventy-six. All of this growth kept Frank busy overseeing the work, as Thomas Coke had once again departed for England. Not only were there more circuits for Frank to ride and watch over, but there were also new preachers for him to recruit and appoint to these circuits. In fact, the number of preachers during this period rose from 117 to 165.

Still, as busy as he was, Frank took the time to attend the three-day opening celebration of Cokesbury College in December 1787. The new wooden building was three stories high, 40 feet wide, and 108 feet long, with lots of windows on each floor. It had been decided that the sons of traveling preachers and Methodist orphan boys should be boarded, educated, and clothed for free at the college, and a boy had to be seven years of age to be enrolled. By the time of the opening celebration, twenty-five male students were enrolled. They were supervised by two teachers, the Reverend Levi Heath, whom Thomas Coke had recruited from England, and Truman Marsh, a recent graduate of Yale College.

The rules for Cokesbury College were practical and covered matters such as bedding, bathing, recreation, and schoolwork. Each student was to have a bed to himself, and the boys were to sleep on mattresses, not feather beds, since mattresses were deemed to be healthier. The school was equipped with a bath, and the students were to bathe regularly, one at a time, and were not to remain in the bath water for more than a minute. The boys were also forbidden to bathe in the nearby river. Suitable outdoor recreation was defined as gardening, walking, or riding, while indoor recreation consisted of working in the woodworking shop. And there was to be no play. The rules clearly stated, “The students shall be indulged with nothing which the world calls play. Let this rule be observed with the strictest nicety, for those who play when they are young will play when they are old. Idleness or any other fault may be punished with confinement.”

To make sure there was no room for idleness, the students followed a strict routine. They were to arise at five o’clock each morning and assemble at six o’clock for public prayer. At seven o’clock they ate breakfast, and from eight until midday they attended classes. Lunch was at one o’clock in the afternoon, after which they were given time for recreation. From three to six o’clock they were to attend classes again, followed directly by supper. At seven o’clock in the evening they were to gather for public prayer once more. Without fail, they were to be in their beds by nine o’clock. As far as Frank was concerned, the rules were splendid, just what was needed to shape the boys into mature Christian young men.

Following the opening of Cokesbury College, Frank set out to visit the various Methodist preachers and see how their circuits were going. He traveled through Virginia and Maryland and then made his way to New York and on into New England.

Often someone would ask Frank why he didn’t stay in one place and let the traveling preachers come to him with their reports. His answer was threefold. First, he loved to preach to those who had not heard the gospel. Second, he wanted to get to know all of the Methodist preachers to make sure he assigned them the right circuits. And third, he wanted to be an example. Frank knew he was asking a lot from his preachers, who were to stay poor and single (if possible) and constantly be on the move. The least he felt he could do as their leader was to model what he asked them to do.

After visiting New York and New England, Frank made his way to Charleston, South Carolina. On this trip Frank crossed into Georgia for the first time. In April 1788 he made his first trip across the Smoky Mountains. He began this leg of his journey in Morganton, North Carolina, and followed the French Broad River, eventually making it all the way to Bristol in the Southwest Territory (Tennessee). The weather was terrible during the trip. It rained nearly all the way, but Frank seldom stopped for rain or even for thunderstorms. The houses he stayed in were tiny log cabins with dirt floors and little heat. Sometimes there was so little heat in the houses that Frank’s clothes were still wet when he set out to ride again the following morning.

Frank slept on every type of bed imaginable on his trips, often sharing a bed with two or three other people and a host of bedbugs and fleas. Sometimes the people he stayed with were embarrassed by having so little food to offer. But Frank happily ate whatever they ate, even if it was corn mush or a cup of tea for dinner. As he made his way along, Frank knew he was blazing a trail for other preachers to follow, and he felt it was a privilege to be invited into the poorest of homes. At each place he was invited to stay he always prayed with the family and told the children Bible stories. When he left, most hosts asked that he or another Methodist preacher come back again.

In late July 1788, Frank crossed the mountains into western Pennsylvania and traveled to Uniontown, where the first Methodist Conference west of the mountains was to be held. By August 10, he was back in Baltimore, attending a conference there. By then Frank was tired. The Baltimore conference was his sixth conference that year, with each conference being held in a different state. But tired as he was, there was little time for rest. Following the conference in Baltimore, Frank headed for Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Delaware before returning to Maryland. As he traveled, Frank’s biggest concern was finding enough suitable preachers to ride the ever-increasing number of circuits in the growing country. During 1788 alone, 11,500 people had joined the Methodist Church.

In March 1789, Thomas Coke returned to America and joined Frank in Charleston, South Carolina, where he was presiding over the Methodist conference there. Thomas brought with him a bundle of letters. Among them was a letter from John Wesley dated September 20, 1788. The letter was a response to the 1787 conference in Baltimore that had failed to follow John’s express instructions. He had wanted to send Freeborn Garrettson back to Nova Scotia and elevate Richard Whatcoat to superintendent in the United States. Frank’s heart sank as he read:

There is, indeed, a wide difference between the relationship wherein you stand to the Americans and the relationship wherein I stand to all Methodists. You are the elder brother of the American Methodists; I am under God the father of the whole family. Therefore, I naturally care for you in a manner no other person can do. . . .

But in one point, my dear brother, I am afraid both the Doctor and you differ from me. I study to be little; you study to be great. I creep; you strut along. I [founded] a school, you a college! . . . Nay, and you call it after your own names.

One instance of this, of your greatness, has given me great concern. How can you, how dare you, suffer yourself to be called Bishop? I shudder, I start at the very thought! Men may call me a knave or a fool, a rascal, a scoundrel, and I am content, but they shall never by my consent call me a Bishop! For my sake, and for God’s sake, for Christ’s sake, put a full end to this!

Frank could hardly believe that the man he had loved and followed his whole life had written to him in such a manner. It was a bitter pill for him to swallow. Despite his feelings, Frank prayed he would bear them gracefully and remain loyal in his heart to John Wesley and his methods. He realized that John was now old and could not grasp the democratic way of doing things that had taken root in the United States. Yes, they had founded a college and it was named after him and Thomas. Yes, he was called Bishop. And yes, the Methodists in America had not followed Wesley’s express instructions. But in each instance, conferences of Methodist leaders in the United States had voted that those decisions be made. Frank had only followed their wishes.

The previous year, a new constitution for the United States had been ratified. And while Frank and Thomas headed north from Charleston on April 30, 1789, George Washington was being inaugurated in New York City as the first president under the new constitution.

On May 24, 1789, the two bishops were together at the John Street Church in New York for a conference. During the conference they were charged with writing a note of congratulations to George Washington on becoming president. That night Frank and Thomas worked on the letter and expressed their confidence in Washington’s leadership to preserve and protect both civil and religious liberty. The next day they presented the letter to the conference attendees for approval. Following approval, Frank and Thomas gave it to Washington in person.

In his official response to the letter, Washington thanked Frank and Thomas and the Methodist Episcopal Church for their affection. He then went on to state, “It shall be my endeavor to manifest the purity of my inclinations for promoting the happiness of mankind, as well as the sincerity of my desire to contribute whatever may be in my power toward the civil and religious liberties of the American people. In pursuing this line of conduct, I hope, by the assistance of Divine Providence, not altogether to disappoint the confidence which you have been pleased to repose in me.”

In presenting their letter to George Washington, the Methodist Episcopal Church became the first denomination in the United States to congratulate the new president and wish him well.

Frank left New York hoping that Washington could live up to all that he had proposed. But the truth was that the new government of the United States was already squabbling over who had more power—the states or the federal government. The Methodist Episcopal Church was facing similar issues. The church was growing rapidly, and governing it was a challenge.

Frank was attending ten conferences a year now. At each one he had to lay out all the issues the Methodist church faced, so that the attendees of all ten conferences could vote and reach a universal consensus. As a result, Frank had proposed that a council be set up instead, consisting of the bishops and elders who would meet together and vote on matters regarding the running of the church. Both Frank and Thomas thought this a much more efficient way to administrate than having each conference hear and vote on the issues. However, James O’Kelly, a Methodist elder in Virginia, opposed this approach. He believed that a general conference should be called, at which the preachers could have a democratic say in the decisions made for the church, rather than have decisions dictated by a nonelected council. He pointed out that Frank could dominate such a council since he had veto power over their decisions.

While Frank was aware of the debate regarding the council, he had something more pressing calling him—the West—over the mountains. While Thomas left New York to return to England after the conference, Frank headed along Forbes Road, one of the two main routes pioneers took across the mountains in Pennsylvania. He was on his way to the settlement of Pittsburgh, with a population of four hundred, to visit a new circuit that had been established there.

By early 1790, Frank was back in Charleston, South Carolina, for a conference. He then traveled to Georgia for another conference. Traveling in Georgia was not easy, especially in the backcountry, but Frank persevered, preaching in a different place each night. As he rode, Frank sang hymns or quoted from the New Testament, most of which he knew by heart.