Francis Asbury: Circuit Rider

Methodist preachers had pushed into Kentucky and established circuits there, and they wrote and asked Frank to visit and ride the circuits with them. Frank was eager to go, and he set out from North Carolina with Richard Whatcoat for Tennessee, intending to travel on to Kentucky. But because he was exhausted from his traveling and the conferences he had been attending, he fell ill along the way and could not go on. Instead Frank and Richard detoured to western Virginia and the home of Elizabeth Russell, a gracious Methodist woman, so that Frank could rest and recuperate. Richard stayed with Frank in Virginia.

During their stay at Elizabeth’s home, Frank and Richard decided that it would be best if they did not try to make it to Kentucky at this time. However, that first night Frank had a vivid dream in which a group of men, including two preachers, came to accompany him through the mountains. Frank was not sure whether he should take this dream seriously, but the next day a group of ten men, including two preachers, Peter Massie and Hope Hull, arrived from Kentucky at Elizabeth’s home. Frank knew that God wanted him to travel at this time.

In all, sixteen men, including the ten from Kentucky, Frank and Richard, and four others, set out on the trail. Because it would be a dangerous ride through country where Indians had been ambushing and killing people, the group carried thirteen rifles and ample gunpowder with them. Frank himself consented to carry a powder horn, on the side of which he carved the date of departure, May 1, 1790.

The group made their way into North Carolina, where they joined the Wilderness Road, a trail that led through the Cumberland Gap and on into Kentucky. The difficult ride had the group climbing mountains, fording deep rivers, and crossing muddy streams. Despite the difficult conditions on the trail, the men kept a fast pace, covering about fifty miles a day. Because of the threat of Indian attack, no one wanted to linger. Seeing the graves of twenty-four pioneers massacred and scalped by Indians helped Frank understand the danger of traveling in these parts—danger the preachers on this circuit faced regularly. When the group stopped to camp at night, Frank usually slept only an hour or two at a time, awakening instantly to any unfamiliar sound in the dark.

As the men rode into Kentucky, many of the people Frank encountered were lonely and scared. They recounted tales of family members killed by Indians or wives and daughters carried away by them. They also told Frank how much the Methodist preachers meant to them. They knew the preachers were risking their lives to visit and pray with them. Frank also noted how this risk had built a strong loyalty between the preachers and the frontierspeople. Often a group of men from one outpost would escort the preacher to his next post, keeping him safe from harm.

Frank was in for a surprise when the group reached Lexington, Kentucky. He found Charles White, who had been a trustee of Wesley Chapel in New York City, living there. Frank had dined with Charles on numerous occasions back then, but because of his Loyalist sympathies, Charles had been forced to flee to Nova Scotia. Eventually Charles had made his way west and ended up in Lexington.

While in Lexington, Frank and Richard held a conference for the local Methodists and began plans to build a school. They decided the school would be named Bethel. After ending the conference and spending time riding the circuit, preaching from farm to farm and cabin to cabin, Frank headed east over the mountains to North Carolina. Another busy conference schedule awaited him there.

A group of fifty people, twenty of them armed with rifles, accompanied Frank and Richard back down the Wilderness Road. On June 2, 1790, they reached the McKnights’ residence on the Yadkin River in North Carolina. The Methodist preachers had been waiting anxiously for several days for Frank to arrive. When Frank and Richard rode up, tired and bedraggled, a joyful group of preachers ran to meet them.

“We thought you were dead!” one of the preachers declared.

Chapter 14
Fishing with a Large Net

The Methodist Episcopal Church was on the rise. By 1790 it had over fifty-seven thousand members, having more than doubled in size in three years. The church now had circuits in all thirteen of the United States as well as routes in the frontier territories and two sections of Canada. The growth kept Frank busy traveling, preaching, and presiding over conferences.

In April 1791, Thomas Coke again returned to the United States and joined Frank for the General Conference in Baltimore. Frank hoped that Thomas would help in addressing the growing problem with some of the southern Methodist preachers, led by James O’Kelly. James had continued to stir up opposition to Frank by claiming that Frank was telling the preachers what to do and where to ride circuits rather than asking them what they would prefer.

Frank was disturbed to learn that Thomas had experienced a change of heart and now supported the position of the southern group against the council. Then Frank discovered that Thomas was secretly writing to Bishop William White of the Protestant Episcopal Church (the post-revolutionary name of the Church of England in the United States). Thomas’s letters suggested that John Wesley was sorry he had authorized the American Methodists to leave the Church of England to form their own denomination and now wanted American Methodists to rejoin the Protestant Episcopal church. Frank was shocked by this turn of events, but he refused to become bitter about the matter. He wrote in his journal, “I see and hear many things that might wound my spirit if it were not that the Lord bears me up above all.”

While Frank was still trying to work out how to respond to Thomas’s secret correspondence with Bishop White, news arrived from England that John Wesley had died. Frank was deeply saddened and wrote in his journal:

The solemn news reached our ears that the public papers had announced the death of that dear man of God, John Wesley. He died in his own house in London, in the eighty-eighth year of his age, after preaching the gospel sixty-four years. . . . I conclude, his equal is not to be found among all the sons he hath brought up, nor his superior among all the sons of Adam he may have left behind. Brother Coke was sunk in spirit, and wished to hasten home immediately. For [me], notwithstanding my long absence from Mr. Wesley, and a few unpleasant expressions in some of the letters the dear old man has written to me (occasioned by the misrepresentations of others), I feel the stroke most sensibly; and, I expect, I shall never read his works without reflecting on the loss which the church of God and the world has sustained by his death.

Sure enough, upon hearing the news, Thomas set out immediately for England, since he expected to be named as John Wesley’s successor.

Following the death of John Wesley and the abrupt departure of Thomas Coke, Frank heard no more about the secret plans for the merging of the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States. But other things threatened the heart of American Methodism.

One challenge was the number of black people becoming Methodists. Between 1786 and 1788 their numbers in the Methodist Church went from 1,890 to 6,545, and the number continued to grow steadily from there. Many of these people were slaves, and Frank welcomed every one of them into the church as brothers and sisters. But not everyone else was so inclusive. There was friction within the church, particularly in Philadelphia, where the number of black people attending St. George’s grew so rapidly that it overwhelmed the seating capacity.

In 1792 a balcony was added to accommodate the growing numbers of people attending services. This was when the trouble started. Some of the white deacons in the church decided that black people should occupy the balcony while white people sat in the pews on the main floor. However, not all of the black people who showed up for service on the Sunday morning that the balcony opened were aware of this arrangement. Many of them streamed onto the main floor and sat where they normally sat. As the service opened they all knelt to pray as usual. But as they knelt, one of the white trustees of the church grabbed Absalom Jones, a gifted black Methodist preacher, by the shoulder and tried to drag him to his feet. “You must get up. You cannot kneel here,” the trustee said.

“Wait until the prayer is over,” Absalom said quietly.

“No, you must get up now or I will call for help and force you to move,” the trustee responded.

“Please wait until the prayer is over,” Absalom repeated.

The trustee and several other men then tried to forcibly move Absalom and the other black members of the congregation to the segregated balcony. The sound reverberated through the sanctuary as an elder prayed at the front of the church. As soon as the elder had finished, Absalom stood and, joined by fellow preacher Richard Allen, led the group out of the church. They never returned to St. George’s.

When Frank heard the report of the walkout, he was sad. Because he lived a Christian creed that declared all men are brothers and equal before God, it was hard for him to accept that one group of Methodists would treat another group so badly simply because of the color of their skin. He also heard that Richard was now leading a group of those who had walked out of St. George’s and who followed Methodist principles. Frank wondered whether black people might be better off with their own Methodist churches.

In April 1792, Frank was in the saddle again, this time headed back to Kentucky. In Lexington he preached, held a conference, and inspected the new Bethel School he had helped plan during his visit two years before. While in Kentucky he tried to keep his mind on his mission, but, as he wrote in his journal, he was easily distracted: “I . . . hear so much about Indians, convention, treaty, killing, and scalping that my attention is drawn more to these things than I would wish.” Despite the continued threat of Indian attack, Frank enjoyed a fruitful time preaching in and around Lexington and encouraging the Christians of the settlement.

Frank rode into Baltimore on November 1, 1792, just in time for the first General Conference. However, he had become so ill that he could not attend meetings. Thankfully, Thomas Coke had recently returned from England and was able to take charge of the conference. Each night one of Frank’s friends brought him a report about what was discussed. Since he couldn’t attend the meetings, Frank wrote a letter to conference delegates, outlining the reasons why he believed he should have the power to appoint preachers to their circuits. When the matter came to a vote, James O’Kelly lost. He stormed out of the meeting, announcing that he was done with the Methodist Church. Several other preachers followed him. When Frank heard about this, he was not surprised, but he was upset to lose some of the southern preachers. He felt that two of these preachers in particular, William McKendree and Jesse Lee, had been promising preachers whose leadership gifts could have helped strengthen the church.

As soon as he was well enough to get out of bed again, Frank continued his never-ending circuit riding. He still tried to travel a little with all of the preachers, but this was becoming more and more difficult, since there were now 217 preachers serving over sixty thousand Methodist members.

In October 1793, Frank found himself traveling east to Philadelphia while most people were headed west, away from the city and the yellow fever epidemic raging there.

Frank was not afraid of death, which was a good thing, because ten percent of the population of the city had already died from the disease. Many more probably would have died if not for Richard Allen and Absalom Jones (now a leader of the black Methodists in Philadelphia). Because it was incorrectly believed by many that black people were immune to yellow fever, the two black Christian leaders in the city had rallied their followers to care for sick and dying white people. They also helped bury the dead. When Frank arrived in Philadelphia, he met with Richard and Absalom and joined them in arranging help for those who needed it.