Francis Asbury: Circuit Rider

As Frank worked alongside Richard and Absalom, he was encouraged by the way both men were deeply committed to the spiritual needs of their people. Absalom was building a Methodist church called St. Thomas’s for his followers, and Richard was building a church that he planned to call Bethel. Because of the yellow fever outbreak, the building programs of both churches had been put on hold. By the following July, however, Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church was finished. Richard invited Frank to the dedication of the church on July 29, 1794, where he gave the opening sermon. Bethel was the first black Methodist church in the United States, and Frank was honored to be present at its dedication. In his journal he wrote gratefully, “Our colored brethren are to be governed by the doctrine and discipline of the Methodists.”

On August 20, 1795, Frank turned fifty years old. By now his blond hair had turned gray, and his body was beginning to break down under the strain of constant travel. Somehow Frank still found the strength to ride a thousand or more miles every three months in all kinds of weather. Sometimes he was so weak that he had to be strapped to his horse so he could ride without falling off. On one occasion he was too ill to walk across a room but insisted that he get back on his horse and move along—others on the circuit were awaiting his arrival. The truth was that Frank hated to be restricted to staying in one place, especially when it meant he could not preach on a Sunday. He would call such a day “dumb Sabbath.”

There were no dumb Sabbaths while out riding the circuits. And although he had no home of his own, Frank had a hundred homes scattered across America, as people kept a bed or a room ready for him in their houses or cabins. His journals and books, along with his few other belongings, were still stored at Perry Hall, and Frank enjoyed the times when he made it back to the Goughs’ residence to stay. People on the Methodist circuits also watched out for Frank’s needs. One woman had her seamstress make him a new suit of clothes every time he came to visit, while others would swap out his old, worn horse for a new one.

One thing that helped to ease Frank’s burden a little occurred when the General Conference appointed a preacher to travel with him. This was a wonderful opportunity for Frank to pass along his insights on preaching, the Bible, spiritual life, and the affairs of the church. He spent hundreds of hours talking and praying with another preacher while their horses clopped along. Two of the men Frank discipled in this way as they accompanied him were William McKendree and Jesse Lee. Both men had second thoughts about aligning themselves with James O’Kelly, and Frank had encouraged them to come back into the Methodist fold. He was glad when they did, and as he rode with them, his conviction was confirmed that the Methodist Church in America would be the stronger for their return.

Frank continued to send his parents half of his salary, small as it was, and wrote to them as often as he could. He prayed for them regularly, especially since his parents were now in their eighties. Then in July 1798, Frank received word that his father had died two months before. He was sad to hear the news. For a moment he wondered whether he should send for his mother and bring her to the United States, but he quickly decided that this was not practical. Eliza Asbury was probably too weak by now to survive a crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by ship.

As the sun rose on January 1, 1800, at the dawn of a new century, Francis Asbury was in Charleston, South Carolina, officiating at a Methodist conference. Just three days later, he and the residents of Charleston learned that President George Washington had died on December 14, 1799. Charleston was stunned, and Frank recorded in his journal, “Washington, the calm, intrepid chief, the disinterested friend, first father, and temporal saviour of his country under divine protection and direction. . . . At all times he acknowledged the providence of God, and never was he ashamed of his Redeemer. We believe he died not fearing death. In his will he ordered the manumission [freeing] of his slaves, a true son of liberty in all points.”

Four months later, at the General Conference in Baltimore on May 1, 1800, Frank planned to resign his position of superintendent. He felt old and worn-out and thought a younger man might be more suited to the job. But the conference delegates would not hear of it. Instead they voted to appoint a third bishop in the church—Richard Whatcoat. This was a great relief to Frank, since Thomas Coke was often away attending to other Methodist business. Following the death of John Wesley, Thomas had become the secretary to the English Conference of Methodists and was assigned to oversee the expansion of Methodism into other parts of the world. All of this kept him very busy, and his visits to the United States were short. Richard was spiritual, loyal, hardworking, a good friend, and committed to the growth of the Methodist Church in North America. Frank knew that he could trust Richard to gladly share the burden of administrative duties.

With the dawn of a new century came new challenges. By now the population of the United States was over five million, but only one person in fourteen belonged to any church. This, of course, did not escape Frank’s notice, and he looked for new ways to reach the nation’s growing population with the gospel.

By 1800 the Wilderness Road was wide enough for wagons to travel, and thousands of people began to migrate west, pouring over the passes and down the Ohio River on huge rafts. As more and more settlers moved onto the frontier, the Methodist work continued to grow there. In October 1800, Frank traveled with Richard Whatcoat and William McKendree (who had been ordained an elder and oversaw the Methodist work on the western frontier). The men made their way through the frontier areas, preaching and holding conferences as far west as Nashville, Tennessee.

On the outskirts of Nashville the trio came upon a strange scene. Several hundred Presbyterians were holding a camp meeting at Drake’s Creek Meetinghouse. Frank stopped to investigate. He learned that those attending the camp meeting had come from up to fifty miles away in their wagons, bringing with them tents and their own food. They had set up camp in a grove of trees near a spring. The men slept beneath the wagons, and the women and children in tents. At dawn a trumpet would sound to rouse the campers and call them to meetings that lasted all day and late into the night. Often there were between ten and thirty preachers all speaking at the same time in different spots around the camp. At first glance it seemed like chaos. Some people prayed aloud while others silently fell to their knees. Some yelled out praises and Bible verses, and wailing, laughter, and crying could be heard.

The camp meeting was more emotional and chaotic than anything Frank had seen before, but it did not shock him. In the midst of the chaos he saw God at work as Christians rejoiced in their faith or came under deep conviction of their sin and turned their lives over to the Lord. Frank was intrigued and confided in his journal, “This is fishing with a large net.” What was needed, he was sure, was to take those enthusiastic new converts from the camp meeting and turn them into mature, evangelical Christians.

Frank saw that the Methodist framework was a perfect match for camp meetings. Methodist preachers were used to speaking outdoors to anyone who would listen, and the Methodist churches had a system in place to take new converts from camp meetings and disciple them. As a result, Frank began to encourage Methodist preachers to hold camp meetings for their circuits—not just those on the frontier but throughout the nation.

The camp meetings took off. Sometimes up to one thousand people came together for three or four days, occasionally up to seven days, to pray, listen to preaching and teaching, and just rejoice in their faith. Frank began attending these camp meetings whenever he could, preaching at them, studying them, and working with the local Methodist circuit riders to get the new converts into churches. As the preachers held camp meetings and followed up with the new converts, the number of Methodists in the country increased rapidly.

In April 1802, as camp meetings were becoming a fixture on Methodist circuits, Frank received word in Baltimore that his mother had died on January 2. He wrote a tribute to her in his journal: “For fifty years her hands, her house, her heart, were open to receive the people of God and ministers of Christ, and thus a lamp was lighted up in a dark place called Great Barr, in Great Britain.”

Frank was now fifty-six years old, and his last tie with England had been severed. He was not sure he would live to be eighty-seven, as his mother had, but he was determined to use whatever time he had left to serve God and the Methodist cause.

Chapter 15
What Could He Do That He Did Not Do?

During the first five years of the new century, the United States was on the move. On March 1, 1803, Ohio became the seventeenth state in the Union. A little over a year later, on May 14, 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark embarked on a journey west across the huge swath of land known as the Louisiana Territory. The United States had purchased the land from France the year before. The Lewis and Clark expedition hoped to travel across the entire North American continent to the Pacific Ocean, mapping the way for others to follow.

Around the same time, Francis Asbury wrote in his journal, “It is wonderful to see how Braddock’s Road is crowded with wagons and packhorses carrying families and their household stuff westward—to the new state of Ohio, no doubt . . . here is a state without slaves . . . and better for poor, hardworking families. O highly favored land!”

While the United States was on the move, so too was the Methodist Church. Frank described it as “like a moving fire.” Hundreds of people were responding to the gospel at camp meetings across the country, and during 1802 and 1803, Methodist membership increased from 85,500 to 105,000 people. As the denomination grew, dynamic young men stepped forward to volunteer as circuit riders. Frank encouraged them, recalling his early days as a rider back in England.

By now both Frank and Richard Whatcoat were in frail health. Sometimes they traveled together, urging each other on, stopping for various treatments and swapping horses so that the weaker one could ride the steadier horse. Still, they were a team, always moving among their people.

Bishop Thomas Coke had never enjoyed the endless circuit riding in the United States and instead spent most of his time in England attending to Methodist business. In July 1805, Frank received a letter informing him that at the age of fifty-eight, Thomas had married a middle-aged heiress. Frank was profoundly disappointed when he received the news. To him, marriage and the family that went with it were the number-one distraction for preachers. He wrote, “I calculate we have lost the traveling labours of two hundred of the best men in America, or the world, by marriage and subsequent location.”

On those occasions when Thomas was present in the United States, almost no one recognized him by sight. By contrast, Bishop Francis Asbury was widely thought to be the most recognized person in the United States. More people recognized him than the president or any other public figure, including the late George Washington. This was due to Frank’s relentless traveling and speaking. He stayed with people in log cabins as well as fine mansions and always sought someone to whom he could preach the gospel. Because of this, thousands of people claimed Frank as their spiritual father, and hundreds of babies were given the first names Francis Asbury. As Frank aged, many groups to whom he had preached wondered whether this would be the last time he would ride through their neck of the woods. People at the gatherings often wept when he arrived because they were so glad to see him. And they wept when he left because they believed they would never see him again.