Francis Asbury: Circuit Rider

Despite his age and illness, Frank felt compelled to go on, even though at times he was so sick he had to be carried into a meeting and placed in a chair at the altar. Sometimes his legs bothered him so much that he would preach on his knees—but preach he did, regardless of his condition. Frank noted in his journal, “They keep me busy. I must preach . . . some never expected to hear me again; possibly, I may never come again. I am reminded that such and such I dandled in my lap. The rich, too, thirty years ago, would not let me approach them; now I must visit them and preach to them. And the Africans, dear, affectionate souls, bond and free, I must preach to them.”

When he turned sixty years old in 1805, Frank began spending time planning for a smooth transition following his death. This process became more difficult when Richard Whatcoat died in July 1806. Frank mourned the loss of his fellow bishop and the memories they had shared. Frank had known Richard from his earliest days as a Methodist lad back in England. Richard’s death again left Frank as the only bishop resident in the United States. If Frank died, there would be no bishop to take over the reins of the church.

This situation was remedied two years later when the 1808 General Conference voted to make William McKendree a bishop. Frank ordained him and with relief wrote, “The burden is now borne by two pairs of shoulders instead of one. The care is cast upon two hearts and two heads.” Later he noted, “I wish the connection to do as well without me as with me, before they must do without me. I fret like a father who wishes to see his children married and settled before he dies.”

During the 1808 conference Henry Gough died, and Frank took time out to preach at his funeral, which was attended by two thousand people. Frank remembered Henry with great fondness. He thought back on all the kindness the Goughs had bestowed on him over the years, how they had welcomed him to stay at Perry Hall and even kept a room set aside for him, and how Perry Hall had been a center for Methodist meetings in the area.

Frank now found that his circuit riding included visiting the graves of many of his old friends and circuit riders. He also visited many of the widows and children of preachers, encouraging them in the faith and making provision for them whenever he could.

In June 1812, war broke out between the United States and Great Britain. This time the war was fought mainly at sea, with the British navy blockading much of the Atlantic coast of the United States, the American-Canadian frontier around the Great Lakes and along the Saint Lawrence River, and the Gulf Coast. But Frank hardly noticed the war. His attention was firmly fixed on the Methodist circuits, which now involved his riding four thousand to six thousand miles a year to oversee.

On these travels, Frank especially loved meeting dedicated and daring young men like Richmond Nolley. Richmond was not much of a preacher, but because he loved to quietly encourage people in their faith, Frank assigned him to the remote Tombigbee region of Alabama. For two years Richmond rode from settlement to settlement, meeting with families in their homes and encouraging them in the Christian faith. One time while riding between settlements, Richmond noticed fresh wagon tracks leading up a streambed. He followed the tracks to a campsite, where he found a man, his wife, and their daughter.

The man was furious when he discovered that Richmond was a Methodist preacher. “What!” the man exclaimed. “How have you found me so soon? I left Virginia and Georgia just to get away from you. My wife and daughter are much attached to the Methodist practices, and I’ve been trying to get them away from your influence. And now here you are, finding us before our wagon is even unloaded!” Frank laughed aloud when Richmond told him the story. How wonderful it was to think that his preachers were going farther than any others.

Sometimes, though, Frank grieved over his preachers. On May 26, 1813, Frank preached at the funeral service of Robert Hibbard. Robert was a promising American who had been a preacher for four years. He offered himself as a missionary to Canada and was assigned to the Ottawa Circuit. While riding that circuit, he learned that the preacher assigned to his previous circuit in the United States had been called up to fight in the war against the British. Worrying about the spiritual state of his old friends, Robert set out from Ottawa to return to his old circuit to care for the spiritual needs of the people. While crossing the Saint Lawrence River on his way south, Robert drowned. It was a sad day for Frank as he preached at the funeral, but Frank took comfort in the fact that Robert had died serving his Master.

Frank started 1814 in North Carolina, and by February he had traveled north to Norfolk, Virginia, where he was laid up with illness. By March he felt well enough to press on to Maryland, traveling over icy, snow-covered roads. As the spring thaw began, Frank journeyed on through Delaware and Philadelphia, presiding over conferences, meeting with preachers, and exhorting Christian converts to follow the Methodist way. The truth was, though, that he was still very weak, so weak in fact that he did not write in his journal for three months. In July, Frank had the strength to cross the Appalachian Mountains once more, something he had now done over sixty times. On July 15 he mustered the strength to write in his journal: “I have been ill indeed, but medicine, nursing and kindness, under God, have been so far effectual that I have recovered strength enough to sit in my little covered wagon, into which they lift me.” Then on July 19 he noted, “I look back upon a martyr’s life of toil and privation and pain, and I am ready for a martyr’s death.”

In September Frank made it to Cincinnati, Ohio, for a conference. He learned that William McKendree had fallen from his horse and broken several ribs. Such was the lot of a circuit rider. Frank’s own chest ached, and he began coughing up blood. He knew this was not a good sign for an old man, but he did not adjust his schedule. He had work to do, and he determined to be faithful to the end.

While Frank was in Cincinnati, stunning news arrived. American forces had been defeated in the Battle of Bladensburg, fought in Maryland three weeks before. British troops had entered Washington, DC, and burned many government buildings, including the president’s mansion. Frank was saddened for the nation and for the destruction that war brought. He hoped that this chapter of American history would soon be over. He was certain that the Americans would eventually prevail, as they had done in the War of Independence. Of the British troops fighting the war, Frank noted in his journal, “They have no business here. Let them go home from whence they came. I shall pray against them with all my might. That is all I can do.”

Despite the fact that he was coughing up blood, Frank continued on as best he could. When he was too ill to travel, he stayed with some of the thousands of friends he knew in every corner of the United States. Even when laid up with illness, he was never idle. He filled the time reading, answering mail, and praying.

In early 1815, good news spread across the country. In New Orleans the British had been soundly beaten by American troops under the command of General Andrew Jackson. The war with Great Britain appeared to be over. Frank, like most people in the country, rejoiced at the news.

In July 1815, Frank received news that Bishop Thomas Coke was dead. Thomas had set out for Ceylon, India, from England to escort seven Methodist missionaries there and help them set up a mission. He had died in his cabin on May 2, 1814, three weeks short of arriving in India. Thomas was buried at sea. At a memorial service for the bishop, Frank preached the sermon, declaring Thomas Coke to have been “a gentleman, a scholar, and a bishop to us, and as a minister of Christ, in zeal, in labours, in services—the greatest man in the last century.”

The following month Frank turned seventy. He journeyed from South Carolina to attend the Ohio Conference. He now normally traveled in a small carriage, and a young preacher, John Wesley Bond, accompanied him on his journeys. Frank was grateful to have John at his side. John preached, helped Frank with his various medical treatments, and even carried him in and out of homes and meetinghouses when necessary. Sometimes, when Frank was too weak to be moved, he preached to crowds while sitting in his carriage. The people would gather around and sit on the ground, eager to hear from the man who had become a living legend. Even though Frank did not have children of his own, he was humbled to know that his “sons in the Lord” took care of him so well in his old age.

In Cincinnati, Ohio, Frank and William McKendree met together. Frank had spent many hours thinking about the way the West was opening up, and he was eager to ensure that the Methodist Church was on the forefront of the expanding nation. Frank summed up their meeting this way in his journal: “Bishop McKendree and [I] had a long and earnest talk about the affairs of our church and my future prospects. I told him my opinion was that the Western part of the empire would be the glory of America for the poor and pious; that it ought to be marked out for five Conferences, to wit: Ohio, Kentucky, Holston, Mississippi, and Missouri; in doing which, as well as I was able, I traced out lines and boundaries.”

In October 1815, Francis Asbury gave up the last of his official responsibilities to William McKendree. It was a bittersweet moment. “My eyes fail,” he wrote on October 20, 1815. “I will resign the stations to Bishop McKendree; I will take away my feet. It is my fifty-fifth year of ministry and forty-fifth year of labor in America. My mind enjoys great peace and divine consolation.”

A month and a half later, in early December, Frank set out from South Carolina in his carriage with John Wesley Bond at his side. They began making their way north toward Baltimore and the upcoming General Conference. On December 7, 1815, Frank noted in his journal, “We met a storm and stopped at William Baker’s, Granby.” It was the last entry Frank ever wrote in his journal.

Frank and John continued slowly on their way toward Baltimore, stopping at Methodist churches and homes along the way to preach. By now Frank’s sermons were rambling, and he was in much pain as they rode.

On Sunday, March 31, 1816, Frank could go no farther. He and John were staying at the home of Joseph Arnold in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, when Frank collapsed. Frank was put to bed, where he grew weaker. He insisted that the Arnold family gather around his bed for worship, since it was Sunday morning. John read the daily reading from the Methodist prayer book: “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Rev. 21:4).

Later in the day Frank asked to sit in a chair. John lifted him from the bed into the chair and held his head up. Frank smiled and nodded. He then lifted both his arms heavenward and quietly died.

John Wesley Bond sent a messenger to announce the sad news to the Methodists of America: “Our dear father has left us and has gone to the church triumphant. He died as he lived—full of confidence, full of love—at four o’clock this afternoon.”

Bishop Francis Asbury was buried in the Arnolds’ family cemetery, but when the General Assembly met at the beginning of May, they arranged to have his body moved to Baltimore. Frank’s funeral service was held on May 10, 1816. About twenty-five thousand people—black and white, old and young, educated and illiterate—walked silently behind his casket as it was carried from the Light Street Chapel to the Eutaw Street Church, where he was buried. It was a sight no one in Baltimore had ever before witnessed, but it was fitting for the man who had given his life to bring the Good News to the people of the United States of America.