Francis Asbury: Circuit Rider

As Frank sat on an old barrel in the barn, he considered the phrase his mother had used: “apprenticed to God.” Yes, he decided, it fit well. In the seven years he had worked as an apprentice buckle maker for Mr. Griffin, he had also been undergoing a kind of religious apprenticeship. Through the meetings at his home and Methodist meetings in nearby Wednesbury, he had been introduced to some of the leading Christian men in the area. He had been attracted by the strange, new experience of seeing grown men and women who seemed to have a direct connection to God: they preached without sermon notes, sang songs without a hymnal, and prayed spontaneous prayers rather than read them from the authorized prayer book. Over time, men like John Ryland, a Church of England curate and leading Methodist from Birmingham, took a particular interest in Frank. John loaned him books and gave him Christian advice. Another rising star in the Methodist movement, Edward Stillingfleet, also acted as Frank’s mentor and spiritual guide. He provided Frank with a steady supply of books and sermons, which Frank read and took notes on. Although he had not gone beyond elementary school, Frank had managed to educate himself far beyond that level.

By the time Frank was seventeen, he was taking his turn preaching at some of the smaller Methodist meetings in the surrounding area. His employer, Mr. Griffin, allowed him to have Sundays off. This was a particularly busy day for Frank, who, with four other devout young men from around the Great Barr area, formed what Methodists called a band. A band was a group of either men or women who agreed to meet together weekly for prayer, confession, singing, and spiritual encouragement. There were five young men in Frank’s band: Thomas Ault, a shoemaker’s apprentice and Frank’s closest friend; James Mayo; James Bayley, a park keeper; and Thomas Russell, a carpenter’s apprentice. The group would meet together early on Sunday mornings.

Frank quickly became the leader of his band, and as such he was expected to start each weekly meeting by asking all in the group a number of prescribed questions:

1. Have you the forgiveness of your sins?

2. Have you peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ?

3. Have you the witness of God’s Spirit with your spirit that you are a child of God?

4. Is the love of God shed abroad in your heart?

5. Has no sin, inward or outward, dominion over you?

6. Do you desire to be told of your faults?

7. Do you desire that every one of us should tell you, from time to time, whatsoever is in his heart concerning you?

8. Consider! Do you desire we should tell you whatsoever we think, whatsoever we fear, whatsoever we hear, concerning you?

9. Do you desire that, in doing this, we should come as close as possible, that we should cut to the quick and search your heart to the bottom?

10. Is it your desire and design to be on this, and all other occasions, entirely open, so as to speak everything that is in your heart without exception, without disguise, and without reserve?

When each band member had taken his turn answering the questions, the members would all pray for each other’s spiritual well-being. They would then walk to the village of Wednesbury, where they would conduct an 8:00 a.m. meeting with the Methodist Society. After this meeting they would walk on to West Bromwich to preach at two meetings before returning to Wednesbury to preach at the 5:00 p.m. meeting. In all, it was a twelve-mile circuit that provided an opportunity for any member of the band who wanted to preach, and Frank was always ready and eager to volunteer.

When he turned nineteen years old, Frank volunteered to become a local preacher. In addition to holding this unpaid job, he had to fulfill all his apprenticeship obligations to Mr. Griffin. Every minute of Frank’s life was soon accounted for. He awoke at four o’clock each morning to get his work done early. Later in the day, usually around midafternoon, Frank would walk as far as Derbyshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, or Worcestershire to preach and talk with people who needed to hear about God’s love and mercy. Then he would walk home again, often not falling into bed until midnight or later. Then it was up again at 4:00 a.m. Frank followed this schedule four or five days a week, every week, and also kept up his busy Sunday schedule. As he walked from village to village, he would sing the hymns written by Charles Wesley. He wished he had a horse, not because it would make the trip faster, but because he’d heard that John Wesley could ride and read his Bible in the saddle, and Frank longed for more time for Bible study and meditation. He was always painfully aware of his basic education.

Now, at twenty years of age, Frank knew that God was calling him to give his life to preaching and teaching. Yet his father was right: he was poorly equipped to do so. He could not think of anything else to do but pray about the situation. He knelt down in the old barn. God, You know my heart, he began. You know that I want to follow You and tell others how to find the same peace in their hearts as You have given me. Whatever happens next, I am Your servant and in Your hands. Amen.

When Frank stood up, he felt much better. He knew he had to go back into the house and face his father, but somehow that did not matter. It was much more important to please his heavenly Father, and that path meant leaving buckle making behind and venturing out into the highways and byways of the English countryside.

As he strolled back across the yard to the house, Frank hummed the words of one of Charles Wesley’s hymns: “My chains fell off, my heart was free / I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.”

Chapter 3
Who Among You Is Willing to Go?

In early 1766, Frank set out on horseback to begin riding his first Methodist circuit between Staffordshire, to the north of Birmingham, and Gloucester to the south. He was ready and determined to become a worthy Methodist preacher. It had not been easy disentangling himself from his parents. He didn’t expect his father’s support, but his mother’s reaction had surprised him. She pressed him to stay close to home and out of danger. “You are the only child I have,” she told Frank, reminding him of the grief she endured when his sister died. “You don’t remember the Wesley riots here, but I do. Your father and I were newly married, and John Wesley came through the area. He preached not five miles from here at West Bromwich. The local vicar rode through the listeners, yelling curses at them and determined to trample them with his horse. What if that should happen again?”

Frank considered his mother’s words. Fellow band member Thomas Ault had told him how his family had moved to Newton from West Bromwich after their house was looted and burned in the anti-Methodist riots that occurred there in 1745, the year Frank was born. The truth was that Methodist preachers, such as Frank aspired to be, often preached in places where more “proper” Church of England vicars would not go. John and Charles Wesley led by example, preaching in coal-mining pits, outside public houses, in graveyards, and anywhere people would gather to listen. Many times there was loud and sometimes violent opposition from locals to the message being preached. Like the Wesley brothers, Frank was not going to let opposition stop him from preaching the gospel—even if he had to risk a riot.

Despite his mother’s concerns, Frank quickly adjusted to his new life as a circuit rider, which involved much preaching, praying, Bible reading, and staying with Christians from all walks of life. As he rode his circuit, he tried to write regularly to his parents. In one of his letters to them he declared that he would “rather be in the saddle than in a seat in the House of Lords.”

The more he traveled, preached, and met with various bands, the more enthusiastic Frank became about the advantages of the Methodist way. The name Methodist accurately described the life he would now live. The term was first applied to John and Charles Wesley and George Whitefield while they were studying to become Church of England clergymen at Oxford University during the early 1730s. The Wesleys’ mother, Susannah, had nineteen children, and to cope with such a large family she had operated with strict routines, including regulating her children’s spiritual lives. Drawing on this background, the three young vicars-in-training looked for methods that would help Christians become holy and useful to God. It wasn’t long before they came up with a set of rules and routines for Christians to follow and ways for them to be accountable to each other. Because of this, people began mockingly calling the Wesley brothers and George Whitefield Methodists—people who relied on methods to promote holiness.

Now, more than thirty years later, no follower of the Wesleys was left with any doubt as to how or when to worship. Every aspect of a Methodist’s life was regulated. Methodists were expected to rise early and devote the first hour of the day to prayer and follow many other rules. Members were also held accountable for their actions.

As a circuit-riding Methodist preacher, Frank was held to an even higher standard. He was required to rise at 4:00 a.m. on days when he was going to preach and 5:00 a.m. on other days. Like all other Methodists, he spent the first hour in prayer and another hour each morning reading and meditating on verses from the Bible.

Frank’s main job as a circuit rider, apart from preaching, was to meet with the Methodist band leaders on his circuit, praying with them and inquiring as to the state of their spiritual well-being. He would lead each band leader through the same set of questions the members of the band back home in Newton had been asked. Frank would take notes on the answers given and discuss spiritual and other challenges the band leaders faced.

Besides being responsible for making sure that the Methodist Society members on his circuit were following the ways and practices of the society, Frank had his own personal list of things to do while riding between one society band and the next. John Wesley had made it clear to his preachers that they were to never waste a second of time. They were to memorize scriptures—along with Methodist sermons and hymns—as their horses clopped along the country lanes.

Frank worked hard at mastering the songs found in the Methodist hymnbook tucked in his saddlebags. Charles Wesley was a gifted hymn writer whose songs, some said, were destined to be sung for a hundred years. Since so many members of Methodist Societies could not read or write, Frank and other preachers taught them the words to Charles’s hymns to instill Methodist teaching. At the front of the hymnal were instructions for how those at a Methodist Society meeting should sing:

Sing all. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up and you will find it a blessing.

Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you are half dead or half asleep, but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of being heard, than when you sing the songs of Satan.

Sing modestly. Strive to unite your voices together so as to make one clean melodious sound.

Sing in tune, and take care not to sing too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it from among us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.

Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually.

As he rode his circuit, Frank encountered opposition to his preaching, especially when he preached in the coal-mining towns. Life in the mining towns was hard. The mines were dangerous places to work. Frequent accidents left miners dead or disabled. Young children were put to work opening and shutting trapdoors to let coal carts through or pushing the heavy carts. The mines were dark and damp, and it was not unusual for those working below to be wading in thigh-deep water. Everything about coal mining was grim, and it seemed to Frank that the black coal dust that settled over the mining towns also settled in the souls of those who lived in them. Coal miners often used gin as a way to escape the grimness of their everyday lives, and they seemed to be angry at anyone—especially someone from out of town—who suggested they pour out their alcohol and replace it with Bible reading and prayer.