Francis Asbury: Circuit Rider

Still, Frank did not give up. He recalled the words of John Wesley: “You have nothing to do but to save souls. Therefore spend and be spent in this work. Gaining knowledge is a good thing, but saving souls is better.” As Frank rode from town to town preaching, he comforted himself with Wesley’s words. He was determined to keep doing God’s work as long as he had the strength.

Soon the leaders of the Methodist Society recognized Frank’s determination and discipline. In 1768 Frank was given a new circuit in Bedfordshire and Sussex, closer to London. The following year he was appointed to Northamptonshire, northwest of Bedfordshire, and then to Salisbury in Wiltshire in the southwest of England.

While riding these new circuits, Frank was too far away to see his parents on a regular basis. He had to be content to send them letters that were often passed along a network of Methodist circuit riders to get to their destination. He heard from others that his mother was having a difficult time adjusting to his being so far from home. Immediately he wrote to her. “I hope, my dear mother, that you are more easy. Why will you mourn in such a manner? If you have given me to the Lord, let it be a free will offering and don’t grieve for me. As for me, I know what I am called to. It is to give up all I have, my hands and heart in the work, yea, the nearest and dearest friends. And I am content and will do it. Nay, it is done. Christ is all to me. I love my parents and friends, but I love my God better and His service, because it is perfect freedom, and He does not send me to warfare at my own cost . . . and though I have given up all, I do not repent, for I have found all.”

Although Frank enjoyed what he was doing as a circuit rider, even when he was heckled, he felt confined. He longed to preach the gospel to a new group of people, those who lived far away from the nearest church. Britain, deeply rooted in the traditions of the Church of England, did not provide this opportunity, but he knew of somewhere that did—the American colonies.

Even though he had not met them, Frank closely followed the lives of Joseph Pilmore and Richard Boardman, two young Methodist preachers who had been sent to the American colonies two years before. Their letters home were circulated within the societies, and Frank had devoured them.

The more Frank read these letters, the more he felt that God was leading him to cross the Atlantic Ocean. He knew that any kind of missionary work would be difficult, but the American colonies presented specific challenges. Every week there seemed to be more news of unrest in the colonies over King George III’s determination to collect a series of taxes from the colonists. He wanted these revenues to pay the war debt incurred fighting with France over control of Canada. Those living in the thirteen American colonies did not want to pay these taxes to Great Britain, and the year before, British troops had fired on a mob of protesters during the Boston Massacre. Five colonists were killed, and the British government was forced to back down. The Sugar Tax and Stamp Act were repealed, but the tax on tea was left in place. Even though there had been no recent news of clashes between the colonists and British troops, most people expected more trouble to erupt. Despite this unsettled situation, Frank felt drawn to the American colonies.

In summer of 1771, Frank attended his first Methodist Preachers’ Conference. The event was being held in Bristol, a bustling port city in southwest England which Frank had never visited. As he traveled to Bristol, he took every opportunity to visit the many Methodist bands located in the villages and towns he passed through. As he rode, Frank spent many hours praying about his future.

Frank arrived in Bristol, England’s fourth-largest city, on August 1, 1771, and made his way to the New Room, the Methodist meetinghouse located in central Bristol. Over one hundred Methodist preachers were gathered, and at first Frank was overcome, seeing so many dedicated men together in one place. He had spent so much of the past five years riding alone along country lanes and meeting with small groups of believers that he felt overwhelmed to be surrounded by so many other Methodist preachers.

Following a hearty meal, Frank took a tour of the legendary meetinghouse. The building was the first Methodist chapel, having been built thirty-two years before in 1739. Frank loved the simple wooden pews made from reclaimed ship lumber and the two-tiered pulpit that allowed the preacher to stand close to the congregation on the ground floor or higher up if the balcony was filled with listeners. He also saw John Wesley’s living quarters upstairs, as well as a day school, bookstall, and pharmacy for the poor.

Frank found board with a local Methodist family, and that evening all of the preachers gathered to hear John Wesley preach. It was a meeting Frank would never forget. John was sixty-eight years old, yet he was as sprightly as a man half his age. His hair was completely white, but his back was straight and his voice rang out across the pews. Frank listened carefully to his words:

And he said to them all, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

It has been frequently imagined that the direction here given is related chiefly, if not wholly, to the Apostles, at least, to the Christians of the first ages, or those in a state of persecution. But this is a grievous mistake; for although our blessed Lord is here directing his discourse more immediately to his Apostles, and those other disciples who attended him in the days of his flesh, yet in them he speaks to us, and to all mankind, without any exception or limitation. The meaning is, “If any man,” of whatever rank, station, circumstances, in any nation, in any age of the world, “will” effectually “come after me, let him deny himself” in all things; let him “take up his cross” of whatever kind; yea, and that “daily, and follow me.”

If we are not walking in the way of the cross, we are not following Him; we are not treading in his steps but going back from, or at least wide of, Him.

Frank was enthralled listening to John Wesley. It was just the message he needed to hear. Frank knew he was a gardener’s son and a buckle maker by trade, but he was still “any man,” and John’s sermon assured him that he could play as great a role in spreading the gospel as anyone else.

During one of the final meetings of the conference John spoke about his concerns for the British colonists in America. Some Methodists from England and Ireland had emigrated to the New World and taken their Methodist practices with them. John mentioned three of these men in particular: Robert Strawbridge, an Irish farmer who held meetings in his home in Maryland; Captain Thomas Webb, who had gone to America with the British army and fought with General James Wolfe in the French and Indian Wars; and Philip Embury, an Irish-German carpenter. Richard Boardman and Joseph Pilmore had joined these men, and together they worked to set up a network of Methodist Societies around New York and Philadelphia. But as John explained, much more had to be done. The Methodists in America were begging for help. John then drew a deep breath and concluded his address: “The harvest is ripe but the laborers are few,” he intoned. “Our brothers in America call aloud for help. There are now over two and a half million citizens living in the colonies. Who among you is willing to go over there and help them? Who among you will say to God, ‘Here I am, send me’?”

Frank felt his heart beat fast. At that moment he was certain God was calling him, asking him to give up his ties to his homeland and set out across the Atlantic Ocean. He did not hesitate to stand when John asked preachers to walk forward if they felt God was calling them to the colonies. Four other men also stepped out into the aisle and made their way to the front.

The following day, John and the Methodist elders interviewed all five of the men. Two of the elders questioned Frank’s age—he was twenty-six years old—wondering whether he was mature enough to be entrusted with taking the Methodist message so far away. Would he have the experience and tact to deal with the difficult situations that were bound to arise? Frank replied that he did not know, but he knew that God had called him to America. John nodded in approval at the response. Eventually two of the volunteers were chosen to make the journey. Francis Asbury was one of them.

As soon as the conference in Bristol was over, Frank hurried northward to Newton, hoping to get home before someone else broke the news to his parents. He dreaded what they would say. He arrived home in record time, before the news reached the household. He wasted no time in telling his mother and father of his new calling in life. Just as he expected, his parents were devastated by the news.

“But we hardly heard from you when you were circuit riding in England. How will I know you are safe in America?” his mother asked.

His father shook his head. “It’s a sad thing when a man’s God directs him to leave his mother and father to die alone. Don’t you think you might be mistaken, lad?”

“I will be back in four years,” Frank replied. “Many people cross back and forth to America.”

“Nay, lad,” his father said. “If you go, we will never see you again.”

Frank did not have an answer for this, other than to remind his parents that God had called him to go.

Later that week, Frank’s mother received a letter from a group of Methodist women at Whitchurch, where Frank had often preached. Eliza read the letter aloud to him, her voice catching several times as she did so.

Dear Mrs. Asbury,

We have heard that your son is going, or has gone, to America. We expected he would call on us, to bid us farewell. But as the time is expired, we must give up our hope.

So we have troubled you with a few lines, by way of inquiring if you were willing to part with him, and he willing to part from you. We think it must be an instance of much trouble to both, for indeed we were very much grieved when we heard Mr. Asbury was going there.

The intent of writing this is to beg the favor of you to send us a few lines, as soon as possible, that we many be informed of the particulars of this long journey, if he is gone; for we scarce believe he is so mad, and to desire another letter from you the first time he writes to you from abroad.

After she had read the letter, Eliza broke down, sobbing yet again. Frank realized that it was time for him to be on his way. The longer he stayed at home, the more depressing it was becoming for all of them. On August 28, 1771, he said a final goodbye to his parents.

Frank’s father and mother both clung to him as he packed his saddlebags with books. Even Joseph broke down and wept. Frank was shocked. He could not recall his father ever showing such emotion. His mother cried as well, and he felt terrible. Before he mounted his horse to leave, he pulled out his silver pocket watch—the only valuable thing he owned—and thrust it into his mother’s hands. Then, sobbing loudly himself, he slung his leg over the saddle, grabbed the reins tightly, and galloped away. The final words of his father rang in his ears as he departed: “We’ll never see each other again. I know it.”

Chapter 4
Suspended Between Two Worlds

It was Wednesday, September 4, 1771, a hot summer’s day, when Francis Asbury and Richard Wright stepped aboard a three-masted schooner resting on the mud in Pill Harbor on the Avon River near Bristol.

“Don’t worry about the mud, men,” Captain Hood said cheerfully as he welcomed them aboard. “Nothing to worry about. The river mouth here does strange things. The tide can rise and fall forty feet, nothing else quite like it in the world far as I know. The tide turned an hour ago. Give it four hours, and the ship will be floating high enough for the hobblers to drag her down to the river mouth.”

Frank nodded and smiled. He didn’t really understand much of what the captain said. Time and tides were confusing to a person who had seldom seen the sea, but he trusted that Captain Hood knew what he was talking about.