Francis Asbury: Circuit Rider

Once aboard, Frank and Richard carried their bags below deck, where they shared a cabin. Frank was grateful he had anything at all to carry aboard. He had arrived back in Bristol without a penny, and the members of the Methodist Society there had taken it upon themselves to outfit him for his time in the American colonies. The group had taken up offerings and told Frank and Richard not to worry about their bedding for the voyage; it would all be taken care of. And it had. At the last meeting of the society, Frank and Richard had been presented with ten pounds each, a change of clothes, and blankets. The only other things Frank had with him were some paper and ink and a pile of books that included The Work of God in New England by Jonathan Edwards, Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, some of John Wesley’s diaries and sermons, and of course his Bible. Frank and Richard also carried with them a large pulpit Bible (a gift from the Methodists of Bristol to their brethren in Philadelphia), twenty pounds, and a collection of books for the Methodists in New York.

The cabin Frank would be sharing with Richard was low and cramped and did not contain beds. Frank’s heart sank when he realized he should have brought a cot with him. Now he would have to spend the entire voyage lying on bare floorboards with just two blankets to cushion his body as the vessel rolled around. On deck above them, he could hear the crew readying the ship for the fifty- to sixty-day voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. Barrels were being rolled around, and wooden crates were being lowered into the ship’s hold with ropes.

By midafternoon, just as Captain Hood had said, the tide had come in and the vessel now floated at its mooring. Teams of men lined up on each side of the Avon River. As the tide turned, sailors threw ropes to the men. The lines were attached to the ship’s bow, and on deck someone shouted, “Heave-ho!” Frank watched as the men on the riverbank began pulling on the ropes. The ship then moved away from its mooring and headed downriver.

“Those men on the riverbank are called hobblers,” Richard told Frank. “Captain Hood says they all come from Pill and have been pulling ships the four miles downriver to the channel for generations. Of course, the outgoing tide helps move the ship along.”

“Oh,” Frank replied, hardly hearing what his traveling companion was saying. His mind was on the sermon he had preached the night before at the meetinghouse in Bristol. He had chosen Psalm 61:1–2 as the text for his message: “Hear my cry, O God; attend unto my prayer. From the end of the earth will I cry unto thee, when my heart is overwhelmed: lead me to the rock that is higher than I.” He repeated the verses to himself, feeling overwhelmed at what he was leaving behind and the unknown life that awaited him.

Once the tide and the hobblers had done their work, the ship drifted out of the mouth of the Avon River and into the Bristol Channel. Captain Hood gave the order to hoist the sails, and the crew jumped into action, climbing the masts and unfurling them.

Frank watched as the wind filled the sails and the ship began moving down the Bristol Channel. He felt his body sway with each swell the ship passed through. Suddenly his mouth became dry, his head pounded, and he leaned over the side of the ship and vomited. He hoped that would make him feel better, but instead he felt worse, much worse. He staggered below deck to his cabin and collapsed onto the blankets. As the ship rose and fell time and time again, Frank felt the sickest he had in his entire life. He longed for fresh air, but he could not imagine standing up and making his way up the ladder to the deck. Instead he just lay on the cabin floor. From time to time he opened his eyes and glanced up at the books he had brought with him, wondering whether he would ever feel well enough to read them.

Four days later Frank ventured back up on deck. By now the ship had passed through the Bristol Channel and rounded southern Ireland and was sailing in the open water of the Atlantic Ocean. Frank breathed in the salty air and stared at the vast expanse of surging gray water around him. He felt like a man suspended between two worlds. For better or for worse, he was on his way to a new life in the New World.

Later in the afternoon Frank felt strong enough to unpack his writing gear. From a small wooden box he pulled a quill pen and a bottle of black ink. Before Frank had left Bristol, John Wesley had urged him to keep a diary. Frank had intended to start the diary the day he set foot aboard ship, but his bout of seasickness had kept him from it. Now he sat in his cabin, legs braced against the wall, and wrote his thoughts into a leatherbound journal:

Thursday, September 12. I will set down a few things that lie on my mind. Whither am I going? To the New World. What to do? To gain honor? No, if I know my own heart. To get money? No; I am going to live to God, and to bring others so to do.

In America there has been a work of God, some moving first amongst the Friends [Quakers] but in time it declined, likewise by the Presbyterians, but amongst them also it declined. The people God owns in England are the Methodists. The doctrines they preach and the discipline they enforce are, I believe, the purest of any people now in the world.

That Sunday, Frank preached to the passengers and sailors. No one responded to his message, but he was not discouraged. There would be at least six more Sundays on which to preach before they once again saw land.

When storms arose and the ship bobbed like a cork on the ocean, Frank comforted himself with words from John Wesley’s diary. Thirty-six years before, the Wesley brothers had come to America themselves. They had left from Gravesend on the River Thames, bound for the three-year-old Georgia colony with Governor James Oglethorpe. John was engaged to be the Church of England minister to the colony, and his brother Charles was to be Governor Oglethorpe’s personal secretary. The voyage out had changed John’s life and the Methodist movement. Reading about the storm and how John had met the Moravians aboard ship was now more real than ever to Frank. Frank could just imagine John struggling along the passageway to visit the twenty-five Moravian Christians. He reread John’s account of the incident:

In the midst of the psalm wherein their service began, the sea broke over, split the mainsail to pieces, covered the ship, and poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up. A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans looked up, and without intermission calmly sang on. I asked one of them afterward, “Was [sic] you not afraid?” He answered, “I thank God, no.” I asked, “But were not your women and children afraid?” He replied mildly, “No, our women and children are not afraid to die.”

Frank recalled how, at the Methodist preachers conference in Bristol the month before, John had described this encounter on the ship as one of the most meaningful of his life. It showed him that although he had all the trappings and disciplines of the Christian life, he lacked the inner peace that the Moravians possessed. The rest of John and Charles Wesley’s time in Georgia was a dismal failure. The brothers were too strict and rigid for the colonists, and John was forbidden to evangelize among the Native Americans as he had hoped to do. Charles returned to England almost immediately, and John lasted only a year and a half before he also returned, discouraged and humbled. However, back in England, John sought out a group of Moravian Christians, through whom he found the peace he was looking for.

And now Frank was headed westward to the American colonies himself. He wrote in his own journal:

The wind blowing a gale, the ship turned up and down and from side to side, in a manner very painful to one that was not accustomed to sailing; but when Jesus is in the ship all is well. Oh, what would not one do, what would he not suffer, to be useful to souls and to the will of his great Master! Lord, help me to give thee my heart now and forever. . . . I feel my spirit bound to the New World and my heart united to the people, though unknown, and have great cause to believe that I am not running before I am sent. The more troubles I meet with, the more convinced I am that I am doing the will of God.

As the weeks of the journey across the Atlantic passed, Frank and Richard took turns preaching on Sunday mornings. Many passengers and sailors listened to what they had to say, but none were converted. On October 13, thirty-nine days into the voyage, Frank had to stand with his back against the mizzenmast to steady himself as he preached. He spoke about being reconciled to God, and afterward he confided in his journal:

I felt the power of truth in my own soul, but still, alas! saw no visible fruit; but my witness is in heaven, that I have not shunned to declare to them all the counsel of God. Many have been my trials in the course of this voyage, from the want of a proper bed and proper provisions, from sickness, and from being surrounded with men and women ignorant of God and very wicked. But all this is nothing. If I cannot bear this, what have I learned? Oh, I have reason to be much ashamed of many things, which I speak and do before God and man. Lord, pardon my manifold defects and failures in duty.

Two weeks later, on Sunday, October 27, Frank heard the words he’d been waiting for. A sailor in the crow’s nest yelled, “Land ho!” Frank rushed up on deck, his long blond hair whipping in the wind, to catch his first glimpse of the New World. On the horizon lay a strip of land. As the hours passed and the ship inched closer to shore, the strip grew into a lush green cape.

“That’s Cape May,” Captain Hood said before Frank even had time to ask what it was called. “And there in the distance to port is Cape Henlopen.”

The ship slowly made her way through the gap between the two capes into Delaware Bay.

“Not too long to go now. On up the river and we’ll be at Philadelphia,” Captain Hood assured the two Methodist men.

As the ship began making its way up the Delaware River, Frank stood on deck and watched birds skim low in flight across the broad river. Amid the brown, orange, and red foliage at the river’s edge, he could see deer foraging. When the ship rounded a bend in the lower Delaware River, there, in full view, was the Philadelphia skyline.

“Quite a sight, isn’t it?” Captain Hood remarked. “Philadelphia is the largest port city in North America, and growing all the time. I think the population of the city is about twenty-eight thousand now. The Scottish, Irish, and Germans outnumber the Quakers, but it’s still a Quaker town. You can see that in the buildings.”

Frank nodded as he noted the plain, solid, redbrick warehouses that lined the shore. Philadelphia was certainly a bustling place. Ships were tied up at docks along the edge of the river, and crews were busy loading and unloading them. Before long, Frank’s ship was moored at one of the wooden docks, and the crew was preparing to unload all the barrels and crates.

Frank was glad when it came time to disembark. He followed Richard down the gangway onto the dock. It felt good to have his feet on land once again—land that did not pitch and roll. But even though the land Frank was standing on was solid, he found himself still swaying when he tried to walk, as if he were still aboard ship.

“Sea legs,” Frank heard the voice of Captain Hood from behind him. He turned to see the captain walking along the dock, his arms filled with bundles of mail and other papers. “It takes a day or so to get used to walking in a straight line with nothing moving under you,” the captain explained.

Captain Hood was on his way to the London Coffeehouse. He explained to Frank and Richard that the coffeehouses of Philadelphia dominated the official and social life of the city. The coffeehouses were the regular meeting places of Quaker municipal officers, ship captains, and local merchants. Whenever he arrived in Philadelphia, Captain Hood first went to the London Coffeehouse to deliver mail and try to get a good price for his cargo. “You should make it a point to acquaint yourselves with the coffeehouses while you are in Philadelphia,” the captain encouraged Frank and Richard. “A very fine way to pass an hour or two.”