Francis Asbury: Circuit Rider

Sea legs or not, Frank was eager to find his way to the home of Francis Harris, whose address was written on a note tucked inside Frank’s Bible. Francis was a prosperous Methodist man who hosted Methodists passing through Philadelphia. John Wesley had sent him a letter telling him to expect Frank and Richard. Frank hoped he had received it.

Chapter 5
A New World

As Frank and Richard made their way along the crowded dock, they passed ships flying flags from Hispaniola, Cuba, and other Caribbean islands. One vessel even flew a flag from faraway China. Everybody they passed seemed to be busy loading or unloading wagons and handcarts, while colonial women in fancy dresses hurried past sailors about to set out on dangerous voyages. Children, some bound for boarding schools in England and Europe, wept as they were parted from their parents.

Another sight caught Frank’s attention: African slaves carrying heavy boxes on their heads. In England, some fourteen thousand slaves lived and served in their masters’ great country homes. They did not work in the fields as Frank had been told they did in the American colonies. Frank had heard about the vast number of slaves in the colonies and knew that some people considered them essential to the economy. But he could not shake the idea that a slave had a soul and aspirations just like any free white person.

As Frank and Richard turned a corner and headed away from the river, Frank was awestruck. The size of the buildings was remarkable, and church spires could be seen all over the town. He had just disembarked in the second largest English-speaking city in the world, and since he had never been to London, this was the biggest city he had ever been in. He was particularly impressed by the way Philadelphia was laid out in a grid system, with broad streets that crossed each other at right angles. He recalled hearing that William Penn had designed it this way when he founded it eighty-nine years before. The grid system made it easy for Frank and Richard to find their way to the home of Francis Harris, where the two men received a warm welcome. Francis embraced them both and showed them to their room on the second floor. As Frank looked around his host’s house, he was surprised to see that it was as modern and spacious as any house he’d visited in England.

A hot meal was prepared for the men. Frank looked forward to fresh meat and vegetables and food that hadn’t been prepared in a ship’s galley.

“It’s off to St. George’s tonight,” Francis announced as they began the meal. “No doubt you’ve heard it spoken of often enough. Joseph Pilmore will be preaching. Everyone will be glad to see you and hear news from home. I hope you have plenty of that!”

Frank nodded. “And a pulpit Bible from the Reverend John Wesley, which I am to present to Brother Pilmore,” he added.

“Wonderful,” Francis said. “You men are in for a surprise. Most people who come here from England assume that we are all backward, but St. George’s would rival any Methodist chapel back there. And how we got it is nothing short of a miracle.”

“How so?” Frank asked, pausing between mouthfuls of delicious beef stew.

“It’s quite a story,” Francis said, pulling out his pocket watch and glancing at it, “but I think I’ve time to tell it. The land where St. George’s sits—and that was to be its intended name—was bought by a German Reformed congregation, who started building the church. As it turned out, they overreached and stretched their money too thinly. They borrowed two thousand pounds to build the church and ran out of money before it was outfitted inside. It was a terrible thing, really.”

Francis paused to shake his head and take a bite of his dinner. “Anyway,” he continued, “the Germans weren’t able to raise any more money, and their creditors insisted that the unfinished church be auctioned off. Some of the Germans who signed the note to borrow the money were put in debtor’s prison. Now here’s where it gets interesting,” he said, leaning forward. “A young man from a wealthy family was walking by the auction and for some unknown reason, though I would say it was God’s providence, bid 650 pounds for it. He won the bid and then told the auctioneer that his father would pay the bill. The young man’s father was furious. Privately he told his friends that he thought his son suffered from bouts of insanity. That aside, what could be done with a large church building? To save face, the father asked around and found that the Methodists would be willing to pay five hundred pounds to take the church building off his hands, which we did. In the end we got a two-thousand-pound building for a quarter of its price!”

“Astonishing,” Frank agreed. “Was there a vibrant Methodist Society here at the time?”

Francis nodded. “Ah, you have not met Captain Thomas Webb yet. I hope you will soon. I believe he has just left to return to New York. Captain Webb is a retired British army officer. He has only one eye and wears a patch over the other, yet he is one of the most powerful preachers the colonies have ever heard. He came to Philadelphia in 1767 to stir up a handful of Methodists converted under the great George Whitefield back in the 1730s. They were meeting in a rigging loft in Dock Street when Captain Webb arrived.”

After stopping to chuckle, Francis continued. “What a preacher the man is. He always wears his Redcoat uniform and starts every sermon by unsheathing his sword and laying it across the pulpit. That quickly gets everyone’s attention. Within two years of Captain Webb’s arrival, one hundred people were in the Methodist Society, and they’d outgrown the rigging loft. That’s why it was such a blessing to get the German church. We had just moved into it when Joseph Pilmore and Richard Boardman arrived. I think it surprised them to see we were that organized. And we’ve continued to grow since then. You’ll meet a lot of them tonight, I have no doubt.”

During the remainder of the meal, Frank and Richard quizzed their host on the number and types of churches in Philadelphia and the number of Methodist preachers working in the outlying areas.

Frank was happy to learn that Francis had traveled with Captain Webb into the small villages around Delaware and Pennsylvania, preaching and encouraging small groups of Methodists.

That night, just as Francis had predicted, the two missionary arrivals from England received a warm welcome at St. George’s. Before going to bed, Frank wrote in his journal:

The people looked on us with pleasure, hardly knowing how to show their love sufficiently, bidding us welcome with fervent affection, and receiving us as angels of God. Oh, that we may always walk worthy of the vocation wherewith we are called! When I came near the American shore, my very heart melted within me to think from whence I came, where I was going, and what I was going about. But I felt my mind open to the people and my tongue loosed to speak. I feel that God is here and find plenty of all we need.

The following night Frank was invited to speak at St. George’s, and as he looked around at the assembled crowd, he realized this was the largest gathering he had ever preached to. He fastened his eyes on the crowd and preached his heart out.

For the next week Frank remained in Philadelphia, praying with people, meeting with Joseph Pilmore, and attending services. On November 6, 1771, he climbed aboard a stagecoach bound for New York City. It was time to present himself to Richard Boardman and find out where his preaching circuits would take him. Since Richard Wright felt he should stay a little longer in Philadelphia and await his orders there, Frank traveled alone.

The trip to New York was unlike anything Frank had ever experienced. The scenery was magnificent. It was late fall. Blazing forests of maple, ash, and red oak trees stretched out to the left as the road followed the twists and turns of the Delaware River to the right. Frank was traveling aboard a brand-new stagecoach service called the Flying Machine, and fly it did. The new service reduced the time needed to cover the ninety miles between Philadelphia and New York from five days to two.

The ride was exhilarating. The stagecoach traveled so fast that it was in constant danger of tipping over. When the coach wheels got in a rut or ran over a tree root, the driver would yell, “Bear to the left” or “Bear to the right,” and all the passengers would lean as far as they could in one direction or the other to balance the weight. Frank was glad to break his journey in Burlington, New Jersey, where he spent the night with some local Methodists who had formed a society following Captain Webb’s visits to their town.

Frank preached on the courthouse steps that night, and the next morning he climbed back aboard the Flying Machine to travel through Amboy and across Staten Island before catching a ferryboat to New York City on the island of Manhattan. Some new passengers joined the stagecoach for the next leg of the journey, including a serious-looking middle-aged man, who introduced himself as Peter Van Pelt. Frank was about to introduce himself in return but soon discovered he had no need to do so.

“You are just arrived from England, Mr. Asbury. I had the good fortune to hear you preach in Philadelphia at St. George’s last week,” Peter said.

The two men fell into an awkward conversation as the Flying Machine bumped along. Peter soon invited Frank to spend the night at his house on Staten Island. “I have a house in the village of Woodrow. A small group of Christians live in the village, and I would be honored if you would preach your first sermon in New York in my house.”

Since Richard Boardman was not expecting him on any particular day, Frank accepted Peter’s invitation. He stayed at the Van Pelt home in Woodrow for several days, preaching there and at the house of the local magistrate, Justice Hezekiah Wright. He was glad for the opportunity to speak to the local Christians, but he wondered whether he was worthy to take on the solemn responsibility of preaching in the colonies. He confided in his journal, “My heart and mouth are open; only I am still aware of my deep insufficiency, and that mostly with regard to holiness. It is true, God has given me some gifts, but what are they compared to holiness? It is for holiness my spirit mourns. I want to walk constantly before God without reproof.”

On Monday, November 11, Frank set out for New York City. It was time to meet Richard Boardman. The weather was brisk, and Frank was thankful for the warm set of clothes the Methodists of Bristol had outfitted him with before he left England. He made his way to Stapleton on the northern end of Staten Island and there caught a ferry that took him to Whitehall on the southern tip of Manhattan Island.

While Philadelphia was neatly laid out according to a grid system, with broad clean streets, New York City was the exact opposite. As far as Frank could see, there was no rhyme or reason to the way the streets ran at all sorts of different angles to each other. New York streets were also narrow, muddy, and crowded, and it wasn’t uncommon to see pigs and cows roaming freely. Judging by the number of hawkers with horse-drawn carts in the streets selling water, Frank decided the city probably had no adequate supply of fresh drinking water.

Frank wound his way through the narrow city streets and before long was knocking on the door of Richard Boardman’s house. The door opened, and Frank introduced himself before being invited in. He was shocked to discover how old and worn the thirty-three-year-old preacher looked. “I’ve been quite sick lately,” Richard explained. “I’ve done my best since I’ve been here, with God’s help, but being in charge of the New York Society and visiting as many of the others as I can has been quite a burden. I preach at the Wesley Chapel on John Street twice on Sundays and on Tuesday and Thursday nights and hold a society meeting on Wednesday nights. I don’t know if I’ll ever get down to the Methodists in Frederick, Maryland, with Robert Strawbridge. I think he has three or four chapels and rides the circuit, but I’ve scarcely been able to put my attention to what they are doing. Strawbridge is a man with a strong faith and fire and has a loyal following.”