Francis Asbury: Circuit Rider

Frank told Richard how he had enjoyed the missionary letters he had sent back to England and how they played a part in challenging him to come to the American colonies to help strengthen the Methodist work. Now here he was in the colonies talking face-to-face with Richard. Frank also presented Brother Boardman with the twenty pounds and the books the Methodists in Bristol had sent to their brethren in New York. Richard appeared touched by the gesture.

“Now, tell me more about Wesley Chapel here,” Frank said. “How long has it been functioning?”

Richard smiled. “Ah, there’s a story worth telling!” he said. “The Lord’s hand has been on it from the start. As you are probably aware, John Wesley had a particular love for the Irish and rode the circuit in Ireland. Philip Embury was one of his many converts. Once he’d heard the gospel, Philip took to preaching himself, and he became a registered Methodist preacher. Then in 1760, he and a group of relatives left Ireland for New York. I don’t know if he was daunted by the task of preaching in a foreign land or overwhelmed by making a living in a new place, but he became a backslider and fell away from his fervent love of the Lord.

“A second group of immigrants arrived a year later, among them his cousin, Barbara Heck. She too had been converted under John Wesley, and no doubt she expected to find that Philip had set up a Methodist Society in New York. He had not. One day, soon after her arrival, she watched some of the ‘Methodist men’ playing cards. She could take it no longer. She got up, threw the cards in the fireplace, and said, ‘Brother Embury, you must preach to us, or we shall all go to hell, and God will require our blood at your hands!’ Poor Embury—to him it was like a thunder peal in a clear sky, like the sound of the last trumpet! Her manner, the tone of her voice, and what she said alarmed him.”

Frank nodded as he imagined the scene.

Richard continued the story: “‘How can I preach, for I have neither a house nor a congregation?’ Embury countered. Barbara had an answer for that. ‘Preach in your own house and to your own company then.’ To God’s credit, Philip took up preaching again. Only six attended the first meeting. But their numbers gradually increased until they had to rent a rigging loft on William Street. Then in 1768, Philip and some members of his class donated the money to buy a lot on John Street and started building the church. Philip did a lot of the work himself, including making the pulpit.”

“Will I meet him tonight?” Frank asked.

Shaking his head, Richard replied, “No. When I arrived in New York, he had moved to Albany, north of here, to take up a contract manufacturing linen. He’s hired a lot of Irish immigrants and preaches every Sunday. The work there is flourishing, though I miss Brother Embury’s fellowship. I am fortunate here to have the support of such an able preacher as Captain Webb. But you must visit Albany sometime and see the work of Philip Embury for yourself.”

“I would like to do that,” Frank agreed. “Perhaps his meetings will become part of my circuit.”

Richard shook his head. “I’m not sure you’ll be venturing far on a regular basis. There’s plenty for you and Richard Wright to do here and in Philadelphia. Since I haven’t been in good health, I am looking forward to handing off some of my responsibilities to you.”

Frank’s heart sank. There were already two Methodist preachers in New York City, and Frank was sure they didn’t need a third—not when so much of the rest of the colonies remained untouched by the Methodist message.

That night Frank took his place in the pulpit at Wesley Chapel, a large square building with a pitched roof, located on John Street. As he looked out on the crowd gathered for the meeting, he was surprised to note the fine clothing some of the men and women wore. It would have seemed quite out of place at the Methodist meetinghouse in Bristol, or at any other English Methodist gathering, for that matter.

As the text for his sermon, Frank chose 1 Corinthians 2:2: “For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”

After he had finished preaching, Frank was introduced to those attending the meeting. He recognized Captain Webb immediately by his eye patch. After talking with him for a few minutes, there was no doubt in Frank’s mind that Captain Webb was the larger-than-life figure everyone painted him to be.

Frank’s next conversation was with the sexton (caretaker) of the chapel, a black man named Peter Williams who was a slave owned by a tobacconist. The other black person in attendance was a woman named Betty, who was also a slave and a founding member of the chapel.

As Frank walked to his lodging that night, he was deep in thought. So many things in the colonies were different from how they were in England. The whole notion of Christian slaves and owners disturbed him deeply, as did the fine clothes and high manners of some of the New York Methodists. Frank wondered how he would fit into all of this. He could not see himself remaining silent about the evils of slavery, nor could he see himself settling into a position at Wesley Chapel. He had to face the truth: he longed to be on horseback, riding out into the countryside to preach to the poor and the needy. How, he wondered, was that going to happen in the New World when Richard Boardman’s plan was to keep the new preachers in Philadelphia and New York rather than letting them follow John Wesley’s circuit-riding pattern?

Chapter 6

I assume you will stay and help lead the flock in Manhattan,” Richard Boardman told Frank. “Everyone seems to like your preaching, and in a few months you can trade places with Richard Wright and preach in Philadelphia.”

Frank found what he was hearing hard to believe. In the two weeks he had been in New York he’d preached numerous times at Wesley Chapel. It was good work but not the kind of work a Methodist preacher should be doing—getting comfortable, living in a house, preaching to the same people week in and week out. As far as Frank was concerned, it was a waste of resources.

Even though Captain Webb and his wife had just left to return to England for a while, two registered Methodist preachers were still working with the same group on an island with a population of eighteen thousand. Frank could not fathom this when over two million others in the thirteen American colonies had no one to preach to them. No, Frank told himself, Brother Boardman has become soft and comfortable in the city. Frank, on the other hand, was eager to get back in the saddle and ride a circuit. John Wesley had sent him here to shine God’s light on all the colonies, and Frank was going to find a way to do just that.

This put Frank in a difficult situation. He knew he could not follow Richard Boardman’s direction. Even if he was representing John Wesley in the colonies, Richard was not doing things Wesley’s way; Frank was sure of that. He weighed his options and decided to write to John about the situation. He also wrote a letter to his parents, telling them all about life in the American colonies and his adventures so far. It would take months for Frank to receive a response to his letter from John Wesley. In the meantime he wondered whether he should go ahead and create his own circuit to ride.

One November morning Frank looked out the window to discover that winter had come early. The houses were covered with snow, and the puddles in the muddy streets had turned to ice. Frank opened his journal and wrote, “At present I am dissatisfied. I judge we are to be shut up in the cities this winter. My brethren seem unwilling to leave the cities, but I think I shall show them the way. I am in trouble, and more trouble is at hand.”

With these words, Frank had made up his mind. He was not going to be shut up in New York for the winter. Time was short. Thousands of colonists in the hinterlands around New York City needed to be organized into Methodist Societies, and he was going to lead the way.

Frank set out by stagecoach. He did not own a horse and had convinced two men from Wesley Chapel to accompany him. Their journey took them along the Boston Post Road up the island of Manhattan. Beyond the edge of the city, most of the island was dotted with farms. At the northern end of Manhattan Island, they crossed Kingsbridge over Spuyten Duyvil Creek and onto the mainland. Wherever he went, Frank preached—in houses, jails, and taverns. Sometimes he was well received; other times he was told not to come back.

In January 1772 Frank’s two traveling companions had to return to New York, and Frank continued on alone. As he traveled, he stayed with Christian families along the way. He was grateful that his hosts would often ferry him to the next town or village in their wagon or sleigh or would loan him a horse so he could ride. He traveled throughout the settlements of southern New York, preaching and teaching to anyone who would listen.

As he traveled, a harsh winter settled over the land. While England was cold and damp during winter, the combination of snow, ice, and wind in America chilled Frank to his core. Even the warm woolen clothes the Methodists in Bristol had given him seemed inadequate in the face of the biting cold. By the time Frank reached the town of New Rochelle, the cold was taking a toll on his body. His throat felt as if it were on fire, and the pressure in his ears and nose made his head pulsate. Despite feeling miserable, Frank managed to preach several times in New Rochelle before he became so sick he could go on no farther. He took to bed, and his host, Anthony Barrow, called the doctor to come. After examining Frank, the doctor worried that he might choke and die because his throat was so swollen. He administered several medicines, but it was more than a week before Frank could eat again.

More than two weeks passed before Frank was able to get back on the road. This time he headed back down the Boston Post Road to New York. By now Richard Boardman and Joseph Pilmore had switched pastoral positions at their respective churches, and Brother Pilmore was glad to welcome Frank back to the city. But Frank did not stay long. Now that he’d had a taste of preaching in the small towns and villages, he was eager to be on his way. Several of the New York Methodists were touched by his earnestness and his determination to reach out to others with the gospel and took up an offering to buy him a horse and saddle. Frank was delighted by their kindness and generosity and by the dark brown horse and new leather saddle they presented to him. Now he could really get on with the business of being a circuit rider.

In April 1772 the four Methodist preachers—Frank, Richard Wright, Richard Boardman, and Joseph Pilmore—met in Philadelphia to agree upon where they should all serve for the next few months. Frank worked hard to convince the other men to get out into the countryside to preach in the scattered communities throughout the colonies. Eventually they all decided that Joseph should make a preaching tour south while Richard Boardman went north. Richard Wright would go to New York, and Frank would stay in Philadelphia.

This outcome suited Frank. Now that he had a district of his own, he could set to work. He had two goals. The first was to establish a preaching circuit that would stretch from the head of Chesapeake Bay in the south to Trenton, New Jersey, in the north, a distance of about eighty miles. Frank’s second goal was to tighten discipline at St. George’s so that members would be in line with John Wesley’s Methodist teaching.

Neither job proved easy. At St. George’s, Frank started by enforcing the rules on who could attend the closed meetings of the Methodist Society. These meetings were supposed to be a place where committed believers could express themselves, their struggles and problems, and their personal victories and prayer requests. The leader was expected to meet with each participant every three months to ensure that attendees were still following Wesley’s rules of prayer, Bible reading, witnessing, and giving to the society. Any society member who had fallen away from doing these things would not get their ticket to attend the private meetings renewed. Over time this practice had been abandoned at St. George’s, and anyone was welcome to attend society meetings. This greatly bothered Frank, who believed that Methodists needed someplace where they could privately encourage each other and bear each other’s burdens.