Francis Asbury: Circuit Rider

On April 25, 1772, Frank stood at the door of St. George’s and personally quizzed each person before allowing the person to enter the closed meeting. He turned away many people who were “good” Methodists but admitted that they did not follow Wesley’s rules. This was not a popular move. Frank’s stand infuriated many people in the congregation, and they started grumbling and complaining about their new preacher. In response Frank wrote, “I heard that many were offended at my shutting them out of the Society meeting, as they had been greatly indulged before. But this does not trouble me. While I stay, the rules must be attended to, and I cannot suffer myself to be guided by half-hearted Methodists.”

As word got around, the number of people attending St. George’s began to dwindle. Despite this, Frank did not change his views. He had been sent out by John Wesley to follow the pattern laid down by the English Methodists, and he was certain that following that pattern was the right and only way for Methodists to live.

Frank was also certain that the only way for the society to grow in the American colonies was to encourage Methodists to preach the gospel. Accordingly, he began organizing the individuals left in the Methodist Society in Philadelphia to fan out across the colony. He envisioned seven preachers spreading out from the upper reaches of Chesapeake Bay to Trenton.

In the three months that he worked among the Methodists in Philadelphia, Frank managed to fire up those left in the society with a passion for living a holy life and a vision to reach beyond the city. But now it was time for the four Methodist preachers to switch pastoral positions. Frank was to go to New York again, only this time he would be in sole charge of Wesley Chapel.

Throughout this time Frank kept his ears open for any new developments in the growing tension between the British government and the various colonies. While Frank didn’t like to talk much about politics, he was concerned about the growing strife between the two groups. In late June, just as he was riding back to New York, Frank heard about the looting and burning of His Majesty’s Ship Gaspée that had occurred off Rhode Island earlier in the month. The HMS Gaspée was sent by the British to patrol the waters around the colony of Rhode Island, looking for ships smuggling goods into the colonies without paying the correct taxes on them. The Gaspée’s captain, Lieutenant William Dudingston, often harassed colonial ships without good reason.

On June 9, 1772, while pursuing a ship into Narragansett Bay, the HMS Gaspée ran aground. Enraged by the tactics of the Gaspée’s captain and crew, the merchants and traders of Rhode Island decided to take advantage of the situation. That night, sixty-seven colonists rowed out to the ship and boarded it. The crew tried to resist, but it was a meager effort during which the captain was shot and wounded. The colonists dragged the crew from their vessel and proceeded to loot the ship before setting it on fire. The HMS Gaspée burned to the waterline and was totally destroyed.

When Frank learned of the incident, he sensed that the situation in the colonies would eventually boil over into open fighting. He also knew that this would put the Methodists in a difficult situation, since as a society they were aligned with the Church of England and were therefore seen as loyal to the British. Other churches did not have the same problem. In fact, John Allen, a Baptist minister from Boston, had preached a sermon against the British called “An Oration, Upon the Beauties of Liberty, Or the Essential Rights of the Americans.” The text of the sermon had been printed up and was now being widely distributed throughout the colonies. After reading the sermon text, Frank felt more certain that a larger confrontation would develop between the British and the American colonists.

The certainty of eventual conflict in the colonies drove Frank to pray more and work harder at preaching and setting up Methodist Societies around the countryside. Frank believed that every person had eternal value, and some people might well be called up to fight and die sooner than they imagined. They needed to find peace in their souls before that happened.

News and letters from England confused and frustrated Frank. It was obvious to him that no one back there had a good grasp of what was really happening in the American colonies. In August he received a letter from Alexander Mather, a Methodist leader in England, suggesting that all Methodist preachers return to England. Frank was still praying about Mather’s suggestion when another letter arrived on October 10, 1772. This letter was from John Wesley himself, and it answered in a surprising way the questions Frank had raised regarding following the Methodist rules. The letter announced that Richard Boardman was to step down from leading the Methodist work in the American colonies and that Frank should take his place.

This was not the answer Frank had been expecting, and he had a mixed reaction to it. On one hand he totally believed in the Methodist plan and was glad to be able to help ensure that it was followed properly. On the other hand, Frank knew that he had made enemies as well as friends during his first year in the colonies, and those enemies could make things very difficult for him. He was, after all, the youngest of the Methodist preachers and the least educated. As he read John’s letter one more time, he wondered why people would even want to follow him as their leader. Yet John had chosen him and made him the Methodist leader in the American colonies.

One of the first issues Frank needed to deal with was the matter of Robert Strawbridge. In October Frank had ridden with Robert on a preaching tour around parts of Maryland. The two men got along well, and Frank admired the way Robert had developed many small rural preaching centers instead of trying to raise up city congregations. Robert had the kind of fire a Methodist preacher needed, and the numbers of his converts backed it up.

As a result of Robert’s efforts, there were 500 Methodists in Maryland, compared to 180 in both New York and Philadelphia, 200 in New Jersey, and 100 in Virginia. There was just one problem—Robert baptized babies and served communion. According to John Wesley, only ordained ministers in the Church of England should do such things. Methodist preachers were only allowed to preach. Yet the situation in Maryland was not a simple matter. There the Church of England was not the official church. In fact, there were few Anglican churches in the colony. This created a problem for the newly converted Methodists. Where were they supposed to go to get baptized or take communion? Frank did not have an answer, but he could not imagine allowing Robert to carry on doing what he was doing. His actions would alter the way Methodist preachers operated. In the end, Frank and Robert came to a compromise. Frank would write to John for a ruling on the matter. In the meantime, Robert could keep on giving communion and taking on the other roles of an ordained minister.

The answer to Frank’s query arrived from John in a form neither Frank nor Robert expected. In Philadelphia in late April 1773, four Methodist men, along with returning Captain Thomas Webb, stepped off a ship just arrived from England: Thomas Rankin, a stern, thirty-five-year-old Scotsman; George Shadford, a thirty-four-year-old athletic Englishman and a trusted friend of Frank’s; and two other Englishmen, Joseph Yearbry and Abraham Whitworth.

When the men finally met Frank, Thomas handed him a letter from John Wesley in which John introduced Thomas as his new representative in the American colonies. In one fell swoop, Francis Asbury was swept aside and Captain Webb was appointed over him. Frank was glad to be free of all the administrative responsibilities, but he shuddered to think of the American Methodist movement in the hands of someone who knew nothing about the looming trouble in the colonies.

Chapter 7
A Deepening Crisis

It was July 14, 1773, and Francis Asbury and the other Methodist leaders in the American colonies were attending a General Conference at St. George’s in Philadelphia. It was a particularly hot day, and Frank soon tired of all the wrangling and debating going on. But not Thomas Rankin. As the day wore on, Thomas was blunt and tireless in defending his position. He seemed to relish pointing out all the things he thought the Methodists in the colonies were doing wrong. According to Thomas, money had been wasted, poorly suited leaders had been appointed, and far too many rules had been broken. Thomas declared that it was time for Methodists in the colonies to take the rules of the movement more seriously.

Of course, Frank was all for this. He had been trying to get his fellow Methodist preachers to do as much and enforce Methodist rules and discipline. But as he listened to Thomas, he felt uneasy about the tone of the speech. Yes, more attention needed to be paid to enforcing the rules, and yes, better leaders were needed. But as Frank had already discovered, enforcement of some of these things involved unique challenges in the colonies—challenges Thomas, having just arrived from England, did not seem to grasp. Perhaps he will achieve his goal, Frank thought, or perhaps he won’t. Only time will tell.

As the conference in Philadelphia drew to a close, Thomas appointed the Methodist preachers to their new positions. He assigned himself to New York; George Shadford to Philadelphia; and Frank, Robert Strawbridge, Abraham Whitworth, and Joseph Yearbry to the Baltimore area. This decision made Frank happy. He needed time away from Richard Boardman and Joseph Pilmore, as well as from Thomas Rankin, to think things through and experiment with his own kind of circuit riding.

Frank was glad to be headed south to Maryland. So much needed to be done to bring the gospel and Methodist teaching to the outlying communities. Frank was soon busy riding through the countryside. Whenever he stopped to eat or spend the night, he gathered any and all who wanted to listen and preached to them. As he rode his circuit, he often stayed with Methodist or Quaker families, encouraging them in their faith and challenging the young men to take up itinerant preaching, as he had done. When several young men stepped forward to take up the challenge, Frank took them under his wing, rode with them, helped them to understand the Bible, and taught them how to preach. It was just the kind of work he loved the most, but it came to a complete halt in late September 1773.

On Friday, October 1, Frank wrote in his journal:

I was exceedingly ill at Mr. Dallam’s and now began to think my traveling would be interrupted. This is my greatest trouble and pain, to forsake the work of God and to neglect the people, whose spiritual interest and salvation I seek with my whole soul. The next day, finding myself too weak to travel, I . . . content[ed] myself to abide here awhile, where they treat me with the greatest care and kindness. My present purpose is, if the Lord spares and raises me up, to be more watchful and circumspect in all my ways. O Lord, remember me in mercy, and brace up my feeble soul!

Thankfully, at the time he took sick, Frank was staying in northern Maryland with Josiah and Sarah Dallam, a devoted Methodist couple. As Frank’s temperature rose dramatically, his hosts recognized his symptoms. Frank had contracted malaria, a common disease in the low-lying areas around Chesapeake Bay. He became delirious, and Sarah attended to him day and night, sponging him with water to cool him down and spooning broth into his mouth.

Frank was so sick that he did not make an entry in his journal for five days—after the initial wave of malaria had passed. On Wednesday, October 6, he wrote, “My . . . body was in great pain for many hours.” However, more waves of malaria swept over Frank, leaving him delirious and semiconscious for days. On October 25 he confided in his journal, “My friends wept around and expected my dissolution [death] was near. But the Lord thought on both them and me, to raise me up from the borders of death. Oh that my few remaining days may be spent to His glory!” Frank did not die, and slowly he began to heal, though successive waves of fever surged through his body, keeping him flat on his back in bed.