Francis Asbury: Circuit Rider

Frank was still lying in bed recovering at the end of November when he heard the news that seven British East India Company ships had arrived in the colonies. One ship each docked in New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston; three ships docked in Boston; and a fourth ship was due to arrive there any day. The holds of the vessels were filled with boxes of tea from India that were to be unloaded and sold in each of the cities, with a three-penny-per-pound tax added to the price. The Sons of Liberty, a political group made up of American patriots, stirred up the colonists to challenge the tea tax. They pointed out that the colonists were being unfairly taxed by Great Britain, while the British government did not allow them to vote on the things that affected them.

Frank hated to discuss politics. He felt that was best left to others. His calling was to reach and disciple as many new Christians as possible. However, as he lay in bed shivering and sweating from the effects of the malaria, he was sure the matter of the tea tax would not be resolved peacefully. By now a number of American colonists were boiling with rage against Great Britain, and nothing seemed to calm them.

While waves of malaria continued, their intensity began to wane, and Frank soon felt well enough to preach, write in his journal, and mount his horse. It was time to get back to his circuit riding. On December 18, though still feverish, he rode twenty miles through the rain back to Baltimore. When Frank arrived in Baltimore, excitement and dread filled the air. A runner had arrived from Boston and brought news of the actions of the Sons of Liberty. In New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston, colonists had managed to persuade tea merchants not to buy any of the tea the British East India Company ships had brought. Eventually the ship captains had been convinced to return to England with their cargoes of tea.

In Boston things had not gone so easily. Thomas Hutchinson was determined to hold his ground against the colonists and refused to let the ships leave port with their cargoes of tea still aboard. It appeared to be a stalemate. The Sons of Liberty stood guard over the ships, refusing to let them be unloaded. On December 16, 1773, about seven thousand people had gathered at the Old South Meetinghouse in Boston to force the issue. But they could not get Governor Hutchinson to change his mind and agree to send the ships back to England with their cargoes of tea. Then about one hundred men dressed as Mohawk warriors boarded the three vessels tied up in Boston Harbor and dumped their cargo, 342 chests of tea, into the water.

Frank had a fateful feeling about the outcome of the actions in Boston, but as always, he chose to focus on the spiritual rather than the political. He urged those around him to put their faith in God and work hard to spread the gospel throughout the colonies. He intended to lead by example.

In May 1774, still feeling weak from malaria, Frank made his way to Philadelphia for the second annual Methodist Conference. The many reports given at the conference made him feel stronger. There were now 2,073 Methodists in the American colonies, nearly a thousand more than the year before. And there were seventeen full-time circuit riders instead of ten. Although Frank did not particularly like Thomas Rankin’s personal style, he had to admit that under his leadership, Methodism in America was growing.

Frank was not so happy, however, with Thomas’s decision to send Richard Boardman and Joseph Pilmore back to England. The two men had left in January and so were not at the meeting. Although he’d had his issues with Richard, Frank hated to see a good preacher leave the colonies, and he wondered if Thomas should have tried harder to win the men over rather than send them home. But Frank did not object when Thomas announced that he was also sending Richard Wright back to England. Although Frank felt sympathy for the man who had accompanied him out to the colonies nearly three years before, he realized that Richard had lost his religious zeal and no longer wanted to preach or talk about Christian matters.

At the conference, Frank asked to be sent back to Baltimore so that he could continue riding the circuit he had established around Maryland, but Thomas insisted he go instead to New York City for the summer quarter. Frank did as he was instructed, though it was not easy. He had heard rumors that Thomas was talking about him behind his back, and a couple of nasty, unsigned letters were circulated regarding Frank that only Thomas had the knowledge to write. On top of this, Frank still suffered from bouts of malaria. In July he calculated that he’d been sick for ten months, but he had still managed to ride nearly two thousand miles and preach three hundred times during that period.

In fact, the Methodists in New York were so alarmed by Frank’s poor health that they begged Thomas to allow him to stay with them through two quarters so that they could help look after him. Thomas agreed. Despite his weakened health, Frank continued to preach regularly at Wesley Chapel on John Street. He also headed out to ride a circuit around the rural communities to the north of Manhattan Island.

While Frank was in New York, news arrived in the colonies of the British government’s response to the tea incident in Boston Harbor. The British Parliament passed a series of acts that were quickly dubbed the “Intolerable Acts” in the American colonies. One of the acts closed Boston Harbor until the East India Company had been fully reimbursed for the destroyed tea. Another act, the Massachusetts Government Act, put the government of Massachusetts directly under the control of Parliament and the king, who would appoint the colony’s leaders. To try to quash further rebellion, this act limited the number of town meetings in Massachusetts to one a year. Parts of the Intolerable Acts placed burdens on other colonies as well, though Massachusetts bore the brunt of the British government’s wrath.

As usual, Frank tried to focus on his ministry and not on politics, but he could not ignore the rising complaints about the British government and its attitude toward the colonies. When he first arrived in the American colonies, Frank had been critical of those who complained about England and murmured against the king, but now he was beginning to see things differently. The Intolerable Acts were aptly named. The acts passed by the British Parliament were harsh and punitive and deeply angered the colonists. Frank wondered how this would help the British in the long run.

With so much dissatisfaction in the colonies, Frank was not surprised to learn that fifty-six members from twelve of the colonies had begun meeting at Carpenters’ Hall in Philadelphia on September 5, 1774. The gathering, called a Continental Congress, met to craft a response to the passage of the Intolerable Acts. The members discussed an economic boycott of British trade and petitioned King George III, asking him to redress the grievances of those in the colonies. Frank hoped this would ease the tension between Great Britain and the colonists. He did not want the situation to end in war. He knew such an outcome would mean bloodshed and the destruction of people’s property and would probably interrupt his preaching and circuit riding.

Frank continued to preach at Wesley Chapel, ride his circuit around the communities of southern New York, and keep an eye on the developing political situation until November 1774, when two new Methodist missionaries, James Dempster and Martin Rodda, arrived from England. One of the missionaries was assigned to take over the work in New York, freeing up Frank for his next rotation to Philadelphia.

Frank was still serving in Philadelphia when news reached the city of a battle in Massachusetts between the Patriot militia and British soldiers, or Redcoats as they were known. After hearing the news, on April 18, 1775, General Thomas Gage, the British military governor of Massachusetts, sent seven hundred soldiers to destroy a cache of guns and ammunition that the colonists had stored in the town of Concord, about ten miles outside of Boston. The Redcoats also planned to arrest Patriot leaders Samuel Adams and John Hancock, who were hiding in the area. However, the Patriot militia had received advance warning of the British raid and were ready for the approaching troops. When the British soldiers reached the town of Lexington on their way to Concord, seventy-five armed militiamen, or Minutemen as they were called, were waiting for them. Though outnumbered, the Minutemen attacked the British. In the fighting, eight Minutemen were killed and ten were injured.

Following the skirmish in Lexington, the Redcoats moved on to Concord, where they found the residents of the town busily moving arms and ammunition to new hiding places in surrounding hamlets. In fact, by the time the Redcoats arrived, most of the supplies had been moved, and the soldiers were able to capture and destroy only a small portion of guns and ammunition. Because Adams and Hancock were nowhere to be found, the Redcoats left empty-handed to return to Boston. But as they made their way back to Boston, Minutemen, local farmers, and townspeople attacked the British along their route. By the time the British soldiers reached Boston, 73 Redcoats had been killed and another 174 had been wounded, while 49 Patriots were killed and 39 were wounded in the day’s fighting.

To Frank, and almost everyone else who heard the news in Philadelphia, the fighting in Lexington and Concord marked a new phase in the tension between the British and the colonists. As news of the battle spread, Frank noted that the colonists were becoming united in their hatred of the British. For his part, Frank redoubled his work as a Methodist preacher. As he rode and preached, he sensed that the hearts of the people were more open than before as they faced the sobering possibility of an all-out war with Great Britain.

In response to the fighting at Lexington and Concord, a second Continental Congress was convened in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775. The purpose of this gathering was to manage the colonial war effort and begin moving the colonies toward independence from Great Britain. With only regional militias to fight any further British military incursions in the colonies, the members of the Continental Congress voted to create a Continental army made up of the militia units around Massachusetts. They appointed George Washington of Virginia to be the commanding general of the army.

The Second Continental Congress was still in session at the end of May when Thomas Rankin dispatched Frank to Norfolk, Virginia, situated at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, to strengthen the Methodists there. Frank was eager to leave behind the confines of ministry in Philadelphia, and as soon as possible he boarded a boat that took him to Norfolk.

Norfolk and neighboring Portsmouth had a reputation of being a “dry and barren land” spiritually. Frank soon discovered this for himself. The members of the Methodist Society there were undisciplined and obeyed few of the rules that John Wesley had laid down for Methodists to follow. Frank tried to correct this and enforce the rules, but this proved to be much more difficult than it had been in Philadelphia or New York. The local Methodists resisted Frank’s efforts, telling him that the society meetings should be open to all who wanted to attend. They also pointed out to Frank that they felt he was too focused on exposing people’s faults, and instead of trying to force rules on them, he should be out preaching the gospel. Frank found their attitude troublesome, but he did not back off in his attempt to tighten Methodist discipline on the local society. Despite his best efforts, after a few weeks in Norfolk, the number of people regularly attending Methodist Society meetings was less than half of what it had been when he arrived.

On August 7, 1775, as Frank toiled away in Norfolk, he received a letter from Thomas Rankin. He hesitated to open it because he was sure it would contain some new criticism of his methods. When he finally read the letter, its contents startled him. After reading the letter twice, he wrote down his thoughts in his journal:

I received a letter from Mr. Thomas Rankin, in which he informed me that [he], Mr. Rodda, and Mr. Dempster had consulted and deliberately concluded it would be best to return to England. But I can by no means agree to leave such a field for gathering souls to Christ as we have in America. It would be an eternal dishonor to the Methodists that we should all leave three thousand souls who desire to commit themselves to our care. Neither is it the part of a good shepherd to leave his flock in time of danger; therefore, I am determined, by the grace of God, not to leave them, let the consequence be what it may.

As Washington toiled to shape the various militias into a single army, Frank heard the reports of more skirmishes between Patriot militias and the Redcoats, but these fights were mostly farther north in the New England area. Slowly, though, the conflict with Great Britain began to engulf the entire coast of North America. Frank encountered this firsthand while riding a circuit to the smaller outlying communities around Norfolk. As Frank rode near Suffolk, two armed militiamen who said they had orders to inspect every passerby stopped him on the road. Since he was English, they questioned him thoroughly as to why he was in the area, where he was going, and what he intended to do when he got there. When they were finally satisfied with his answers, they allowed him to ride on. But the experience left a hollow feeling in the pit of Frank’s stomach. Frank knew it was going to get more difficult—possibly even dangerous—for Methodist preachers to travel around their circuits, and more so if they were English.