Francis Asbury: Circuit Rider

Despite the danger, Frank was determined not to leave the American colonies and return to England as Thomas and a number of the other English Methodist preachers were planning to do. North America was his mission field, and that was where he would stay.

Chapter 8
Trembling and Shaking

While Frank toiled in and around Norfolk, news reached him of a revival taking place seventy-five miles west in Brunswick County, Virginia. Frank’s friend George Shadford, assisted by four other preachers, was overseeing a circuit there. In early November 1775, Frank decided that it was time to head west and visit George.

When he arrived in Brunswick, Frank was delighted to meet up with George again. It felt good to talk with someone about his family and home, someone who did not question Frank’s love of England or his loyalty to the colonists. Even more exciting for Frank were George’s reports of revival in the area. George explained how large crowds would attend meetings and listen carefully as he preached.

“It’s quite common in these meetings for sinners to begin trembling and shaking and fall to the floor under conviction of their sins,” George told Frank. “This is only the beginning,” he added. “Following these meetings we are careful to get new converts into classes and teach them how to live holy lives. As a result there are many Methodist groups spread throughout the Brunswick circuit.”

Frank was impressed with the work his friend was doing. George had built a strong and thriving Methodist community throughout Brunswick County and North Carolina. Frank was even more impressed when he accompanied George to meetings. Not only was George a powerful preacher, but as George had described, under the conviction of sin, people indeed began shaking and trembling and falling to the floor, crying out to God for mercy and forgiveness. Frank was deeply moved by the experience.

Frank was also impressed with the way George had appointed several gifted local men to serve as preachers and oversee the discipling of the new converts. If only all the Methodist circuits in the American colonies had this level of fervency and organization!

While visiting George, Frank had the pleasure of meeting a man who had played a major role in the revival. Devereux Jarratt was a passionate, forty-three-year-old man from Virginia who served as the Church of England minister for Bath Parish in Dinwiddie County. Devereux explained to Frank how, on becoming the leader of the Bath Parish, he had decided to preach only the evangelical doctrines found in the New Testament. He preached these doctrines with such zeal and conviction that many parish members fell under conviction of their sins as they listened to him speak.

Devereux had gone to Great Britain to train as a minister in the Church of England. While there he had his first contact with Methodists, hearing both John Wesley and George Whitefield preach. He was impressed by both men and by the Methodist Societies as an evangelical movement within the Church of England. When he returned to America and the revival started to spread beyond Bath Parish and Dinwiddie County, Devereux teamed up with the Methodists to organize those being converted into Methodist Societies. The revival seemed to show no signs of slowing down, having spread throughout Virginia and into North Carolina. Indeed, the Methodist Societies in Virginia were now the fastest growing in all of the American colonies.

Frank was still visiting George in December 1775 when the fighting between the colonists and the British moved farther south. On December 9, a battle was fought in the area of Great Bridge, Virginia, just south of Norfolk. The battle ended in a victory for the Patriots that forced Lord Dunmore, the Loyalist governor of Virginia, to flee the colony to British naval ships offshore.

When he received news of the battle, Frank wrote, “We have awful reports of slaughter at Norfolk and the Great Bridge, but I am at a happy distance from them and my soul keeps close to Jesus Christ.” In his heart Frank knew the truth. Outright, widespread warfare between Great Britain and the American colonies now seemed unavoidable. Frank wondered how much longer he could remain untouched by the growing conflict.

Frank continued staying with George in Brunswick, where he tried to keep his mind on the revival, saving souls, and the growth of Methodist Societies throughout the area. Yet the struggle between the colonies and Great Britain was never far away. In January 1776, word reached Brunswick County that four British naval ships patrolling off the coast of Virginia had shelled the town of Norfolk on New Year’s Day. Over the next two days the entire town burned to the ground. Frank tried not to be alarmed by the news and wrote, “We have constant rumors about the disagreeable war which is now spreading through the country, but all these things I still commit to God.”

Frank could not, however, ignore a pamphlet written by John Wesley and titled A Calm Address to Our American Colonies that arrived in March from England. Just months before, Wesley had written a letter to the Methodist preachers in America, urging them to stick to the business of preaching, maintain their unity, and remain as neutral as possible. Frank had heartily agreed with this advice and did his best to follow it. But now, as he read John’s latest advice, he could scarcely take it in:

The grand question which is now debated (and with warmth enough on both sides) is this, Has the English Parliament power to tax the American Colonies? . . . Nothing can be more plain, that the supreme power of England has a legal right of laying any tax upon them for any end beneficial to the whole empire. . . . In wide-extended dominions, a very small part of the people are concerned with making laws. This, as all public business, must be done by delegation; the delegated are chosen by a select number. And those who are not electors, who are far the greater part, stand by, idle and helpless spectators. . . . You are descendants of men who either had no votes or resigned them by emigration. You have therefore exactly what your ancestors left you: not a vote in making laws nor in choosing legislators, but the happiness of being protected by laws and the duty of obeying them.

Frank was shocked by these words. He wondered what had happened. Instead of remaining neutral, John Wesley had come out firmly in favor of the British and was telling the American colonists that they must submit to England.

John’s pamphlet, which was supposed to calm down the rebellion against Great Britain, had the opposite effect. Although Frank concluded that John meant well in writing it, in doing so John had stirred up a lot of suspicion and hatred toward the Methodists. Frank would have to wait and see what would happen next.

Frank stayed in Brunswick County, Virginia, until early March 1776, when he left to return to Philadelphia. Along the way he visited Methodist Societies where he preached and encouraged the locals in their faith. He also spent time in Baltimore, where he found many residents of the city deeply alarmed by the news that British naval ships were patrolling off the coast of Maryland. Residents worried that the ships might enter Chesapeake Bay and attack the city.

In Baltimore, Frank was surprised to find Martin Rodda. From the letter he had received from Thomas Rankin seven months before, Frank assumed that Thomas, Martin, and James Dempster had all returned to England by now. Instead he learned that Thomas and Martin had changed their minds and were both still serving in the American colonies.

After spending time in Baltimore, Frank moved on and spent the months of April and May traveling around Pennsylvania and New Jersey, preaching and visiting Methodist Societies. Then, on May 27, he received word that Thomas had appointed him to Baltimore to oversee the work there.

Frank was glad to be heading to Maryland again. He had spent much time there in the past and established several circuits, and he looked forward to going back and renewing acquaintances, preaching the gospel, and strengthening Methodists throughout the area, especially given the uncertainty of the times.

Less than a month after arriving in Baltimore, Frank fell sick again. This time it was not malaria but a severely ulcerated throat. While he recuperated, he stayed with Henry and Prudence Gough. Henry was a successful and wealthy merchant in Baltimore, who along with his wife had joined the Methodists as a result of Frank’s previous round of preaching there. The Goughs owned an eleven-hundred-acre estate called Perry Hall, located to the northeast of Baltimore. The Goughs’ home was the most magnificent house Frank had ever stayed in. It reminded him of Hamstead Hall, where his father had been employed as a gardener back in England. Frank was much more at home in humble dwellings, and at first he found it difficult to relax at the estate.

While staying with the Goughs, Frank heard news that in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, a document called a Declaration of Independence had been presented to the Continental Congress. The document contained a formal explanation as to why the members of the Continental Congress had voted two days before to declare independence from Great Britain. The thirteen American colonies now regarded themselves as independent states and were no longer a part of the British Empire.

When he heard the news, Frank was not surprised that the colonies had taken this step. As he saw it, the grievances between the colonies and Great Britain had created a divide too great for repair. The American colonies were now fighting a war for independence. Frank was glad that such a man of godly character as George Washington was leading the fight for the colonies.

Frank’s recovery was slow. His ulcerated throat and the lingering effects of malaria had taken a toll. He was only thirty-one years old, but he felt as if he were eighty. The Goughs insisted on paying for Frank to go to Berkeley Springs in northwestern Virginia to relax and recuperate. It was a place where the well-to-do came to relax, socialize, and bathe in the mineral springs. Henry accompanied Frank across Maryland to the springs and helped him settle in. Like Perry Hall, Berkeley Springs reminded Frank that he came from humble roots.

For a man who was used to accounting for how he spent every minute of every day, Frank found it impossible to simply relax. He did the only thing he knew how to do—he set about making good use of his time. While he soaked in the mineral springs, he read biographies of inspiring people, making it his goal to read at least one hundred pages a day. He prayed five times a day in public, preached in the open air every other day, and held public prayer meetings each evening, where he would also give lectures on spiritual matters.

With a routine now in place, Frank felt much happier, though he did notice that some people tended to avoid him. Nonetheless, he stayed six weeks at Berkeley Springs recuperating before heading back to Baltimore. When he left Berkeley Springs, he noted, “I this day turned my back on the springs, as the best and worst place that I ever was in—good for health but most injurious to religion.” Frank resumed his duties in Baltimore, overseeing the Methodist work in the city and developing a circuit around Annapolis.

Shortly after his return to Baltimore, Frank learned that Washington and his ragtag Continental army had been defeated in the Battle of Long Island. He was glad to learn that Washington’s troops had made a daring escape in the middle of the night to avoid capture by the British. Soon afterward, the British took control of Manhattan Island and the city of New York.

In the weeks that followed, the Continental army suffered a number of defeats at the hands of the British, raising the anxiety level of the American colonists. As he traveled around preaching, Frank was well aware of how fearful people were about the outcome of the war. Always he tried to focus people’s attention back on spiritual matters. He hoped the Americans would win, but he left the outcome to God and encouraged others to do the same.