Last time we compared the leadership of Francis Asbury, who was sent to the American Methodists by John Wesley in 1771, to that of Joseph Pilmore and Richard Boardman, who were the first two Methodist missionaries sent by Wesley. Asbury seemed to be a man who could sense and tap into the spirit of the times.
The place of Francis Asbury in American history is secure. In
Washington there stands a noble equestrian monument of the great circuit rider which was unveiled and presented to the nation by the President of the United States, Calvin Coolidge, who said on that occasion in 1924: “His outposts marched with the pioneers, his missionaries visited the hovels of the poor, that all might be brought to a knowledge of the truth. Who shall say where his influence, written on the immortal souls of men, shall end? It is more than probable that Nancy Hanks, the mother of Abraham Lincoln, had heard him in her youth. Adams and Jefferson must’ve known him, and Jackson must have seen in him a flaming spirit as unconquerable as his own. He is entitled to rank as one of the builders of our nation.”
Asbury was one of the greatest explorers of the American frontier. He was more widely traveled than any other man of his generation, and was known by more people. He was the welcome visitor in thousands of humble homes. And such notables as George Washington and Meriwether Lewis knew him. More than 60 times he crossed the eastern mountain; his annual circuit stretched from New England or New York to Charleston; his total mileage was more than a quarter of a million.
John Wesley’s intemperate attack on the American cause in his Calm Address to the American Colonies cost the great founder of Methodism his influence in the New World. Francis Asbury inherited that influence. He became the organizing genius, the virtual father of American Methodism, and “the second man in Methodist history,” as Dr. James Dixon called him, second only to John Wesley himself.
As we saw last time, Asbury’s greatest contribution to American Methodism was his successful insistence upon the principle of itinerancy, which he learned from Wesley. This was undoubtedly the secret of Methodism’s amazing success during the frontier period. As his journal reveals, he had been in the country only three weeks when he discovered the preference of the preachers, Pilmore and Boardman, for the city, and with prophetic insight he discerned that this would mean failure for the Evangelical movement. So the new arrival did not hesitate to rebuke his superiors and seniors. They did not want to leave the cities, but he would show them the way! He desired “a circulation of preachers, to avoid partiality and popularity!” “I am fixed,” he wrote, “to the Methodist plan, and do what I do faithfully as to God. I expect trouble is at hand. This I expected when I left England, and I am willing to suffer, yes to die, sooner than to betray so good a cause by any means.”
Thus stubbornly did he stand against those who presumably knew America better than he did. In the end he won, and the conference adopted a time limit of six months for the preachers, with three months for those in New York. Under this rule they rode the eastern seaboard and continued everywhere, until the words “Methodist circuit rider” became and remained a part of the American vocabulary. Methodists were thus able to move with the pioneers everywhere, and their church far outgrew the population and outstripped those which had been established the century or more before the Methodists came.
Asbury was called a dictator, and in a sense the charge was not wholly unfounded. When Dr. Thomas Coke came to ordain him and set up the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1784, in a meeting at Barratt’s Chapel (which we will see on our trip), Asbury insisted upon a democratic election. But he did not administer in a democratic fashion! Had he done so, he might have averted some misunderstandings and schisms; but his church would not have spread to the Father of Waters and grown from 1,000 to 200,000 members in his lifetime. His control of the preachers and their appointments was the main element in the success, and he could not have exerted such control and escaped the charge of tyranny.
If Francis Asbury was a dictator, he learned the art from John Wesley; and his dictatorship saved Methodism and built it into the largest Protestant body in all the land.
(Source: “The Journal and Letters of Francis Asbury: Volume I, The Journal”)