Who Was Francis Asbury?

Francis Asbury Boyhood Home, Bromwich, England
Francis Asbury Boyhood Home, Bromwich, England

I have been away a few days, attending the annual meeting of the Friends of Estonia in Marietta, GA. Sorry for missing a few posts. I couldn’t help but think of the similarities faced by our Methodist friends in Estonia with the challenges faced by Francis Asbury and the other early Methodists in America as they struggled to grow their church.

Francis Asbury is such an important figure in the history of American Methodism, we going to spend a few posts looking at who he was. Fortunately, he left us a Journal and countless letters to draw upon.

Francis Asbury was born at Hamstead Bridge, Staffordshire, England on August 20 or 21, 1745, to Elizabeth and Joseph Asbury. They were poor but godly parents whose home was open to the preachers and whose hearts were turned seriously to religion by the death of a small daughter, their only other child. His mother, who wanted him to become the Archbishop of Canterbury, read young Francis the Bible, sang him hymns, and prayed over him.

Francis was sent to school at Snails’ Green, a mile away from the family home on Newton Road; and he was so good in his studies that he could read the Bible himself at the age of six or seven. The schoolmaster, however, was a tyrant, and Francis’ formal education ended when he was thirteen years old. For a few months he was in service in the home of a prosperous but irreligious family, and then he became an apprentice at the Old Forge nearby.

His superior at the forge was a Methodist whose name was Foxall. The work was very manual, and all biographers have pointed out that the muscular strength developed by the hard work equipped Asbury for the tasks which were later to face him in the American wilderness. He also became a friend of the superintendent’s son, Henry Foxall, who in later years became a rich iron merchant in America and built and named the famous Foundry Church in Washington, D.C. (which we will probably see), reminiscent of the forge in England and the business in which the donor had prospered. Bishop Asbury dedicated the church in 1810.

The Asburys attended the parish church (Anglican) at Great Barr, which was a chapel-of-ease to Aldrich, and also All Saints’ Church in West Bromwich. At the latter, the young Francis Asbury heard the famous Edward Stillingfleet, who sympathized with and participated in the Wesleyan Revival.

As a late teen, Asbury heard of the Methodists through Foxall and others, and with his mother’s consent, he attended

Francis Asbury Tavern, near Wednesbury, England
Francis Asbury Tavern, near Wednesbury, England

one of their services at Wednesbury. This town was the scene of the bitterest persecutions which Wesley and his preachers had endured, according to Wesley’s own journal. Interestingly, when I was visiting with a Chapelwood pilgrimage group to Wesley’s England in 2011, we were looking for the site of Asbury’s boyhood home in the Wednesbury area. Asking a passerby if he knew where it was, he said he never heard of Francis Asbury (the Francis Asbury Tavern, where this picture was taken, was across the street!) When our guide told him he was an early Methodist, the man rose up and said, ‘OH! He was one of dem, was he?!!” Apparently, it’s STILL dangerous to be a Methodist in Wednesbury!) A large Methodist Society, never-the-less, developed in Wednesbury. It was embraced in what was the Staffordshire Circuit and under the ministry of a preacher named Alexander Mather, who was to become the second president of the British Conference after the death of John Wesley.

As a young 18 year-old, Asbury was most favorably impressed by the singing and the extemporaneous nature of the prayer and sermon he heard among the Methodists.

In my next post, we’ll look at Asbury’s conversion and what followed. Stay tuned!

(Source: “The Journal and Letters of Francis Asbury: Vol 1, The Journal,” Wikipedia entry on Francis Asbury)

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