Asbury, Francis

Asbury, Francis, the first bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church ordained in America, was born at Handsworth, Staffordshire, England, Aug. 20,1745. His parents were pious Methodists, and trained him with religious care, so that it is no wonder that he was converted at thirteen. In his youth he sat under the ministry of Ryland, Hawes, and Venn, as well as of the Methodist preachers. He obtained the rudiments of education at the village school of Barre, and in his fourteenth year was apprenticed to a maker of "bucklechapes." At sixteen he became a local preacher; at twenty-two he was received into the itinerant ministry by Mr. Wesley. In 1771 he was appointed missionary to America, and landed at Philadelphia, with the Rev. Richard Wright as his companion, on the 27th October in that year. The first Methodist church in America had been built three years before; and in 1771 the whole number of communicants was about 600, chiefly in Philadelphia and New York. The country was disturbed by political agitation, soon to develop into revolution. In 1772 Asbury was appointed Mr. Wesley's " general assistant in America," with power of supervision over all the preachers and societies, but was superseded in the year following by an older preacher from England, Mr. Rankin. When the war broke out Rankin returned to England; but Asbury, foreseeing the great work of the church in.America, remained. He thought it would be an eternal disgrace to forsake in this time of trial the thousands of poor sheep in the wilderness who had placed themselves under the care of the Methodists, and, fully sympathizing with the cause of the struggling colonies, he resolved to remain and share the sufferings and the fate of the infant connection and of the country. Like many religious people of those times, he was, from conscientious scruples, a non-juror, as were all the other Methodist preachers, and also many of the clergy of the Episcopal Church, who yet chose to remain in the country. As their character and motives were not understood, they were exposed to much suffering and persecution. The Rev. F. Garrettson and Joseph Hartley were imprisoned on the Eastern Shore of Maryland; Mr. Chew, also one of the preachers, being brought before the sheriff of one of the counties of the same state, and required to take the oath of allegiance, replied that scruples of conscience would not permit him to do so. The sheriff then informed him that he was bound by oath to execute the laws, and if he persisted in his refusal, no alternative was left but to commit him to prison. To this the prisoner answered very mildly that he by no means wished to be the cause of perjury, and was therefore perfectly resigned to bear the penalty. "You are a :strange man," said the sheriff; "I cannot bear to punish you, and therefore my own house shall be your prison." He accordingly formally committed him to his own house, and kept him there three months. In the course of this time this gentleman and his wife were both converted to God, and joined the Methodist Church. On the 20th of June, 1776, Mr.

Asbury, notwithstanding his extreme prudence, was arrested near Baltimore, and fined five pounds; and in March, 1778, he retired to the house of his friend, Thomas White, a judge of one of the courts of Delaware, where he remained comparatively secluded for ten months. Although his movements were now circumscribed, yet he was by no means idle, and remarks that it was "a season of the most active, the most useful, and the most suffering part of his life." Indeed, two years elapsed before he presumed to leave his retreat, and to travel extensively in the performance of his duties as superintendent; when, the authorities becoming convinced that there was no treason in the Methodist preachers, but that their scruples were of a religious, not of a political nature, and that they were merely intent upon preaching the gospel of peace as humble evangelists, they were permitted to exercise their functions unmolested. At the close of the war in 1783 there were 83 Methodist ministers in the work, with nearly 14,000 members. In 1784 the Methodist societies were organized into an Episcopal Church, four years before the organization of the Protestant Episcopal Church, and Mr. Asbury was elected bishop, and consecrated by Dr. Coke, who had been ordained in England by Wesley. From this time to the day of his death his whole life was devoted to the preaching of the Gospel and to the superintendence of the churches. His personal history is almost the history of the growth of Methodism in his time. His Journals (3 vols. 8vo) contain a wonderful record of apostolic zeal and fidelity, of a spirit of self-sacrifice rivalling that of the saints and martyrs of the early church, of an industry which no toils could weary, of a patience which no privations could exhaust. He remained unmarried through life, that he might not be hindered in his work. His salary was sixty-four dollars a year. His horses and carriages were given by his friends, all donations of money from whom he assigned to his fellow-sufferers and fellow-laborers. At one of the early Western Conferences, where the assembled itinerants presented painful evidences of want, he parted with his watch, his coat, and his shirts for them. He was asked by a friend to lend him fifty pounds. " He might as well have asked me for Peru," wrote the bishop. "I showed him all the money I had in the world, about twelve dollars, and gave him five." In spite of his defective education, he acquired a tolerable knowledge of Greek and Hebrew; but his wisdom was far greater than his learning. As early as 1785 he laid the foundation of the first Methodist college; and some time after he formed a plan for dividing the whole country into districts, with a classical academy in each. As a preacher, he was clear, earnest, pungent, and often powerfully eloquent. The monument of his organizing apd administrative talent may be seen in the discipline and organization of the Methodist Church, which grew under his hands, during his lifetime, from a feeble band of 4 preachers and 316 members to nearly 700 itinerants, 2000 local preachers, and over 214,000 members. Within the compass of every year, the bordrerers of Canada and the planters of Mississippi looked for the coming of this primitive bishop, and were not disappointed. His travels averaged 6000 miles a year; and this not in a splendid carriage, over smooth roads; not with the ease and speed of the railway, but often through pathless forests and untravelled wildernesses; among the swamps of the South and the prairies of the West; amid the heats of the Carolinas and the snows of New England. There grew up under his hands an entire church, with fearless preachers and untrained members; but he governed the multitude as he had done the handful, with a gentle charity and an unflinching firmness. In diligent activity, no apostle, no missionary, no warrior ever surpassed him. He rivalled Melancthon and Luther in boldness. He combined the enthusiasm of Xavier with the far-reaching foresight and keen discrimination of Wesley. With a mind untrained in the schools, he yet seemed to seize upon truth by intuition; and though men might vanquish him in logic, they could not deny his conclusions. His unremitting labors exhausted a constitution originally frail; yet, with the old martyr spirit, he continued to travel and to preach, even when he was so weak that he had to be carried from the couch to the pulpit. He died in Spottsylvania, Va., March 31, 1816.

In Church History Francis Asbury deserves to be classed with the greatest propagators of Christianity in ancient or in modern times; and when the secular history of America comes to be faithfully written, his name will be handed down to posterity as having contributed, in no small degree, to the progress of civilization in the United States. In the language of Dr. Stevens, in the Knickerbocker .Magazine (January, 1859), "He sent his preachers across the Alleghanies, and kept them in the very van of the westward march of emigration. The first 'ordination' in the valley of the Mississippi was performed by his hands; and it is a grave question what would have been the moral development of the mighty states throughout that imperial domain, had it not been for the brave 'itinerant' corps of Asbury, which carried and expounded the Bible among its log cabins at a time in our national history when it was absolutely impossible for the American churches to send thither regular or educated clergymen in any proportion to the growth of its population. If what is called the ' Methodist itinerancy' has done any important service for the moral salvation of that vast region, now the theatre of our noblest states, the credit is due, in a great measure, to the unparalleled energy of Francis Asbury. He not only pointed his preachers thither, but led the way. No records of American frontier adventure show greater endurance or courage than Asbury's travels beyond the mountains. Armed hunters, twenty-five or fifty in number; used to escort him from point to point to protect him from the Indians, and great were the gatherings and grand the jubilees wherever he appeared." -- Asbury, Journals (N.York, 1852, 3 vols. 8vo); Bangs, History of the M. E. Church (N. York, 1849, 4 vols. 12mo); Meth. Qu. Review, April, 1852, and July, 1854; Strickland, Life of Asbury (N. York, 1858, 12mo); Wakely, Heroes of Methodism (N. York, 1859, 12mo); Stevens, Memorials of Methodism (2 vols. 12); Stevens, Hist. of the .M. E. Churchs (N. York, 1864); Centenary of Methodism (N. York, 1866, 12mo); Sprague, Annals, 7:13; Boehm, Reminiscences Historical and Biographical, edited by Wakeley(N. Y. 1865, 12mo) ; Larrabee, Asbury and his Coadjutors (N.Y. 2 vols. 12mo). SEE METHODIST EPISCOPAL CHURCH.

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