Francis Asbury

Francis Asbury (1745-1816), English-born American clergyman, broke with the English Methodists in 1787 and established the Methodist Episcopal Church in America.

Francis Asbury was born on Aug. 20 or 21, 1745, in Staffordshire, England. His mother exerted great influence over Francis. She taught him to read the Bible before he was 6 years old and instilled in him a strong fear of sin. A shy, introspective boy who was intimidated by bullying classmates and a harsh schoolmaster, he had only 6 years of formal education.

Asbury had a religious awakening at the age of 14, after which he began to attend meetings of the Methodist Society. He soon became an exhorter and later a preacher. At the Bristol Conference of the Methodists in 1771, he volunteered to go to America as a missionary. He arrived in Philadelphia on Oct. 27, 1771, and went to New York to work under Richard Boardman, one of the first missionaries sent to America by the Methodist Society.

Asbury found church discipline lax and the city sinful. Without asking Boardman's permission, he borrowed a horse and rode into the countryside, thus making his first circuit in America by going to several New York communities.

A morose and solemn man, Asbury constantly subjected himself to spiritual and physical flagellation. A variety of physical problems plagued him during the 45 years in which he traveled the American continent; nevertheless, he rode at least 5,000 miles a year, preaching and exhorting at every opportunity.

Asbury's prestige grew as his circuit widened. He preached first in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia and later in the South and the West. In October 1772 he received a letter from John Wesley informing the preacher that he was to replace Boardman as Wesley's assistant. The following year he was in turn succeeded by Thomas Rankin. There was constant tension between Asbury and Rankin, a result, in part, of Rankin's jealousy of Asbury and, in part, of Asbury's inability to work under anyone. Wesley ordered both to leave America during the Revolutionary War. Rankin returned to England but Asbury chose to remain in America, despite the fact that Methodists were suspected of Tory sympathies. He spent 6 months in seclusion at the Delaware home of Judge Thomas White, but his urge to preach overcame his caution and he returned to circuit riding. By 1780 his influence at the Baltimore Conference was forceful enough to defeat a group of Methodists from the Southern states in a dispute over the Sacraments. He became the acknowledged head of the Methodist Church in America, and when, on Dec. 27, 1784, he was ordained superintendent, he became the titular head.

Asbury ruled his ever-increasing flock imperially, calling himself "bishop." The Methodist Episcopal Church was formally established in America in 1787, when he broke with the English Methodists. His dominance was seriously threatened only once: in 1792 a group of dissidents led by James O'Kelly refused to submit to Asbury's rule and left the Methodist Church to form the Republican Methodist Church.

Eventually Asbury became so ill that he was compelled to accept the appointment of an associate, Richard Whatcoat. In a very real sense, Asbury was the founder of American Methodism. When he became superintendent in 1784, there were 83 traveling preachers and less than 15,000 Methodists. When he died on March 31, 1816, there were 212,000 Methodists, 2,000 local preachers, and 700 circuit riders.

Further Reading on Francis Asbury

Francis Asbury's own Journal and Letters, edited by Elmer T. Clark and others (3 vols., 1958), is an invaluable primary source. Herbert Asbury, A Methodist Saint: The Life of Bishop Asbury (1927), is a solid biography, and L. C. Rudolph, Francis Asbury (1966), provides additional detail. An excellent reference is Emory S. Bucke, ed., The History of American Methodism, 3 vols. (1964).

Additional Biography Sources

Asbury, Francis, Francis Asbury's America: an album of early American Methodism, Grand Rapids, MI: F. Asbury Press, 1984.

Ludwig, Charles, Francis Asbury: God's circuit rider, Milford, Mich.: Mott Media, 1984.

Smeltzer, Wallace Guy, Bishop Francis Asbury, Field Marshal of the Lord, Pittsburgh?: Commission on Archives and History of the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church in cooperation with the author; Denver, Colo.: Available from W.G. Smeltzer, 1982.