Francis Asbury (/æzbəri/, August 20, 1745 – March 31, 1816) was one of the first two bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States. As a young man in October 1771, the Englishman traveled to America and, during his 45 years there, he devoted his life to ministry, traveling on horseback and by carriage thousands of miles to those living on the frontier.
Asbury spread Methodism in America, as part of the Second Great Awakening. He also founded several schools during his lifetime, although his own formal education was limited. His journal is valuable to scholars for its account of frontier society.
Francis Asbury was born at Hamstead Bridge, Staffordshire, England on August 20 or 21, 1745, to Elizabeth and Joseph Asbury. His mother wanted him to become the Archbishop of Canterbury, read him the Bible, sang him hymns, and prayed over him.
Asbury became a local lay preacher for Methodist meetings at age 18. At age 22, John Wesley appointed him as a traveling preacher. His boyhood home still stands and is open as a museum in West Bromwich, England. In 1771 he volunteered to travel to America. When the American War of Independence broke out in 1776, he was the only Methodist minister to remain in America. Within the first 17 days of being in the colonies, he had preached in Philadelphia and New York. During the first year he was Wesley’s assistant and preached in 25 different settlements.
In 1780, he met the freedman "Black Harry" Hosier, a meeting Asbury considered "providentially arranged". Hosier served as his driver and guide but, though illiterate, memorized long passages of the Bible while Asbury read them aloud during their travels. He eventually became a famous preacher in his own right, the first African American to preach directly to a white congregation in the United States.
In 1784, John Wesley named Asbury and Thomas Coke as co-superintendents of the work in America. The Christmas Conference that year marked the beginning of the Methodist Episcopal Church of the United States. For the next 32 years, Asbury led all the Methodists in America. However, his leadership did not go unchallenged. His idea for a ruling council was opposed by such notables as William McKendree, Jesse Lee, and James O'Kelly. Eventually a General Conference to which delegates could be sent was established on the advice of Asbury's fellow bishop Thomas Coke in 1792.
Like Wesley, Asbury preached in myriad places: courthouses, public houses, tobacco houses, fields, public squares, wherever a crowd assembled to hear him. For the remainder of his life he rode an average of 6,000 miles each year, preaching virtually every day and conducting meetings and conferences. Under his direction, the church grew from 1,200 to 214,000 members and 700 ordained preachers. Among the men he ordained was Richard Allen in Philadelphia, the first black minister in the United States.
In 1813, Asbury wrote his will. This was a time when “the greatest membership gain in the history of the church” was achieved. In 1814 his health started to fail and he became ill. In 1816 he started to regain strength and continued his preaching journey. He “preached his last Sermon in Richmond, Virginia” on March 24, “and dies at the home of George Arnold near Fredericksburg” on March 31.
In an exciting time in American history, Asbury was reported to be an extraordinary preacher. Biographer Ezra Squier Tipple wrote: "If to speak with authority as the accredited messenger of God; to have credentials which bear the seal of heaven ... if when he lifted the trumpet to his lips the Almighty blew the blast; if to be conscious of an ever-present sense of God, God the Summoner, God the Anointing One, God the Judge, and to project it into speech which would make his hearers tremble, melt them with terror, and cause them to fall as dead men; if to be and do all this would entitle a man to be called a great preacher, then Asbury was a great preacher." Bishop Asbury died in Spotsylvania County, Virginia. He was buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery, in Baltimore, near the graves of Bishops John Emory and Beverly Waugh.
“Francis Asbury had a great distrust of personal popularity, and equally marked distaste of personal publicity”. Not being a vain person, he did not care to have his image preserved. He had been in America for 23 years, and a bishop for 10 years before he had let a portrait be made of him. His friend James McCannon persuaded him to have it done. Asbury had had a portrait painted of him for his mother in 1797. His last portrait was made in 1813 by an unknown artist in Strasburgh Pennsylvania.
Asbury had times when he tended to have gloomy thoughts and opinions. He believed himself to be “a true prophet of evil tidings, as it suits my cast of mind”. Although he was pessimistic, those who knew him considered him an extremely sensitive person. In his journal he recorded more failures and misgivings than success in his ministry. He loved simplicity and had “frequent spells of morbid depression”. He tended to use cynical sarcasm in his preachings. One of the typical prayers he would say, even on his way to America, was “Lord, we are in thy hands and in thy work. Thou knowest what is best of us and for thy work; whether plenty or poverty. The hearts of all men are in thy hands. If it is best for us and for thy church that we should be cramped and straitened, let the people’s hands and hearts be closed: If it is better for us; for the church,—and more to thy glory that we should abound in the comforts of life; do thou dispose the hearts of those we serve to give accordingly: and may we learn to be content whether we abound, or suffer need”.
He rose at 5 every morning to read the bible. He was impatient with those who did not do the tasks assigned to them as soon as the task was assigned. He was “one of the wisest and most farseeing men of his day”.
On September 4, 1771, at the age of 26, Francis Asbury began his journey to Philadelphia from the port of Pill near Bristol. “It cost him much to leave home and kindred, as is witnessed by his affectionate letters and sacrificial remittances home: but the call of God was not to be denied”. Before he left, he wrote a letter to his family. “I wonder sometimes how anyone will sit to hear me, but the Lord covers my weakness with his power…. I trust you will be easy and more quiet. As for me, I know what I am called to. It is to give up all, and to have my hands and heart in the work, yea, the nearest and dearest friends…. Let others condemn me as being without natural affection, disobedient to parents, or say what they please…. I love my parents and friends, but I love my God better and his service…. And tho’ I have given up all, I do not repent, for I have found all”. On this voyage he began a journal. “In his journal he pours out the feelings and impulses of the moment, but often without giving a clue to either the offender or the offense”. He became seasick for the first week but had recovered. He was “poor in material things, but rich in the spiritual atmosphere created and maintained by his mother”. He also spent a lot of time studying and reading the bible and books written by Wesley. On September 22, he preached to the ship’s company. Again, on September 29, he preached. On October 6, he preached to the ship’s company on deck. And finally, on October 27, he landed at his destination in Philadelphia. His journal also contains some references to opinions of ministers who disagreed with the Methodist leadership, such as Rev. Charles Hopkins of Powhatan County, Virginia who had rejected the Methodist ideals several years before.
- Asbury's boyhood home, the Bishop Asbury Cottage, in Sandwell, England, is now a museum.
- The first Methodist Episcopal school of higher education was named Cokesbury College (1785 - burned 1796) in honor of Asbury and Thomas Coke, drawing some concern from John Wesley. The name lives on in Cokesbury, part of the United Methodist publishing arm.
- At least six schools have been named after Asbury:
- Asbury Methodist Primary School in Lai King, Hong Kong.
- Two are in Wilmore, Kentucky: Asbury University and Asbury Theological Seminary.
- In addition, DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana was originally known as Indiana Asbury College after him.
- Francis Asbury Elementary School in Hampton, Virginia.
- Asbury High School, Marshall County, Alabama
- James A. Bradley, a convert to Methodism, named the town he founded on the New Jersey shore, Asbury Park, after Asbury. The Mascot of the Asbury Park High School is "The Bishops."
- The former Asbury Methodist Church on Staten Island (now the Son-Rise Interfaith Center) stands as a monument to his memory.
- In 1796 Bishop Asbury helped lay the cornerstone for the church in Hall's Mills, NJ which shortly changed its name to Asbury (now a village in Franklin Township, Warren County, NJ).
- A statue, Francis Asbury, was erected in Washington, D.C. in 1921.
- A statue of Francis Asbury on horseback was erected at Drew University in Madison, NJ.
- A hiking trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park follows part of the path Asbury took when crossing the mountains in the early 19th century. There is a monument dedicated to Asbury at Shiloh Memorial Cemetery in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, where Asbury delivered a sermon on October 20, 1808.
- Stratosphere Balloon Cave in Germany Valley, West Virginia was for over 150 years called "Asbury Cave". (Asbury records his 1781 visit to the cave in his Journal.)
- Many towns and villages bear an Asbury United Methodist Church, including the fourth largest United Methodist Church in the denomination, located in Tulsa, OK (www.asburytulsa.org).
- The first Methodist Church in Northern China, the Asbury Church in Peking, built in 1870 by Rev. Hiram Harrison Lowry, was named after Asbury. Today the church is known as Chongwenmen Church (崇文门教堂).
- Asbury Avenue in Evanston, Illinois, home of Northwestern University, founded by Methodists
- Asbury, Iowa was founded by Methodists.
- Asbury Road and Asbury Avenue in Ocean Grove, NJ, next to Asbury Park, with Wesley Lake separating them,is a town founded by Methodists in the late 1870s as a religious summer camp along the mid Atlantic coast.Descendants of the original campers still use the many tents in town each season and worship in the Great Auditorium.
- Bethel Academy
- List of Bishops of the United Methodist Church
- Perry Hall, Maryland
- Thomas S. Hinde
- Charles T. Hinde
- Asbury, Herbert. 1927. A Methodist Saint: The Life of Bishop Asbury. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. pg. 1
- Smith, Jessie C. Black Firsts: 4,000 Ground-Breaking and Pioneering Historical Events (3rd ed.), pp. 1820–1821. "Methodists: 1781". Visible Ink Press (Canton), 2013. Accessed 17 October 2013.
- Duren, William Larkin. 1928. Francis Asbury, Founder of American Methodism and Unofficial Minister of State, New York: The Macmillan Company. Pg. xiii
- Duren, William Larkin. 1928. Francis Asbury, Founder of American Methodism and Unofficial Minister of State, New York: The Macmillan Company. Pg 75
- Duren, William Larkin. 1928. Francis Asbury, Founder of American Methodism and Unofficial Minister of State, New York: The Macmillan Company. Pg 77
- Duren, William Larkin. 1928. Francis Asbury, Founder of American Methodism and Unofficial Minister of State, New York: The Macmillan Company. Pg 119-120
- Duren, William Larkin. 1928. Francis Asbury, Founder of American Methodism and Unofficial Minister of State, New York: The Macmillan Company. Pg 167
- Baker, Frank. 1976. From Wesley to Asbury: Studies in Early American Methodism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Pg. 115
- Baker, Frank. 1976. From Wesley to Asbury: Studies in Early American Methodism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Pg. 113-114
- Duren, William Larkin. 1928. Francis Asbury, Founder of American Methodism and Unofficial Minister of State, New York: The Macmillan Company. Pg. 122
- Baker, Frank. 1976. From Wesley to Asbury: Studies in Early American Methodism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Pg 107
- The Ladies' repository, Volume 12 (Google eBook),L. Swormstedt and J.H. Power, 1852
- Wesley, John; Coke, Thomas (1844) [20 September 1788], "John Wesley to Francis Asbury", Letters by the Rev. John Wesley, M.A. and Rev. T. Coke, L.L.D. (second ed.), Baltimore: D. Brunner, p. 9, "I found a school, you a college. Nay, and call it after your own names! Oh, beware!"
Resources for further study
- The official Francis Asbury web site. Contains an A-Z index of places and people mentioned in his journals.
- Trailblazin' Bishop: The Francis Asbury Story. A one-man play on the life of Francis Asbury.
- Facebook page of Bishop Francis Asbury.Quotes from Asbury's journal, portraits and more
- Bishop Asbury Cottage Story on the BBC website about Francis Asbury's former home
- Francis Asbury biographical sketch on Find-A-Grave
- Journal and Letters of Francis Asbury (1958) by Francis Asbury (ISBN 0-687-20581-6)
- American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists (Oxford University Press, 2009) by John H. Wigger (ISBN 0-195-38780-5)
- Taking Heaven by Storm: Methodism and the Rise of Popular Christianity in America, 1770-1820 (Oxford University Press, 1998) by John H. Wigger (ISBN 0-195-10452-8)
- America's Bishop: The Life of Francis Asbury (2003) by Darius Salter (ISBN 1-928915-39-6)
- The Story of American Methodism: A History of the United Methodists and Their Relations (1974) by Frederick Abbott Norwood (ISBN 0-687-39641-7)
- The Heritage of American Methodism (1999) by Kenneth Cain Kinghorn (ISBN 0-687-05500-8)
- From Wesley to Asbury: Studies in Early American Methodism (1976) by Frank Baker (ISBN 0-8223-0359-0)
- Eliza Asbury - her cottage and her son by David Hallam (ISBN 1858582350
- Wilson, James Grant; Fiske, John, eds. (1900). "Asbury, Francis". Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. New York: D. Appleton.