Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Asbury, Francis

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ASBURY, Francis, M. E. missionary bishop, b. in Handsworth, Staffordshire, England, 20 Aug., 1745; d. in Spottsylvania, Va., 21 March, 1816. His parents, devout Methodists, must have been among the earlier disciples of Wesley. Handsworth was hardly a day's ride from Oxford, where the Wesleys organized their “Holy Band.” and the lad must have imbibed Wesleyanism from the time when he first saw the light. He was converted at the age of thirteen, through the influence of the “itinerants,” who were already beginning their labors. He received the rudiments of an education at the village school of Barre, and was indentured to a maker of “buckle chapes,” or tongues, at the age of fourteen. At this time the Wesleys, John and Charles, had well in hand the movement out of which grew the great religious denomination that bears their name. Methodist chapels were being founded all over the United Kingdom, and the inspired idea of “itinerant preachers,” or “circuit riders,” was making its power felt. Under such conditions the latent talents of young Asbury speedily developed. At sixteen he was a local preacher, and at twenty-two he was regularly enrolled among the itinerants by Wesley himself. This was in 1767, almost before the spirit of political discontent was making itself felt in the American colonies, where Wesleyanism had already been planted in a congenial soil. In 1771 Asbury, who by that time had begun to show his qualities as an executive as well as a preacher, was designated by Wesley as a missionary to America, and, with the Rev. Richard Wright as his companion, he landed at Philadelphia 27 Oct., 1771. The first Methodist meeting-house in America was only three years old, and altogether there were only about 300 communicants in the country, these being mainly in New York and Philadelphia. During the following year Asbury was appointed “general assistant in America,” with power of supervision over all the preachers and societies, but was superseded in 1773 by an older minister, Mr. Thomas Rankin. By this time the spirit of revolution was abroad, and Mr. Rankin, unequal to the crisis, returned to England as soon as the storm broke. Asbury, however, with the true spirit of an apostle, remained at his post. With prophetic vision he recognized the opportunity of his chosen church, and determined to stand by it during a period that threatened its foundations. His political sympathies were fully with the patriot cause, but he, in common with many other Methodists, fell under suspicion of toryism, because of their refusal to take the prescribed oath of allegiance, they being conscientiously opposed to all oaths. Several writs were served upon Methodist preachers; but Mr. Asbury's prudence and address were such that he avoided trouble until 1776, when he was arrested and fined five pounds. In March, 1778, he considered himself in such danger that he took refuge in the house of Judge Thomas White, of Delaware, and there remained practically a prisoner for two years before he ventured freely to resume his labors. To use his own words, it was “a season of the most active, the most useful, and the most suffering part of my life.” At last the authorities became convinced that the “non-jurors,” as they called themselves, were acting from religious, not political, motives, and the itinerants were permitted to resume their circuits.

On the restoration of peace it became evident to the American Methodists that the organization of an independent church was necessary. Until this time Wesley, an ordained priest of the English church, had loyally maintained his ecclesiastical relations and recognized only the bishops of the “establishment” as authorized to administer the sacrament. He became convinced, however, that his American disciples would not long submit to such leading-strings, and proceeded wisely to study the question of presbyter and bishop, reaching the conclusion that in the primitive church the two offices were identical. He therefore assumed the office of bishop, formally consecrated the Rev. Thomas Coke, LL. D., of Oxford, and sent him to America to perpetuate the apostolic succession in its Wesleyan aspect on this side of the water. At a conference held in 1784, Dr. Coke appeared in his robes of office and, pursuant to Wesley's instructions, consecrated Francis Asbury joint bishop with himself over the American church, which forthwith adopted as its official designation “The Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States of America.” From this time until he was no longer able to travel, Bishop Asbury's labors were incessant, and he deserves to rank with the great evangelists of all time. The civil history of the United States might have been very different had Asbury failed to be on the ground to assume the office. Like a good general, he even kept his skirmishers — that is, his “circuit riders” — abreast with the leading pioneers, and he himself, frequently under escort of a score or two of frontiersmen to guard against Indians, rode to and fro, often in the advance and always near enough to see what was going on. The first ordination in the Mississippi valley was performed by him. Rude, unlettered men most of these itinerants were, and the bishop himself had but a slender equipment of scholastic knowledge. Nevertheless, they largely shaped the destiny of the west. There is nothing authentic in frontier literature more romantic than “Asbury's Journals” (3 vols., New York, 1852), with their unconscious record of a zeal and self-sacrifice that rivals anything in history. In spite of his defective early education, he managed to acquire a knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, and, contrary to the usual impression, laid during the first year of his episcopate the foundation of the first Methodist college, that at Abingdon, Md. Annually he rode on horseback or by primitive conveyances about 6,000 miles, and this, for the most part, over the rough roads and through the nearly trackless forests that covered the continent beyond the narrow belt of sea-coast settlements. In character and temperament he was bold, aggressive, enthusiastic, gentle in manners, but of unflinching firmness. His native wisdom and intuitive perceptions made good the lack of artificial training, and lent him an insight that was well-nigh infallible. Wesley could never have done what Asbury did. Indeed, he tried to do it, and failed, not comprehending the spirit of freedom that was abroad in the American air. Asbury was instantly in sympathy with that spirit, and two million American Methodists attest the ability with which he fulfilled his mission. The noblest monument to his memory is the great church, which grew under his personal leadership from a scattered band of 316 members and four preachers to a powerful denomination 214,000 strong, controlled by bishops, 2,000 local preachers, and 700 itinerants. See “Asbury's Journals” (New York, 1852); Bangs's “History of the Methodist Episcopal Church” (1839); Strickland's “Life of Asbury” (1858); Wakely's “Heroes of Methodism” (1859); Stevens's “Memorials of Methodism”; “Centenary of Methodism” (1866); and Larrabee's “Asbury and his Co-laborers” (2 vols., Cincinnati, 1853).