United Methodists have a rich history of powerful, committed believers who have confronted the biggest issues of their time with dignity and piety.
One of those incredible examples is Francis Asbury. Throughout his life, he went above and beyond his call for the cause of Christ and gave to the people called Methodist innumerable gifts, not the least of which is his story of overcoming trials with perseverance.
Below is a glimpse into his life. Use his story to challenge people to grow in their faith.
1. He had little formal education but founded several schools.
Asbury was born into a working-class family in England. Though he learned to read the Bible by age 7, he had to drop out of formal education at age 12. While he was not as well educated as many of his peers in the early Methodist movement, he nonetheless valued education highly and founded several schools in North America. Asbury was also a pioneer in the Sunday school movement that sought to provide education to children who would not have access to it otherwise. He started the first Sunday school in North America in Hanover County, Virginia.
2. He was a bad preacher.
According to John Wigger, author of “American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists, "Asbury was a terrible preacher." This is particularly interesting as Asbury lived in a time when Methodist pastors were judged primarily on their ability to speak in public. Rather than being eloquent, his sermons were disjointed and almost impossible to follow.1 This lack of ability and comfort with public speaking extended to the annual conference gatherings. Addressing a room full of preachers intimidated him. He shied away from the spotlight in those settings.
3. He rejected Wesley’s ordination as general superintendent.
In 1784, John Wesley ordained Thomas Coke as a general superintendent (later to be called bishop) and sent him to North America with instructions to ordain Asbury also as a general superintendent. Asbury rejected the idea. He asserted that the Methodists in America were founding an independent denomination and its leaders needed to echo the democratic ethos in the emerging American culture. To that end, Coke and Asbury gathered all the Methodist preachers at a general conference in Baltimore that Christmas. Those gathered voted to form an independent church and elected Coke and Asbury as its leaders.
4. Asbury lived a life of voluntary poverty.
Asbury rarely owned much more than he could carry on horseback and fought to keep the wages for the Methodist ministers low. His own salary never rose above $80 a year. He believed that voluntary poverty kept him honest and practiced consistency. He took this to the extreme, often setting off on a journey without enough money to complete it trusting that God would supply what he needed. He once set out on a trip from New York to Boston refusing to take more than three dollars with him. This voluntary poverty shielded him against criticism especially during his later years when Methodist ministers began to be more affluent.2
5. He traveled over 130,000 miles.
Asbury was relentless in his quest to spread scriptural holiness across the entirety of North America. To that end, he rode over 130,000 miles, crisscrossing the Appalachian mountains 60 times on horseback. His drive and commitment continued until the end when he would still outpace ministers less than half his age.
6. His lack of a private life underscored his piety.
Asbury’s life of simplicity and extensive travel meant he spent most of his days on horseback and most of his nights as a house guest. This underscores the legitimacy of the claims of his piety as everyday people saw him in his weakest moments when he was tired, sick or both. Though Asbury lived his life with little privacy or time out of the public eye, people continually remarked on his holiness. He indeed practiced what he preached. His life didn’t change when he left the pulpit and went home.3
7. He was more widely recognized face-to-face than either Thomas Jefferson or George Washington.
Due to his wide and frequent travels to even the most remote parts of the frontier, more people would recognize Asbury on the street than Thomas Jefferson or George Washington. “Landlords, lords and tavern keepers knew him on sight in every region, and parents named more than a thousand children after him,” Wiggers writes.4
8. Asbury broke down racial and gender barriers.
One of the most incredible things that Asbury accomplished was tearing down the walls of separation between the Gospel of freedom and those who were less than free in early America. Throughout his ministry, Asbury made places for men and women regardless of race or social standing to exhort believers, pray and even preach. His readiness to challenge the status quo was not without its complications, but his willingness to stand up for justice was central in empowering Richard Allen and James Varrick to found African-American branches of Methodism.5
9. His was the 15th equestrian statue unveiled in Washington, D.C.
Asbury’s influence was celebrated by President Calvin Coolidge on Oct. 15, 1924, when an equestrian statue was unveiled in his honor. It was the 15th such statue in the nation's capital. Previous ones depicted the likes of George Washington and Joan of Arc. On that day, President Coolidge said, “How many temples of worship dot our landscape; how many institutions of learning, some of them rejoicing in the name of Wesley, all trace the inspiration of their existence to the sacrifice and service of this lone circuit rider! He is entitled to rank as one of the builders of our nation.”
10. During his leadership, American Methodism grew from 600 to over 200,000.
Asbury was 26 when he answered the call from John Wesley to come to North America as a missionary. When he arrived in 1771, the Methodists were a small group. Through his incredible dedication that led to preaching over 10,000 sermons and ordaining over 2,000 preachers, those ranks swelled to over 200,000 people in North America by the time he died. One out of every 36 Americans in that day called themselves Methodists.
No matter how difficult the task may seem, Asbury’s legacy proves to us that diligent work empowered by the Holy Spirit can accomplish more for the kingdom of God than we could ever imagine.
When Jeremy and his wife are not playing with their four children, he oversees youth and college ministries and leads the evening worship service at Christ UMC in Mobile, Ala. Jeremy is an author of several books and resources that you can find at JeremyWords.com or follow him on Twitter!
1 John Wigger. American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists (p. 3). Kindle Edition.
2 John Wigger. American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists (p. 12). Kindle Edition.
3 John Wigger. American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists (p. 5). Kindle Edition.
4 John Wigger. American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists (p. 3). Kindle Edition.
5 “Did you Know?” Christian History Institute. Issue 114. p. 1