Asbury, Francis

   first bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church
   Francis Asbury, first bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church (now a constituent part of the United Methodist Church), was born at Handsworth, Staffordshire (near Birmingham), England, on August 20, 1745. His parents were members of the relatively new Methodist movement. At 13, Francis had his first religious experience and at 16 he left an apprenticeship to become a local Methodist preacher. He was 22 when he began to travel as a Methodist minister.
   In 1771, Asbury was one of the preachers sent to America by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, to oversee the fledgling movement that had emerged in the 1760s. Richard Wright accompanied him to Philadelphia. The next year, Wesley named Asbury his "general assistant in America" to supervise the preachers then functioning in the colonies and the few societies that had been founded. He served until Thomas Rankin, one of the older preachers, arrived in 1773.
   Following the outbreak of the American Revolution, Asbury was the only one of Wesley's preachers who remained in America. Because of Wesley's Tory sympathies, Methodists were distrusted and Asbury worked to have them accepted, first as an apolitical group, and then as loyal Americans. An opponent of all oaths, he was arrested on June 20, 1776, and fined five pounds for refusing to take Maryland's oath of allegiance. In March 1778, he retired to the Delaware home of his friend Judge Thomas White, where he remained for the next 10 months. Only in 1780 did he resume his wide-ranging travels, by which time most people had come to accept the Methodists.
   After the colonists won their independence, Wesley decided to put American Methodist work on an independent basis. Unable to get help from the Anglican authorities to ordain the lay preachers then in America, he assumed the role of bishop himself and designated Thomas Coke (1747-1814) and Richard Whatcoat (1736-1806) as "superintendents" with the authority to act in his stead. Upon their arrival in America in 1784, they met with Asbury, who called the meeting at Barrett's Chapel in rural Maryland where, over the Christmas holidays, the Methodist Episcopal Church was organized. On three successive days, Asbury was ordained a deacon and an elder (minister) and consecrated as a bishop.
   For the next 30 years Asbury traveled the length and breadth of America (averaging around 6,000 miles a year on horseback), encouraging preachers and assisting as he could in building the work. He kept an extensive journal, which became a basic record of the church's growth and an important document of the first generation of the national life. He decided not to marry, that he not be distracted from his primary task.
   He made up for his lack of education by reading and study, even acquiring a working knowledge of Greek and Hebrew. He devoted much attention to developing the church's educational program. He left the church with some 700 fully ordained ministers (itinerants, who traveled at his direction to various assigned territories), 2,000 local preachers, and more than 214,000 members. He died in Spottsylvania, Virginia, on March 31, 1816, a week after preaching his last sermon. In 1924, a statue of Bishop Asbury on horseback was unveiled in Washington, D.C., in recognition of his role in building the United States.
   Further reading:
   ■ Francis Asbury, The Journal and Letters of Francis Asbury, ed. by Elmer T. Clark, 3 vols. (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1958)
   ■ Frank Baker, From Wesley to Asbury: Studies in Early American Methodism (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1976)
   ■ Emory Bucke, ed., The History of American Methodism (New York: Abingdon Press, 1964)
   ■ Russell Richey, Early American Methodism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991)
   ■ J. C. Rudolph, Francis Asbury (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1966).

Encyclopedia of Protestantism. . 2005.

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