The Prophet of the Long Road

“If there may be peace and love between God and his saints, then surely, nonwithstanding these things, the saints may be at peace and love among themselves.”

These words are from Francis Asbury’s 1792 book titled The Causes, Evils and Cures of Heart and Church Divisions. Asbury’s book would have been read and honored by people across America. Why? Because he was the Father of American Methodism.

Francis A20160215-1sbury was not only the first Methodist bishop in America, but he was, by many accounts, the best known person in the entire country at the time. Asbury was recognized on sight by more people than was his contemporary, President George Washington. That’s because he traveled throughout the colonies, staying in the homes of different families every night. Bishop Asbury tirelessly rode on horseback up and down the Atlantic seaboard and as far west as there were settlers, visiting every community, outpost and fort in areas George Washington was never seen.

“If ever God shows mercy to his church, God will give them pastors after his own heart who will abound in light and love and lead the people into concord upon the ancient terms and make it their work to put this love-killing spirit to death. Death is at work through striving disputes, by dividing principles and practices, by reproaching others, by human cruelty, or by a religious censorious cruelty, which does not kill nor strike people but drives them out of church and damns them.”

Francis Asbury understood America better than anyone else because of the intimate contact he had with ordinary Americans for the 44 years of his ministry. Asbury had the largest Methodist circuit ever! He visited every Methodist preacher in America each year. Historians say he rode on horseback farther than any man in American history, averaging 6,000 miles a year or some 265,000 miles during his career.

20160215-2Asbury was often inadequately clothed because he would give away his coat or shirt to anyone needier than himself. Asbury’s schedule was so packed that he often slept just six hours a night so he wouldn’t be late for an appointment. Under his leadership, the church grew from 1,200 to 214,000 members and 700 ordained preachers during his ministry. Because of Asbury’s great travels, he became known as “The Prophet of the Long Road.”

“There is much sin in divisions because they are a means to keep others away from God’s ways. If this is their religion, they say, for Christians to quarrel with each other, we will have none of it. When they see this, they will conclude, surely this isn’t the way of Christ.”

How could the Prophet of the Long Road have ever known that he was the one God would call to grow the Methodist Episcopal Church in America and keep it united? “Our brethren in America call aloud for help. Who are willing to go over and help them?” So asked John Wesley in his address at the Bristol (England) Conference in 1771. A young preacher who had been admitted into the British Conference in 1768 arose and said, “Here I am. Send me!”

Eight days out to sea on his voyage to America in September, 1771, Francis Asbury wrote, “Whither am I going? To the New World. What to do? To gain honor? No, if I know my own heart. To get money? No; I am going to live to God and to bring others to do so!” Little did Asbury know what was in store for him.

“It is a bad sign when your zeal is heightened over some singular opinion that you have owned, and not for the common salvation and substance of the Christian faith or practice; or at least when your peculiar opinion has a greater proportion of your zeal than many more plain and necessary truths.”

America colonists were ripe for conversion during and after the Revolutionary War period, but there were challenges. The Methodists were a movement within the Church of England, and there was no one to ordain Methodist laymen who felt called to preach and become circuit riders. There was also the danger of Methodist preachers going rogue, turning independent or settling down and not wanting to itinerate. Asbury yearned for a regular connection.

“A huge amount of time is spent over our divisions, for which we are not able to give an account to God… Of all the time allotted to a person’s life, that time spent in legal maneuvers and quarrelling is the worst.”

Another complicating factor was that John Wesley, a staunch Tory, asked his preachers to be peacemakers, which meant that many colonists saw them as Loyalists, thus impeding ministry. Francis Asbury was sympathetic to the patriots but did not actively involve himself in the war. Wesley recalled to England every one of his Methodist preachers by 1777 except for Asbury. Consequently, the Methodist societies lost many members during the war. It was a long road for Francis Asbury, who reported thousands of Methodists who were unbaptized and had not received the sacraments for years.

“If your hearts are right and your cause is good, you need not make use of anything that is evil to comfort your hearts or maintain your cause.”

By 1783 the need for ordained preachers in America was so critical that John Wesley set apart Thomas Coke as a superintendent on September 1, 1884. He then sent Coke to America with a plan for setting up an independent church that was separate from the Church of England.

At the “Christmas Conference” in December 1784 in Baltimore’s Lovely Lane Chapel, Thomas Coke ordained Francis Asbury a deacon on Christmas Day. On December 26, Coke ordained him an elder, and on December 27, he commissioned Asbury as a General Superintendent. As Coke put it, “We were in great haste and did much business in a little time.”

Coke and Asbury took to calling themselves bishops, which John Wesley did not like, so he wrote in 1788 to his “Dear Franky” Asbury, “Men may call me a knave or a fool, a rascal, a scoundrel, and I am content; but they shall never by my consent call me a bishop! For my sake, for God’s sake, for Christ’s sake, put an end to this!”

“If a person is resolute and constant in one thing but very fickle and easily turned aside in others, there is cause to suspect that the constancy is from stiffness rather than from grace.”

The Methodist Episcopal Church in America became what it needed to become under Francis Asbury’s leadership. Although not the best preacher, Asbury was a leader who connected with people wherever they were, built consensus and loyalty and promoted personal and social holiness. He understood what it would take to organize this fledgling denomination so that it could keep up with the rapid westward expansion of the country. Realizing that Methodism would not grow if it remained in the cities on the East Coast, Asbury wrote in 1797, “We must draw resources from the center to the circumference.”

The Prophet of the Long Road also recognized that the very existence of the church for which he had given his life depended upon a close relationship with his clergy and an emphasis on unity and gracious behavior.

“If your hearts are right and your cause is good, you need not make use of anything that is evil to comfort your hearts or maintain your cause.”

20160215-3Asbury’s 1792 book, The Causes, Evils and Cures of Heart and Church Divisions, was originally repurposed and abridged from two earlier books by Richard Baxter and Jeremiah Burroughs. The book was republished by the Methodist Book Concern in 1849, five years after the Methodist Episcopal Church divided into north and south over slavery. Asbury had been a staunch opponent of slavery.

As the 2016 General Conference approaches, Abingdon Press has abridged and republished once more The Causes, Evils and Cures of Heart and Church Divisions. I was convicted by Asbury’s wisdom, even 224 years later, and highly recommend it to anyone who desires to be a witness to the unity of faith, hope and love in our world today.

Francis Asbury never married. He never had a home. He never owned any property. Bishop Asbury had no address except America and the Methodist Episcopal Church wherever it was found. His salary was never more than $85 a year, which he gave away. Francis Asbury, the Prophet of the Long Road, who had no love apart from Jesus Christ and the children of God, is still preaching to us today.

“If dirt is cast upon a mud wall it sticks, but if cast upon marble it soon washes or crumbles away. God will in time justify his servants, even in your consciences, by the constancy of their peaceable demeanor toward people and their gracious, holy walking with their God.”


6 thoughts on “The Prophet of the Long Road

  1. Hi Laurie: I am never sure that you get my comments dear. I am thinking of Gerneral conference this spring. Praying it won,t be given over to much arguments about homosexuality. Mercy when are we going to heal and not judge others. I love the new pope on not judging others . Love and prayers Bunny

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Bunny. We are all praying for General Conference, that God will work in a mighty way to bring us together as one in the midst of our differences.

  2. Thank you Laurie for the post. Touching words about a man who has touched my life for two decades. If you interest, please visit the website for my book series on Asbury. I have recently posted a dramatic telling of the last week of Asbury’s life in March of 1816. The link to “My Work Is Done” is included in this comment. Please visit the numerous articles about Asbury, Wesley, Whitefield, Lady Huntingdon and others. The website for the final week telling is Enjoy.

  3. Laurie,
    I very much appreciate your article about Bishop Asbury and his focus on working at church unity. I believe that this should be a central focus for all of us in our churches and in our conferences. I grew up and was ordained in the Evangelical United Brethren Church. Philip William Otterbein was one of our very significant church fathers. I was always very proud that Otterbein was known as “the great reconciler.” I was taught that Philip Otterbein may have indeed helped save the early Methodist Church because he was asked by them to come to their Christmas conference to help them reconcile their differences. It may be more important than ever for us as United Methodists to remember that we are children of Otterbein, “the great reconciler” as well as the children of Wesley and Asbury.

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