300,000 miles on horseback, from the Atlantic to the Appalachians, from Maine to the Gulf of Mexico, for 45 years, he spread the Gospel. This was Francis Asbury, Methodist circuit riding preacher who was born Aug. 20, 1745.
In 1771, John Wesley sent Francis Asbury, age of 26, to minister in America. When the Revolution began, Asbury was the only Methodist Anglican minister to remain, as he refused to return with other Anglican ministers to England, stating: “I can by no means agree to leave such a field for gathering souls to Christ as we have in America.”
Francis Asbury preached over 16,000 sermons in churches, town squares and court houses, addressing everyone he met, from travelers to workers in the fields to laborers in tobacco houses. He rode an average of 6,000 miles a year.
Francis Asbury’s leadership resulted in the Methodist church in America growing from 1,200 people to 214,000 with 700 ordained minsters.
Prior to the Revolution, the Anglican church had ministers in most colonies, with it being the official established state church in:
- Virginia in 1609
- New York in 1693
- Maryland in 1702
- South Carolina in 1706
- North Carolina in 1730
- Georgia in 1758
As the king of England was the head of the Anglican church, when the Revolution began, Anglican pastors faced a crisis of conscience, having to choose between allegiance to the state or siding with American independence.
On July 9, 1776, patriots in New York pulled down the statue of King George.
In 1777, British General Howe invaded Philadelphia and imprisoned Rev. Jacob Duché, the Anglican chaplain of the Continental Congress, and undoubtedly pressured him to abandon the American cause.
Several American colonies made it an act of treason for pastors to continued saying public prayers for the king. In 1784, 81-year-old John Wesley appointed Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke to oversee the Methodist revival movement in the America. In 1784, Rev. Samuel Seabury of Connecticut sought consecration as an Anglican bishop but could not take the Oath of Supremacy to the king. Bishops in Scotland agreed to consecrate Seabury and in 1785, Bishop Seabury began ordaining ministers in Connecticut, leading to the beginning of Episcopal church in America.
In 1785, Francis Asbury separated the Methodist revival movement away from the Anglican-Episcopal church to form its own denomination – the Methodist Episcopal church. This had tremendous political impact in Virginia as the Anglican church had been the officially established state church since the colony’s founding charter in 1606.
In 1786, with Americans having just fought a war of independence from the king, the Virginia Assembly was faced with the decision of whether they should replace the established Anglican church with the new Episcopal church, or to disestablish it altogether and not have an official state church in Virginia.
With Francis Asbury having separated the Methodist movement from the Anglican-Episcopal church, there were not enough Episcopal members in the Virginia legislature to vote for that church to be the established church. In 1786, Virginia officially disestablished the Anglican-Episcopal church, thereby allowing other denominations to be treated equally.
In 1786, Rev. William Smith of Maryland and Rev. William White of Philadelphia proposed a revised Book of Common Prayer where references to the king were replaced with references to Congress.
Britain passed the Consecration of Bishops Abroad Act of 1786 which allowed Anglican Archbishops to consecrated in 1787 American Bishops Samuel Provoost of New York, who served as the first chaplain of the U.S. Senate; and William White of Philadelphia, who served as the second chaplain of the U.S. Senate.
In 1789, Episcopal clergy met in Philadelphia to ratify the initial constitution of the Episcopal church in America. Nearly one-fourth of all U.S. presidents were Episcopalian, more than any other denomination, followed by Presbyterian. The fourth Episcopal bishop in America, and the first in Virginia, was Bishop James Madison, cousin of fellow Virginian James Madison, the fourth U.S. President.
Thus the Revolution resulted in the Anglican church giving birth to the Episcopal church which gave birth to the Methodist Episcopal church.
During the previous two centuries Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Puritans, Pilgrims, Separatists, Quakers and Baptists went through their own experiences of separation from the Anglican church.
Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury befriended Richard Bassett, a signer of the U.S. Constitution. Richard Bassett converted to being a Methodist, freed his slaves, paid them as hired labor and rode joyfully with them to revival meetings.
Shortly after being sworn in as the first president, George Washington was visited in New York on May 19, 1789, by the first two Methodist Bishops in America, Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke, who delivered the message: “We … express to you … our sincere congratulations, on your appointment to the presidentship of these states. We … place as full a confidence in your wisdom and integrity, for the preservation of those civil and religious liberties which have been transmitted to us by the Providence of God. … Dependence on the Great Governor of the Universe which you have repeatedly expressed, acknowledging Him the source of every blessing, and particularly of the most excellent Constitution of these States, which is at present the admiration of the world. …”
Bishop Asbury continued: “We enjoy a holy expectation that you will always prove a faithful and impartial patron of genuine, vital religion – the grand end of our creation and present probationary existence. … We promise you our fervent prayers to the Throne of Grace, that God Almighty may endue you with all the graces and gifts of his Holy Spirit, that may enable you to fill up your important station to His glory.”
On May 29, 1789, President Washington wrote a reply: “To the Bishops of the Methodist-Episcopal church. … I return to you … my thanks for the demonstrations of affection and the expressions of joy … on my late appointment. It shall still be my endeavor … to contribute … towards the preservation of the civil and religious liberties of the American people. … I hope, by the assistance of Divine Providence, not altogether to disappoint the confidence which you have been pleased to repose in me … in acknowledgments of homage to the Great Governor of the Universe. …”
Washington continued: “I trust the people of every denomination … will have every occasion to be convinced that I shall always strive to prove a faithful and impartial patron of genuine, vital religion. … I take in the kindest part the promise you make of presenting your prayers at the Throne of Grace for me, and that I likewise implore the Divine benediction on yourselves and your religious community.”
In 1799, Francis Asbury ordained the first African-American Methodist minister, Richard Allen, and dedicated the first African Methodist Episcopal church. Francis Asbury’s carriage driver was “Black Harry” Hosier. Though illiterate, Hosier listened to Francis Asbury’s sermons and memorized long passages of Scripture.
“Black Harry” Hosier became one of the country’s most popular preachers, drawing crowds in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Boston, Connecticut, Philadelphia, Delaware, Baltimore and New York. Hosier rejected slavery, lifted up the common working man, and charged audiences “that they must be holy.”
Hosier’s popularity gave birth to the name “Hoosier” being used to refer to persons of humble birth who firmly held Bible values, as the settlers who crossed the Ohio River to the Indiana shore.
President Calvin Coolidge unveiled an equestrian statue of Francis Asbury in Washington, D.C., 1924, stating: “Francis Asbury, the first American Bishop of the Methodist Episcopal church … made a tremendous contribution. …”
Coolidge continued: “Our government rests upon religion. It is from that source that we derive our reverence for truth and justice, for equality and liberty, and for the rights of mankind. Unless the people believe in these principles they cannot believe in our government. … Calling the people to righteousness (was) a direct preparation for self-government. It was for a continuation of this work that Francis Asbury was raised up. …”
Coolidge added: “The government of a country never gets ahead of the religion of a country. There is no way by which we can substitute the authority of law for the virtue of man. … Real reforms which society in these days is seeking will come as a result of our religious convictions, or they will not come at all. Peace, justice, humanity, charity – these cannot be legislated into being. They are the result of a Divine Grace. …”
Coolidge continued about Francis Asbury: “Frontier mothers must have brought their children to him to receive his blessings! It is more than probable that Nancy Hanks, the mother of Lincoln, had heard him in her youth. Adams and Jefferson must have known him, and Jackson must have seen in him a flaming spirit as unconquerable as his own. … He is entitled to rank as one of the builders of our nation. On the foundation of a religious civilization which he sought to build, our country has enjoyed greater blessing of liberty and prosperity than was ever before the lot of man. These cannot continue if we neglect the work which he did.”
Coolidge concluded: “We cannot depend on the government to do the work of religion. I do not see how anyone could recount the story of this early Bishop without feeling a renewed faith in our own country.”
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