Lessons from Francis Asbury

Posted: February 22, 2010 in Uncategorized

American Saint book cover

American Saint

Another recent read that I really enjoyed was John Wigger’s American Saint: Francis Asbury & the Methodists. Asbury (1745-1816) had been a blind spot in my understanding of American church history. I knew the name, that he traveled a lot, and was instrumental in founding American Methodism but not much else. This book filled in the blanks on one of the few American preachers with his own monument in Washington DC. Along the way in gave me a lot to think about and those lessons from Asbury are what I want to share here.

Asbury began his career as an uneducated itinerant evangelist in England. Though he would end up a nationally known figure with a great deal of ecclesiastical power after presiding over the incredible expansion of the Methodist church in America, he remained absolutely committed to simplicity and singleness of purpose – namely winning souls to Christ. Indeed he saw a desire to be admired by men the great enemy of the church. The early Methodist revivals that Asbury endorsed and encouraged were wild affairs with shouting, trembling, singing, dancing, going on for hours. Such emotional exuberance in a religious service was scandalous in its day (and would be in ours too). But Asbury and allies like Ezekiel Cooper defended the racket. Wigger writes in a quote that stuck with me:

“[Cooper] suspected that the real problem for those upset by the revivals noise was a desire for respectability in the eyes of the ungodly. “I am awfully afraid that many will lose their souls through fear of reproach,” Copper wrote.” p.170

Cooper’s concern was also Asbury’s lifelong fear. Asbury was also keenly aware of the ability of wealth to sap our spiritual zeal and modeled a life of extreme poverty. There is a lot pro and con that can be said for the emotionalism that characterized early Methodism, but what struck me is how willing Asbury was to play the fool for Christ. In our day we (myself included) talk a lot about being relevant to our culture and the Church having a voice in the cultural discussions of our world. I’m not completely ready to give that up, but as Ed Stetzer has asked what are we winning converts too? How far are we willing to go to win souls to Christ? And what steps do we need to take to ensure that winning souls remains our top priority?


This blog is called Urban Pilgrim, a titled inspired by Psalm 84:5 but in Asbury we have the real pilgrim deal. He spent the majority of his life with no home address he lived and died on the road. And fiercely defended the model of an itinerant (traveling) ministry. This defense was based on the belief that pastors who settled in one location would inevitably be caught up in the concerns and politics of that place and lose sight of their mission to preach the Gospel to sinners. Much of my thinking lately has been on the importance of connecting with a place and a concern that our culture has become rootless to its own harm. I still think this is true but Asbury reminds us that has Christians there is always the danger of finding a home in this world and that hearts on pilgrimage at least sometime require bodies on the move too. It also makes me think about the trade offs between investing the time as Christians to get to know a place a set of people in order to bring the Gospel into their world with the risks in the same practice. I don’t have those answers but appreciate the question being raised (maybe you have thoughts?). At least I now understand why (or one reason why) it was recently the practice for pastors to move frequently – something that doesn’t seem as true today as it maybe was growing up.


A third take away from reading about Asbury is the immense value of taking time to visit people where they live in order to bring the Gospel to their world. Asbury was not a great speaker or writer nor was he a charismatic political organizer, but be had the ability to engage people in conversation and a willingness to spend time in their homes and communities. While traveling he relied on the hospitality of the locals wherever he went and was known for a willingness to stay in all types of homes, humble and wealthy (and occasionally sleeping under a tree). One of things I admired in my fathers’ ministry was his persistence in visiting the people in our church in their homes and occasionally in their fields. In my limited work with small groups I’ve noticed you gain a whole new understanding of people when you meet with them and their groups in their homes. I’ve also been on the other side of the visitation and been blessed to have a church leader come meet with me. Unfortunately I feel that we seldom put much emphasis on visitation in our expectation of clergy and thus don’t allow them much time for it. I think this is a real loss. The management ethos in our country commonly sees people as statistics (understandably given the scale of our economy) but that is a real danger in the church. Asbury was able to uniquely speak for the American people because he spent a lot of time with American people of all sorts, he was also able to uniquely speak to them for the same reason.

Country People

Finally in this book one meets a rare character in history books, rural people living on farms and in small towns. In Asbury’s day most American’s lived in small villages and this was the setting Asbury was most at home. In part this was of personal interest because I come from such places and in the piety and practices described found echoes of my own experiences. There is a reason that cities and schools are emphasized in history – they do indeed have a powerful influence on culture and explain much. But there are other forces such as Asbury and his band of itinerant preachers whose preaching of personal piety, fiscal restraint, and emotion laden presentations of the Gospel may leave little documentary remains but can also have a deep impact on culture. As American in recent years have left the rural places in great numbers for more urban ones they bring these aspects of American culture with them and it continues to have an influence.

There is a lot more that could be said for this book, including a discussion of how to assess the legacy of Asbury but one last thing I’ll say is that this book was also helpful to understand a little more the plight of African Americans in our country and churches. To his credit Asbury was an early and eager abolitionist and really hurt by the white opposition that earned him. In the face of this opposition he helped start some of the first African American churches in this country. If this is an area of interest I think you’ll find some helpful material here.

  1. Friar_Tuck says:

    You give a good summary of the book and make me eager to read it. Thanks.

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