He was never himself exactly sure when he was born, but it was either August 20 or 21, 1745, in the small English town of Sandwell near Birmingham. It’s likely as well that he was not ever actually baptized, as his name does not appear on any parish registers and years later when he wrote to his parents to find out the details, they somewhat suspiciously never responded.
Still, in his own words, his parents were “remarkable for honesty and industry,” eventually moving from their relative indifference to religion to becoming Methodists themselves. Unfortunately, however, the lack of family resources meant that university study was clearly out of reach for their son, despite his appetite for reading and learning, especially after accepting Christ at the age of 13 through the influence of a traveling Baptist shoemaker.
And so just a year later the boy was apprenticed to a local metalworker, given the rather unglamorous task of making buckles and nails. His interest in spiritual matters continued to grow, however, and after joining a class band, at the age of 18 he became a local pastor in the Wesleyan connection.
“Behold me now,” he proclaimed, “a humble and willing servant of any and of every preacher that called on me by night or day, being ready, with hasty steps, to go far and wide to do good…to every place within my reach, for the sake of precious souls!”
Initially that meant getting up at four a.m. each day to be able to finish his work at the forge in time to walk to the Methodist meetings some four or five miles away, which often kept him out until midnight or more. So when he concluded his six-and-one-half year apprenticeship he determined to devote himself entirely to the work of the Lord instead, becoming a traveling preacher where he took seriously Mr. Wesley’s charge to bring as many sinners as possible to repentance and then “build them up in that holiness without which they cannot see the Lord.”
All of which is how at the wizened age of just twenty, that farmer’s boy joined the Methodist Connection becoming one of 104 itinerant preachers who served across the British Isles and Ireland. It’s no surprise, thus, that when he arrived at the yearly conference of preachers held in Bristol in 1771 (the only English conference which he ever attended) and he heard the call of John Wesley for workers to go over to America that Francis Asbury, now all of 26, quickly raised his hand to volunteer, sailing for America on September 4, 1771, determined to simply “live to God and bring others so to do.”
To be sure, it was not an easy task, for not long after arriving here, Asbury found himself—as many a Methodist pastor since has—in conflict with his immediate supervisor, or district superintendent. Fortunately, however, after the American Revolution broke out that superintendent and most other English-born pastors went back to the motherland. Asbury stayed here but had to hide out in Delaware during most of the War years as a suspected Tory sympathizer.
When it was all over, though, Asbury not only returned to his calling, but he did so with a rediscovered understanding and love for the new church in the new nation. What’s more, his new countrymen found themselves instinctively following him, as well, electing him as their first General Superintendent (or Bishop) when the Methodist Episcopal Church in America was founded in 1784.
And for the next three decades, Francis Asbury never looked back, traveling up and down the breadth of the eastern seaboard and into the wilderness continuously, becoming the second most recognizable man (after George Washington) in all the country. It is said that once he even received a letter addressed simply, “Mr. Asbury, America.”
Likewise, the results of his labors were nothing short of magnificent, for under his stewardship the Methodist Church grew from just 10 preachers and 1,160 members in 1773 to almost 700 preachers and 214,235 members at the end of his life in 1816, numbering one member, in fact, for every 39 Americans.
It should not be too surprising, thus, that when he died some twenty to thirty thousand people followed his coffin to his burial spot in Baltimore. For the “Prophet of the Long Road” was, in the words of his best biographer, John Wiggins, a true “American Saint.”
His death on March 31– 200 years ago this week—marked the beginning of a change in American Methodism, to be sure. But maybe remembering his life and faith and following his example, however, can mark another such change as well.
After all, the Lord knows we could use another leader like him in the church today. Even if he wasn’t ever actually baptized.