"Who will answer God's call?" John Wesley's eyes burned and his words stung. "Who will bring the Gospel to the American frontier?"
I felt a jolt. Our movement was spreading like wildfire through England, but in 1771, the American frontier was an untamed land full of danger. Frontier survival was difficult, and for a traveling preacher it would be even harder. It was strenuous work riding hundreds of miles on horseback in all kinds of weather, to bring the Gospel to the isolated pioneers. Fortunately, I had some experience with such things.
I had spent the last eight years as a traveling preacher, or 'circuit rider.' The Meth- odists taught me to travel on horseback and preach wherever people gathered. My 'preaching circuit' in England included stores, crossroads, farms, and other public places where I could preach to those who couldn't or wouldn't go to church.
Wesley's voice interrupted my thoughts. "Our brethren in America call for help."
I, 26-year-old Francis Asbury, stood and quoted the prophet Isaiah. "Here am I. Send me!"
A FINAL FAREWELL
It was a good thing I was so certain of God's claim upon me, because leaving my parents and my country was difficult. My mother spoke through her tears, forcing a smile.
"I have prayed since you were a baby that God would use you in a special way." She touched my arm, and I felt the warmth of her hand. "I will trust Him to continue the good work He's begun."
My father's voice was hoarse. "God be with you, son." We embraced and I boarded the ship that would carry me across the ocean. I would never see my parents or England again.
WARNING: DANGER AHEAD
In Philadelphia, I stayed at the home of Mr. Francis Harris. It was there I met those who had already experienced the harsh frontier conditions.
"So, you're going to the frontier," one minister said after dinner one night. He leaned back in his chair.
"Yes, sir. God has called me to it."
"You'd better be very sure," he said. "Let me tell you what you'll face."
He proceeded to mention the terrible roads, or lack thereof, the uncertain water supplies, the constant struggle to produce food, indeed, the constant struggle for survival.
"Then there's the lawlessness." He rolled his eyes. "It's every man for himself and no governing authorities. The men are often drunk when they aren't working themselves to death."
Another pastor entered the conversation. "He's right, Francis. The frontier nearly cost me my wife. We went there with the best of intentions. She put up with the loneliness and the bears and even the Indians coming to the door of our pitiful cabin. Then I nearly lost her in childbirth. There were no doctors and no midwives. It was time to leave."
I tried not to be discouraged. God had called me to this work, and He would see me through.
LIFE IN THE SADDLE
My first preaching circuit was outside the city of New York. I quickly learned that my new friends weren't exaggerating about the conditions, yet I pressed on. Then I got assigned to Maryland and tripled the circuits there, recruiting young men who had the vision of reaching remote, primitive areas for Christ. We often rode for five or six weeks straight, through heat and cold, rain and shine. More than once I heard someone exclaim in particularly bad weather, "Nobody out but the crows and the Methodists!"
"What do you do in the saddle all that time?" people asked.
"I do a lot of reading, especially the Bible," I told them. "I also sing hymns, fast, and pray."
"I don't know how you do it."
"It's not I who does the work," I said. "Jesus works through me."
I preached to any audience I could find, even when seriously ill or threatened by angry mobs. I preached hundreds of sermons with my throat so sore I could barely speak and fever burning so hot I could barely think. I was once so sick I had to be tied to my horse so I wouldn't fall off.
People told me, "You're going to kill yourself."
But even in the face of death, I wanted to remain faithful to the God I loved.
WHERE AM I?
"Brother Asbury? Brother Asbury, are you a'feelin' all right?"
Through a blur, I saw a large bearded man. Who was he? How did I get here?
"I think he's comin' around," the man said.
A female voice said, "I'll fetch some broth."
Sweat beaded on my forehead, and not just from the heat of a fire. This came from inside, a feverish warmth. As I returned to consciousness, I saw that I was lying on the damp, earthen floor of a crudely built log cabin, covered by my saddle blanket.
"Wh-where am I?" I asked.
The man drew closer, his breath strong. "We're the Youngs," he said. "We went to your meetin' last night at a neighbor farm, and you preached a fine sermon."
I tried to remember what colony I was in, Maryland was it? Or maybe Pennsylvania? I remembered that someone had opened up a barn to me, and I had stood on a hay bale to speak.
"There was a disturbance, but you kep' a 'goin," the man said. "Some older boys was throwin' tomatoes, but you ignored 'em right good."
"You was strong, at least in spirit." His wife drew near, and I saw her lined face. "Right after you finished, you fell to the floor. My man picked you up, and we brought you here in our wagon."
Thank God for such people! "God bless you," I said, too weak to move. Of course, I knew I needed to leave shortly. I was 20 miles away from the general store where I was to preach tomorrow.
SO MANY SACRIFICES
For 30 years I traveled across America, watching as it changed from British colony to independent country. I trained many men to be circuit riders, and I lost a lot to illness. Even more left to marry and have a normal life. I couldn't blame them. Back in England I had a sweetheart, but it was God's will that we never married. I could not have done this work otherwise. My closest companions were my horses. First Jane, then Fox after I wore Jane out, followed by Spark when Fox gave way. Yet it was a privilege to suffer what little I did for God's sake. I wanted Him to find me faithful.
Francis Asbury rode about 5,000 miles each year and preached every other day. He ordained over 4,000 ministers and preached more than 16,500 sermons. When he died on March 31, 1816, funeral services were held in several cities, with tens of thousands of people in attendance. Many considered him as much a Founding Father of America as George Washington or Thomas Jefferson.
- Why was Francis Asbury the right man for the job he did?
- Why was circuit riding so important in the American frontier?
- What parts of the circuit riding life would you enjoy? What would you dislike?
- When Francis Asbury arrived in America there were only 300 Methodists in the colonies. Upon his death, the numbers had grown to more than 250,000! Why do you think the circuit riders were so successful at spreading the Christian faith?
- How are modern traveling evangelists like circuit riders? How are they different?
- Suggested reading:
- A Pioneer Sampler: The Daily Life of a Pioneer Family in 1840, by Barbara Greenwood, Tickner and Fields Books for Young Readers