‘I was born in Old England, near the foot of Hamstead Bridge, in the parish of Handsworth, about four miles from Birmingham, in Staffordshire, and according to my after-knowledge on the 20th or 21st day of August, in the year of our Lord 1745.’
Francis Asbury is a well know figure in American history and in the story of religion in the USA. He travelled thousands of miles across America preaching and spreading the Methodist word, putting forward anti-slavery views, supporting the American War of Independence and even meeting George Washington. His journals are an invaluable source for historians of the period and he has countless churches and roads named after him as well as a number of statues including one on the Capitol Hill. So how did a boy who grew up in a tiny cottage in Great Barr (now part of Sandwell) become this fascinating and important historical figure!
When Francis was about 12 months old his family moved to the tiny cottage which is now Bishop Asbury Cottage Museum on Newton Road. The dominant figure in the young Francis’s life was his mother Elizabeth (‘Eliza’). His father, Joseph, appears as a more distant figure who, whilst a hard working man who ably provided for his family, never fully embraced the Methodist faith that was eventually to become so significant in both his wife’s and son’s lives. Unusually for the period, when large families were the norm, Eliza and Joseph are recorded as only having had one other child – a girl, Sarah, who was born in May 1743 and who was to die just before her 5th birthday.
Eliza never got over the death of her daughter and turned to god for comfort and particularly embraced the up and coming Methodist form of Christianity. At this time Methodism was a new movement within the Church of England, attractive to working people as the movement treated them as equals before god. Reading scriptures was encouraged and lay preachers were important. The more traditional Church of England forms of worship and outlook was associated with the upper classes and the established order. With its emphasis upon emotional conversion experiences, its use of lay-preachers and its outright criticism of the conditions and attitudes within the established church, Methodism proved to be extremely controversial, not least with some of the people at the top of the social scale who greatly resented the idea that they were tainted with the same sinfulness as those at the bottom of the social heap. An excellent example of this is a letter from the Duchess of Buckingham to the Countess of Huntingdon quoted by the famous historian E. P. Thompson in his book ‘The Making of the English Working Class’:
“I thank Your Ladyship for the information concerning the Methodist preachers; the doctrines are most repulsive and strongly tinctured with impertinence and disrespect towards their superiors, in perpetually endeavouring to level all ranks and to do away with all distinctions. It is monstrous to be told you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth”.
John Wesley the founder of the Methodist movement preached in Wednesbury in 1743 a few years before Francis was born. This caused riots in the town and Wesley’s hair was pulled and his coat torn. This chaos demonstrates the controversial nature of Methodist teaching at the time and the strength of feeling on both sides.
Unusually the local landowner in the area where the Asbury family lived, the Earl of Dartmouth was himself a Methodist. At Methodist meetings he was simply known as brother Dartmouth
It seems that at the age of 13 Francis gave up on formal schooling as he did not like his school master who was rather severe and beat the young Asbury. Francis did enjoy reading though and later claimed he could read the scriptures by the age of 6. He was apprenticed to a blacksmith at a local forge located a short walk from Francis’s parent’s home and by all accounts he was very happy there.
Francis gradually became interested in the Methodist movement which was so important to his mother. He probably initially heard Methodist ideas when attending his local Anglican church, All Saints in West Bromwich, and listening to the vicar, Rev. Edward Stillingfleet, who was sympathetic with the Methodist cause. As Francis read more and more and attended more and more sermons, (sometimes walking miles to here Methodist preachers) he became more and more interested in Methodist ideals.
Francis became a lay preacher himself and his first official sermon was at Manwood’s cottage a short walk from his place of work. Methodist meetings at this time often happened in fields, in front of buildings or landmarks (including our own Oak House) and inside ordinary houses including the Asbury’s own home and Eliza continued to host meetings even after Francis left for America. Francis soon became a travelling preacher, going to ‘almost every place within my reach’ as he later wrote.
For the next 5 years Francis’s ministry took him further and further afield in England- first Staffordshire and Gloucestershire then Bedfordshire and Sussex before moving on to Northamptonshire (1769) and Wiltshire (1770). Then on the 7th of August 1771, Francis responded to a question that would forever result in his name being more closely associated with America than his own native land as Wesley asked for preachers to go to America to spread the word.
The prophet on the long road
“Whither am I going? To the New World. What to do? To gain honour? 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.”
Asbury first set foot on American soil in Philadelphia on the 27th October 1771, preaching his first sermon the next day at St. George’s Church. By 1772 Wesley had appointed him his general assistant in America – a position he was to lose the following year when he was replaced by a more experienced preacher, Thomas Rankin. At first based in and around New York, Francis was eager to push further into the continent of America taking his message to the pioneers who were pushing forward the boundaries of the colonies. By the time of his death in 1816 Francis, in his bid to reach as many people as possible with his message, had travelled 270,000 miles, preached 15,000 sermons and, as Bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, ordained 4,000 clergymen.
In 1784 John Wesley sent a Mr Thomas Coke to America to ordain Francis and, with him, oversee the Methodist Church in America, both sharing the role and title of ‘superintendent’. Within four years this title had somehow changed to ‘Bishop’, much to the disgust of Wesley. The Methodist movement in England didn’t and still doesn’t have Bishops. Wesley wrote to Asbury…
“How can you, how dare you suffer yourself to be called a Bishop? I shudder, I start at the very thought! 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!”
The years of relentless travel – mostly on horseback, though frequently on foot – and the harsh living conditions inevitably took its toll upon the health of the Bishop, who travelled until the year of his death. In 1815, he spoke of the physical hardship he had endured in the course of his 45 years of ministry, describing the rheumatism that had recently rendered him unable to use his legs. He died on Sunday 31st March 1816, having preached his last sermon the previous Sunday, at the home of a friend, in Spottsylvania, Virginia.
Once he left the little cottage which is now part of Sandwell Museum Service, he never returned to England despite having told his mother he would be back before he was 30.
On October 15th 1924, the 30th President of the United States – Calvin Coolidge – unveiled a statue of Bishop Asbury in Washington DC. In a speech honouring the work of this man who had done so much to spread the Christian gospel in the fledgling American nation Coolidge stated that’He is entitled to rank as one of the builders of our nation.’
From humble origins in the heart of England to being honoured by the President of a land thousands of miles away, having both seen and made history, the story of Bishop Francis Asbury is a truly amazing one.
Bishop Asbury Cottage is open on several open days each year including Saturday 27th April 10am-12pm and Monday 29th April 1pm-3pm- Entrance is Free.
Find out more about Sandwell Museum Service part of Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council at http://www.sandwell.gov.uk/museums
Baker, F. (1976) From Wesley to Asbury: Studies in early American Methodism. Duke University Press, Durham. Clark, E. ed (1958) The Journal and Letters of Francis Asbury (In Three Volumes). Epworth Press, London. Edwards, M. (1972) Francis Asbury. Penwork (Leeds) Ltd, Manchester. Gregory, B. (1936) Francis Asbury. Epworth Press, London. Hallam, D. (2003) Eliza Asbury: Her cottage and her son. Brewin Books, Studley. Metropolitan Borough of Sandwell (1959) Asbury Cottage: Restored, re-opened and dedicated. Reprint of an original booklet celebrating the opening of Asbury's childhood home to the public. Prince, H. (1925) The Romance of Early Methodism in and around West Bromwich and Wednesbury. Published by the author. Stevens Bucke, E. ed. (1964) The History of American Methodism. Abingdon Press, New York. Townsend, W. et al eds. (1909) A New History of Methodism. Hodder & Stoughton, London. Wesley, J. (1703-91) The Journal of John Wesley. Popular edition condensed 1903. Charles H. Kelly, London. Wigger, J. (2001) Taking heaven by Storm: Methodism and the rise of popular Christianity in America. University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago.