Bishop Francis Asbury was one of the first two bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States and played a key role in organizing what is now The United Methodist Church. This year, both The Methodist Church of Britain and The United Methodist Church are celebrating the 250th anniversary of his crossing from England to America. Over his 45 years in America, Asbury had ridden over 130,000 miles and crossed the Allegheny Mountains some 60 times. Asbury became so well known that a person need only write on a letter “Bishop Francis Asbury, United States” for that letter to find him.
When he arrived 250 years ago, there were about 600 Methodists in America. When he died 45 years later, there were more than 200,000 (about 1 of every 36 Americans).
In his book, “Francis Asbury,” author L.C. Rudolph chronicles the difficulties of traversing mountains and wilderness on horseback in the late 18th century, including Asbury’s own colorful descriptions of those challenges. Rudolph’s book also includes excerpts from Ezra Squier Tipple’s 1916 book on Asbury.
This task was very hard on the bishop’s bones and flesh. Generally he traveled horseback. “I seldom mount my horse for a ride of less distance than twenty miles on ordinary occasions; and frequently have forty or fifty in moving from one circuit to another. In traveling thus I suffer much from hunger and cold.” Since another giant fact of American church history was the space of the western frontier, his national diocese kept expanding. Methodists who went west asked for Methodist preachers; Asbury sent Methodist preachers whether they were asked for or not. Soon his territory was about the size of continental Europe, excluding Russia, and he was still making the rounds himself. When he took time to add up his horseback mileage for a year, it generally totaled four to six thousand miles.
He literally went everywhere. In his annual or semi-annual episcopal journeys he visited practically every State in the Union every year. His Journal shows that he went into New York State more than fifty times; New Jersey, over sixty, Pennsylvania, seventy-eight; Maryland, eighty; North Carolina, sixty-three; South Carolina, forty-six; Virginia, eight-four; Tennessee and Georgia, each twenty; Massachusetts, twenty-three times after his first visit there in 1791; and in the other States and Territories with corresponding frequency. Take an atlas and follow him on the map as he makes a typical journey [1791-92]. Leaving New York in the early part of September, he proceeds by Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore; Alexandria, Petersburg, and Norfolk, Virginia; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Charleston, South Carolina, to Washington, in Georgia. Returning through South Carolina, he enters North Carolina; passes on to the western counties; crosses the mountains to the Holston River, in Tennessee; plunges into the Kentucky wilderness as far as Lexington; returns to the Holston; passes up on the west side of the Alleghenies, over a mountainous region, through the whole breadth of Virginia, to Uniontown, in Pennsylvania; crosses the Alleghenies by Laurel Hill and Cumberland to Baltimore; goes on to New York; proceeds directly through Connecticut and Massachusetts to Lynn; passes west across the valley of the Connecticut, by Northhampton, and over the Berkshire Hills by Pittsfield, to Albany, and then down the valley of the Hudson to New York, where he arrives on the 28th of August, 1792. In later years his episcopal circuit was even more extended.
[Ezra Squier Tipple, “Francis Asbury: The Prophet of the Long Road" (New York: Methodist Book Concern, 1916), pp. 162-63.]
How can this be translated into aching days of travel by horse? How does it feel to finish a western tour in Kentucky and know that the next conference is in South Carolina only a few weeks away? Those Appalachian Mountains, the Lord’s dirtiest trick on a horseback rider, lay there in the way. Asbury dreaded them; he spoke of his forty times “over the Alps.” The mountains were bad enough when they were dry.
I preached at Samuel Edney’s. Next day we had to cope with Little and Great Hunger mountains. Now I know what Mills Gap is, between Buncombe and Rutherford: one of the descents is like the roof of a house, for nearly a mile: I rode, I walked, I sweated, I trembled, and my old knees failed: here are gullies, and rocks, and precipices; nevertheless, the way is as good as the path over the Table mountain — bad is the best.
[Francis Asbury's diary]
Usually the mountains were not dry. Consider the crossing in March of 1797:
I was unwell; the clouds were lowering. We had ridden but a mile when the rain began … Hard necessity made us move forward: the western branch of Toe River, that comes down from Yellow Mountain, was rapidly filling; and was rocky, rolling, and roaring like the sea, and we were compelled to cross it several times.
[Francis Asbury's diary]
Return to the main article, Bishop Asbury still shapes church today.
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