Wesley Pilgrimage: Bishop Asbury’s difficult departure from home and family

A reflection from the Wesley Pilgrimage in England sponsored by Discipleship Ministries, the General Commission on Archives and History, and the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, all of The United Methodist Church.

It is a story that has played out countless times over the years. Parents fight their emotions as their grown children begin life on their own. Children feel a combination of excitement and fear as they say goodbye to mom and dad, leaving home for new adventures.

The family home of Francis Asbury is now a museum in his memory.

The childhood home of Francis Asbury in West Bromwich today houses the Bishop Asbury Museum. Photo by Joe Iovino, United Methodist Communications.

In the 18th century, this familiar scene happened in the family home Francis Asbury, the most important figure in American Methodism. On Thursday, July 14, 2016, the Wesley Pilgrimage in England visited their family home in West Bromwich which today houses the Bishop Asbury Museum.

In that doorway through which I entered and exited the Asbury home, Francis stood in the early days of August 1771. A few days earlier, this 25-year-old Methodist preacher had volunteered at a conference in Bristol to go to America to share the gospel in the New World.

Immediately following the conference, Asbury traveled to visit with his parents. He writes in his journal, “I went home to acquaint my parents with my great undertaking, which I opened in as gentle a manner as possible. Though it was grievous to flesh and blood, they consented to let me go.”

Bishop Asbury portrait

Francis Asbury traveled to America and spent his life in service to Christ and the church. Photo by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications.

While my flight to England was more than 6 hours, and after five days here, my jet lag is still surprising me from time to time, this was a far greater undertaking then. Asbury would spend the better part of 2 months on the sea making the trip. He also apparently spent a significant part of the voyage hanging off the side of the boat with seasickness.

Asbury’s mom Elizabeth was important in his faith journey, like John and Charles Wesley’s mom Susannah was to them. “My mother is one of the tenderest parents in the world;” Asbury writes in his journal, “but, I believe, she was blessed in the present instance with Divine assistance to part with me.” How insightful for a child to know that it is only by the grace of God that parents have the strength to let their children go.

Our tour guide shared that Asbury’s dad Joseph, a typically stoic man, became emotional at the thought of his son’s departure. As Asbury left, he reportedly hugged is son and said something like, “My son, I shall never see you again.” Dad was right.

A few weeks later, Asbury would return to Bristol where on September 4, 1771, he boarded a ship bound for America. He never returned to England.

In America, Asbury never had a home and never married. He instead travelled across America for the next 44 years founding and leading the Methodist Episcopal Church, which would later be part of The United Methodist Church. When other English preachers returned to Europe during the American Revolutionary War, Asbury stayed and continued to pastor, evangelize, and disciple followers of Jesus Christ.

Plaque at Asbury's cottage.

Before becoming “The Prophet of the Long Road,” Francis Asbury was a son who made a difficult decision to go where God called. Photo by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications.

When Asbury died in the United States on March 31, 1816, estimates are that he had ridden more than 300,000 miles on horseback, preached 16,000 sermons, and ordained 4,000 ministers. This year, 2016, is the 200th anniversary of his death.

While his accomplishments are amazing, I stood in the doorway of his family’s home on Thursday and reflected not on the bishop, but on the son. I thought how difficult it must have been to say that final goodbye to mom and dad. I wondered about the mixture of heartache and pride, his parents must have felt that day.

How good it is to remember that these titans in the faith were people, just like you and me. Empowered by the Spirit, they offered their lives to Christ, who through them did great things to the glory of God. The same is true for us today.

*Joe Iovino works for UMC.org at United Methodist Communications. Contact him by email or at 615-312-3733.

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