Interview with the Man Restoring Our Portrait of Pioneer Francis Asbury

 Francis Asbury
n our Introduction to the Importance of Francis Asbury, on Monday, we explained why this pioneer in American religion remains an amazing figure to this day. We compared Asbury to a Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.

More than 200 years ago, Francis Asbury figured out that the success of any American religious movement would depend largely on Americans themselves. Long before electricity, let alone computers, Asbury personally became an Internet for congregations, traveling 130,000 miles by horse. He organized a church whose structure looked a lot like a Web network today.
In 2009, in another era of turbulent change in religious life—with many long-standing institutions changing dramatically—Asbury re-emerges as a pioneer with ideas worth reclaiming.
Here is Part 2 of our look at Francis Asbury …


John Wigger     DAVID: Tell us a little about your work as a scholar?

JOHN: I’m a historian at the University of Missouri—basically a cultural social religious historian. I worked on this book for about 10 years.

DAVID: What’s your religious affiliation? Are you a Methodist?

JOHN: My religious background is pretty complicated. I was raised Baptist. I now attend a Presbyterian church with lots of college students. I’ve studied Methodists for many years. And, I’ve also been part of a number of different religious traditions.

DAVID: You’re giving us this major new portrait of Francis Asbury—as a historian and an educator. You’re not a Methodist “insider” promoting your own denomination. You’re an independent biographer, we might say. So, given everything you could have explored, what interests you about Methodists enough to devote years of your life to studying these people?

JOHN: What I discovered when I first started doing religious history was that I really enjoyed looking at large-scale religious movements that exploded onto the American religious scene, but also stayed around and endured over time. At one point I thought I might focus my studies on Pentecostalism, but one of my academic advisors suggested I work on Methodism.

DAVID: As a reader, I’m glad your advisor pushed you in this direction. A lot of writers are looking at Pentecostalism. But Methodist history is, for all intents and purposes, largely lost in America. Methodist churches generally are more likely to take the “Methodist” name off their street signs than they are to teach much about Methodist history in their congregations.

So, set the stage for us. (The photo at right shows the Asbury Memorial in Washington D.C.)

JOHN: Methodism in America really began in the Revolutionary War era and within the space of about 75 years it had become the largest religious group in America. A third of all churchgoers in America, by one calculation, went to a Methodist church in 1850. So Methodists went from nothing—to absolutely the largest church—in the space of about 75 years, which is remarkable growth.

If you also include the Holiness and Pentecostal movements that came largely out of the Methodist-Wesleyan tradition then that carries the story further. Pentecostalism is the most vibrant Protestant religious tradition in the world, today, so if you include within the legacy of Methodism these related movements—then Methodism remains a major and vibrant religious tradition.

DAVID: As far as most Americans are concerned, the overall story is this: The church boomed and, for most of the 1800s, it grew very successfully until it dominated American life. But the mainline Methodist church began to wane long before it became what’s known today as the United Methodist Church, right?

JOHN: This is an interesting question. Actually, Methodism continued to grow as fast as the American population grew until about 1960, which again surprises people when I say it that way. After 1960, it just drops off the table.

Methodism really didn’t decline numerically until the middle of the 20th Century. However, it changed significantly along the way. In a way, Methodists were victims of their own success. As they grew, they developed lots of congregations.

DAVID: Famously, they had more congregations than U.S. Post Offices and in the 1950s, LIFE Magazine and other big magazines published front-page stories about how Methodism mirrored the breadth and diversity of American life.

JOHN: Yes, but Methodism already was losing touch with segments of the American population by the middle of the 20th Century. That’s why groups split off along the way. The Holiness tradition split off. They recognized that Methodism was changing under their feet.

But your comment about the number and reach of the congregations is very well put. It’s one of the keys to understanding the spread of Methodism. It reached into so many communities.

DAVID: OK, now we’re jumping into the heart of your book. I think the most interesting question in your book is: How did this guy, Francis Asbury, who was not known as a great preacher—and is largely forgotten today—touch off such a stunning explosion in American religious life?

JOHN: One of the things I hope this book does is raise questions for readers about the meaning of religious leadership in America. To some extent, we’ve misunderstood religious leadership. We’ve tended to focus on individuals who were great communicators, great preachers. But, if you look at the country’s largest religious movements—Methodists, Baptists, Roman Catholics—most Americans today can’t name a single figure who put these religious movements together in this country.

Most Americans today don’t know who Francis Asbury is.

I wanted to go back and find out what was it about Asbury that allowed him to do this with Methodism. The first thing I found was that he was never a great preacher.

DAVID: You’re putting it rather mildly here. In your book, you make it clear that he was a downright terrible preacher, right?

JOHN: Yes. He was zealous, but his strengths did not lie in communicating to large groups of people.

Francis Asbury portrait
DAVID: Describe Asbury.

JOHN: He was about 5-foot-9 and about 150 pounds—a typical size for Americans of that time. Most people described him as “rugged.” He spent his entire life traveling by horse and he was in pretty good shape. He looked fairly thin most of his life. He usually ate pretty sparingly.

DAVID: So, if he couldn’t preach very well, what was it about this fellow that made crowds gather to see him—often in the evenings around fires in fireplaces somewhere. What was it that made him so popular?

JOHN: One thing people talked about was his piety. I use that word “piety” for lack of a better word. He was legendary for his voluntary poverty, for his life of prayer. He never owned a house! Usually, he stayed in people’s homes as he traveled and normally he didn’t have a private house to call his home. He lived for 45 years as a house guest of other people!

It was that transparency and public nature of his life—marked by such obvious piety—that people respected wherever he went. You couldn’t appreciate him in the pulpit if you didn’t know him already. But huge numbers of Americans felt they did know him. He might have stayed at your uncle’s cabin—or you had a chance to hear him tell stories one night when he stayed somewhere else in your town. Word spread about him—and he traveled so widely.

DAVID: Earlier, we had Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan visiting ReadTheSpirit to talk about their new book on St. Paul. Now, Paul apparently was a pretty good preacher. But, they made this same point about Paul in one-on-one settings—or in connecting with small groups. There was something deeply compelling about Paul. Somehow, he could interact with complete strangers and, quickly, win them over to his faith.

We find this same kind of description of Asbury.

JOHN: I think it was this piety and transparency in his life—and he had a genuine interest in listening to people. That can sound like a cliché, but people didn’t often come away from seeing Bishop Asbury talking about this incredible thing he had said. People who met him came away saying: “I had a chance to talk with him!” It was the exchanges with Americans—so many Americans in so many places—that became memorable. He was genuinely interested in people’s lives.

DAVID: Today, that approach to ministry is a bedrock truth about American life that successful clergy understand. Americans have a strong desire for faith in their lives—but they also have a strong desire to express themselves, as well.

JOHN: Asbury also had a very healthy sense of humor. Early American Methodists didn’t necessarily connect laughter and humor with the pious life—but there are a remarkable number of stories existing about Asbury that recount his good humor. It was unexpected and welcomed by many people.

DAVID: We’re talking about more than his popularity rating, right? You argue persuasively in your book that it was Asbury’s appreciation and understanding of the American spirit that made him such an effective leader.

A huge example of this is the fact that John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, opposed the American Revolution. He ordered his preachers in America to preach out against it. But Asbury took a completely different approach.

Asbury in the snow
JOHN: Yes, he felt the pulse of America. He worked very hard to accomplish that. But, unlike Wesley’s other preachers in America, Asbury realized that this was not something the church could oppose out of hand and hope to stay connected to the American people.

DAVID: He was not a rabble rouser for the Revolution, but he stayed here throughout the Revolution and he did not try to preach against it.

JOHN: Asbury was forthrightly not interested in politics. He maintained a distance from politics as much as possible.

DAVID: He doesn’t show up in histories of the American Revolution.

JOHN: He basically went into hiding during two years of the Revolution. He didn’t want to have anything to do with it overtly, but actually the foundation for Methodism’s success was laid in this period. It’s right after the Revolution that Methodism really takes off.

DAVID: For one thing, he actually remained here through the war. Other Wesley preachers left the country. You write, “Of John Wesley’s licensed missionaries, Asbury was the only one who stayed through the Revolution as a Methodist.”

JOHN: That’s important because Methodism really could have broken apart in this period.

DAVID: You write about the fact that the American South pretty much jumped ship from Wesley and official Methodism. They gave up on waiting for official representatives to come ordain new clergy and supervise the church.

JOHN: Yes, Methodism in the South began to set up a kind of Presbyterian system to keep ordaining leaders. Asbury is the one who kept the South inside the Methodist church. He rode south and convinced them to reconnect. He spent a lot of time there.

This was a pivotal moment for Methodism and it speaks to why he was such a successful leader. He started crisscrossing Virginia and the Carolinas personally and seeing as many people as he could. People began to say: Hey, this guy has a vision and a plan and we can follow him. He personally won them over when they were almost gone from the church.

DAVID: There are biographies of Francis Asbury—I’ve got one on my shelf right here in the Home Office—that make Asbury sound like some evil version of Gen. George Patton. He’s sometimes portrayed as this stern task master who deployed Methodist troops like a ruthless general.

He doesn’t come across that way in your book.

JOHN: No. That image of the too-tough general is wrong. Some Methodist literature does portray him as sort of cavalier as he’d ride into town and start ordering people this way and that way—commanding his divisions in the field.

If you actually read the notebooks he kept, especially during his last years of administration, it’s clear that when he would go to an annual conference, he would spend a lot of time talking to presiding elders and preachers about where people should be sent—and where people should be pulled back. He spent a lot of time talking to people, getting input from local leaders and carefully planning the moves.

DAVID: If people flip through your book and sample a few pages, I’d suggest they check out the final section of the book in which you explain the significance of your biography—compared with the other books about Asbury down through the centuries.

Your book really does offer a lot of insight into American religious leadership.

JOHN: That’s right, if you want to understand the kind of religious leadership that can make a difference in American life, you need to understand people like Francis Asbury. He doesn’t have a literary legacy because he wasn’t a famous preacher or a great writer. But he was responsible for creating and holding together—and pushing forward—this amazing juggernaut of Methodism into a major place in American history.

As you begin to appreciate his piety, his transparency, his feel for the culture around him, his ability to connect with real people, his use of small groups, his administrative style—despite the lack of communication technology at the time—he emerges as an important model for religious leadership today.

(Our photo of John Wigger above was taken by Melodie Wigger.)

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