- American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists
A roadside historical marker in Virginia indicating the location of Francis Asbury’s death provides the basic facts of his life: “Bishop Francis Asbury died, March 31, 1816. Asbury, born in England in 1745, came to America in 1771 and labored here until his death. He was ordained one of the first two bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America at the Baltimore Conference of December, 1784” (399). The volume under review is a monumental biography of Asbury by John H. Wigger, associate professor of American history at the University of Missouri. It fills in the multitude of details that the barebones description of Asbury on that roadside marker leaves out.
Those interested in a brief overview of Asbury and early American Methodism should not consult this book. Wigger’s biography is for the intrepid reader who wants to know where Asbury was on a certain date, [End Page 502] to whom he wrote, what those letters said, which preachers he contended with, and in whose homes he stayed. The wonder of this book is in the detailed fashion in which Wigger tells Asbury’s story. We are present for every one of Asbury’s medical emergencies and every bout of suffering from ill health. Indeed, one of the miracles of Asbury’s life is that he lived as long as he did, considering all of his health difficulties, not least of which were due to the horrendous remedies that professional physicians of his day foisted upon him. We are also present for many of the miles that Asbury rode, on horseback or in a wheeled conveyance, as he traversed the American colonies, later states, of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. A sense of Asbury’s gargantuan career can be conveyed in multiples of a thousand: He traveled thousands of miles over the years, preached thousands of sermons to thousands of people in thousands of homes and at thousands of crossroads, and met with thousands of Methodist groups at all levels of size and importance, from local classes to conferences composed of preachers from every state of the Union. In addition, he knew thousands of preachers personally, and placed them thousands of times in circuits as itinerants. Wigger’s detailed biography thus gives the reader a sense of the proportions of Asbury’s ministry.
This biography appears at a time when American religious historians are taking another look at American Methodist history. Nathan O. Hatch challenged historians to investigate Methodism more closely in his presidential address to the American Society of Church History in 1994 (“The Puzzle of American Methodism,” Church History 63 [June 1994], 175–89). Wigger, one of Hatch’s students, then published an important study recasting early American Methodism, Taking Heaven by Storm: Methodism and the Rise of Popular Christianity in America (New York, 1998). Rather than the calm, middle-class believers that earlier historians had described, Wigger’s Methodists were commoners aflame with the gospel, creating church institutions from the ground up. Itinerant preachers, the shock troops of Methodist growth, logged millions of miles in their unending quest to save as many souls as possible. The number of Methodists ballooned during the early years of the nineteenth century, becoming a phenomenal success story in American religious history and permanently altering the American religious landscape.
In his earlier book, Wigger argued that Methodists succeeded because they appealed to the uneducated, hard-working Americans who populated both eastern seaboard towns and the expanding western frontier. [End Page 503] Itinerants came from the same class and ethnic backgrounds as their congregants, preaching consistently in ways that spiritually nurtured their listeners. In addition, Wigger argued that Methodism evolved into a connectional system that linked distant groups to one another through a democratically run system of conferences, in which traveling preachers in any given region could communicate with one another face to face on a regular basis. In his biography of Asbury, Wigger continues these themes. Asbury preached as his preachers...