Guest Writer Spotlight: “Saddlebag Preacher” Francis Asbury and his contributions to early America – By Al DeFilippo
Guest Writer Spotlight: “Saddlebag Preacher” Francis Asbury and his contributions to early America – By Al DeFilippo
In America today there can be found hundreds of churches, along with dozens of elementary, middle, and high schools, along with colleges and even cities named after Francis Asbury, an American hero and itinerant preacher from England, who, on the verge of the American Revolutionary War between the Colonies and the British Empire, set out to forge a church in America.
But why was so much attention and honor – including numerous statues, works of stained glass and historical markers along the roadsides throughout the entire country – paid to an 18th-century traveling preacher from the largely unknown blacksmithing town of Great Barr in the West-Midlands of England?
What Does Francis Asbury Mean to America?
Sent in 1771 to the virgin forest known as the American Colonies by the venerable John Wesley at just 26-years-old, Asbury encountered a continent of peoples from Europe and Africa, as well as many nations of the American aborigine, and can be considered the George Washington of American Christianity.
The young inexperienced and unorthodox minister, who preached in taverns, courthouses, and at public hangings, attempted to succeed with a traveling ministry made up of an African sidekick who couldn’t read, uneducated frontiersmen clothed in buckskin, several ex-thieves, gamblers, slaves and prisoners – all living out of saddlebags and barely twenty years of age.
By the time of his death, Asbury had traveled some 270,000 miles, preached an estimated 16,000 sermons, and created the largest church in America.
Stained Glass work of Francis Asbury
Although Francis Asbury did not command a military force, he commanded a spiritual force – a Biblical Cavalry, if you will – which transformed the hearts and souls of many, almost an entire nation by most accounts.
The church he inherited upon his arrival barely contained 300 members. By the time of his death, the Methodist Church he birthed numbered more than 214,000 members. This spiritual force instilled greatness upon a land at a time in search of its own identity as a nation.
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Much in the same way that the young Biblical prophet, Elisha, inherited his ministry from his mentor, Elijah, Francis Asbury inherited the efforts of ministers who went before him.
It is the opinion of many that Francis Asbury was an extension of the works of men like David Brainerd and George Whitefield.
Guest for Dinner Tonight: Francis Asbury
What also made Francis Asbury an American favorite was the fact that he was known by almost everyone in the burgeoning nation.
Although he never owned a home during his 45-year ministry in America, his travels from Maine in the northeast to Georgia in the southeast, from Maryland and Virginia in the east to Tennessee and Kentucky in the west made him a household name. Not only did he preach and teach in these towns, but he also personally spent the night in many of the homes of the faithful in these towns.
Francis Asbury’s British Forefathers
Francis Asbury never gave up his British citizenship either, despite the fact that at times during the American Revolutionary War with Great Britain, many suspected his ministry travels as spying for the British army.
In time, the true sentiments of Francis Asbury’s love for his adopted country became known, as well as his longing to share the Gospel wherever God placed him. The American colonists during the war began to see that Francis Asbury was slowly becoming an American asset, bringing the hope of the Bible to a war-torn land.
There are some who correctly state that if there wasn’t a Francis Asbury, there would be no American Methodism. But there are also many who acknowledge that without Francis Asbury, there would be no American Christianity.
Many of the enriching qualities of contemporary American Christianity originated with the efforts of Francis Asbury and the thousands of traveling preachers he pushed to spread the life-giving message of the Gospel.
The ideas of small groups, outreach across denominational and ethnic lines, the fight for Biblical justice, and the celebration of worship through music are among those enriching qualities which survive and give life to the American church body today.
Noteworthy is that these qualities flourished at a time when the faithful believers were pushed to their limits during a war which risked everything they held dear.
Another noteworthy, even ironic twist to the culturally changing efforts of Francis Asbury, is that much of what he accomplished came about in part by the mentoring of the British Methodists, John and Charles Wesley and their band of itinerant preachers who changed the culture for better in England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and Asia, focusing many on thrift, ending rampant illiteracy, abuse in prisons, and addiction to gin.
These men also, without mistake, influenced America through the mentoring of their young missionary, Francis Asbury.
Francis Asbury Statue Dedication Speech
Francis Asbury Statue Dedication, October 15, 1924
Wednesday, October 15, 1924 (108 years after the death of Francis Asbury) at 2:30 pm, several thousand people gathered to view the dedication ceremony of the Francis Asbury Statue in Washington D.C.
Dignitaries from the nation’s capital were seated on the white-draped platform. Hanging from left to right around the rear of the wide stage was a pine bough, clearly a nod to the rural travels of Francis Asbury.
Several American Flags hung from a large makeshift-flagpole in the almost non-existent wind. Even the stillness of the flags urged that Asbury would have enjoyed a few less windy days during his more than 225,000 miles on horseback.
At the center of the platform was a wood podium, atop the speaker’s stand a microphone. Standing at the speaker’s stand was President Calvin Coolidge. Within minutes, he gave his famous phrase neatly tucked into his dynamic speech about Francis Asbury, the phrase which many who know of Francis Asbury are familiar with, “He is entitled to rank as one of the builders of our nation.”
President Coolidge’s speech is worthwhile to read. You can do so here. Not only does the speech point to the merits of the ministry efforts of Francis Asbury, President Coolidge’s words go much deeper, ranking Christianity as the main reason for America’s success:
“On the foundation of a religious civilization which he (Francis Asbury) sought to build, our country has enjoyed greater blessing of liberty and prosperity than was ever before the lot of man. These cannot continue if we neglect the work which he (Asbury) did. We cannot depend on the government to do the work of religion. We cannot escape a personal responsibility for our own conduct. We cannot regard those as wise or safe counselors in public affairs who deny these principles and seek to support the theory that society can succeed when the individual fails.”
The statue which was dedicated on that day almost one-hundred years ago is engraved with the following tribute to Francis Asbury:
“IF YOU SEEK THE RESULTS OF HIS LABOR YOU WILL FIND THEM IN OUR CHRISTIAN CIVILIZATION,”
“HIS CONTINUOUS JOURNEYS THROUGH CITIES VILLAGES AND SETTLEMENTS FROM 1771 TO 1816 GREATLY PROMOTED PATRIOTISM EDUCATION MORALITY AND RELIGION IN THE AMERICAN REPUBLIC.”
“FRANCIS ASBURY 1745-1816 PIONEER METHODIST BISHOP IN AMERICA.”
Finally, on the back of the Francis Asbury Statue are the words which succinctly bring it home, a fitting description of the man:
“THE PROPHET OF THE LONG ROAD.”
For more on the Francis Asbury Statue dedication, click here.
Al DeFilippo is a Writer’s Digest award-winning writer with a passion for writing the history of America’s founding generation, told through stories of individuals who exhibit a “fish-out-of-water” characteristic. For as long as he can remember, Al has always been a fan of stories from American history. Novels like Michener’s, Chesapeake, movies like, The Patriot, and Silverado, and the television series, Bonanza, have always captured his imagination.
Al’s involvement with the story of Francis Asbury started in 1996, when he was approached by an associate pastor at the Methodist church he attended with his wife and children. The Reverend David Broadbent asked Al if he knew what a circuit-riding preacher was. Growing up Catholic, Al had no idea what David was talking about. What was a circuit rider and what did he do? When Reverend Broadbent told Al he reminded him of a circuit rider, it naturally piqued his interest.
Drawn to the friendship of Francis Asbury and Harry Hosier, Al knew he had to write a story of this unique pair—a young, inexperienced British pastor away from his homeland and an ex-slave—traveling the thirteen colonies during the Revolutionary War between the American colonies and the British Empire.
Al’s first attempt to write this “fish-out-of-water” story was in the form of thirty four-minute radio episodes. Eventually, Al wrote several versions of a two-hour film screenplay, one of which received an award from Writer’s Digest. Al has also created an outlined-treatment of the story of Francis Asbury and Harry Hosier in the form of a twelve-hour television miniseries. In 1998, a national sports figure was interested in producing Al’s take on Francis Asbury and Harry Hosier as a weekly one-hour television drama. For more on the sports figure and the television series, see the author’s bio page on The Asbury Triptych Series website: https://www.francisasburytriptych.com/author-bio-al-defilippo/.
Al and his lovely wife of thirty-seven years, Kim, live in southern Florida. They have two grown daughters and two grand dogs. Al also enjoys playing and teaching the drums and African percussion to foster kids, when time permits.
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Trevor Montgomery, 51, moved in 2017 to the Intermountain area of Shasta County from Riverside County and operates Riverside County News Source (RCNS) and Shasta County News Source (SCNS), which act as stringer-news providers for other mainstream media organizations throughout the two regions they serve.
Additionally, he writes or has written for several other news organizations; including Riverside County based newspapers Valley News, Valley Chronicle, Anza Valley Outlook, and Hemet & San Jacinto Chronicle; the Bonsall/Fallbrook Village News in San Diego County; and Mountain Echo in Shasta County. He is also a regular contributor to Thin Blue Line TV and Law Enforcement News Network and has had his stories featured on news stations throughout the Southern California and North State regions.
Trevor spent 10 years in the U.S. Army as an Orthopedic Specialist before joining the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department in 1998. He was medically retired after losing his leg, breaking his back, and suffering both spinal cord and brain injuries in an off-duty accident. (Click here to see segment of Discovery Channel documentary of Trevor’s accident.)
During his time with the sheriff’s department, Trevor worked at several different stations; including Robert Presley Detention Center, Southwest Station in Temecula, Hemet/Valle Vista Station, Ben Clark Public Safety Training Center, and Lake Elsinore Station; along with other locations.
Trevor’s assignments included Corrections, Patrol, DUI Enforcement, Boat and Personal Water-Craft based Lake Patrol, Off-Road Vehicle Enforcement, Problem Oriented Policing Team, and Personnel/Background Investigations. He finished his career while working as a Sex Crimes and Child Abuse Investigator and was a court-designated expert in child abuse and child sex-related crimes.
Trevor has been married for more than 30 years and was a foster parent to more than 60 children over 13 years. He is now an adoptive parent and his “fluid family” includes 13 children and 18 grandchildren.