Francis Asbury An Almost Spoiler

Francis Asbury is an American hero from England.  On the verge of the American Revolutionary War between the Colonies and the British Empire, the young inexperienced pastor from England, sets out to forge a church in America. The unorthodox minister who preaches in taverns and at hangings attempts to succeed with a traveling ministry made up of an African sidekick that can’t read, uneducated frontiersmen clothed in buck-skin, several ex-thieves, gamblers, slaves and prisoners- all living out of saddle-bags and barely twenty years of age.

Does this grab your attention?

What prompts this preface  to Francis Asbury is the comment of a friend who I asked to read my book, Black Country. She admitted, “I’m not a fan of history.”  What followed her comment was an honest discussion on how to draw someone like herself to read a historical novel. Because of that discussion, this article is written. Here goes.

The Asbury Triptych Series is a three-book novel about Francis Asbury, the George Washington of American Christianity. A bold assertion I know. However, I am confident that time spent with this British young man will prove this opinion correct. It is the clear and timely goal of the trilogy to establish this personal view. The year 2016 marks the bicentennial of Francis Asbury departing this world for the next. Although

Francis Asbury Statue in snow Drew University photo by Dan Balogh

Francis Asbury Statue in snow Drew University
photo by Dan Balogh

the main character of this story never commanded forces as Washington did, this unconventional preacher from England became more widely known than the first president and more widely known than any other Christian leader of the period.

The opening book of the series, Black Country, does something never done since the death of Francis Asbury- it seeks to give a snapshot of the culture and people whom he interacted with during his first years as a preacher in England. Many authors have written of his amazing forty-five- year ministry in America, a stellar effort for sure. But none have ventured more than a couple pages about his time as a young preacher in his home country.

The events I’ve written are creative non-fiction.  Working within the framework that history knows his whereabouts, but without additional research of these locations, the exact details are based on educated guesses. I have done the research, nearly twenty years of research, aiming for the best possible scenario while also keeping in mind that I am writing a novel. At the very least, I have captured a true glimpse of the times. At its best, I have written a story that is in line with the character’s experience. If there is a chance that an event likely didn’t occur, I didn’t include it.  If there are words or opinions that are also unlikely to happen, I didn’t include them either.

In reading the first book of the series, it is my hope that you will acquire the fact that Black Country is also the author’s kind gesture to the great nation which birthed Francis Asbury, the nation I fell in love with through my research.

Equally important, Black Country, displays a unique period of European history. Through dramatic scenes, the book delivers a reflection of the rich inheritance that forms the foundation of the United States of America. This foundation is deeply set with the wisdom of the Bible. You as the reader should walk away from this opening book with an understanding of the wisdom which inspired mankind’s greatest and most successful nation.  You should also experience firsthand why the influence of the Bible as well as some of Christianity’s key leaders from Europe, were the surest agents of success for America.

There is another advantage to reading this historical novel. The same events which drove the Puritans from their homeland a century before Francis Asbury’s time parallel the same events in America for the last 50 years. These acts were the laws of an English king towards the Bible-based individuals in his dominion.  These intolerable acts removed all influence of the Puritans from the universities, the government and the culture. Sadly contemporary America stands at the threshold of repeating what England experienced 350 years ago- the complete removal of the Bible and its wisdom from the universities, government and culture. Reading Black Country is not only about reading history, it is also about reading the history you are currently living.

Hopefully, I’ve inspired you enough to read on. Let’s begin with Black Country.

The story of the main character, Francis Asbury, is the perfect example of a fish-out-of-water tale. Born into a lower-middle-class family in the heart of England in 1745, this tall sinewy fellow with shoulder-length hair possesses little more than a primary-school education and no formal training except his apprenticeship as a blacksmith forging nails. He lives during a time of little religion.  Cockfights, gambling and the illicit lifestyle of the theater are the norm. Despite these personal and societal limitations, he manages to become a preacher for a religious movement.

Uniquely, this movement is slowly curing the rampant illiteracy and destructive addiction to gin of the British citizens of the 1700’s. Why has the culture which inherited the rich blessings of Christian martyrs who died to have the Bible printed in English suffering from ill-religion? The lack of religion during this period is the result of nearly two-hundred years of church and government becoming one.  The clergy and the politician, most of whom were in pursuit of personal gain, forgot the bold efforts of those who gave their lives to attain religious freedom 200 years before. This is odd when you consider the high cost that brought authentic Christianity to England, the martyrdom of several hundred people burned at the stake. What was their crime?  These brave souls printed the Bible in English, going against the state-sanctioned form of Christianity. Dissenters, was the label placed upon them.

By the time of Francis Asbury, the church and state had lapsed into an inseparable entity, forcing on the populace a cold and lifeless religion.

Asbury’s involvement with the movement led by the brothers John and Charles Wesley was eventually his ticket out of poverty and England’s exit from a comatose Christianity. The efforts of the Wesleyan followers were known as Methodists, a derisive term for those who practice what they preach. The Methodists were healing the ills of British society.

As a child, Francis Asbury resided in a town where no one expected its children to escape the drudgery of the iron-working industry. Growing up in Birmingham, England at this time- the birthplace and beginning of England’s industrial revolution, meant an almost life-sentence of working the furnace melting metal into steel. Added to this difficulty was Francis Asbury’s unique approach to life. Slightly unconventional because he had a sense of humor and a love of play, and slightly disobedient to his superiors in the movement because he had a weakness for departing his assigned routes and exploring parts of England he had never been to- the reprimands from his superiors only furthered his desire to achieve. The young British pastor with barely enough preaching experience surprisingly decided to depart for the American colonies in 1771, only a handful of years after his acceptance to Wesley’s traveling ministry.

His timing couldn’t be worse. At this time, the British citizens in the colonies as well as the British clergy in America- both groups unflinchingly loyal to the English king- are leaving America and heading back to England. Why are these loyal Brits leaving the American colonies?  The rumors of the pending war with the mother country, England, are forcing this burdensome adjustment. Heading in the complete opposite direction of those fleeing the unrest to come, Francis Asbury lands in Philadelphia just a few short years before the start of the American Revolutionary War.

For the next thirteen years, Francis Asbury travels the thirteen colonies on horseback, preaching the word and organizing what remains of the religious movement he has inherited. He hasn’t inherited much; the leaders of his group were English and have returned to England. Although the war drives many to appeal to God, the collateral damage of the conflict keeps most from attending church. Add to this Asbury’s homesickness and the fact that the war inhibits his ability to communicate with his loving parents who ache for news of his safety. For the remaining eight years of the war, his mail and acknowledgment of his security fails to reach England.

Despite this hindrance, he sets out with whatever he is privileged to gain. In time, he develops a small team of preachers, unconventional like himself and with a passion for traveling about like himself. These are rough men, new to the faith, barely able to speak in public. His Biblical cavalry of ex-gamblers, ex-slaves, ex-thieves, ex-prisoners, rugged mountain men and any unlikely individual with a desire to preach- one even wears an eye-patch and a sword at his side- set out to deliver sacred words. In taverns, barns, open fields, prisons and at hangings these men preach. Where did this desire to preach come from?  For these unlikely fellows, this motley-crew- this deep-seated yearning to share the good news of the Bible with the people of the frontier was the natural result of a repentant heart- a heart transformed by the hearing of the words of the sacred book.

Despite the numerous hardships- the unforgiving weather and terrain which takes the lives of many of these men well before their thirtieth birthday, the confused citizens who believe that Asbury and his men are British spies and the misguided leadership in England which believes that Francis Asbury is incompetent and in need of replacement, Francis Asbury perseveres. Some of his preachers experience imprisonment, others, like Asbury himself, brave assassination attempts. Nearly the entire lot suffers physical beatings and verbal abuses. One attractive young minister endures a tar and feather attack- the cruel act bringing irreversible scars to his once-handsome face.

By wars end in 1784, Francis Asbury is the unquestioned leader of the American version of this religious movement. His Christmas-Eve ordination by John Wesley’s agent, Dr. Thomas Coke, establishes the official beginning of the Methodist Church in America under the guidance of Francis Asbury.

What I have described above is the essence of The Asbury Triptych Series, three books dedicated to Asbury’s preaching in England and his first thirteen years in America. Uniquely, this is only the beginning of Asbury’s American ministry. From this point onward, Asbury spends another thirty-two years in America, at the helm, administering what will become at the time of his death, one of the largest churches in America.

Without ever owning a home or land in America, Francis Asbury sets out to deliver the good news to the burgeoning young nation. His efforts bring civilization to the growing cities as well as the rugged frontier. Without notice, Francis Asbury, through his personal hands-on approach meets nearly an entire nation of people. His travels afford the privilege of viewing each community that exists in America at this significant period of the new nation. Francis Asbury’s travels give him a clear view of the melting-pot and the true sense of community. European, African and aborigine come to know this man. Without knowing it, his stays with families begins to establish his popularity, a popularity that easily rivals George Washington. The citizens of the infant nation may know of George Washington, but with Francis Asbury, these same citizens not only know of him, they personally know him, having invited him to dinner and shelter for a night during his six-thousand miles on horseback each year of his ministry in America.

Nearly passing away in the saddle forty-five years after his arrival in Philadelphia, the seventy-one-year old Francis Asbury is America’s British founding father.

In Washington D.C. there is a large granite, equestrian stature at the intersection of 16th and Mount Pleasant Street in northwest Washington D.C., Atop the horse with chiseled features, Francis Asbury sits securely as the horse’s stately head bends down to nibble grass.  The magnificent sculpture by Augustus Lukeman, clearly establishes Francis Asbury’s place in American history. Adding to this fact are stained glass works of Francis Asbury as well as the naming of Asbury Park in New Jersey, Asbury University in Kentucky and numerous elementary, middle and high schools throughout the country. Quite an accomplishment for a boy never expected to amount to more than a man working hot iron in the West-Midlands of England.

Francis Asbury Statue Washington D.C.

Francis Asbury Statue
Washington D.C.

In closing, I have one last offer, pick up the book and read it. Allow the retelling of the life of this amazing young man to help you to ignore the obstacles in your own life, the obstacles that are keeping you from accomplishing great things. Enjoy.