"On the Stretch for God"
The young rider drew his black cloak tighter about him as he leaned into the November sleet. Feeling his horse shiver beneath him, he patted her neck and promised her a barn and all the oats she could eat, before darkness closed in on them. And then he looked up at the gray sky and beseeched his heavenly Father, whose business he was about, to provide for the mare that night. Tilting his head so that the brim of his black hat would keep the rain from his eyes, he added a postscript for himself, affirming that God's grace was sufficient and worth riding to the ends of the earth for.
They came to a stream, swollen from the downpour. Gingerly the mare started across, feeling for sure footing in the dark, swirling waters. Deeper they went, and faster rushed the water around them. It was over the rider's feet now, filling his boots and soaking his last pair of dry socks. The mare stumbled, and for an instant it looked as if they would both be swimming for their lives. Anger and self-pity gnawed at the edges of the rider's heart---then he laughed out loud and praised God. He shouted encouragement to the mare over the noise of the wind and rain, and she regained her footing and clambered up the bank. Only four more miles to go, he assured her, to the cabin of a family he had brought to salvation the previous summer, and he broke into a hymn ....
A new breed of lightning rods emerged from that Great Revival in the West, men who would spend much of their lives "on the stretch for God," as George Whitefield, the original circuit rider, had put it. The lightning had fallen suddenly and astoundingly on camp meetings throughout the frontier, and now these saddlebag evangelists had committed their lives to carrying the light of Christ to all who had been unable to attend the meetings. They would ride deep into uncharted territory, and later, on repeating circuits, they would water the wilderness seeds that they had planted. These were the black-cloaked Methodist missionaries, assigned to a circuit of frontier settlements that would usually take them six to eight weeks to complete. They practically lived in the saddle, taking lodging wherever a family invited them into house or barn, and taking every possible opportunity to pray with them and cheerfully share the good news that Jesus Christ came for all sinners, even one's host.
As a result, much of the frontier was converted to Methodism, for even if these young preachers were not oratorically gifted, they more than made up in enthusiasm what they might have lacked in pulpit polish. What won their converts to Christ was not so much what they said as how they lived their faith. For the circuit riders were the only men on earth who drove themselves as hard or even harder than the American pioneers. And if there was one thing the frontiersman respected, it was hard work. Consequently, if he were inside on a day so foul that not even a dog would venture out and chanced to look out the window and see a Methodist circuit rider passing, he would have to wonder at the commitment that impelled the preacher onward. Later, over a hot meal, to hear that preacher make light of the vicissitudes of his journey.., well, it was enough to give a strong man cause to think. They would joke among themselves about the circuit riders, saying of a bitterly cold January day, "There's nothing out today but crows and Methodist preachers." They would chuckle, but they would also ponder, and when the preacher was in their own cabin and asking them if they wanted to accept Christ into their hearts, as often as not, they would agree.
So bit by bit at the beginning of the nineteenth century, a new Light counterbalanced the new darkness, and men whose main recreation had been drinking and brawling now mended their ways. They might not go so far as to join the church choir, but they would begin to read aloud from the Good Book to their families, and open their doors to itinerant preachers of any persuasion. Not many other books made their way across the mountains, but among those that did and that found a place in the new convert's home were Pilgrim's Progress, The Westminster Confession, and Knox's History of the Church of Scotland, along with some bound sermons and journals of godly men. School was usually opened with singing and Scripture reading, and prayer was not uncommon.
Sooner or later in the course of making their appointed rounds, the circuit riders had to surmount practically every conceivable obstacle--even bears. One chanced upon a bear beset by dogs and felt compelled to put a stop to it. Remembering "how we used to kill salmon with a club by hitting them on the nose just below the eyes," he waded into the thick of it and "hit the bear on the nose just below the eyes, and he died instantly." More often, they chose the nonviolent approach, as in the case of another itinerant preacher, who, coming across a bear that "must have been as large as a good-sized yearling steer," sitting in the middle of the wooded path, addressed the creature: "Mr. Bruin, I do not wish to trespass upon your rights, but really I want to go just where you are now sitting. If you can make it quite convenient to get out of my way, I shall be much obliged to you; but if you cannot, or will not, why then I must give you the path, and get out of the way myself."
The bear ruminated on this discourse for a while, then got up and ambled off into the woods.
Not all the obstacles were ursine, however, often the worst were upright, on two legs. The New England backwoods was different from the Kentucky frontier, in that here a nimble wit was often as necessary as physical courage and endurance. One day, Methodist circuit rider
Jesse Lee found himself accosted by two lawyers:
"You are a preacher, sir?"
"Yes, I generally pass for one," replied Lee.
"You preach very often, I suppose?"
"Generally every day; frequently twice a day, or more."
"How do you find time to study, when you preach so often?"
"I study when riding," said Lee. "And read when resting," he added, maintaining a smile, though he could see now where they were heading..
The first lawyer feigned incredulity. "But do you not write your sermons?''
"No, not very often, at least."
"Do you not often make mistakes, preaching extemporaneously?" the second lawyer queried.
Lee nodded. "I do, sometimes."
"Well, do you correct them?"
"That depends on the character of the mistake. I was preaching the other day, and I went to quote the text, 'All liars shall have their part in
the lake that burneth with fire and brimstone,' and by mistake I said, 'All lawyers shall have their part--'"
The first lawyer interrupted him. "What did you do with that? Did you correct it?"
"Oh, no, it was so nearly true I didn't bother."
"Humph!" said one of the lawyers looking at the other, "I don't know whether you are more a knave than a fool!"
"Neither," replied Lee smiling, and looking at the one on his right and then the one on his left, "I'd say I was just between the two?
If a circuit rider were accustomed to spending long hours in the saddle, sometimes from dawn till dusk, regardless of the weather, and had been doing it for years, the only thing that kept him going was the grace of God--and a cheerful spirit. The latter could turn just about any situation into one that was at least tolerable. And sometimes it was a blessing to both him and the recipient. One minister, applying for lodging at a tavern, was addressed by the landlord: "Stranger, I perceive that you are a clergyman. Please let me know whether you are a Presbyterian or a Methodist."
"Why do you ask?" responded the preacher.
"Because I wish to please my guests, and I have observed that a Presbyterian minister is very particular about his food and his bed and a Methodist about the care and feeding of his horse."
"Very well," replied the minister, "I am a Presbyterian, but my horse is a Methodist."
The saddlebag preachers took William Penn's caution literally: "No Cross, no crown? Perhaps the best-known of them all, Peter Cartwright, looking back years later, recalled:
A Methodist preacher in those days, when he felt that God had called him to preach, instead of hunting up a college or Biblical institute, hunted up a hardy pony of a horse, and some traveling apparatus, and with his library always at hand, namely Bible, Hymn Book, and [Methodist] Discipline, he started, and with a text that never wore out or grew stale, he cried: "Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world." In this way, he went through storms of wind, hail, snow, and rain; climbed hills and mountains, traversed valleys, plunged through swamps, swam swollen streams, lay out all night, wet, weary, and hungry .... This was old-fashioned Methodist preacher fare and fortune. Under such circumstances, who among us would now say, "Here I am, Lord, send me?"
So they rode, moving like needles across the fabric of America, quilting regions together with the common thread of a shared faith. This sewing was needed not only to prepare the nation for the heartrending Civil War that would come in two generations; it was needed right now. For without the spiritual needlework of the evangelical ministers of all major denominations, the fabric of the young republic would not have survived ten years, let alone sixty.
Most of Christ's cavalrymen were Methodists, but there would have been precious few of them, were it not for the lifelong example and steadfast determination of Francis Asbury. At five foot nine (which in those days was tall), Asbury was rail thin, with a rugged, intelligent countenance and penetrating blue eyes. When, in 1771, John Wesley, the renowned leader of the Methodists, called for volunteers to go to America, this young itinerant preacher was the first to respond. Well-organized and possessed of deep reserves of zeal for Christ and a passion for travel, Asbury preached wherever he found people who would listen--in inns, jails, or by the wayside. Such were his drive and his success that before long Wesley made him his general assistant in the colonies. But when the American Revolution broke out, and all Methodist ministers were recalled to England, after much prayer, Asbury elected to remain. He felt called to America, whatever her fate.
Asbury seemed to thrive on adversity-----especially in terms of impossible distances to travel and impassable road conditions or foul weather to be overcome en route. At a time when a wilderness trail was little more than an indication of direction through the bush, he drove himself unmercifully, even after his health started to break down. "I seldom mount my horse for a ride of less distance than twenty miles on ordinary occasions, and frequently have forty or fifty, in moving from one circuit to another," he once confided in his journal, adding, "In traveling thus, I suffer much from hunger and cold? Moreover, this increased, rather than eased, as the years passed, for as the frontier grew ever larger, so did Asbury's "parish." In the end, it was about the size of western Europe, and when he took the time to add up his horseback mileage, it generally worked out to four to six thousand miles a year.
Asbury was a gifted field general----expertly marshaling his forces and leading his officers, the Methodist circuit riders, mainly by his personal example. His preaching was inspired and often touched his listeners deeply, but it was as bishop and ultimately as general superintendent of the American Methodist Episcopal Church that his gifts truly shone. No young circuit rider, on fire for the Lord, could fail to be powerfully moved by Asbury, who thought nothing of riding 200 miles in a week; preaching every other day, usually for at least an hour; getting up at four in the morning, in order to have two uninterrupted hours of prayer and meditation with the Lord, before the day began. In addition, whenever he was riding, he was reading--he would read the Bible through in about four months and knew the New Testament by heart, but he would also peruse history, biography, and mounds of devotional material.
One thing Asbury could not do on horseback was write letters, but somehow he found time to faithfully and thoughtfully answer every one of the letters he received each week Wears later he figured that he received around a thousand a year). This was the mark of Asbury: He cared. He loved to "deal closely" with people, as he put it, and would gladly spend extravagantly of the time in his busy schedule for the sake of helping one individual in his Christian walk. Any family with whom Asbury spent the night could expect to be led in prayers, to be exhorted in Christian living, and to be examined, one by one, in their progress toward sanctification. Indeed, as his biographer, L. C. Rudolph, points out, "He preached wherever his horse stopped! If he did not give all men the Gospel, their blood might be on his hands. Extraordinary times demanded extraordinary means."
Asbury's boundless love of the Lord was contagious; he inspired those who were close to him; and his selfless actions spoke even more dramatically than his words.
As Bishop Asbury gradually became a legend, people all up and down America, from back east right out to the western edge of the frontier, came to know by sight the erect, commanding figure who came riding on horseback. The blue eyes, the long white hair, the strong chin and nose and mouth all combined to create a compelling impression. As one of his contemporaries described him' "There was as much native dignity about him, as any man I ever knew. He seemed born to sway others .... His countenance had a cast of severity, but this was probably owing to his habitual gravity and seriousness; his look was remarkably penetrating. In a word, I cannot recollect ever seeing a man of more grave, venerable, and dignified appearance." Indeed, such was the impression that he made, and the ground that he covered, that it was generally reckoned he was instantly recognizable to more people than any man in the country, including President Madison. (Indeed, a friend once sent him a letter addressed: "The Reverend Bishop Asbury, North America," and it was promptly delivered.)
Following his itinerary for a typical year (1791-92), it was not hard to see why. Leaving New York in the early part of September, he proceeded to Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore; from there to Alexandria, Petersburg, and Norfolk, Virginia; then down to Raleigh and further south to Charleston, and over to Washington, Georgia; back up through the Carolinas again, and on into the west he went, crossing the mountains (which he called "the Alps") to the Holston River in Tennessee; further west he rode, into the Kentucky wilderness as far as Lexington (Indians were a very real danger at that time); then back through Tennessee and over the mountains again, going up the west side of the Alleghenies this time, through the whole breadth of Virginia, into Uniontown, Pennsylvania; now across the Alleghenies by Laurel Hill and Cumberland to Baltimore, and then on to New York; continuing east through Connecticut to Lynn, Massachusetts, then back through the valley of the Connecticut, stopping at Northampton; now over the Berkshires by Pittsfield to Albany; and finally down the Hudson to New York City. The trip took a full year (and one feels vaguely saddlesore, just thinking about it).
Organized in all things, Asbury meticulously kept a detailed journal, most of which was given to comments on that day's travels.
I was unwell: the clouds were lowering. We had ridden but a mile when the rain began .... Hard necessity made us move forward. The western branch of the Toe River, that comes down from the Yellow Mountain, was rapidly filling, and was rocky, rolling and roaring like the sea, and we were compelled to cross it several times. Then when we came to ascend the mountain, we had a skirmish of rain, thunder and lightning,,
Or "We have had rain for eighteen days successively, and I have ridden about two hundred miles in eight or nine days---a most trying time indeed." Or "At night we were poorly provided against the weather; the house was unfinished; and to make matters worse, a horse kicked the door open, and I had a cold and a bad tooth ache, with a high fever.,,
If the mountains were the bane of the West, undrained land was the bane of the South. Instead of "crossing the Alps," he was "crossing the swamps," and this journal entry from Vkginia, in 1787, was typical: "Brother Poythress frightened me with the idea of the Great Swamp, as the east end of the Dismal, but I could not consent to ride sixty miles around, so we ventured through. Neither we, nor our horses, received any injury, praise the Lord!" Then, in North Carolina, he was traveling "three miles on the water, and three more on roads under the water."
Asbury wore out three horses, Jane, Fox, and Spark, underneath him, and finally took to riding light but strong carts, often over roads that were little more that a swath cut by lopping off saplings at a foot and a half--just short enough to let a wagon pass over them. He was proud of his skill as a bush driver, as this journal entry suggests:
We set out for Crump's, over rocks, hills, creeks, and pathless woods and low land... The young man with me had lost heart before we had traveled a mile, but when he saw how I could bush it and sometimes force my way through a thicket, and make young saplings bend before me, and turn out of the way when there was no proper road, he took courage. With great difficulty, we came in at two o'clock after traveling eight or nine hours. The people looked almost as wild as the deer in the woods; I preached on Titus 2:10-12."
The bishop paid little heed to his physical well-being and suffered cruelly from all manner of ailments, including inflammatory rheumatism, fever, boils, bronchitis, asthma, neuralgia, and finally galloping consumption. Yet as he said, he "gladly bore all these things for the sake of the elect" and the ministers for whom he was responsible, exclaiming "I am willing to travel and preach as long as I live, and I hope that I shah not live long after I am unable to travel."
Asbury loved to preach. To him, a perfect Sunday was one that afforded an unexpected third opportunity, in the evening, after a potluck supper. While he came to urge circuit riders to give their all on Sundays and then take Monday off for a rest, Asbury seldom did so himself. He was well aware that his talents as a preacher were no more than "respectable" or "able and systematic," and he prayed, "Lord, keep me from all superfluity of dress, and from preaching empty stuff to please the ear, instead of changing the heart!"
What was the circuit rider's theology? Bishops Coke and Asbury summed it up succinctly in their 1798 edition of the Methodist Discipline, when they charged him to: "Convince the sinner of his dangerous condition .... He must set forth the depth of original sin, and show the sinner how far he is gone from original righteousness; he must describe the vices of the world in their just and most striking colors, and enter into all the sinner's pleas and excuses for sin, and drive him from all his subterfuges and strongholds." Then, the preacher should go on to "bring the mourner to a present Saviour: he must show the willingness of Christ this moment to bless him, and bring a present salvation home to his soul."
What was the worst thing that could happen to a circuit rider?. According to Bishop Asbury, it was falling in love. Until that happened, his men fought on as true soldiers for Christ--going sixteen, eighteen hours a day, year in and year out, and glad to do so for a ridiculous salary that only barely covered their most urgent expenses, like horseshoes. They married their work--until one of those willowy, unmarried Kentucky belles started to flutter her eyelids at the guest preacher, and .... Asbury himself never wed, and like the Apostle Paul, he would not require his riders to forego settling down ("locating," he called it), although he confided to his journal, "Marriage is honorable in all---but to me it is a ceremony awful as death. Well it may be so, when I calculate we have lost the traveling labors of about two hundred of the best men in America, or the world, by marriage and consequent location." On another occasion, caught by surprise at the news that one of his favorites in the "thundering legion" was betrothed, he exclaimed: "I believe the devil and the women will get all my preachers!"
Self-denial was something that Asbury was thoroughly familiar with and wished that his young charges were more familiar with. As he expressed it in the General Conference of 1812:
The important duty of fasting has become almost obsolete. This we are afraid will be productive of melancholy effects. We yet have abundant cause for deep humiliation before God and one another. Our country is threatened, calamities stare us in the face, iniquity abounds, and the love of many waxes cold. 0 let us again resort to fasting and humiliation.
Nor was Asbury averse to any method, short of direct coercion, to correct his ministers' spiritual perspective. Listening to some preachers complain about their poor support and hard work, he called them to prayer:
Lord, we are in Thy hands and in Thy work. Thou knowest what is best for us and for thy work, whether poverty or plenty. The hearts of all men are in thy hands. If it is best for us, and for thy Church that we should be cramped and straitened, let the people's hearts and hands be closed. If it is better for us---for the Church--and more to Thy glory that we should abound in the comforts of life, do thou dispose the hearts of those we serve to give accordingly; and may we learn to be content, whether we abound, or suffer need?
But always, he was hardest by far on himself. "O Lord, help me to watch and pray! I am afraid of losing the sweetness that I feel: for months I have felt as if in the possession of perfect love; not a moment's desire of anything but God." Or, "My body is weak, but this does not concern me like the want of more grace. My heart is too cool towards God; I want to feel it like a holy flame." Or when some friends made the mistake of commending him: "Satan, ready for every advantage, seized the opportunity and assaulted me with self-pleasing, self-exalting ideas. But the Lord enabled me to discover the danger, and the snare was broken. May He ever keep me humble, and little, and mean, in my own eyes!"
In his later years, he became increasingly concerned with the need for sanctification, and preached on it in practically every sermon, and he always readily saw himself as the one most in need of perfecting. Indeed, he had a tendency to slip into despair, not only where he was concerned, but for the well-being of Methodism in America. His antidote, hard work, never failed to rouse him, "It is by this that Satan tries to come in: it is my constitutional weakness to be gloomy and dejected. The work of God puts life into me---and why despond? The land is before us, and nothing can hurt us but divisions among ourselves."
Inevitably, there were those who were jealous of the effectiveness of his ministry and the tremendous affection shown him by Methodists everywhere, and these tried to claim he was power hungry. Normally, he simply ignored cutting comments and innuendoes, but when one Christian brother compared him to the pope, he felt compelled to respond:
For myself, I pity those who cannot distinguish between a Pope of Rome, and an old, worn man of about sixty years, who has the power given him of riding five thousand miles a year, at a salary of eighty dollars, through summer's heat and winter's cold, traveling in all weather, preaching in all places, his best covering from rain often but a blanket; the surest sharpener of his wit, hunger, from fasts voluntary and involuntary; his best fare for six months out of twelve, coarse kindness; and his reward---suspicion, envy, and murmurings all the year around?
Bishop Asbury continued, unperturbed, to be faithful to his call, and God honored his obedience: Methodism took flame. The frontier camp meetings with their inevitable excesses and the spiritual counterfeiting of the enemy, proved too hot for most of the Presbyterians to handle. But the Methodists thrived on the heat. They seemed to be able to channel and direct a camp meeting's energy without quenching the Spirit. Now, when a young man burned to live totally for God, forsaking all the things of the world and all carnal enticements, instead of becoming a Jesuit missionary, as his European counterparts had two centuries before, he could become a Methodist circuit rider. The existence would be every bit as demanding, and he would be challenged to the limit of his endurance and beyond. But the call was also incredibly fulfilling for those who were willing to pay the price.
So these knights of the second lightning donned the whole armor of God and rode forth on their appointed circuits. They were not all cast in the image of Francis Asbury, though they sought to emulate his sacrifice and obedience. They were very much their own men, and while they submitted willingly to their superintendent's authority, how they conducted their ministry remained pretty much their own business. It became Asbury's business when they strayed out of line in their private lives or departed from sound doctrine, but they exhibited very few instances of this --- the call was so demanding and the corresponding commitment so great, that the temptations that harass the divided heart obtained little access to them.
Thirteen years after he first packed his Bible into his saddlebag and rode off into the wilderness, Francis Asbury was consecrated bishop at the Methodists' annual convention in 1784. Immediately he had to deal with the greatest crisis he would face: the debate over the Methodist position on slavery. The dispute was exacerbated by the fact that located ministers, who had themselves taken slaves or married wives with slaves, were resisting emancipating them. Asbury himself hated slavery and felt that its continued maintenance, when a man had a chance to stop it, was utterly repugnant in God's eyes. But even by 1784 it had become such a part of the fabric of American life in the South that he was fighting an uphill battle. Nevertheless, he had never shied away from a fight, and he waded into this one, jaw set.
The key man here was actually Bishop Thomas Coke, whom Wesley had assigned with Asbury as "joint superintendent," and Coke was also unequivocally antislavery. Together the two of them, joined by the vast majority of American Methodist ministers, laid down a cornerstone policy for the newly formed Methodist Episcopal Church. They declared slavery "contrary to the golden law of God... and the inalienable Rights of Mankind, as well as every Principle of the Revolution" which America had so recently won. Slaveholding Methodist laymen who refused "to extirpate this Abomination from among us" were given twelve months to free their slaves or withdraw from the Methodist societies, or they would be put out. Grudging exception was made for layman and ministers in Georgia and the Carolinas, where it was illegal to free slaves. And ministers from Virginia, where slavery had gotten its start and was a deeply ingrained tradition, had another year to free their charges. Ah, but woe unto the slaveholding preachers of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. For they would be suspended, if they did not release their slaves at once. An impressive proclamation--were it not for the fact that there were almost no preachers in that category in those states.
It was a powerful edict--and it elicited a powerful backlash. Asbury and Coke did their best. They circulated petitions to the Virginia State Assembly and the Legislature of North Carolina, calling for emancipation, either immediate or gradual. Asbury called on the Governor of North Carolina and appeared to have won him over (though no legislation was subsequently forthcoming). Asbury and Coke together called on George Washington, who deplored salvery--but would not lend the weight of his name to their petition. Coke preached so strongly agianst slavery in Virginia pulpits that he was threatened with mob violence. And everywhere, for the sake of harmony, more and more middle-of-the-roaders in the Methodist Church decided not to back their leadership on this issue.
Coke began to bend before the pressure, moderating his stand until by the conference of 1785, on the eve of his departure home to England, he stated that he should not have used the pulpit to attack slavery. Coke recorded the fate of their antislavery declaration, which was not even a year old: "We thought it prudent to suspend the minute concerning slavery, on account of the great opposition that had been given it, our work being in too infantile a state to push things to extremity."
Was the newborn Methodist Church in America in too infantile a state to push the antislavery cause to its conclusion? Only God knows for certain. One wonders what might have happened, had Coke, like Asbury, adopted America for his native land or if Asbury alone had persevered. He wanted to. He was at that point strongly tempted to concentrate on working against the "peculiar institution," for as he observed in his frequent crossing into South Carolina in 1801: "I can-not record great things upon religion in this quarter, but cotton sells high. I fear there is more gold than grace---more of silver than of 'that wisdom that cometh from above.'" And two years earlier he had written of the Old Dominion: "I am brought to conclude that slavery will exist in Virginia perhaps for ages; there is not a sufficient sense of religion nor of liberty to destroy it." And two years before that he had privately noted in Georgia: "I saw how [a] flood had ploughed up the streets of Augusta; I walked over the ruins for nearly two miles, viewing the deep gulfs in the main street. I suppose they would crucify me, if I were to tell them that it is the African flood, but if they could hear me think, they would discover this to be my sentiment."
So then, where did the general superintendent stand, and what would be his lead?
Polygamy, slavery, and such like were never commanded under this dispensation, but only tolerated, and accompanied by strict injunctions to prevent men from running to greater lengths in these practices .... Moses, as a man, suffered this, a less evil, to prevent a greater. But it was not so from the beginning; it is the fall which hath done this, not a holy God. It is man's work, of two evils to choose the least. But God is not tempted of us to evil, neither tempteth He any man. Christians, of two evils should not choose or use either, if they would be like God.
Alas, not enough Methodists were willing to join him in total abstinence, and Asbury now had to decide: would the Methodist clergy expend their energies working against slavery or in evangelizing the South? In all probability, they themselves could not eradicate slavery. But they could bring thousands of slaves to Christ, making their circumstances slightly less intolerable, and could at the same time change the hearts of many slaveholders, which should result in a marked improvement in the living conditions of their slaves. Evangelization had to come first. They would go South.
Having overlooked his health for an entire lifetime, it came as no surprise to Asbury, when, in his seventy-second year, his body finally gave out. Even then he continued to travel everywhere, although now he had to be carried in, wherever he went, always to tears and tumultuous applause. The end came on March 31, 1816, and such was the grief of the Methodists that funeral services were conducted in many cities, chief among them being Baltimore, which saw some twenty thousand mourners escort his remains to their resting place. That previous October he had written: "My eyes fail. I will resign the stations to Bishop McKendree [his successor] --I will take away my feet. It is my fifty-fifth year of ministry, and forty-fifth year of labor in America. My mind enjoys great peace and divine consolation."
How does one evaluate a life like Asbury's? Not easily--although the hard evidence is there: when he arrived in Philadelphia in 1771, there were but 300 communicant Methodists in America. He personally ordained more than 4,000 preachers, traveled more than a quarter of a million miles mostly on horseback, and preached more than 16,500 sermons. At the time of his death, the recorded membership of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America was 214,2357 Still, it is difficult to assess its full impact, because it coincided with the Great Revival in the West, and how much one influenced the other, only God knows.
One historian has nevertheless gone on record-that Asbury was as much a Founding Father of America as the then president, James Madison, was. And we can look at his obedience and givenness with awe and realize that he taught two generations of circuit riders and pulpit ministers what it meant to give one's utmost. The cardinal rule of leadership is: never ask those under you to do what you yourself are not prepared to do. Not only was Asbury prepared, he did what hardly anyone else of his own volition would have called upon himself to do. In this, he and his circuit riders taught a whole nation what it truly meant to be on the stretch for God. Finally, looking at Asbury from the perspective of God's plan for America, one is grateful that every so often the right man does arrive in the right place at the right time. We had seen it before, in the cases of Governor Bradford of Plymouth, Governor Winthrop of Massachusetts, Governor Hooker of Connecticut, and George Whitefield of America, and of course, above all, George Washington, who truly deserves to be called the father of our country. Seen against the tapestry of the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, Asbury merits inclusion in that elect company.
A number of Methodist circuit riders under Asbury's generalship earned reputations well beyond their circuits. One of them, Peter Cartwright, became something of a legend. A solid 200 pounds on a medium frame, he possessed considerable physical strength, as well as unruly hair, a resolute jaw, and piercing black eyes that could look right through a man. In all, he presented "a very bold and formidable look." Born in Virginia in 1785, at the age of nine he accompanied his family to Kentucky, where his father settled in Logan County, not realizing why it was nicknamed "Rogues' Harbor."
Here Cartwright was raised, and he well remembered the showdown between Rogues and Regulators. Unfortunately, history did not follow the subsequent Hollywood scenarios; the "bad guys" soundly thrashed the "good guys," which meant that any Logan County lad had to learn to use his fists if he was going to survive. Young Cartwright learned. By the time he was fifteen, he was, in his own words, "a wild, wicked boy, and delighted in horse-racing, card-playing, and dancing. My father restrained me but little, though my mother often talked to me, wept over me, and prayed for me." Young Cartwright had a fast mount and liked nothing better than a challenge on the open road. But his favorite pastime of all was a party--until one evening in his sixteenth year, when he and his father and brother had come home from attending a wedding celebration, at which there had been drinking and dancing, as was the custom.
I began to reflect on the manner in which I had spent the day and the evening. I felt guilty and condemned. I rose and walked the floor. My mother was in bed. It seemed to me, all of a sudden my blood rushed to my head, my heart palpitated, in a few minutes I turned blind. An awful impression rested on my mind that death had come, and I was unprepared to die. I fell on my knees and began to ask God to have mercy on me. My mother sprang from her bed, and was soon on her knees by my side, praying for me and exhorting me to look to Christ for mercy. Then and there, I promised the Lord that if He would spare me, I would seek and serve Him.
The seeking continued for several days, with Cartwright undissuaded of his desperate, fallen condition. And then one afternoon, he described himself as "walking and wringing my hands in great anguish, trying to pray, on the borders of utter despair. It appeared to me that I heard a voice from heaven, saying, Peter, look at me. A feeling of relief passed over me, quick as an electric shock. It gave me hopeful feelings and some encouragement to seek mercy, but still my load of guilt remained." The search went on. It ended three months later, at a camp meeting three miles away, presided over by the Presbyterian minister James MeGready, who had invited several Methodist preachers to attend with him, among them John Page. Ten times the number of people that MeGready's church could hold arrived for the meeting, some traveling by wagon for several days to get there. Cartwright responded to the first altar call.
I went with weeping multitudes and bowed before the stand, and earnestly prayed for mercy. In the midst of a solemn struggle of soul, an impression was made upon my mind, as though a voice said to me: "Thy sins are all forgiven thee." Divine light flashed all around me, unspeakable joy sprang up in my soul. I rose to my feet, opened my eyes, and it really seemed as if I was in heaven--the trees, the leaves of them, and everything seemed to be, and I really thought they were, praising God. My mother raised the shout, and my Christian friends crowded round me and joined me in praising God.
Young Cartwright joined John Page's Methodist church and soon became a preacher himself, specializing in the camp meetings he loved. Of them, he wrote: "Some sinners mocked, some of the dry old professors [believers] opposed, some of the old starched Presbyterians preached against these exercises, but the work went on and spread in almost every direction, gathering additional force, until our country seemed all coming home to God."
Perhaps because of his bare-knuckled upbringing in Rogues' Harbor, Cartwright was almost universally accepted, by brawlers and hard cases, as well as by regular churchgoing folks and pillars of the community. Contemporaries recorded that he had a booming voice that made women weep and strong men tremble. And if any strong drunks and reprobates ever got obstreperous in his meetings and prayer and admonishment did not quiet them, as a last resort he did not hesitate to chastise them by hand. Legends began to grow up around this two-fisted preacher, even to the point of claiming that he had once bested the notorious frontier brawler Mike Fink in hand-to-hand combat, though Cartwright denied this. Nevertheless, where there was smoke, there was some fire; he did admit to sometimes using a club, if it was absolutely necessary to restore order, but only to get the miscreant's attention.
Ross Phares reports one incident, however (not in a Cartwright congregation), which occurred before any club could have been produced. Fittingly, it was on Temperance Sunday, and after inveighing in traditional terms against demon whiskey, the minister decided to offer shocking visual evidence. From his pulpit he produced a glass of water, a glass of whiskey, and a worm. He dropped the worm in the glass of water, where it wriggled around in apparent delight. The he fished it out and dropped it in the glass of whiskey. It died instantly. "Now what does this prove beamed the minister.
A red-eyed brother in the back staggered to his feet: "If you drink plenty of whiskey," he mumbled, "you'll never have worms!"
In his concern for maintaining order, Cartwright's reprimands were not limited to the stronger sex, for he brooked disturbances from no one. Sometimes the interruption was unintended or the sort of benign nuisance that occasionally plagues every congregation. One such cross he had to bear was an old lady, as outspoken as she was pious, who often disturbed his meetings by "going off on a high key." In a class meeting one day, when her soul was filled with joy to overflowing, she rapturously cried out, "If I had one more feather in my wing of faith, I would fly away and be with my Saviour!"
"Stick in the other feather, Lord," exclaimed Cartwright, "and let her go!"
He was bold--far bolder than most preachers today, and it was a holy boldness. There was, for instance, the time he was returning from a session of the General Conference and found himself overtaken by nightfall, in the Cumberland Mountains. Arriving at an inn, he was informed that they were going to have a dance there that evening. He considered leaving, but on receiving their assurance of civil treatment, he decided to remain, after all. That evening, as the dance went on, he noted the condition of the revelers and felt a powerful desire to preach to them rising deep within him. Just then, a striking mountain beauty came up to him and asked him to dance. To the astonishment and delight of the company, Cartwright stood, bowed to her, and taking her proffered hand, led her to the center of the floor. The fiddler tuned a string and raised his bow--but Cartwright held up his other hand. For years, he told them, he had never taken an important step without first asking the Lord's blessing on it. Now, he desired to ask God's blessing on the beautiful young woman and on all the rest, for the kindness that they had shown a stranger. And holding fast to the woman's hand, he dropped to his knees and began praying vehemently for the conversion of the entire company.
Stunned silence followed, then pandemonium--some fled, others wept, and still others fell to their knees. The young woman tried to pull away, but Cartwright's grip on her hand was too strong to break, and she wound up joining him on her knees. Having finished his prayer, he arose and commenced exhorting them to turn from their wicked ways and give their lives to the Lord, and when he finished, he burst into a hymn. The young woman, now prostrate on the floor, began crying out to God for mercy, and this so encouraged Cartwright that he redoubled his efforts and prayed and exhorted and sang all night long. Of those who stayed, many were converted, and thus further encouraged, the hard-knuckled preacher tarried two more days. Revival broke out. By the time he was finally ready to leave, Cartwright had organized a society, received thirty-two into membership, and appointed the inn-keeper class leader! The revival was now spreading out into the whole region, and Cartwright promised to send them a preacher. Musing later on the events of that extraordinary evening, he commented, "Several of the young men converted at this Methodist preacher dance became useful ministers of Jesus Christ."
At the age of twenty-seven, much against his will, Cartwright was elevated to presiding elder of the Green River District, and he labored long and fruitfully in the Lord's vineyard. At the end of his life, it was reckoned that 10,000 souls came to the Lord under his ministry, and more than 20,000 were received into the church. One key footnote to Cartwright's illustrious career concerns his stand on the ominous dark cloud of slavery. No bigger than a man's hand at the birth of the republic, slavery now blanketed the South and was rapidly spreading west, to the despair of Christians of all back-grounds. Unlike his superiors who had reached an accommodation with powerful Methodist slave owners, Cartwright could not bring himself to compromise, and also unlike them he was free to resettle, to avoid the institution. In 1824 he moved his family to Illinois, "to get clear of the evil of slavery" and to ensure that his children would not marry into slaveholding families. Yet, despite this deep-seated loathing, Cartwright had no stomach for the wild extremism of the Abolitionists, who were now making themselves known:
I have never seen a rabid abolition or free-soil society that I could join, because they resort to unjustifiable agitation, and the means they employ are generally unchristian. They condemn and confound the innocent with the guilty, and the means they employ are not truthful at all times. And if force [which they are calling for] is resorted to this glorious Union will be dissolved, a civil war will follow, death and carnage will ensue, and the only free nation on earth will be destroyed.
Therefore, despite his initial disagreement with his denomination's policy of not excommunicating slaveholders but attempting to reach them through what had been termed "moral suasion," he set his will to be obedient. But he remained as outspoken as ever, when it came to some of his fellow preachers who had themselves taken slaves: "It is clear to my mind that if Methodist preachers had kept clear of slavery themselves, and had gone on bearing honest testimony against it, thou-sands upon thousands more souls would have been emancipated who are now groaning under an oppression almost too intolerable to be borne." Nonetheless, before long, God began to honor his obedience with fruit, and it seemed clear to him that once again their general superintendent had heard God correctly. Cartwright began to have considerable success, reaching blacks and whites on the same plantations, and eventually he was of the opinion:
I believe that the most successful way to ameliorate the condition of slaves, and Christianize them and finally secure their freedom, is to treat their owners kindly, and not meddle politically with slavery. Let their owners see and know that your whole mission is the salvation of the slaves as well as their owners…..In this way, more is to be done for the final extirpation of American slavery than all others put together, for these ultraists [Abolitionists] breathe nothing but death and slaughter.
Let moral suasion be used to the last degree for the sake of the salvation of the slaveholder, and the salvation of the slaves. Let us not take a course that will cut off the Gospel from them, and deliver them over to the uncovenanted mercies of God, or the anathemas of the devil. I have had glorious revivals of religion among the slaves, and have seen thousands of them soundly converted to God."
For, as he would often later say, "If the religion of Jesus Christ will not finally bring about emancipation of the slaves, nothing else will ....and unless freedom for slaves is accomplished, under the redeeming influence of religion, this happy Union will be split from center to circumference, and then there will be -an-end to our happy and glorious republic. And if we do not carry the gospel to these slaves and their masters, who will? Surely not the ministers who justify slavery by perverting the Word of God, and still more surely not by abolition preachers, who by political action have cut themselves off from any access to slaveholders or slaves."
Before he left Kentucky, he presided over a Breckenridge Circuit camp meeting, at which the following incident took place:
There were a Brother S. and family, who were the owners of a good many slaves. It was a fine family, and Sister S. was a very intelligent lady and an exemplary Christian. She had long sought the blessing of perfect love, but she said the idea of holding her fellow beings in bondage stood out in her way. Many at this meeting sought and obtained the blessing of sanctification. Sister S. said her whole soul was in agony for that blessing, and it seemed to her at times that she could almost lay hold and claim the promise, but she said her slaves would seem to step right in between her and her Saviour, and prevent its reception. But while on her knees and struggling as in an agony for a clean heart, she then and there covenanted with the Lord, that if He would give her the blessing, she would give up her slaves and set them free. She said that this covenant had hardly been made one moment; when God filled her soul with such an overwhelming sense of divine love that she did not really know whether she was in or out of the body. She rose from her knees and pro-claimed to listening hundreds that she had obtained the blessing, and also the terms on which she had obtained it. She went through the vast crowd with holy shouts of joy, exhorting all to taste and see that the Lord was gracious, and such a power at-tended her words that hundreds fell to the ground, and scores of souls were happily born into the Kingdom of God that after-noon and during the night. Shortly after this, they set their slaves free, and the end of that family was peace?
Efforts to legalize slavery in Illinois compelled Cartwright to enter politics, and in 1828 and 1832, he was elected to the lower house of the Illinois General Assembly. His opponent in the latter election was an-other former Kentuckian, a young rail splitter and lawyer, recently returned from the Black Hawk War, who would later write: "It was the only time that I have ever been beaten by the people," and sign him-self, A. Lincoln.
As the sun rose on the nineteenth century, the revival continued to spread--and in the West it became a conflagration that changed the land. There were excesses and irregularities, and once again the timid of spirit would seek to get rid of the smoke by smothering the flame, as they had before, in the days of Whtefield and Wesley. The elders of the Presbyterian Church spoke solemn warnings about the new emotionalism, but Cumberland Presbyterians, who had had such success with camp meetings, were loathe to give them up when ordered to do so and split away to form their own denomination. Similarly, the overly enthusiastic of other denominations would leave the mainstream to form new churches. But despite all the defects and all the opposition, the purifying flame burned on, and the movement was ultimately vindicated by the peaceable fruits of righteousness that it yielded.
Back east, on the other side of the mountains, the sun had also risen ....