Learning from Asbury’s Cavalry

In my leisurely slog through Nathan Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity, I found myself enthralled at his description of Methodist Episcopal Bishop Francis Asbury and the movement he spent his life’s work trying to sustain. In the late-18th and early-19th century, most Americans, particularly on the frontier, were opting for a clergy and ecclesiology in which the common man’s conscience and intellect ruled the day. Educated and trained pastor-theologians needed not apply! And yet the hierarchical Methodist Episcopals, with the tyrannical and heavy-handed Asbury as their leader, outpaced even the Baptists in terms of denominational growth. The reason for this irony, according to Hatch, related to Asbury’s methods (sorry for the pun) and motivations. 

In terms of method, Asbury insisted upon building his denomination through a small army (wait for it) of itinerant preachers who largely traveled on horseback (bingo). And this was not your grandad’s preaching circuit: such men logged thousands of miles per year. Furthermore, “these itinerants were characteristically poor, single, and self-educated” (88). And “the high rate of single preachers in America was directly related to the severe financial constraints of the office” (ibid). These men rode and preached year-round, depending for most their needs upon the hospitality of those to whom they ministered. For this reason, a third of Asbury’s Connection (name of the ME ruling body, composed of its itinerant preachers) cavalry died before the age of 30, with five years or less of service.

While Asbury’s methods were near draconian (and certainly more austere than even the apostle Paul’s lifestyle), his opposition to the ministerial habits of the day motivated him to demand this way of life from his underlings. What exactly were those habits? Hatch describes them from Asbury’s perspective in the following language: locality, gentility, and smug complacency; the prestige of urban congregations, a “high” doctrine of the pastoral office, and distancing oneself from popular enthusiasm; creating social division between themselves and the poor and radical; loss of contact with the working class of town and country; and so on.

Certainly, there is a negative lesson in Asbury’s method: ministers of the gospel should not be forced to remain single, live in poverty, and/or die early in order to carry out the functions of their office. Undue hardship should not be tolerated simply as a function of the Christian ministry. But there is also a positive lesson in Asbury’s motivation: ministers of the gospel must cultivate a reputation for feeding their sheep, not themselves.