American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists is a book about a man who, the author readily admits, is neither an American nor a saint. Yet, writes John Wigger, Francis Asbury “came to understand ordinary Americans as well as anyone of his generation” and “lived one of the most remarkable lives in American history.”
It took this poor and moderately educated young man (he came to America in 1771, at the age of 26) from across the ocean to teach Americans how to act in their new country. British Methodists were engaged in a long struggle with the established elite in their country, and this made them the perfect conveyors of egalitarian culture in this country. Only an Englishman could show Americans how not to be English.
Asbury made Methodism an American religion. And Methodism, to a large extent, made America. Yet his name rarely makes the list of great American heroes.
There were reasons for this. He never married, never wrote anything of particular eloquence, and was never involved in any personal scandals. He was not an eloquent speaker, nor was he a writer of any merit. He was a middleman’s middleman: John Wesley was a cultural mediator between the elite and the undereducated in England, and Asbury mediated between Wesley and America. Asbury spent his life traveling, but he stayed close to the middle of the road.
His laconic preaching style was legendary. Wigger—author of the best history of early American Methodism, Taking Heaven by Storm—describes a sermon delivered during the War of 1812 (Asbury refused to take sides) to a group of Pennsylvania volunteers. Not one for solemnizing national occasions, he chose as his text Jeremiah 2:13: “For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the foundation of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.” Wigger writes: “One can imagine the new recruits scratching their heads, wondering exactly what they were being encouraged to do, while the officers fidgeted in the back.”
Reluctant to let his emotions go, he nonetheless welcomed the growing trend toward enthusiasm in Methodist ciles. “While others preached, shouted, and fell, Asbury usually worked quietly behind the scenes, planning ahead, resolving disputes and talking closely with a handful of friends.” Like a community organizer, Asbury led by creating new leaders, and he had an uncanny talent for delegating responsibility to the right persons.
Asbury was even less open to seminary classrooms than to camp meetings. When Cokesbury College, Methodism’s first venture into higher education, burned to the ground, he was more relieved than saddened. “The schools, colleges, and universities undertake to make men ministers that the Lord Jesus Christ never commanded to be made,” he wrote. “We may rationally conclude that learning is not an essential qualification to preach the gospel.”
In Wigger’s words, “He had always put people before ideas, had always been more concerned with maintaining the church’s connectional nature than with formulating a systematic theology.” Education in Asbury’s day had not yet become a force for egalitarianism, so it did not fit his vision of a church for the ordinary man.
Why did Asbury never become an American hero? After all, his achievement was exhausting and exhaustive. He was on the road more than any other American of his time, preached more than ten thousand sermons, and ordained two to three thousand preachers (too many, evidently, to be counted precisely). He was tireless and tenacious, generous in his self-imposed poverty, and brave in the face of illness.
Asbury surely talked to more people in America face to face, in their homes, about religion (or about anything, for that matter) than did anyone else before or since. He was all things to all people. He was, according to Wigger, “as Christ-like a figure as most Methodists could imagine.”
Therein, of course, is the problem. The limited imaginations of rural America privileged sincerity over culture and geniality over idiosyncrasy. Friends and acquaintances repeatedly described Asbury as cordial and graceful, full of good sense and self-deprecating humor. He was the American everyman before Americans even knew they were looking for one.
If not an American hero, he did become “the patron saint of decency and decorum” (a function no self-respecting Roman Catholic saint would stoop to serve). If Protestantism does have a cult of saints, its shrine is dedicated to sincerity, and only in that sense is Asbury an American saint.
Sincerity is the virtue of honest expression, and it is highly prized among people untrained in discriminating between good and bad ideas. If you are not confident in your own intellectual judgments, you have to trust others. You don’t want to be falsely flattered or the object of condescension. You want sincerity, and Asbury was a master of the art.
Asbury was thus American before America was. Like the movement he led, he so effortlessly blends into American history that his genius is hard to recognize. As a mirror to the American character, it is hard to see him without seeing ourselves.
Wigger’s approach to Methodism develops the work of Nathan Hatch, whose book The Democratization of American Christianity makes the case that Methodism, among other groups, transformed democracy from a theory to a way of life. From this perspective, however, Methodism, with its strict chain of authority, is a democratic paradox. “A tension existed at the heart of American Methodism’s organizational structure,” Wigger confesses, “an uneasy balance between American democratic ideals and Wesley’s more hierarchical ecclesiology.”
He overstates the tension. Methodism’s contributions to democratization are misunderstood, if democracy is identified with liberal individualism. Hatch and Wigger tend to equate democracy with populism, but American democracy was never meant to set people free from all external sources of authority. America was a republic, not a free-for-all brawl.
Asbury should be credited, in fact, with figuring out the secret to democracy. Give people control over their submission to authority and they will take it. Democracy has to begin in the soul, with freely chosen order, not in the political process of freely chosen representatives.
Methodism took this principle to an extreme, which is why it was so powerful. It would take a philosopher like Foucault (who argued that advances in freedom and the social regulation of personal lives go hand in hand) to fully fathom the way that Methodism spread both self-empowerment and self-policing systems of spiritual surveillance.
Like Mormonism, Methodism spread through social networks of shared meals and shared beds. (Asbury resisted married clergy because spending the nights in crowded homes was the best way to keep ministers in touch with their congregations.)
Early in its history Methodism did not burn with the combustion of Pentecostalism, nor did it rage with the refining fire of fundamentalism, and it certainly did not wash the coals of faith with the cool breeze of restorationist rationalism. It baked faith at just the right temperature, browning but not burning the heart’s tender glow of devotion.
Indeed, scholars trying to describe Methodists often lapse into the language of spiritual warmth; in the case of Asbury, this metaphor should be taken literally. He seems to have left the impression on everyone he met of a perfectly heated cup of tea or a cozy bath.
Admittedly, Methodism’s radiance of sincerity did eventually cool to the point of institutional advancement and social prestige. Asbury lived long enough to witness the mixed blessing of success. “Respectable! Ah! There is death in that word,” he wrote, lamenting how, in Wigger’s words, “New England Methodists seemed intent on building ‘grand’ houses with steeples and pews, even if it meant stooping to hold lotteries to raise money.” Primitive simplicity gave way to proud prosperity.
That is not Asbury’s story, but it is the story of America. In this, too, Methodism shows us our most characteristic selves.
Stephen H. Webb is a professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash College. His recent books include American Providence, Dylan Redeemed, and most recently The Dome of Eden: A New Solution to the Problem of Creation and Evolution.