The Nation's Pulse

Asbury, Itinerant Leader

Calvin Coolidge remembered the Methodist Church's circuit riding bishop.

By 10.22.07

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Eighty-three years ago this week, President Coolidge rode up 16th Street from the White House and dedicated the noble but simple statue of Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury that still sits in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C.

Across five decades in early America, Methodism's circuit riding bishop crisscrossed all the colonies and later nearly every state of the union, preaching the Gospel, and constructing what would become the nation's largest denomination. The statue portrays Asbury on his horse, enrobed in a cape and with a wide brim hat, Bible in hand. Asbury, who never owned a home, spent most of his 70 years on the preaching trail. He routinely forded engorged rivers, hoofed through blizzards, traversed the Alleghenies, risked Indian attacks, and stayed in tiny smelly cabins with dirt floors more often than in fine houses.

"It was because of what Bishop Asbury... preached that our country has developed so much freedom and contributed so much to the civilization of the world," Coolidge rhapsodized about the circuit rider. The President warned that America's "liberty and prosperity" cannot continue if "we neglect the work which he did."

In the 1920s, this memory of frontier religion was still retained in the American consciousness. The Asbury statue unveiling included a 3-hour ceremony, for which the President was present in its entirety. A military band played hymns, including "Behold the Christian Warrior Standing in All the Armor of His God," while an honor guard from Ft. Myer stood at attention. The flags of all 13 original American colonies fluttered in the autumn breeze, and a flock of carrier pigeons were released to symbolize peace. More than 5,000 were in the audience.

Today, almost nobody notices the Asbury statue any more, and few outside of diehard Methodist circles even remember who Asbury was. But the Coolidge dedication and speech were front page news in Washington, D.C. newspapers in October 1924. Coolidge called Asbury a "prophet of the wilderness" who is "entitled to rank as one of the builders of our nation." But the President also exploited the opportunity to speak more largely about the role of religion in American civic life.

"We cannot depend upon the government to do the work of religion," said Coolidge. "An act of Congress may indicate that a reform is being or has been accomplished, but it does not itself bring about a reform. The government of a country never gets ahead of the religion of a country." Of Asbury, Coolidge said: "He had no idea that he was preparing men…to take advantage of free institutions, and the better to perform the functions of self-government."

Asbury was arguably the most important religious figure during the United States first 40 years. During the American Revolution, the established Anglican churches collapsed. The influence of the old-style Puritan divines did not stretch much beyond New England. The new democratic republic needed a new populist, frontier-style religion. Appointing thousands of fellow circuit riding Methodist preachers over the decades, Bishop Asbury saw Methodism explode from a few thousand followers to over 200,000 church members.

UNLIKE SOME OF HIS modern mainline Protestant successors, who advocate a stale 20th century Social Gospel, Asbury had little direct interest in politics, despite living during some of history most revolutionary times. "Methodist preachers politicians! What a curse!" he once remarked. Asbury's 50 years of journaling barely mention the momentous events of his day. He never mentioned Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison or Andrew Jackson, though he likely met them and many other great statesmen. Estimated to travel about 6,000 miles every year, Asbury was probably the most traveled American of his era.

Twice Asbury did meet George Washington. First it was to ask the general, immediately after the Revolution, to endorse legislation in Virginia to abolish slavery. Later, Asbury would assure then President Washington of Methodist support for the new republic. Both times Asbury was impressed by Washington's simultaneous simplicity and grandeur. When Washington died, Asbury described him as the greatest man of the age.

Asbury's ties to Washington were significant. Unlike other Methodist preachers sent by Methodist founder John Wesley in England, Asbury refused to leave America when the Revolution began. "I can by no means agree to leave such a field for gathering souls to Christ as we have in America," he wrote, "Therefore I am determined by the grace of God not to leave them, let the consequence be what it may."

When Wesley, an ardent Tory, denounced the Revolution, Asbury remained publicly silent, while privately lamenting that the "venerable man ever dipped into the politics of America." When Wesley permitted the creation of a new Methodist Church in America after the Revolution, Asbury insisted that Wesley's appointment of him as bishop was not sufficient, and that the American preachers must elect him as their bishop. The new church also inserted into its doctrinal standards a specific affirmation of the sovereignty of the United States and opposition to any "foreign jurisdiction."

While the early Methodist Church mostly stayed out of politics, it created an ethos that deeply shaped early American life. Methodism encouraged thrift, hard work, entrepreneurship, private philanthropy, and civic righteousness. Even if the church itself did not become politically active, Methodist individuals became renowned for their reforming zeal. But their main focus was always on the Gospel.

"He did not come for political motives," Coolidge rightly observed of Asbury. "He came to bring the Gospel to the people." Asbury preached to whites, blacks and Indians. He opposed slavery and was indifferent to wealth. He confirmed to early Americans that morality and religion were inextricably linked.

Undoubtedly, Asbury would have agreed with Coolidge's assertion that, "Our government rests upon religion. It is from that source that we derive our reverence for truth and justice, for equality and liberty, and for the rights of mankind." Perhaps aware of the rising totalitarian movements that would consume the rest of the 20th century, Coolidge noted: "There are only two main theories of government in the world. One rests on righteousness, the other rests on force. One appeals to reason, the other appeals to the sword."

Coolidge, ever the realist, also warned against divorcing social reforms from the religious impulses that generate them, as well as realizing that if "we can keep in mind their sources, we shall better understand their limitations." But the President, often portrayed as dour, ended his ode to Asbury on a lofty note.

"I do not see how any one could recount the story of this early Bishop without feeling a renewed faith in our own country," Coolidge declared. "Above all attacks and all vicissitudes it has arisen calm and triumphant; not perfect, but marching on guided in its great decisions by the same spirit which guided Francis Asbury."

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.