Asbury was the dominant force in shaping the fledgling Methodist movement into America’s largest Protestant denomination. As such, he is one of the most significant figures in the history of American religion and, by extension, American culture.
The genius of Asbury was his ability to recognize American Methodism as a separate movement with its own democratic pulses (72). This, in itself, was fraught with challenges. When he first arrived, the movement was largely stagnant, with two preachers focused on climbing the proverbial social ladder. Asbury pushed to implement John Wesley’s itinerant model of circuits. As he did so, the movement flourished among the common people in America (in fact, Methodism became known as “a poor person’s religion”). Ultimately, American Methodism would cut its own umbilical cord with the main movement in England due to the American Revolution. Although Asbury was suspected as a Tory, by the time the conflict was over, he emerged as the de facto head of American Methodism.Scorned by society, Asbury found a new spiritual family in the Methodist movement. Although never considered much of a preacher, he was apparently gifted while, at the same time, dispensable enough to be sent at the age of 26 to America as one of the movement’s first missionaries to America (44).
Perhaps Asbury’s greatest contribution, while he was alive, was in establishing and maintaining a system of itinerant preachers. He did not ask that spirituality was proportionate to spiritual discipline (79, 80). He maintained a grueling travel schedule to the end of his life. He never owned more than a horse and what he could carry on his person. He gave all of his money away. In fact, he never settled or married—one of the greatest fears he had for aspiring ministers. Yet his greatest talent was in his ability to connect with the ordinary person in his or her home. Through personal interaction and adherence to Methodist discipline, he earned the trust of the people, and they loved him for it (280).
The “class meeting”—based on the earlier Moravian bands—became the basic building block of American Methodism and, in its later form, set the precedent for Adventist worship. Later, Asbury established conferences and even a general conference that provided a polity for American Methodism, and the parallel continues, albeit somewhat nuanced, in Adventism. By the time Ellen White was born in 1827, the American Methodist movement had become the largest denomination in America, along with a common language and set of experiences that testified to Methodism’s transforming power.
Asbury could easily be passed over in the annals of church history, yet my fellow pastors will be all the richer for taking the time to make his acquaintance through this biography. As a pastor, when I read this book, I was inspired by his life. His struggles with health, church conflict, and even depression give me hope. The issues he grappled with are very much real today. I was struck with how God was able to use a very ordinary person in an extraordinary way.
—Reviewed by Michael W. Campbell, PhD, assistant professor of historical and theological studies at the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies, Silang, Cavite, Philippines.