Great circuit riding preacher Francis Asbury, considered the first Methodist bishop in the U.S, arrived in America for missionary work 250 years ago this month. John Wesley, founder of Methodism, sent him.

Asbury was born in Birmingham, England, and received eight years of formal education. He wrote that “the Spirit of God strove frequently and powerfully” over him when he was 12. Asbury began to preach between ages 17 and 18.

He first came to North Carolina in 1780 and was last in the state in 1816. Asbury’s journal mentions three visits to Wilkes County, when he planted the seeds for churches that exist today.

Asbury came to Wilkes as early as February 1785, stopping with his party at Col. Joseph Herndon’s home on the Yadkin in eastern Wilkes. He wrote, “Here we were kindly entertained, although there were few people to preach to. Nothing could have better pleased our old Church folks than the late step we have taken in administering the ordinances to the Catholic Presbyterians, it also gives satisfaction; but the Baptists are discontented.”

Joseph Lee, pioneer Methodist minister in North Carolina, joined Asbury and others at Herndon’s. An Asbury biographer wrote about Lee objecting when he saw Asbury wearing full canonicals (“black gown, cassock and band”) at Herndon’s, saying it was too unlike Methodist simplicity. Asbury seldom wore such clothing again, the biographer stated.

Asbury continued in his journal:

“Thursday, February 3. Rode twenty miles to Witherspoon’s (in the upper Yadkin Valley): here was a large assemblage of people; some to pay and receive taxes; some to drink; and some to hear me preach: I gave them a rough talk on Rev. ii, 5-8. From this place, we rode to Allen’s. The people here are famous for talking about religion: and here and there is a horse thief.

“Sunday, 6. Yesterday some were prevented from offering their children to God in baptism, by a zealous Baptist: today brother Willis (Henry) spoke on the right of infants to baptism; our opposer soon took his leave.” Asbury ended the next day at Morgan Bryan’s in today’s Davie County, having ridden the horse he borrowed in today’s Forsyth County nearly 300 in about nine days.

Asbury recorded that on April 10, 1795, “We came to Gordon’s, in Wilkes county. I feel awful; I fear lest darkness should be felt here. Ah, Lord, help me to go through good and evil report; prosperity and adversity; storms and calms; kindness and unkindness; friends and enemies; life and death, in the spirit and practice of the Gospel of Jesus Christ!

On April 12, he wrote, “I preached the funeral of grandmother Gordon, aged eighty-seven or eighty-eight years.

“Monday, 13. We took our acceptable departure; I cannot live where God is not acknowledged. I passed through the heart of Wilkes county. Here is a poor prospect of religion among all sects. We came in the evening to the house of a poor, honest man. Bless God! we can embrace the poor cabins, and find shelter. The people are kind and free with what they have.”

Asbury was again in Wilkes on Oct. 18, 1799, arriving in southeastern Wilkes and stopping at “Doctor Brown’s.” He wrote in his journal, “I feel my mind in great peace and resignation, both as it respects the Church of God, and my own soul. The Presbyterians here are much more friendly with the Methodists now than formerly: I dare not say it is policy; it may be piety.”

Asbury wrote that a 20-mile ride in wet weather on Oct. 19 ended at George Gordon’s home “near Wilkes court house.” He noted that Oct. 20 was the 28th anniversary of his arrival in America.

Asbury and his party rode eight miles on Oct. 21 before stopping at William Tribble’s home in southwestern Wilkes. From there they went on to Burke County, passing through what now is Caldwell County.

It is estimated that Asbury traveled 270,000 miles, preached 16,425 sermons, presided over 224 conferences and ordained 4,000 preachers from Maine to Georgia and westward to Ohio.

He was one of the best-known men of his day and one of the most often seen. Asbury never retired, never returned to England and never married. He died and was interred in Spotsylvania County, Va. His body was soon moved to Baltimore, Md., virtual headquarters of American Methodism.

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