Friday, November 03, 2006

Asbury for Dummies (part 1)

These are some notes for the first chapter of my dissertation

Francis Asbury was born just outside of Birmingham, England on either August 21 or 22, 1845 (according to his journal, he was sure of the exact date). At a young age, Asbury's sister, Sarah, died unexpectedly, his mother, Susan found comfort by becoming increasingly more religiously active. During that day, a number of religious "reformers" were paring their spiritual wares across the English countryside, and the Asburys were known to host them in their home for services. Francis grew up around preachers, prayers, and was schooled in the ways of holiness. As a result he grew up a very pious young man.

After six years taking formal educational training, Asbury, at the age fourteen, dropped out and apprenticed with a local man in a trade that's never been fully identified (button making is a possibility). It was during this apprenticeship that Asbury first heard a Wesleyan Methodist preacher, and his heart found its destiny. Asbury joined a local Methodist Class Meeting (a small group of people who came together for fellowship, to examine their own and on another's spiritual lives, study the scriptures, pray, and collect money to support the Methodist's work with the poor). In Class Meetings, members were encouraged to speak, or exhort, and before long Asbury gained a reputation for being a passionate, if uneducated, speaker. In time, he was invited to speak at other class meetings, and after serving as an assistant to one of the traveling lay preachers, John Wesley himself took Asbury to be one of his own assistants. There, to compensate for his lack of education, Asbury was instructed to read the many tomes published by Wesley (hundred and hundreds) on all subjects relating to the Bible, theology, church polity, Greek and Hebrew, and skads of church and world history.

Asbury over time, gained a reputation for being an ardent Methodist and a fine lay preacher. The only complaint his superiors could make of him was that he often had a lot of suggestions as to how the movement could be better organized, and often began making changes without any OK fromt he hierarchy. Wesley ruled with an iron hand, and expected the same of his cheif deputies, so this ended up buying Asbury a great deal of trouble.

Of course.... it also caught Wesley's eye.

By 1772, the Methodist movement in the American colonies was growing, but lacked any true form or structure. Only two Methodist missionaries had traveled from England to the new land, and they were firmly ensconced in circuits working out of Baltimore and Philadelphia. Captain Thomas Webb, a retired member of the British army now living in New York, a man who had converted to Christianity through the Methodist movement, was the big mover and shaker in the new world. He raised money. He helped organize class meetings. He supported Methodist lay preachers in every way imaginable. And finally, out of frustration, traveled to England to tell Wesley that more Methodist lay preachers were needed in the new world.

Wesley called a conference of all his ordained an lay preachers, and asked for volunteers to go. Only two stepped forward.... another guy who shortly would return back to England, and Francis Asbury. Immediately, Asbury went to Bristol where Wesley's main headquarters was, raised the necessary money, said good-bye to his family, and traveled to America. He would never return.

Asbury, because of his lack of education and a formal ordination as a minister in the Church of England, probably would have faded somewhat into obscurity had it not been for the American Revolution. Because all things tied to Britain were viewed with a fair amount of suspician by the colonists, and because John Wesley came out formally opposed to the revolution (much to Asbury's dismay... he wished that Wesley had just remained mute on the subject), Methodist preachers were often treated rudely and violently. This caused Wesley in 1778 to call all of his missionaries back home (there numbers had grown to eight), of which seven complied.

Asbury couldn't bear leaving the American Methodist church. He had working as a lay preaching in the area of Baltimore, and had been instrumental in orgainizing conferences among preachers up and down the coast. Inspired by the rapid growth of the movement, despite the opposition caused by the political climate, he felt "compelled by God" to stay. Thus, by 1783, Asbury was the only formal voice representing Wesley in America.

At the conclusion of the war, America, now an independent nation, wanted nothing to do with the "Mother Country", and Asbury knew it. Because so few ordained Church of England ministers lived in the country, and Methodist lay preachers were not allowed to perform the sacriments, lay preachers ached to give communion and baptize their followers and not no means to accomplish the tasks. Wesley, out of his own personal study of what "apostolic succession" meant, decided that presbyters (ordained ministers in the Church of England) could not only ordain new presbyters, but could also raise up "superintendents" to organize the presbyters. This caused a great stir, because in the Anglican church, only Bishops could ordain ministers and choose their superintendent superiors. Even John's brother, Charles, couldn't stomach John's idea, because he was making himself, de facto, a Bishop who could ordained and organize the church which violated Anglican polity.

But, undetered, John Wesley determined that Thomas Coke, an ordained Anglican minister should be the superintendent of the American wing of the Methodist Church, and sent him there to ordain ministers in what would become a free-standing American Methodist Episopal Church. Upon arriving, at the Christmas Conference of 1784, Coke not only started ordaining Methodist ministers, he also made Asbury a superintendent in the church, subordinate only to Coke. Six months later, Coke went home, leaving Asbury as the man in charge.

Because he had been traveling extensively thoughout the country to give the church some order, Asbury knew practically every preacher and class leader. He wasn't in American long before he realized that if new converts were to be made, a system where churches were planted and served by a pastor had to be avoided at all cost. In the 1780's, fewer than 3% of America's population lived in cities of 8,000 or more. Mostly, they lived in rural areas, and were moving further and further west out on the frontier. Asbury, understanding this perfectly, passionately fought the idea of "urban, settled pastors", and given his immense power, there would be none of these in the Methodist Episcopal Church.

Instead, class meetings and local churches scattered across the country were organized into "circuits". Lay preachers were assigned to the circuits, generally anywhere from 9 to 14 class meetings and or churches. These lay preachers, or Circuit Riders, created a schedule where by every single stop on the circuit would be visited once a month for the purpose of checking the class meetings roles, settling up finanical matters, resolving disputes, administering the sacraments, and (most important) firing up the faithful and reaching new converts through spirited preaching and worship.

Asbury, in a given year's time, resolved to visit every single one of these every single year, a feat made possible only by his remaining on horseback 6,000 miles per year through every conceivable mountain pass, swamp, and form of weather imaginable. After years of this, Asbury would remain in poor health (although it rarely deterred him from his schedule) but his knowledge of the geography and demography of the land became unparelled. Thus, Asbury always seemed to know how new circuits would work, where to find a new preacher to serve it, and where that preacher (based on their gifts, skills, and health) would need to serve next.

Thus, Asbury set about formally organizing the church so that it could continue to grow with the country. He organized the circuits into "districts", appointing a "superintendent" who not only served a church of his own but also was expected to preach in new places to new people, to help train new circuit riders, class leaders, and administrate the churches. This was important because all circuit riders, superintendents, and Asbury himself were paid from a central fund. The superintendents were essential in collecting money (mostly raised through the selling of books published by the fledgling denomination's publishing house in Baltimore) raised to send to the central administration, who then paid everyone quarterly. The rest of the money was used to fund the creation of new circuits and support infirm Methodist preachers and subsequently their widows.

The districts were then organized into "conferences" so given the name because once a year a "conference" of all clergy would be scheduled for worship (the foundation of what would become the "camp meeting movement"), to vote on matters of adminsitrative importance (Asbury, unlike Wesley, understood that decisions could not handed down unilaterally in a nation possessed by the idea of democracy, so every Methodist preacher was given voice and vote in all these matters), and ultimately serve as the place where Asbury, who traveled to each of these meetings, would announce what circuits pastors would be assigned for the next two years. Asbury believed that given the differing nature of each circuit, that the preachers serving them needed to be changed every two years. Sometimes a preacher was assigned because the circuit was just starting and needed a firery leader to get it going, and that preacher was the "firery type". Other times, the sheer physical demands of the circuit had worn out a circuit riding preacher, so Asbury would assign them to a less-physicallly demanding circuit where they could recover.

And I mentioned that preachers had voice and vote in every administrative matter effecting them, and this is true, even in the case of appointments. Asbury even announced at the beginning of each "annual conference" that preacher who wanted special considerations to be taken into account before Asbury made the assignements, could put what they wanted in writing, and hand it to Asbury a couple of days before those appointments were made. But Asbury was no democrat... not really. A man who changed his title from "General Superintendent of the American Methodist Episcopal Church" to it's one and only "Bishop" (a title John Wesley refused to give himself... in his last letter to Asbury he dressed him down for doing so) really wanted as much control as possible. So, as a means of effecting that control, Asbury would wait until the last possible minute to announce his appointments, take a vote, and immediately leave town... and those asking for special considerations in appointments often found themselves geographically hundreds of miles away from the place they had asked to be. Since there was no time for a grievence process (remember, it was the last thing they did at each conference), pastors learned to keep their mouths shut and hope for the best.

All of this information nobody in their right mind has read (if you've gotten this far, you either have nothing else to do or like reading absurdly reduced history... may God have mercy on your sould) and for what....... just to say this.

1) The system of Bishops, District Superintendents, and appointed local church pastors in charge of Annual Conferences, Districts, and local churches was largely Asbury's creation.

2) Methodists, particularly United Methodists who are largely direct descendents of Asbury's Methodist Episcopal Church, got the reputation for moving preachers around a lot largely because Asbury, out of necessity had to move what leaders he had to keep the movement growing as the country grew and keep his preachers alive.

3) Vestiges of "don't tell the Bishop where you want to go cause they'll move you in the opposite direction" still exist until this day in various quarters of the UMC. Stories of pastors showing up at Annual Conference as late as the 1970's not knowing if they'd be going home to work or pack until the final day of the meeting are legion among retirees. Because they unilaterally determined appointments made ME, and later UM Bishops were far more powerful as episcopal leaders than Bishops in Anglican or Episcopalian denominations.

I remember a story (I don't know if it's true) that a now retired UM pastor from the West Ohio Conference told me about Bishop Werner who ruled the roost in the late 1950's and 60's. Apparently when the denomination purchased land for the purpose of establishing a church camp facility near Bellefontaine (now, Camp Wesley), it was determined that a man-made pond was needed to make the complex complete. Thus, for a number of summers, Werner made it mandatory that all Methodist preachers had to take a week in the summer, travel to Camp Wesley, and help, among other building projects, dig out the pond.

Power like this led to schisms creating numerous denominations (Wesleyan and Free Methodist to name a couple) where the power of the Bishop was muted, or the position was eliminated all-together.

4) Despite the best efforts of his opponents who opposed his Episcopal, centralized model (critics accused Asbury of secretly wanting to be a "Methodist Pope") Asbury, largley out of his knowledge of every facet of the church, and of the nation as a whole, became too well-known and popular to be defeated on these matters. But Asbury was pragmatic enough to realize that the "my-way-or-the-highway" model John Wesley employed in Britian wasn't going to fly in a fledgling nation built on democracy. The Annual Conference and General Conference models where originally all ordained preachers would gather to vote on all matters of importance was Asbury's concession to this reality. It was largley though the appointment process and his own reputation that Asbury was able to largely control the system. That Bishops emulated Asbury in terms of how they saw their power largely, over time became as much traditional as it was disciplinary.

5) Lay-people from the inception of the American wing of the movement, have not much say in the appointment of pastors in the UMC. Much of this derives from Asbury's belief that the Congregational "call" model led to lazy preachers serving self-centered churches who hired them to do their beck and call. Asbury also realized that once a pastor married and had kids, their tendancy was to want to settle down and become "locational", thus the system of appointment began to tend toward methodist preachers owning few things in the world, and the church providing housing so that moves could be made quickly and cheaply. This conditioned the laity to not look for a particular circuit rider, but a particular time that a circuit rider would show up. As a result, the class meeting and local churches were instructed to be somewhat self-supporting and self-leading with the guidelines set by the ME Discipline. Laity focused energy on raising up new class or church leaders (the most promising would often be encouraged to become circuit riders) who's main function was biblical instruction, spiritual guidance, and exhorting (which is, basically, preaching). Thus, the laity were "freed up" to do ministry, not be served by someone as a professional pastor.

6) Asbury's system of appointment was designed for a world where 97% of the population lived in the most remote locations. Because Asbury himself realized what the toll all the traveling took on the traveller (he paid a horrible price personally for all his time on the road, as he was often in poor health which often took its toll on his state of mind.... Asbury was often a pretty depressed dude because he felt like his infirmaties limited his ability and passion for Christ and his church) this had great bearing on how his Circuit Riders were appointed. What's more, the movement was growing so quickly and geographically huge, many moves were made necessary just because the demand for new superintendents was always pressing. Preachers who developed reputations for giving new sermons, raising up good new preachers, or administrating things well rose quickly through the ranks. Couple that with legions of Methodist preachers who left the pulpit because they married and wanted to be home, turned to alcholism due to the stress/physical pain/lonliness, or simply wore out or died, and lots of moves had to be made.

What was a necessity in the late 18th century due to circumstance however, as often is the case in religion, largely became tradition later. Churches understood that they needed to equip themselves to house pastors and their families while Methodist preachers were largely underpaid (which is still the case for the vast majority of ordained ministers today). A model evolved where inexperienced preachers were appointed to small churches that largely self-functioned. It they desired to move to larger churches where the parsonages were larger and the pay better, they needed to learn how to do Methodist polity and preach well... which often resulted in the small church beginning to grow just about the time the pastor would get moved to something a little bit bigger.

Sadly, young preachers, short on experience but long on spunk, had once taken the message of Jesus across the frontier into new territories as entrepreneurial leaders who fueled Methodisms' rapid growth. Peter Cartwright, who pretty much single-handedly established Methodism as a force in this part of the world, was commissioned by Asbury at the age of 19 to a circuit. By the 1960's, this entrepreneurial spirit was largely replaced a bueracratic one, which might help account for a four-million member decline over the last thirty years.

7) Asbury's fear of pastor and laity desiring a "locational" model, where pastors served only a few, or even one local church, largely ended up becoming true. Laity are no longer encouraged to preach or teach. Pastors have now been largely given the job of raising up a new generation of leaders, while in Asbury's day the laity were the ones who discovered those among them that could preach in such a way as to give the Circuit Rider a run for his money. As result, while we have become better educated as clergy, and as a nation, rudimentary knowledge of the scripture, theology, and church history are ever decreasing among the general populace. In turn, as daily preaching and teaching responsibilities have been professionalized into the clergy, to fill their time and justify their salary, clergy have become the primary administrators, visitors of the sick, and evangelists in a congregation. At one time, someone just checked once a month to make sure the laity were taking care of business..... now, the pastor is the one held accountable by the laity to get these things accomplished, which was Asbury's greatest fear.

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