When the American Revolution officially ended in 1783 with the signing of the Peace of Paris, Francis Asbury was the single most influential man in American Methodism. It is no small wonder that he was named General Assistant by Wesley in 1783 and even after Wesley sent Thomas Coke as superintendent Asbury was the one who had the real influence1.
In 1783 Wesley sent Coke, Richard Whatcoat, and Thomas Vasey with a plan that would make the American Methodist church independent of the Church of England. What Wesley didn't suspect was that events would be set in motion that would make the American Conference independent of its parent conference in England as well. Francis Asbury met the delegation in Delaware in the middle of November along with a group of pastors he had summoned to the meeting. What happened next was truly remarkable. Asbury summoned the pastors into a council to discuss whether to accept Wesley's plan and his ordinations and agreed to abide by there decision ahead of time. The council decided that such a matter of great importance could only be settled by a conference of all pastors and the way was paved for the Christmas Conference of 17842.
During the Christmas Conference a number of things happened that made the American Conference independent of the British Conference and John Wesley. One regarded Asbury's ordination. Coke had come with the authority and instruction from Wesley to ordain Asbury as a superintendent. Although the ordination was of great importance to Asbury, he insisted that it be granted to him by election of the conference and not by Wesley's appointment. He was, of course, readily accepted by the conference and then ordained3. The second detachment came in the formation of the church itself. The assembled pastors formed themselves into The Methodist Episcopal Church4. Although the structure and government was similar to the church in England, the fact that the organization came about by the decisions of the assembled pastors and not by the plans of John Wesley indicated a conscious split with Wesley's authority. The third division came with the inclusion of the Binding Minute, which read,
"During the life of the Rev. Mr. Wesley, we acknowledge
ourselves his sons in the gospel,
ready in matters belonging to church government to obey his commands."5
Although at first glance this would not seem to indicate a split, but rather an affirmation of subjection, in Wesley's eyes, as well as the eyes of the framers I'm sure, this explicit stipulation was an indication of independence by the MEC6. The stipulation was later removed after Wesley desired a Conference to be held that would ordain Whatcoat as a Superintendent along with Asbury. The governing pastors did not feel that it was within Wesley's authority to tell them when to meet and whom to ordain into which position and so they removed the minute that would have obligated them to fulfill Wesley's desire7.
When all was said and done the MEC found itself independent of the British Conference and Francis Asbury found himself at the head of the MEC. Lesser men may have been overwhelmed by the power that Asbury now had. Most would have been content to settle down and direct the affairs of the church, hosting delegations of pastors to help them deal with questions that would inevitable arise. Asbury was neither lesser nor most men. He continued his non-stop itinerant duties, visiting all the circuits in America, going to the problems rather than letting the problems come to him. Through it all Asbury's power and influence grew.
It's inevitable that someone of Asbury's stature and influence would produce some enemies. One of the best known instances regarded James O'Kelley. O'Kelly was an Irishman who had a hang-up on "ecclesiastical monarchy." He didn't agree with the authority that allowed leaders such as Asbury to appoint pastors to their pastures. O'Kelley continually challenged Asbury's power until things came to a head at the 1792 General Conference. O'Kelley introduced a measure that would prevent the bishop (ie Asbury) from making appointments, rather pastors would be elected. The issue was heavily debated and in the end lost by a large margin. Unable to accept the decision, O'Kelley split off from the MEC and formed his own church which today is a part of The United Church of Christ8.
Asbury attempted to retire in 1800 but the conference would not here of it. They appointed a preacher to travel with him and help him and so Asbury continued to serve the church until his death in 1816.
|Early Methodism in America|
|Asbury's Early Life|
|Asbury before the Revolutionary War|
|Asbury during the Revolutionary War|
|Asbury after the Revolutionary War|
|Return to HIS338 Student Webpages|
1James E. Kirby, Russell E.
Richen, Kenneth E. Rowe, The Methodists Student Edition (Westport,
London: Praeger,1998), 4,5
2James E. Kirby, Russell E. Richen, Kenneth E. Rowe, The Methodists Student Edition (Westport, London: Praeger,1998), 6
3Frank Baker, From Wesley to Asbury (Durham: Duke University Press, 1976), 129
4James E. Kirby, Russell E. Richen, Kenneth E. Rowe, The Methodists Student Edition (Westport, London: Praeger,1998), 7
5James E. Kirby, Russell E. Richen, Kenneth E. Rowe, The Methodists Student Edition (Westport, London: Praeger,1998), 7
6Richard P. Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodists (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 292
7James E. Kirby, Russell E. Richen, Kenneth E. Rowe, The Methodists Student Edition (Westport, London: Praeger,1998), 8
8Frank Baker, From Wesley to Asbury (Durham: Duke University Press, 1976), 134