Francis Asbury, bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America, was born near Birmingham, England, to Joseph and Elizabeth (Rogers) Asbury and apprenticed as a blacksmith. At an early age Asbury joined the Methodist movement under John Wesley’s leadership and became a lay preacher. In 1771, when the fledgling Methodist movement in the American colonies called for leadership, Asbury offered himself. He was elected bishop in 1784, when the Methodists in America formed themselves into the Methodist Episcopal Church.
Recognized as the preeminent leader of the denomination, Asbury became known as the father of American Methodism and the principal guide and shaper of the movement. He insisted that Methodist preachers travel constantly, winning converts and organizing new congregations. Under Asbury’s leadership, Methodists established churches in every state along the eastern seaboard from New England to Georgia, and circuit-riding preachers moved westward with the pioneers into the wilderness of Tennessee and Kentucky. Like his preachers, Asbury was no armchair administrator. He was constantly on the move, making the rounds of all sections of the church to superintend the work. He adopted the motto, “Live or die, I must ride,” and traveled an average of six thousand miles annually for forty-five years.
Asbury first visited Tennessee in 1788, six years after the establishment of the Holston Conference at the headwaters of the Yakin and Holston Rivers. Between his first trip in 1788 and his last in 1815, Asbury visited the state seventeen times and recorded his observations in the daily journal he kept for forty-five years. Critical of the frontier fondness for whiskey and concerned about the moral effects of cheap land, Asbury seldom failed to praise the generosity of Tennessee people.
Asbury died in 1816 in northern Virginia while on his way to the meeting of the General Conference in Baltimore. He was buried in the Eutaw Church in Baltimore; in 1854 his body was moved to a prominent Methodist graveyard in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Baltimore.
Elmer T. Clark et al., eds., The Journals and Letters of Francis Asbury (1958)