Francis Asbury’s Letters to Preachers: Feel, Preach, and Live Sanctification

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Francis Asbury came to America with the Wesleyan revival fresh on his mind—people gathered in societies, classes and bands who spurred one another on towards the holy dream of spreading scriptural holiness across the land. For Asbury, that “land” was now the American colonies, and God’s call was heavy upon him.

This series on Asbury’s letters to young preachers has already covered 1) the pastor’s relationship to God, 2) preaching, 3) pastoral advice, and 4) passion. In a handful of letters written to few pastors Asbury demonstrated intensity about two overarching priorities – promoting continuous learning among his preachers and establishing a rich environment of discipleship for the people called Methodists. Although “discipleship” wasn’t the common nomenclature of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, it is certainly how we would describe a similar emphasis in contemporary evangelicalism.

In a missive to Edward Dromgoole, Asbury declared that the preacher should “Always account yourself a learner…” To George Roberts (1801), he exhorted, “You should be very full of intelligence.” “Learner” is unquestionably a discipleship term in any age. Asbury’s use of it could have had multiple implications, not the least for Dromgoole to set his attention on reading and adjusting spiritually to the words of Scripture and the classics. Indeed, Asbury urged his protege, “may your soul make the words of God your study day and night.” Soul and study are not typically paired; one usually thinks in terms of the mind and the study of Scripture. But the former was what Asbury meant by “intelligence.” He recognized that the soul must necessarily be engaged. As we shall see momentarily, to the degree that became the preacher’s experience, the opportunity increased for the souls of his listeners to be enlightened and enlarged.

Asbury was no contextual illiterate. To know Scripture is one thing; to know the people one desires to impact with the Gospel is another. In 1812, he wrote to James Quinn that he would be wise to “Know men and all things well.” Asbury himself preached with apparent insight into the minds and hearts of colonial Americans and the challenges they faced. He understood the hardships of the frontier and recognized the political and cultural realities of his times. That knowledge wasn’t merely a natural outcome of being the most well-traveled man of his day. He studied people and their contexts, enjoyed listening to them and developing a meaningful acquaintance, and discerned the milieu that impacted their Christian pilgrimage. When he told young preachers to “prepare,” the implication went beyond prayer and study. Preparation encompassed personal knowledge of Scripture and the means of grace and an informed understanding of the persons to whom and environs in which he and his preachers ministered. This incarnational versatility was the stuff of legend for Asbury and his army of disciple-makers.

The aforementioned letter to Quinn contains a very pregnant sentence that pulsates with conviction. For Wesleyans, it could be a corporate life motto: “See sanctification, feel it, preach it, live it.”

See sanctification: Do you have a vision for what the holy life could look like in your congregation if God had His way? A vision for how your community could be impacted if your church and its members were fully consecrated and thereby fully sanctified for His purposes?

Feel sanctification: Do you feel his holiness in you? Do you have a passion for holiness and what love—radically expressed and liberally dispensed – could mean for the individuals, communities, and churches you serve as a pastor? Are you a holiness-driven pastor?

Preach sanctification: Is a full consecration of lives to Jesus the main thrust of your pulpit ministry? Is God’s gift of sanctifying and making beautiful those consecrated lives a promise you declare boldly, regularly?

Live sanctification: Are you living a life of sanctified discipleship? Can people see the graceful demonstration of love in your demeanor, your relationships, your family, your business dealings? Are people compelled to follow the Jesus in you because of your holy integrity?

“See sanctification, feel it, preach it, live it.” Francis Asbury’s life was so ordered. He was insistent that his preachers model this experience for the new, robust movement of God in this burgeoning nation. That vision became reality, and it has impacted us some two centuries later. May our emulation of Asbury’s passion for holy discipleship similarly transform coming generations.

Learn more about Francis Asbury by reading directly from his journal and letters. Enjoy the fine work of this collection of personal writings, edited by Matt Friedeman. Get Swallowed Up in God: The Best of Francis Asbury’s Journal and Letters here.

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