Francis Asbury’s Letters to Preachers: How to Preach Well

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In October 1771, Francis Asbury traveled to America from Great Britain at the behest of John Wesley. During his 45 years here, he spread Methodism in America as part of the Second Great Awakening. Some consider him the greatest religious influence in the early years of America.

Across the years, Asbury sought to instruct and encourage his protégés through sermons, conversation, and personal correspondence. In this and upcoming articles we examine ten letters that address basic ministry arenas: the pastor’s relationship to God (covered last article), preaching (this article), pastoring, attitude, and discipleship (coming articles).

So—Asbury to young preachers on preaching:

1. In a letter to an Edward Dromgoole in 1775, Asbury advised to “Always account yourself a learner, only when you go to preach take care of trifling…” “The best leaders are the best notetakers” it has been said. And it could also be said of preachers – to learn is to grow and to share what God is growing in you is the essence of powerful testimony. Learn, grow, testify. And about this “trifling” – it refers to unimportant or trivial matters. Asbury exhorted his preachers to learn, and then preach, in such a way as to “major on the majors.” Salvation and its effect on the totality of a life, and the many lives around it, mattered. A life fully given and thus fully blessed, and the implications of that sanctified life in family, church and society, mattered.

2. To Ezekiel Cooper he counseled that sermons ought to be “short and pointed in tone, briefly explanatory…” Anyone who considers TED talks revolutionary for their information-packed brevity should know that in the years of our nation’s founding, the most life-changing leader alive recognized that keeping sermons short and to the point was essential to successful communication. This approach doesn’t mean, of course, that we must sacrifice cogency. For effective examples, check out Seedbed’s “Seven-Minute Seminary” offerings, which provide a wealth of information in a short period of time. Asbury would have approved.

3. In the same letter, Asbury noted that “Sermons ought to press the people to conviction, repentance, faith and holiness.” Not all sermons are intended for the same purpose; generally, however, the aforementioned aims are admirable ends to keep in mind. Preaching for conviction means setting up the human dilemma inherent in most pericopes of Scripture. Repentance involves helping the listener to understand what change is needed to align with God’s purposes. Faith is believing that God, by His grace, can get us to the point where He wants us. And holiness means applying the message to real-life situations your congregation will experience this week. “Be holy as God is holy” wasn’t a pipedream; it was a grace-filled reality for those who truly desired it.

4. To Nelson Reed (1791) Asbury said, “stir up that wrestling agonizing spirit more and more, after justifying and sanctifying grace; without this the souls of the people will die, even the souls of believers.” In other words, stimulate the desire for more grace, greater life change, further progress in the Spirit. Without that “agonizing” (from the Greek agonizesthai, “to contend in the struggle”), believers would get comfortable, settled in, content…and thereby die. Preaching, therefore, should encourage people to pursue “straining toward what is ahead.” (Phil. 3:13/NIV) Asbury didn’t seem to think that condemnation alone was necessary for people to agonize, strain and contend. Indeed, he said, “Show the promises and excite the souls of believers…”

5. This didn’t mean that Asbury was all Norman Vincent Peale. In a letter dated 1801, Asbury wrote George Roberts to “Preach upon the travail of a soul, every sermon preach very plain and pure, and God will own your work…” It wasn’t easy, but it could be simple. “Plain truth for plain people” was Wesley’s motto. But these plain people needed to know that soul work was serious work… there would be painful and laborious effort ahead. To shy away from this was to risk God disowning your pulpit efforts. To embrace it would mean His blessing.

6. Asbury taught to preach on “perfect love, and practical godliness” (letter to Roberts, 1802). These emphases belonged together. Perfect love was no “pie in the sky” teaching of the Methodists. It was a way to relate to God and man, which meant it was a way to live. A life of love resulting from complete consecration and entire sanctification impacted the workplace, social issues of the day (like slavery), dress, habits, the family, etc. These practical outcomes needed instruction from Scripture. Asbury implored his circuit riders to provide it.

7. Seeking practical outcomes also meant going to “practical” places to preach and minister. Wrote Asbury, “… by all means attend the market places. Oh for Christ’s sake seek his lost sheep, the outcast of men” (Roberts, 1802). Lost people were likely to be found in taverns, at public hangings, courthouses, tobacco houses, fields, public squares. This was where Asbury preached; his instruction to others was, basically, “Follow me…” In a journal entry, he penned that “To begin at the right end of the work, is to go first to the poor; these will, the rich may possibly, hear the truth: there are among us who have blundered here.” (June 19, 1789) Don’t blunder, warned Asbury, by spending too much time on the wealthy. Methodists belonged first with the poor, the vulgar, the outcasts of men.

Now for this surprise: Asbury wasn’t much of a preacher. But he knew great preaching when he heard it, and he recognized that the movement of God through Methodism would rise as others were exposed to its powerful message through robust preaching. The seven points above encapsulate his advice towards that end.

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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