Francis Asbury’s Letters to Preachers: Solid Pastoral Advice

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During Francis Asbury’s 45 years in America, Methodism on this continent spread like wildfire. Indeed, some consider him one of the greatest religious influences in America—and by extension, the world—for his tireless evangelism and church planting efforts.

This series on Asbury’s letters to young preachers has already covered 1) the pastor’s relationship to God and 2) how to preach well.  In a missive to Jonathan Lyons in 1813 Asbury set down pastoral advice that, without much updating, still provide valuable directives. The letter, in part:

You will watch and pray, believe and love, preach and meet the classes and societies, instruct the children and visit from house to house…Let us preach every day, from morning to evening, every day in the week, let us have souls for our hire, God for our portion, heaven for our home.  We live upon God and feel answers to the prayers of God’s people and we are invulnerable, Immortal till our master’s work is done.

Watch and pray. The young pastor ought to be all eyes and ears and both towards the community in which he or she is placed and, of course, towards God.  Another Methodist of much later vintage, E. Stanley Jones, once said that one of the greatest things that ever happened to his larger ministry was the two-hour a day prayer habit he established while a student at Asbury College.  Much of the vitality of early Methodism in this country was due to a robust conversational relationship with the Lord who wanted nothing more than to see His people holy and that holiness perpetuated.

Believe and love. It was Bishop Asbury’s hope that Lyons would hold fast to a doctrine that was orthodox and Wesleyan, animated by the affection spoken of in The Great Commandments (Love God and love your neighbor).  Together, doctrine and love are a potent force for evangelism and pastoral care that have transformative power.

Preach and meet the classes and societies. Even in Wesley and Asbury’s day, most preachers had a fonder appreciation for pulpit performance than the hard work of discipling the converted and those who “desired to flee from the wrath that is to come.”  But Asbury placed in tandem pulpit speech and the groups necessarily formed in the wake of convicting messages.  Wesley had famously declared that he dared not preach where he could not follow up the holy oratory with accountability groups.  Preaching and intentional discipleship were inextricably joined in the early Methodist construct as essential ingredients of spiritual health.

Instruct the children and visit from house to house. Asbury cherished the opportunity to go house-to-house, modeling prayer and children’s instruction in homes where he stayed across the burgeoning nation.  He felt that if such training wasn’t taking place in the family circle, it wasn’t likely to happen effectively in the church or community.  He frequently bemoaned the lack of family discipleship and encouraged his young leaders to call on parishioners in order to model and encourage spiritual life in the home.

Preach every day, from morning to evening, every day in the week. Across the American frontier, more preaching meant more impact, more converts, more bands and classes, and more righteousness shed abroad in the community.  To preach every day, of course, implied ministry beyond a single preaching point or church.  It meant exporting the message to places of which Asbury was especially fond (basically, wherever he could locate a crowd): taverns, hangings, town halls, homes, jailhouses, and in the streets.  Preaching “every day in the week” meant finding places to preach, even for the busy circuit-rider.  It was simply not the Methodist way to wait for the action to come to the preacher.

Let us have souls for our hire, God for our portion, heaven for our home. The lyrics to a Ken Medema song say, “Life looks different when you’re flying upside down.”  Life looked different to young Methodist preachers.  Souls, God, and heaven were priorities that ordered their imaginations, their affections, their schedules, their money, and their life agendas.

We live upon God. Asbury affirmed the living God as the foundation of the Methodist preacher’s life and ministry, ordering every facet of his reality and trajectory.  Upon this Rock all decisions were made and the steadfastness of the preacher rested secure.  If the vibrant Methodist pastor was as solid as he was enthusiastic, the movement was destined for growth – both qualitatively and quantitatively.

Feel answers to the prayers of God’s people. This was another descriptor of early Methodism. It was an intercessory movement; prayers were frequent, fervent and fruitful.  The pastor was to lead the way for an effectual outpouring of personal and corporate requests to an ever-answering Lord.

We are invulnerable, immortal till our master’s work is done. Asbury and all who knew a genuine Methodist recognized that this was no mere triumphalism. This passion to fulfill the Great Commission was the life of God in Asbury, passed on by contagion to the bold preachers who frequently went where no person had ever gone with the pulsating, evangelical Word of the Lord.  Some of the best of them would die young, some old.  But none ceased their labor until they had completed the task to which God had called them, regardless of the many difficulties that they were called upon to overcome.

Today’s seminars for preachers at various conventions contain topics like, “How to start a prayer movement” or “Love-infused orthodoxy” or “Vital small groups” or “The catechesis of children” or “Preaching to change lives” or “The spiritually-ordered clergy” or “God as our pastoral refuge” or “Staring down burn-out.”  The contemporary Methodist should be encouraged to know that these were the kinds of things being talked about 200 years ago from the pen of America’s most formidable circuit-riding Bishop. Many things change, of course.  But we can read deeply from our spiritual forebears knowing that, of course, many things don’t.


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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