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Where Is Your Zeal Focused? Lessons from Francis Asbury by Brian Yeich

On my office shelf is a 200-year-old brick from Bethel Academy, the first Methodist school in the United States west of the Appalachian Mountains, established by circuit riding Methodist preacher Francis Asbury in 1790. From those roots sprang Asbury College in 1890 and Asbury Theological Seminary in 1923.

You might look at that brick on my shelf and think it’s just an old brick. But to me, that brick is a reminder of the faithfulness and zeal of Francis Asbury as he worked to, “spread scriptural holiness across the land.” It’s also a reminder of the subsequent faithfulness of John Wesley Hughes as he founded Asbury College and Henry Clay Morrison as he founded Asbury Theological Seminary.

A brick from the original Bethel Academy. Photo courtesy Dr. Brian Yeich.

In 2 Timothy 4 Paul implores Timothy to preach the word…”I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” – (2 Timothy 4:1–2, ESV)

Paul regards Timothy as being in a crisis in which he must make positive action. He must preach the word in which he has been nurtured as never before. The verb behind the words, “be prepared in season and out of season” (ephistēmi) means “to stand by, be at hand.”

In our Methodist history, Francis Asbury is one of the great examples we have of what it looks like to follow Paul’s advice to Timothy. Asbury’s zeal for God and commitment to preach and teach the gospel are now legendary, but they were never meant to be extraordinary – it was meant to be the ordinary work of everyday Methodists.

According to John Wigger, the author of American Saint, Francis Asbury communicated the vision of the Methodist movement in America in four important ways.

1. First and foremost, his personal piety and perseverance were rooted in his own conversion. In other words, Asbury was a disciple of Jesus.

He was moved by the zeal of Methodist preachers and found forgiveness and assurance in Christ in his mid-teens; by the age of 17 he had started preaching. He understood that his conversion was only the beginning of his life in Christ and began earnestly seeking sanctification by joining a Wesley band (small, intentional discipleship group). His faith was tested as he and other Methodist preachers were assaulted with dead cats (!), beaten, and otherwise harassed for their zeal.

Asbury was tried and tested in the American frontier as well, but even his opponents noted his deep, abiding faith. Even James O’Kelly, leader of the first Methodist split, remarked that Asbury possessed, “cogent zeal and unwearied diligence in spite of every disappointment.” Asbury was grounded in a deep faith that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, was unshakable.

2.  He had the ability to connect to ordinary people: he wasn’t actually a strong preacher. Wigger notes that Francis Asbury was not known as a great preacher, but nonetheless that he connected with people one-on-one and in small groups.

In an era before modern photography or Instagram, it is said that he was more visibly recognizable in his day than either George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. As Wigger notes, “People found Asbury approachable and willing to listen to their concerns, more than they found him full of inspiring ideas.”[1] Asbury was intensely relational in his approach to ministry.

3. He understood and leveraged popular culture – but failing to confront it haunted him.

While never compromising on preaching the Gospel, Asbury didn’t try to fit English Methodism into the American frontier, but rather found ways to make the good news relevant in the wild, untamed new country, whether through camp meetings or emotional expressions of worship. He also worked within the tension between the dominant culture around him and the Gospel.

However, his cultural relevancy exacted a price as Asbury did not confront Southern slavery – a decision that haunted him.

4. He helped organize the Methodist movement in America. The keystone to the Wesleyan revivals was found in practicing Christian disciplines. Each Methodist was expected to, “live out their salvation with fear and trembling,” by attending to the means of grace and living in intentional, accountable community.

“Methodists succeeded where other religious groups failed largely because they were more disciplined.”[2] The early American Methodists lived in expectant hope that God could do more in their lives than they could ever imagine. Asbury was able to leverage Wesley’s organizational method that enabled the Methodists to continue to be a movement.

Perhaps most importantly, Asbury lived out Wesley’s admonition regarding the “order” of zeal. In Wesley’s Sermon On Zeal he proposed that our zeal should follow a particular order:

12. Take then the whole of religion together, just as God has revealed it in his word; and be uniformly zealous for every part of it, according to its degree of excellence. Grounding all your zeal on the one foundation, “Jesus Christ and him crucified;” holding fast this one principle, “The life I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved ME, and gave himself for ME;” proportion your zeal to the value of its object. Be calmly zealous, therefore, first, for the Church; “the whole state of Christ’s Church militant here on earth:” and in particular for that branch thereof with which you are more immediately connected. Be more zealous for all those ordinances which our blessed Lord hath appointed, to continue therein to the end of the world. Be more zealous for those works of mercy, those “sacrifices wherewith God is well pleased,” those marks whereby the Shepherd of Israel will know his sheep at the last day. Be more zealous still for holy tempers, for long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, lowliness, and resignation; but be most zealous of all for love, the queen of all graces, the highest perfection in earth or heaven, the very image of the invisible God, as in men below, so in angels above. For “God is love; and he that dwelleth in love, dwelleth in God, and God in him.”[3]

How did Wesley “order” zeal?

1. Love of God – Lived through our own conversion and call in response to God’s love for us through Christ

2. Character – The fruit of the Spirit

3. The Means of Grace – The disciplined Christian life expressed in living out works of mercy and works of piety

4. The Church – The community of believers in general and the particular branch with which you connect

Francis Asbury knew that to get this order of zeal turned upside down would spell doom for his own soul as well as the movement. As my mentor Phil Meadows says, “You can’t give away what you don’t have.” Wesley and Asbury both knew that the love of God in their own hearts was first priority. We cannot give away what we don’t have.

Asbury lived in a time of uncertainty – the American Revolution had left the Methodists with a lack of leaders and a less than stellar reputation. Yet, by the grace and power of God, this group of pioneers led by Asbury “spread scriptural holiness across the land.” Perhaps we might say, “well, Asbury was just extraordinary.” However, I don’t think his zeal was meant to be extraordinary – it was meant to be the ordinary work of everyday Methodists. Perhaps now, more than ever, is a time for us to examine our own “order of zeal.”

[1] American Saint, p. 7.

[2] American Saint, p. 10.

[3] On Zeal, John Wesley