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Flash back to 1776 and consider the celebrities of the time: George Washington, and maybe Thomas Jefferson. Believe it or not, the horseback-riding preacher and leader of early Methodism, Francis Asbury, would have been more recognizable face to face than these leaders or anyone else of his generation. Chris Armstrong, associate professor of church history at Bethel Seminary, interviewed historian John Wigger about the imprint Asbury left on America, which Wigger details in American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists (Oxford University Press).

What did Francis Asbury do that American Christians today should appreciate?

Asbury led American Methodism through a period of tremendous growth. From 1771 until his death in 1816, he traveled more extensively across the American landscape than probably any other American of his day: over 130,000 miles on horseback. He preached more than 10,000 sermons and probably ordained 2,000 to 3,000 preachers. In 1771, there were only a few hundred Methodists in America. By 1816, there were more than 200,000, and Methodism had become the largest and most dynamic religious movement in America—a status it would hold through the Civil War.

Asbury's influence also went well beyond denominational borders. Many more Americans attended Methodist meetings than actually joined the church, especially early on. Methodism's theology, worship style, and system of discipline worked their ways deep into the fabric of American life, influencing nearly all other mass religious movements. So Asbury's fingerprints have ended up on the holiness and Pentecostal movements and on the culture of evangelicalism as a whole.

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December 2009

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