Express & Star

Anniversary marks true Black Country American idol

A little over two miles north of the White House in Washington DC stands a statue of Francis Asbury, a man revered all across America.


It is an honour which is shared by American heroes Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D Roosevelt and shows the regard in which he is held in the States.

There are towns and hospitals dotted across the country named after him, but in the place he was born, here in the Black Country, much less is known about the man who a President declared one of the most important in the history of America.

A statue of Francis Asbury stands proudly in Washington

This week marks the 200th anniversary since Asbury's death. His life was one devoted to spreading the word of God and he is widely regarded of being the founder of the Methodist Church in the US. Many experts even say that Christianity as a whole in America can be traced back to the Black Country man. His incredible tale sounds like something from a movie. He travelled an astonishing 225,000 miles on horseback over 45 years preaching to anyone who would listen in the burgeoning New World.

But before he landed on the east coast of soon-to-be-independent America, Asbury's story started in Great Barr.

He was born into a working-class family in 1745 and lived in Newton Road, Hamstead. It was all a very long way from a Presedential address and a statue close to the White House. His childhood home is today a small museum, a warm tribute but also an isolated one.

He became involved with the Methodist movement from a young age, leading teachings at the West Bromwich Wesleyan Society as a teenager, splitting his time between preaching and his job as a metal worker. Over the next few years he began his journey. Initially it was confined to the boundaries of the Black Country, leading sermons in Wolverhampton, Wednesbury and Walsall, but at the age of 22 he bowed to a higher calling.

Collections officer David Waring, at Bishop Asbury Museum, Great Barr
Bishop Francis Asbury

In 1771 he volunteered to travel to America. It was the last time he would see the Black Country. Within a couple of weeks he was visiting New York and Philadelphia.

It is not known quite what his new audience made of his Black Country accent but it clearly didn't put them off. When the American War of Independence broke out in 1776, he was one of only two Methodist ministers in the whole country.

During the next 30 years he toured America's east and midwest on horseback, preaching to anyone who would listen in courthouses, pubs, tobacco houses, fields, and public squares.

In 1814, Asbury's health began to decline. He died on March 31, 1816, seven days after delivering his last sermon in Virginia.

While events were held in the Black Country marking the anniversary, including at his former home-turned-museum, more attention was devoted to the occasion in the States.

A group of Americans came over to Dudley last week to attend an event honouring Asbury at the Black Country Living Museum.

Al DeFillipo, who is based in Florida and has written books on the life of the nomadic preacher does not underestimate the importance of Asbury to Christians on the other side of the Atlantic, describing him as the 'George Washington of American Christianity'.

He said: "What also made Francis Asbury an American favourite was the fact he was known by almost everyone in the burgeoning nation. He travelled from Maine in the east to Georgia in the south east, from Maryland and Virginia in the east to Tennessee and Kentucky in the west made him a household name.

"Not only did he preach and teach in these towns but he also spent the night in many of the homes of the faithful in these towns. He never owned a home during his 45-year ministry in America.

"There are some who correctly state that if there wasn't a Francis Asbury there would be no American Methodism. But there are also many who acknowledge that without Francis Asbury, there would be no American Christianity. Many of the enriching qualities of contemporary American Christianity originated with the efforts of Francis Asbury and the thousands of travelling preachers he pushed to spread the life-giving message of the gospel."

More than a century after his death, President Calvin Coolidge got up to speak at a dedication ceremony to unveil his statue and declared proudly: "He is entitled to rank as one the builders of our nation."

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