Pioneer bishop of American Methodism, he was born in Handsworth, near Birmingham, on 20th or 21st August 1745, the son of a jobbing gardener. His boyhood home in Newton Road, Great Barr is preserved in his memory. After limited schooling he was apprenticed to a chape-maker named John Griffin (or possibly to Thomas Foxall of Forge Mill Farm, as often stated). He attended the Methodist society at Wednesbury, was converted at the age of 16 and became a local preacher. Entering the itinerancy in 1766, he served in the Bedfordshire, Colchester and Wiltshire Circuits, before offering for America at the Conference of 1771.
In Philadelphia and New York he found that Richard Boardman and Joseph Pilmore had virtually abandoned an itinerant ministry and set about reversing this trend. He himself travelled further and further afield until the outbreak of war in 1775 curbed his activities and forced him into hiding for a time in Kent County, Delaware. By the end of the War of Independence he was the only British-born itinerant still active in the former colonies. His ministry involved him in incessant journeyings and great hardships, often in spite of sickness and physical weakness, and led him across the Appalachians, where new settlements were beginning to spread westwards. He was strongly supported, especially in Georgetown, by Henry Foxall, the successful British iron-founder whose family he had known back home in West Bromwich.
John Wesley recognized him as the natural leader of the American Methodists (a position Asbury himself shrewdly insisted on confirming by the vote of his fellow itinerants), and in 1784 at the Christmas Conference in Baltimore, Thomas Coke successively ordained him deacon, elder and Superintendent - a title soon replaced by that of Bishop in spite of Wesley's strong disapproval. During the next 30 years he led the rapid growth of American Methodism, maintaining a celibate and relentlessly itinerant life-style to match the rugged terrain and scattered population. Determined to keep the reins in his own hands, he defied the attempts of 'Daddy Wesley' to retain remote control of his American followers and denied Coke any effective share in the government of the Church during his visits to America. The burden of leadership was not relieved until the appointment of Richard Whatcoat as fellow-bishop in 1800. Asbury never returned to his native land, but died in Spotsylvania County, VA on 31 March 1816 and was buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery, Baltimore.
'Five feet nine in height … he was erect in person and of very commanding appearance. His features were rugged but his countenance was intelligent, though time and care had furrowed it with deep wrinkles … His eyes were of a bluish cast, and so keen that it seemed as if he could look right through a person. He had … beautiful white locks which hung above his brow and shoulders and added to his venerable appearance … He seemed born to sway others … His dress was a pattern of neatness and plainness … He wore grey clothes; a low-crowned broad-brimmed hat, a frock coat, which was generally buttoned up to the neck. He wore breeches with leggings … sometimes he wore buckled shoes.'
Henry Boehm, Reminiscences
'When young, had a voice like the roaring of a lion… Eminently holy, laborious, and useful.'
Wesleyan Takings (1840), p.326
'Asbury was an entrepreneur in religion, a man who perceived a market to be exploited, one of the most remarkable men of this kind there have ever been. Of limited gifts but infinite toughness, Asbury from the moment of his arrival in America in 1771, grasped (indeed was obsessed with) the key to the situation - that the American migration could only be won by an itinerant ministry in Wesley's original sense, a ministry not church-based. Finding the preachers settling down in the eastern seaboard towns, he prized them loose and contested their every attempt to settle again. Asbury conceived himself as restoring a New Testament system of itinerant episcopacy; he found the corruption of city life, not in its sin, but in the inertia it opposed to itinerant ministry.'
W.R. Ward, Faith and Faction (1993) p.241