Image courtesy of the Delaware Historical Society
Methodism was not invented in Delaware, but American Methodists nevertheless owe the state a debt. During the Revolution—when patriots were hostile to the denomination—Delaware was its spider hole. From 1777 to 1780, Francis Asbury, founder of U.S. Methodism, hid in Kent County with sympathizer Thomas White. White, chief justice of Kent’s Court of Common Pleas, lived near Whiteleysburg on the Maryland border. “Judge White’s home, situated in a thick forest, offered relative isolation from large plantations, main roads and waterways—as well as the peaceful seclusion that Asbury found so essential,” wrote Methodist historian Kenneth Loyer. More consequentially, Asbury used his time planning how to grow Methodism from a marginal to a major religious denomination. By the time of his death, the Methodist church had grown from 1,200 to 214,000 members.
The South, in particular, would be fertile ground for its evangelical message. Born in England into a working-class family, Asbury dropped out of school at age 11 to work as a blacksmith’s apprentice. At age 14, he had a religious experience and began attending Methodist meetings with his mother, who hoped he might become archbishop of Canterbury. Methodism began in the 18th century as a branch of England’s state church, with worship services that were more intimate and people-oriented. Led by John Wesley, Methodist preachers were known for enthusiasm and an emphasis on being born again. Abstaining from luxury and doing good works became hallmarks of the movement. Methodists also embraced pacifism and opposed slavery. At age 18, Asbury became a lay preacher, though he continued as a blacksmith. At age 22, Wesley appointed him a traveling preacher. Asbury spent four years riding a circuit in the English Midlands.
Then, in 1771, at a religious meeting in Bristol, Wesley described an urgent need for preachers in Britain’s North American colonies and asked, “Who will go?” Asbury stepped forward. The need was there: When Asbury reported to a senior missionary in New York, he found church discipline lax and the city sinful. (Raised with a deep fear of sin, Asbury tended to be morose and gloomy, with what one Methodist historian called “frequent spells of morbid depression.”) Without asking permission, he borrowed a horse and rode into the countryside, thus making his first circuit. Asbury preached throughout the Mid-Atlantic and later in the South and West. During a 45-year career in America, he traveled an estimated 275,000 miles on horseback.
Methodist histories claim that he preached more than 16,000 sermons—almost one per day. But the 1770s were not a good time to be a Methodist preacher. Methodism was still a branch of England’s state church, which many Colonial settlers had come to America to escape. With independence, that connection became evidence of disloyalty. Pacifism and opposition to slavery also seemed suspicious, particularly in the South, where concepts of manliness presumed a duty to use force and where British forces had encouraged slaves to desert their masters. (Even in peace, the South never embraced these ideas, and they were later dropped from Methodist doctrine.) Wesley didn’t help. “You profess yourselves to be contending for liberty,’” he wrote an American correspondent in 1775. “But it is a vain, empty profession—unless you mean by that threadbare word a liberty from obeying your rightful sovereign.”
In Maryland, Methodist layman Chauncey Clowe tarnished the movement by gathering 300 loyalists and trying to join British forces. (Clowe was captured and hanged.) Preacher Martin Rodda distributed copies of George III’s proclamation of rebellion. Like most preachers sent out from England by Wesley, Rodda eventually fled the country. After 1778, only Asbury remained. “I am determined, by the grace of God, not to leave [the Methodist flock], let the consequences be what may,” he wrote in his journal. Asbury declared his neutrality, but that didn’t satisfy critics. Maryland patriots insisted he take that state’s loyalty oath, which included anti-British language and forbade non-oath-takers to preach. Instead, he fled to Delaware, whose oath merely required that citizens report conspiracies. Asbury arrived at White’s home in December 1777.
For a while, he lived in an outbuilding to which the judge himself carried his meals. Later, Asbury moved into the house. Once, when White was away, the family was surprised by Richard Bassett, a lawyer who often stayed with the family when in the area. Bassett—who would later be Delaware’s 13th governor—noticed Asbury and several local Methodists talking quietly in a side room. Who are they? he asked. “They are gentlemen here on very important business,” responded Mrs. White, evasively. Bassett pressed again. When Mary White finally confessed, a horrified Bassett turned to leave. “You must stay,” she said, though he twice demanded his horse. “They will not hurt you.”
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As it turned out, Bassett found Asbury charming, and invited him to visit in Dover. Soon after, Asbury did exactly that—and ended up at tea with Bassett, a local minister and Gov. Caesar Rodney. Bassett, of course, was converted, and Rodney gave Asbury Delaware citizenship, which freed him to travel. What Asbury absorbed from this was the importance of networking, repeated exposure and winning over the woman of the household. After the war, he built a network of circuit riders: young, single men—often more enthusiastic than learned—who would travel and preach full time, living off whatever the laity contributed. Women’s motherly instincts, Asbury knew, would make them protective of such men, and that was the first step in winning over entire families. For that insight, Methodists can thank Delaware, and Mary White.