Pragmatic Saint

Editor's Note: Below is the first of two reviews/assessments I hope to post of John Wigger's new biography of Francis Asbury. The first comes from our new contributor Christopher Jones, who is studying Methodism and other subjects at William and Mary.

“The Pragmatic Saint”

Review of John Wigger, American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

by Christopher Jones

“Why do we have no modern critical biography of Francis Asbury, one of the most revered and influential figures in the early republic?” (Nathan Hatch, 1989)[i]

It took twenty years, but someone has finally answered Nathan Hatch’s call for a scholarly biography of Francis Asbury. John Wigger, who studied under Hatch at Notre Dame, has published American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists, a highly readable and lively portrait of the Methodist bishop who shepherded the movement through its early growing pains in America to set it on a course to become the largest Protestant denomination in antebellum America. Contradicting decades-old assessments that “no biographer should try to make [Asbury] lovable, for this he would never allow himself to be,”[ii] Wigger concludes that the exact opposite was the case: “Asbury loved and was loved, despite his flaws” (p. 416).

Wigger’s biography does much more than simply satisfy a decades-old call for a critical biography of Asbury and refute simplistic and outdated characterizations of the man, though. It challenges common assumptions about religious leadership in American history. As Wigger noted in a recent interview, one of his goals in writing this book was to “raise questions for readers about the meaning of religious leadership in America.” Attributing scholarly neglect of Asbury to the fact that he doesn’t neatly fit any of the “three camps” in which “key figures in American religious history are generally lumped” (“charismatic communicators,” “intellectuals,” and “domineering autocrats”), Wigger contends that Asbury’s life forces us to nuance such categorization and look to alternate models of religious leadership. Never known as an eloquent speaker or innovative theologian and having left behind only a scant collection of published writings, Asbury is usually characterized as a rigid autocrat singularly committed to maintaining his hierarchical control by virtue of his status as the head of the Methodist episcopacy in the United States. Such a description, according to Wigger, ignores Asbury’s deeply-rooted piety, his ability to interact and communicate with individuals in intimate settings, his sensitivity to shifts in the surrounding culture (and his related ability to react and adapt), and his organizational genius. Asbury, Wigger maintains, led by example in supervising the force of itinerant missionaries he organized and led. He steered clear of politics (basically hiding out for two solid years during the height of the Revolutionary War), lived a life of relative poverty (never owning a home or plot of land, thus shunning the things of this world), never married (in an effort to more single-mindedly serve the Church), and traveled relentlessly to both preach and maintain personal contact with those he was given charge over (so as to be able to more effectively appoint preachers to locales better suited to different personalities and backgrounds).

According to Wigger, “Asbury had a better feel for the tension between faith and culture than most of the religious leaders around him” (p. 417). He consistently navigated this tension by exhibiting a pragmatic approach to nearly all tensions within Methodism in an effort to allow the church to grow. He was committed to Arminian theology but never was as strident in his critiques of Calvinism as other Methodists (including Wesley) were. “Theological exactitude didn’t concern him as much as it did Wesley, Wigger suggests. Instead, Asbury read widely in theological and devotional writings in an effort to adequately assess “the intellectual currents of the day, so that he could guide the movement to engage them” (p. 107). He never experienced the miraculous and visionary episodes that other Methodist converts did, but forthrightly refused to automatically reject such experience as heretical or dangerous, and encouraged intimate communal gatherings (class meetings and love feasts) and later adopted camp meetings in an effort to nurture immediate and emotional religious experience. God, Asbury maintained, could manifest Himself differently to different people. While such pragmatism often allowed Methodism to prosper and grow, it sometimes had more negative consequences. Such was the case in Asbury’s shifting commitment to abolition and antislavery. Initially an advocate of requiring all Methodists to emancipate their slaves and no longer participate in the practice, Asbury later decided to allow individual conferences within the movement to decide for themselves whether local clergy and laity could own slaves and remain in good standing with the MEC. Practical commitment to institutional growth trumped ideological devotion to morality.

While Wigger’s biography thus provides a lively and provocative portrait of a complex religious leader, it also succeeds in revealing a detailed and intimate account of early American Methodism. Methodist dissenters and schismatics are granted a greater role in the story of American Methodism than in other accounts of the movement (including Wigger’s own earlier treatment, Taking Heaven by Storm), and several short but illuminating biographies of lesser-known leaders with the MEC are embedded within the larger narrative. In following Asbury’s daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly travels, relationships, and interactions, readers catch a glimpse of the growing pains associated with Methodism’s rise to prominence. Instead of simply noting that Methodism grew immensely during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Wigger traces the ups and downs of that process, illustrating in the process that Methodist growth was never a guarantee, constantly being threatened by discontent dissenters, rival religious groups, and regional, theological, and ideological disputes within the MEC itself. Asbury’s singular commitment to seeing Methodism prosper in its American setting thus produced mixed results. But that commitment, combined with the dedication and piety of Asbury, qualifies him for the title of “American Saint” granted him by Wigger.

I was disappointed in Wigger’s occasional failure to engage relevant literature on certain topics. In his otherwise excellent treatment of Asbury’s complicated relationship with Richard Allen and other black Methodist preachers, for example, he fails to cite or engage Richard Newman’s insightful biography of Allen entirely (reviewed at RiAH last year). But such omissions do little to detract from the value of this perceptive and thoughtful offering from Wigger.

Throughout the book, Wigger’s admiration for Asbury shines through (he notes with apparent satisfaction in one footnote that upon completing his manuscript he “was surprised to find how closely Asbury resembled the leaders described” in a recent book on what makes modern businesses and leaders successful (p. 425, n. 17)). Perhaps previous biographers of Asbury refused to recognize as a lovable figure because they themselves felt no affection for the man. Such is not the case with Wigger. One senses in reading American Saint that Wigger sincerely enjoyed the extensive research and writing that went into this biography because he not only respects but genuinely admires Francis Asbury. Others will likely feel the same after reading the book. This is an important contribution to American religious history, and readers will discover a much more detailed and rich account of Asbury and early Methodism than what I’ve been able to cover here.

[i] Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 220.

[ii] L.C. Rudolph, Francis Asbury (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1966), 220.


John G. Turner said…
Thanks for the review, Chris. I'm only about 1/3 the way through the book, but I agree with your positive assessment.

One minor theme I found interesting was the tension in Asbury's personality/practices between his good sense of humor and the Methodist expectation of avoiding frivolity.
Christopher said…
Thanks, John. I look forward to your own thoughts on the book when you finish.

I agree that the tension between Asbury's sometime jovial personality and Methodist expectations of avoiding such frivolity was interesting. I think that may even be another minor example of his pragmatic approach to his career, since he would occasionally use that humor to facilitate reconciliation/compromise among different leaders/members.

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