A Preacher's Journeys Over the Color Line

Lonise Fisher Robinson, church historian of Asbury United Methodist Church.
Lonise Fisher Robinson, church historian of Asbury United Methodist Church. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)

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By Eugene Scheel
Thursday, January 5, 2006

From October 1771 to March 1816, Francis Asbury was a traveling evangelist in the American Colonies and fledgling United States. No American during that period is known to have traveled as widely as he.

Those travels left a legacy of Methodist churches, particularly those serving African Americans, that bear his name. In Washington, Asbury United Methodist Church has been at 11th and K streets NW since 1836, when it was founded by blacks fed up with discriminatory treatment, said Lonise Fisher Robinson, the church historian.

Asbury "was a great evangelist," Robinson said. "He was carrying the work of Methodism across the United States, or what was the United States at that time." There is a statue of him on horseback at 16th and Mount Pleasant streets NW.

Asbury preached in every state. In Virginia, he preached often in Loudoun and Fauquier counties and in the Shenandoah Valley and Piedmont regions. He had no home. He relied on the hospitality of others.

When Asbury was 26, his ship from England docked at Philadelphia. He wrote in his journal: "When I came near the American shore, my very heart melted within me, to think from whence I came, where I was going, and what I was going about. But I felt my mind open to the people, and my tongue loosed to speak. I feel that God is here."

Asbury was one of several itinerant preachers in early America, but what set him apart was his companion, Harry Hosier, a black man, not a servant but an equal.

In May 1781 in Fairfax County, Asbury preached, followed by Hosier. Asbury wrote of the service in his journal: "This circumstance was new, and the white people looked on with attention."

Asbury was little more to me than a name affixed to many Methodist churches when, 30 years ago, I encountered a house where I was told he had stayed, in Rectortown, a village in upper Fauquier.

In preparation for a walking tour (I was writing about the village), I was shown around by an elderly black woman, and we passed a log-and-stone house just east of the post office. We began speaking about the village's history, and she told me that her family had lived in the area since the American Revolution. She said her forebears saw Asbury. He stayed in the house. A Preacher Hitt lived there, and Asbury preached on the lawn.

Shortly thereafter, I acquired a copy of the two-volume "The Journal and Letters of Francis Asbury," published by Abingdon Press in 1958, a publishing house Asbury was instrumental in founding in 1789.

After finding Rectortown in the index, I learned that Asbury had stopped there three times, the first in May 1780. His journal notes that after a 30-mile overnight journey, which included ferrying the Shenandoah River and climbing the Blue Ridge, he and Hosier came to Rectortown "weary and dispirited. . . . I spoke for an hour with great assistance, both loud and clear, to an apparently unconcerned people."

Hosier's presence might account for some African American Methodist churches taking the name Asbury, but there was another reason. In 1783 -- the year the Colonies received their liberty from England -- Asbury, in Petersburg, Va., wrote that he and other ministers "all agreed in the spirit of African liberty."


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