The Rev. Bonnie McCubbin’s first task in her new job as archivist for the local branch of a major denomination was far from soul-stirring. It was to sort through thousands of files assigned to her care during the coronavirus pandemic.
As she made her way through the rows of piled-up boxes at Lovely Lane United Methodist Church in North Baltimore’s Old Goucher neighborhood, her eye fell on a carton marked with a name that, to many Methodists, is at least as familiar and powerful as the Bible’s prophets and heroes.
Inside was a manila folder, containing a fragile, handwritten journal, dated March 29, 1816, and including a letter to a colleague signed, “Yours in Jesus, F Asbury.” The legendary preacher Francis Asbury’s ministry on horseback in the late 1700s and early 1800s helped turn what was essentially a struggling sect into a worldwide powerhouse of Christianity.
McCubbin, the archivist of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church, could hardly believe was she was seeing.
“I looked at [my assistant] and said, ‘I think I’m going to pass out,’” she says. “They’re Bishop Asbury’s last known writings. They’re more than 200 years old, and they were written two days before he died. I had to sit down and control my breathing.”
Local Methodist historians say the notebook — dated two and a half months after what were previously thought to be Asbury’s last written words — checks out against handwriting samples from Asbury and its contents echo a range of facts established in previously known works, including Asbury’s other letters and a published three-volume “Journal of Rev. Francis Asbury.”
The historians say the new material offers a glimpse into the mind of a trailblazer of the faith who rode at least 270,000 miles during his 45 years as a minister, the equivalent of a round trip every year from the East Coast to California. Asbury also ordained some 4,000 preachers and conceived an efficient organizational structure for Methodism in the new United States.
The Methodist movement arose in England when founder John Wesley asserted, among other things, the then-countercultural belief that the heart of religion lies in a personal relationship with God.
The English-born Asbury’s work helped explode the Methodist population in America from a few hundred to more than 200,000 people, setting the stage for its emergence as the nation’s biggest denomination by 1850.
“Through sheer perseverance to a single goal, he changed American popular religion — and by extension American culture — as much as anyone ever has,” historian John Wigger wrote in “American Saint,” his 2009 biography of Asbury. He added that Asbury was “more widely recognized face-to-face than any person of his generation, including such national figures as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.”
“What set him apart was his absolute and total commitment to the task of growing, encouraging and supervising the American Methodists,” says the Rev. Emora Brannan, the president of the historical society of the Baltimore-Washington Conference. “He was a tremendous force.”
Before McCubbin opened the yellow box last fall in the Lovely Lane basement, no one seems to have known the notebook existed. The box was among historical materials that congregations in the more than 600-church conference have sent to the archives for processing, but it wasn’t marked with a church name. Records inside it suggested it hadn’t been opened since the 1960s.
But it makes sense that the materials were in Baltimore, she said, “since Asbury spent considerable time here and was ultimately buried here.”
McCubbin is a trained historian who has worked with period documents for years, including letters written by Asbury. She found these materials were in three sections: A ledger that reflects some of Asbury’s final expenses, a draft of a “valedictory address” he meant to give about the state and potential future of American Methodism, and an exchange of letters with Bishop Thomas Coke, another early leader of the church.
The ledger evokes the world the frugal, pious Asbury lived in, documenting expenses such as the cost of “lying Sick 18 days” ($13). McCubbin said that tab indicates he stayed in one place for about two weeks — far longer than his customary one or two days — which the archivist says makes it a record of his failing health.
“That number tells us almost surely that he was trying to recuperate,” says McCubbin.
More interesting, though, she says, is the longest entry in the collection. Asbury’s successor-in-waiting had asked him to write what amounted to a “state of the denomination” speech to deliver in May 1816 at the church’s next General Conference in Baltimore.
McCubbin said she authenticated the material, which she has shared with others in the Methodist historical world, by considering many factors.
“The notebook paper, design, and construction matches others from the same time period. There is a letter at the end of the journal that has Asbury’s signature that matches with other letters we have. The first part of the journal is obviously a rough draft of the later published Valedictory Address, which has been attributed to Asbury since April 1816 — just a few short weeks after he died,” she said. “The contents, style of writing, theology, and ideas match with other documents, letters, and published journals from the time.”
”Furthermore, the accounting page at the very beginning lines up with the dates that Asbury was at particular homes according to his journal and established historical fact.”
While “there’s no official ‘test’ that can tell with 100% certainty that something from that period was written by Asbury,” McCubbin said, she has no reason to doubt its authenticity.
Among other things, according to one Asbury scholar, the newly discovered valedictory address material displays the visionary mindset that catalyzed the growth of Methodism during the preacher’s lifetime.
The Rev. Douglas Tzan, a professor of church history and Methodist studies at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, says Asbury believed ministers tended to be educated people who were most comfortable in big cities, while most of the American population was rural. That, Asbury thought, meant that Methodist preachers must detach themselves from congregations and travel far and wide to spread the gospel effectively, however inconvenient that might be for the clergy.
Scholars said Asbury makes a point of that idea in the piece, a draft of the address ultimately read in Baltimore.
“Will the Bishops (of other denominations) ride from five to six thousand miles in nine months for eighty dollars a year; preach daily when opportunity serves; meet six Camp Meetings in the year; make arrangements for seven hundred preachers, & ordain one hundred men annually, through all kinds of weather & roads at our time of life?” it reads. “Let future generations read our Church records and conference Journals. These will tell them ... where we united (for) Annual Conference & what vast trails of country we travelled over annually!”
To Tzan, who has not yet seen the new materials firsthand, such ideas helped shape the denomination and, to an extent, the young and growing nation.
“That’s the tension we see in this document,” Tzan wrote in an email to The Baltimore Sun. “Asbury wants to insist that Methodist preachers and bishops continue to be on the move to reach people, and not become spiritually complacent and settle down ... In this dynamic rests part of [his] genius and why he was so important to the development of Methodism in America and American religion in general.”
To this day, Methodist bishops give ministers their church assignments and rotate the staff frequently — usually every year or two — to keep the faith robust and the pulpits full.
“No church is ever without a pastor, and no pastor is ever without a church,” says McCubbin, 35, who began last year serving as senior pastor of historic Old Otterbein United Methodist Church in South Baltimore, as well as starting her archival job as the Baltimore-Washington conference’s director of museums and pilgrimage.
The Lovely Lane Archives and Museum serves as the center of archival activity for the conference. The new writings, McCubbin explains, join a collection of Asbury memorabilia available there. The collection has its origins, Brannan says, in local Methodists who gathered up their Asbury material in the 1830s to give to an area pastor who planned to write a biography of the bishop but never did.
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McCubbin uses the artifacts as touchstones for a recitation of Methodist history, including its deep roots in Baltimore.
Wesley first sent Asbury, then 26, to America in 1771 to help organize the church there, she says. A dozen years or so later, Wesley decided it was time to formally establish an American branch of the faith, asking that leaders be chosen there. In 1784, about 60 mostly lay Methodists gathered at Lovely Lane Church, then downtown, and elected Coke and Asbury as the first bishops.
McCubbin and an intern transcribed the newly discovered documents, a process completed last month. Her small team is having high-end reproductions of the material made. No later than this fall, she says, anyone who makes an appointment at the museum will be able to see either the original materials, which will be displayed on a rotating basis, or the reproductions, alongside the other artifacts. A digitizing process is underway to make the material available and searchable online.
It’s too early, McCubbin says, to gauge exactly what the notebook’s contents will add to the scholarship on Asbury. One intriguing avenue for exploration: McCubbin said she noticed that the draft recommended the appointment of four bishops nationwide, but when the speech was delivered, the number was three. Asbury altered it, McCubbin said, which shows he was open to change — although the reason why is as yet unknown.
Asbury’s successor, Bishop William McKendree, delivered the speech. The founder of American Methodism had died in Virginia a month earlier, at age 70, while en route to Baltimore by horse-drawn carriage.
Church leaders ordered his body brought to Baltimore, “the cradle of American Methodism,” where Brannan says 20,000 people attended his funeral. Decades later, he was moved to a resting place among other influential Methodists in Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Southwest Baltimore.
“Some people like to say that even in death, Bishop Asbury was an itinerant preacher,” McCubbin says.