Francis Asbury's First Circuit: Bedfordshire, 1767
On Tuesday August 18, 1767 John Wesley: "met in Conference with [his] Assistants and a select number of preachers" at London. (1) Among the items of business during the next six days, two were to have personal significance for a young man from Barr, near West Bromwich, by the name of Francis Asbury. The first was the decision to include him in the list of preachers "admitted on trial" and the second his stationing as the junior preacher on the Bedfordshire Circuit. Although he had apparently already been helping on his home circuit during the illness of a preacher, this was his first formal appointment as a Methodist itinerant. (2)
We know very little about Asbury's experience during that first formative year. He did not begin to keep his journal until he embarked for America in 1771 and there are no surviving letters from this period. (3) But it is possible, from local records, to build up a snapshot of the Bedfordshire circuit that Asbury knew, to say something about the way in which Wesley's connection was beginning to spread across rural England, and to pose some questions about the way in which Asbury's English experience shaped his American ministry.
The minutes of the Conference of 1767 listed twenty-five circuits in England. Like most, the Bedfordshire circuit covered a great swathe of territory, perhaps a thousand square miles, embracing not just Bedfordshire itself but large parts of Northamptonshire, Huntingdonshire, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, and Buckinghamshire. Unlike the London, Bristol, Norwich, Sheffield, Leeds, or Newcastle circuits, this circuit was not centred upon a large, urban base. It was an entirely rural affair made up of small societies whose total membership was just 208 people.
Perhaps the first thing to be noted about the Bedfordshire circuit was the diverse origins of its earliest societies. Formed either in 1765 or shortly before, the circuit's three oldest societies had all begun quite independently of Wesley's connection and only gradually had been drawn into its orbit. (4) The Bedford society could trace its origins back to a religious society founded while the brothers were still in Georgia. (5) That society had been drawn into Methodist circles by Benjamin Ingham, who preached in the town in 1739 and in 1742 had accepted Moravian leadership. One of those who had been affected by Ingham's preaching in 1739 was William Parker, a local grocer who had been among the first to become a member of the Moravian Church. (6) Parker never settled into the strict discipline of the Moravian community. As early as 1742, when the Moravians began to hold their services at the same time as the parish church, Parker wrote to John Wesley "entreating him to come down and help us" and had to be persuaded to write again withdrawing the invitation. Four years later Parker was engaged in a dispute with the Moravian leadership over his involvement in borough politics and again in 1750 over a property deal that had fallen through. Finally, in December 1752, he...