Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all God’s children may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences. – a sermon by John Wesley
Francis Asbury (1745-1816) was born in England and brought Methodism to North America during forty-five years of ministry. Napa Methodist member Patty Bilhartz’s late husband authored a book, a copy of which she graciously gave me, depicting the life and times of this remarkable evangelist. He traveled three hundred thousand miles by horse or carriage, planting new churches and delivering more than 16,500 sermons, while ordaining at least four thousand preachers. As bishop, he organized churches in districts and circuits. Methodists grew in number from six hundred when Asbury started to over two hundred thousand people in the movement by the time of his death. As he worked with total dedication to reform the nation and spread scriptural, personal, and social holiness throughout the land, he preached, petitioned to abolish slavery, and promoted Sunday schools to teach children reading and mathematics.
As a key founder of the American Methodist movement, which grew at incredible speed in the nineteenth century, Asbury observed that it took only a few years for division to emerge among the most passionate and zealous followers of the Wesleyan way. So he repurposed and abridged two earlier works to create The Causes, Evils, and Cures of Heart and Church Divisions. This book was recommended for study to early Methodists as a spiritual cure for the human tendency to love self and ideas more than we love others: our colleagues, our neighbors, and our enemies. I quote his letter to the ministers and members of the Methodist Episcopal Church:
In the course of my reading some years ago, I met with an old book, written by a worthy pastor in the church, Mr. Jeremiah Burroughes, on “Heart Divisions, the Evil of our Times.” Feeling at that time the pain of a partial separation in spirit and practice from some who were as my brethren and sons in the gospel, that book proved as a balm and a blessing to my soul. I saw so clearly the evil consequences of a division, and how good and pleasant a thing it is for brothers and sisters to dwell together in unity, that I began to abridge my obsolete but valuable book and earnestly wished, prayed, and strove for unanimity. Soon after, I met with another old book, entitled “The Cure of Church Divisions,” written by that venerable servant of God, the John Wesley of his day, in wisdom, affection, zeal, and a pacific spirit; I mean Mr. Richard Baxter, of precious memory. Being highly pleased with his evangelical sentiments, I concluded to make an extract from both, not doubting but it might be of great service to the church of Christ. And now I recommend it to all ministers of the gospel, and professing Christians of every denomination, into whose hands it may come, pleading with them to read it carefully and with much prayer that they may cultivate a spirit of unity and brotherly love. I remain, dear brothers and sisters, your servant for Christ’s sake,
Francis Asbury, 1792
Having just completed reading the 2015 book reprint by Abingdon Press, along with the questions at the end of each section which is included in the study edition, I heartily recommend this book for your reading and consideration as members of a denomination that, at its General Conference, is grappling with issues related to division. And I would ask you, as I would ask each delegate attending the 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church: Have we succumbed to the human tendency to love self and ideas more than we love others: our colleagues, our neighbors, and our enemies?
Our nation is currently engaged in one of the most divisive election cycles in my memory. Perhaps we as a nation should ask ourselves the same question.
Pastor Lee Neish