Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Hating Francis Asbury

I love the Methodists. During the wild, rebellious days of my collegiate youth, on any given Sunday you might find me in an early morning service rocking out to the praise band and defiantly not taking weekly communion. More to the point, I enjoy Methodist history. It functions as a powerful corrective when I am tempted to overstress the peculiarities of the Stone-Campbell Movement. The history of Methodism in America provides an important precursor and parallel to my work in the Churches of Christ in the South. I include that disclaimer only because when I vocalized the following criticisms to a colleague, he immediately assumed "Oh, you must not like the Methodists" (drawing on a comment I had previously made about abhorring Puritan history). That is not the case at all. When I first cracked the spine of John Wigger's American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists it was with joyful anticipation. When I finally retired the last page, I had nothing left but bitter disappointment.

Wigger's recent and expansive (not to mention expensive) critical biography of Francis Asbury, the patriarch of American Methodism, fills a void. Or so I hear. My experience, however, tells me that there are quite enough rambling, distracted, self-indulgent works in the broad field of history to satisfy even the most committed masochist. Wigger may treat a new subject, but it is in the same tried and true unreadable style. The work suffers from that most basic error of misplaced purpose, a fact which becomes abundantly clear even before the introduction is completed. The reader gets a vague sense that Wigger intends to rehabilitate Asbury from generations who have seen him as nothing more than a power-hungry autocrat. Yet even to understand this theoretically governing thesis requires wading through more than four hundred pages of largely unrelated travel accounts, and even so, I am not confident that this or any guiding purpose can be asserted with any force.

Wigger aims at a truly comprehensive biography, by which I mean everything imaginable short of the regularity of Asbury's bowel movements--a detail I fear was omitted because Wigger could not find adequate source material on the subject. Yet he does not stop there but complicates the narrative by inserting dozens of miniature biographies of every passing acquaintance in Asbury's life. Or in the lives of Asbury's passing acquaintances. Or...well you get the picture. To these are added tangents about the four kinds of malaria and other trivialities until the volume becomes bloated to the point of rupture. The final straw comes in the conclusion as part of a discussion of past biographies of Asbury. It is here that Wigger derisively comments, "One has to admire the audacity of an author who, when faced with a lull in his narrative, simply makes something up, the more outrageous the better." I would recommend to Wigger that, on page 416 of an unusually dry and meandering text, he not be so condescending about authors who care whether or not their audience is awake.

Still, Wigger's work is more than just undirected, unmanageable, and unreadable. Those are claims that could be made about countless "good" works of history. Wigger does further violence to his subject by pulling Asbury off his horse and forcing him onto the therapist's couch. In playing Freud, Wigger returns frequently and unconvincingly to the "significant" relationship between the distant Asbury and his supposedly overbearing mother. Never mind that Wigger never produces any evidence of such a relationship. He is not even bothered to cite directly contradictory evidence immediately after his claims. He is convinced that the relationship exists and is determinative, the evidence be damned. The psychoanalysis does not stop there, either. He speculates about Asbury's relationship to social elites in boyhood, about the sources of his father's drunkenness, and about the effect of the childhood death of his sister on Asbury's love life. The cumulative effect is to make the reader long for the days when the incompetent historian merely portrayed Asbury as an autocrat.

At the end, I was duly convinced that Asbury was no tyrant. I was more profoundly convinced that Wigger is an intellectual sadist. I realize, of course, that this is something distinct from the normally restrained reviews I prefer to offer here, and, moreover, that it runs contrary to the accolades of the proud few who make a living congratulating one another on the sheer volume of their publications. Nevertheless, I felt it my sacred duty to warn people that there is a menace on the loose, and he appears as an unassuming itinerant on a horse. But don't be deceived. Boredom can kill.

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