Live from South Carolina… it’s Francis Asbury!
Retired pastor approaches 40th year performing drama about Methodism’s first bishop
By Jessica Brodie
COLUMBIA—One United Methodist pastor has taken to heart Francis Asbury’s directive to exhibit and proclaim the love of God everywhere.
Since 1976, the Rev. Bob Borom has performed a costumed drama about Methodism’s first bishop hundreds of times—in scores of local churches, annual conferences and special meetings all over the Southeast, even a video with Drew University back in 1984.
And now, as Borom nears his 40th year of impersonating “the prophet of the long road,” he shows no sign of slowing down. Borom is still lining up performance dates and eagerly sharing his passion for the man who spread Methodism in America.
“The Methodist church is still infused with that spirit of Asbury to proclaim the love of God everywhere. He was not content to stay in the cities; he went out. And that’s still relevant,” Borom said. “Sometimes, where we are in the present and where we go in the future is informed by where we’ve been in the past. To know these people were strongly motivated by the desire to let God’s love be known—that’s who we are.”
Borom, a retired member of the South Carolina Conference, said the drama provides entertainment, information, education and inspiration, and he hopes others will be ignited with the same passion for “the bishop on horseback” as he has.
Faithful to the road and to God
Borom’s drama, performed in costume with props, takes Asbury from his childhood in England to his death in America in 1816. Asbury arrived in America on Oct. 27, 1771, then spent several days in Philadelphia and New York before setting out to tour the colonies, preaching the word of God and spreading the Good News everywhere he went.
Over the course of his life, Asbury preached 18,000 sermons and rode on horseback an estimated 250,000 miles.
He never married, Borom said—“He decided God never created a woman with enough grace to be married to a Methodist preacher.” Instead, Asbury remained faithful to the road and to his quest to organize churches across frontier America in the late 1700s an early 1800s.
When the colonies rebelled, other Methodist preachers went home, but Asbury stayed.
Finally, in 1784, Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, sent Dr. Thomas Coke over from England to tell Asbury he would be the general superintendent (title later changed to bishop). At a called conference that year, the Methodist Episcopal Church was born.
Asbury brought to life
In the hour-long performance, Borom comes into the sanctuary as the “old man” version of Asbury, a shaky, creaky elderly persona.
“I talk about meeting under trees and log homes, and then go into the history from his childhood to his call to mission in America and what he did in the frontier,” Borom said. “It’s a fun thing to do—I come in as an old man and reminisce.”
In the early days, Borom said, you were assigned to your circuit six months—three if it was New York or Philadelphia, because Asbury felt the temptations there were too great.
Borom details Asbury’s travel throughout the colonies and how Sunday school started, which Borom said primarily was to teach children to read. They would go on Sundays from 6-10 a.m., break for preaching and Sunday dinner, then resume Sunday school again from 2-6 p.m.
Borom winds up at the end of Asbury’s life at Granby Landing near Columbia, right where the Broad and Saluda rivers congregate. He knew the end of his life was near, Borom said, so when Asbury was done preaching, they strapped him to a horse with two riders beside and sent him north to Richmond, Virginia, his next preaching spot. He gave his last sermon there and died. He was 70 years old—the average age of Methodist preachers at that time was 29.
No more ‘boring speeches’
Borom got the idea for his drama after seeing the actor Hal Holbrook do “Mark Twain Tonight!” where he comes in costume and reminisces.
“That inspired me,” Borom said.
In 1976, when he was in the South Georgia Conference, his district superintendent asked Borom to say something about pensions to fellow clergy during a district meeting. After what he called “a day of boring speeches,” the last thing Borom wanted to do was put everyone to sleep about pensions, a topic he cares a great deal about.
“I knew Asbury had been interested in raising money for what he called the ‘worn out preachers,’ to support them, so I decided to come in costume in the person of Asbury and say it to the group,” Borom said.
The performance was a hit, and a few of the pastors asked Borom to come to their church and do the same. Word spread, and soon, Borom found himself traveling all over the Southeast—just like Asbury himself.
A church member built his props: a pulpit, stool and more, all folding down neatly, and he carries them from place to place in a suitcase he bought from Goodwill, bringing Asbury to life.
“It’s an interesting thing,” Borom said. “It holds their attention, even the kids! And it’s a passion I feel because it gives historical context to where we have been as Methodists. They get a feel for how different it was back then.”
Borom also does a Charles Wesley performance, a singing drama, also in costume. He is willing to travel anywhere to help others understand and appreciate the man who spread Methodism in America, one stop at a time.
To learn more about Borom’s performance, email [email protected].