Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Peter Cartwright and the Methodist Circuit Riders Pt. 1 and 2 by Chris White


 Part 1

The story of Peter Cartwright is a tale that could only happen in America.  It not only tells us of our frontier past but actually speaks a bit to who we Americans are today.  Good storytelling often luxuriates in details and so to put more of them in and yet accommodate the tradition of brevity that is expected in blog writing, I will divide this article into two parts.  The first part of this article will focus on how circuit riding came to be and why the Methodist (and their Baptist counterparts) Church came to be the dominant brand of Christianity in the United States well into the 20th Century.  In part two, I will focus on Peter Cartwright, one of the most colorful circuit riding preachers of this era.  Both parts are available to read in this same article, but if the second part interests you more than the first, feel free to scroll down and begin reading there.
John Wesley Preaching in open air

 Methodism begins in England with John and Charles Wesley.  It didn’t start out as a stand-alone church but rather a revival movement within Anglicanism.  The Wesley brothers and others began practicing “their methods” while students at Oxford.  What they were doing was hardly spectacular but seemed so at the time because it was so rarely practiced in the church.  Such things included weekly Bible classes, discussions, group prayer, mutual encouragement to grow in holiness and exhortation to good works.  They called their small group at university the “holy club” but a few detractors called them “Methodists” as a derogatory term indicating that they were more excited about their newly found methods than about God himself.  Nothing was further from the truth, but the word had sticking power and thus became the name of a movement which eventually became a separate church.

John Wesley was a great and tireless preacher and though a learned man, was gifted in such a way as to be able to speak to every strata of English society both high and low.  But Wesley was also equally gifted as an organizer and was able to mobilize those touched by this revival for explosive numerical growth and multiplication.  It is this organization that explains the development of the circuit rider in the American experience.
Early Methodist class meeting

The base of the Methodist church was the weekly class.  These classes were usually limited to a maximum of 12 people and usually met in homes.  There the Bible was studied, testimonies were shared, morals were discussed and personal behavior was regulated.  These classes were training grounds for lay leaders who would start as exhorters for classes and then if found effective would later be promoted to lay preachers who would be used to further the movement.  The use of lay preachers instead of educated clergy allowed for a very quick expansion as it took 4-6 years to educate a regular clergy and only a couple of years to train a layman.  Just to show the great contrast, by the time of the Civil War there were more Methodist churches than post offices in America while other well-known churches such as the Congregational and Presbyterian were much fewer and remained largely on the eastern seaboard. 

Wesley was a tireless circuit rider

Methodism was a hierarchy of classes, stations, circuits, conferences and circuit riders, elders and superintendants.  Circuit riders were less pastoral and more like visiting bishops and evangelists.  The heart of the organization was the weekly class.  A church was a preaching station that was supplied with a circuit rider.  Circuit riders would be the preacher for multiple stations often on a circuit no bigger than 500 miles.  It should be noted that circuit riding was something invented in England and brought over to America.  John Wesley himself rode about 5000 miles per year during his lifetime and preached usually around 15 sermons per week.  Considering how small England is, it is obvious that Wesley didn’t spend much time at home which also might explain why he and his wife had a very strained marriage.

Besides circuit riding, America had another style of event which was well-suited to the spread of Christianity on the frontier.  This is called the “Camp Meeting” and it was used by a lot of groups but was a real mainstay with the Methodists.  A different pattern of farming in America made this very popular with the people on the frontier.  In Europe, the farming class lived in villages and then gathered everyday outside of town to work their fields.  On the American frontier, farmers built a home and cleared the area around the farmstead to work cattle and plant crops.  This often led to loneliness and isolation where people simply did not have time or even live close enough to enjoy friendships with their neighbors.  The camp-meeting then was far more than a religious meeting.  It was an opportunity for a vacation from the farm and to meet and enjoy their neighbors.  The ideal person to organize these events was the circuit rider who knew the individual families and could organize and invite them to these events.  Camp Meeting manuals were actually written showing diagrams of the perfect camp setup and how a speaker’s stage should be set and so forth.  Many revivals sprang forth from these events in different regions of the United States attesting to their effectiveness.  It also might be added here that many of our ancestors sprang forth about 9 months after some of these camp-meetings attesting to the value of taking a week off from farm chores now and again!

Last of all it should be noted that the success of Methodism in America was largely attributable to the leadership of Francis Asbury, the first bishop for the group in America.  The Methodists arrived in the American Colonies in 1750.  In the years leading up to the Revolution of 1776 they became a persecuted sect because Wesley urged loyalty to the king of England.  As a result, many Methodist missionaries went back to England.
Francis Asbury

But Asbury strongly opposed John Wesley on this matter and came out in favor of the revolution.  As many Anglican ministers left the colonies (they were part of the state of England) Asbury organized his ministers to venture out during the war and bring the church to the people even at great risk.  With Methodism becoming its own church it also changed public perceptions.  No longer was it associated with the crown of England but became a home-grown church on American soil.

Although Asbury never required holy vows of his ministers, the circuit riders essentially took monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.  The value system of this church was a willingness to go to the people anytime and anywhere.  The circuit riders improvised based on what was available at each station.  Sometimes church was held in the open-air or a log cabin.  In other places church was held in a local courthouse or tavern.  Unlike the puritans, these “men of the people” were Arminian in theology (as opposed to Calvinist with a great emphasis on being the elect of God)  and enthusiastically called all to repentance.  Although the frontier of America was de-christianized through the process of migration, there was a memory of the faith in many families that served as a basis of approach.

And so with its humble approach of meeting people where they were at, selfless lay ministers willing to risk their lives to spread the gospel of Christ, and a method of reproducing and deploying more clergy than they needed, the Methodist church quickly became the most recognized brand of Christianity in America during the 19th century.

Part 2

Peter Cartwright

 Peter Cartwright (1785-1872) was the son of a farmer and revolutionary war veteran and born in Virginia.  As a young teen, his family, like so many others at the time, left for the frontier of Kentucky seeking fresh opportunities. Cartwright’s family came to settle in Logan County which was later dubbed by a well-known revivalist as “rogues harbor” because this remote location tended to attract a strong criminal element due to its distance from the law.  As a young man Peter Cartwright was given a nominal education and was certainly encouraged towards the Christian faith by his devoutly Methodist mother but by his own admission, Cartwright enjoyed his status of being one of the local troublemakers.

In his late teens Cartwright attended a camp meeting in the area and experienced a deep and radical conversion.  He immediately joined a Methodist weekly class in his area.  At age 17 he became a licensed exhorter in the church and within the next three years was promoted to deacon (ordained directly by Francis Asbury) and later a ruling elder which he remained the rest of his life.

Soon as a single young man, Peter Cartwright found himself joining the ranks of the circuit riders.  The salary (if it was paid in full and usually wasn’t) was $100 per year.  If the circuit rider had a wife he was given another $100 per year and if he had children an allocation of $18 per year was made for each.  It is said that Peter Cartwright worked for $60 per year but gave $25 of that as a tithe to the church.

Cartwright reports that in his early days money was so scarce on the frontier that many persons went an entire year without seeing so much as a coin.  Circuit riders  usually had enough food as many people would feed them, but if not for the loving gifts of handmade clothing by pioneer housewives, many of the evangelists would be naked as their clothes wore out rather quickly on the frontier.

Circuit preaching

The work was varied, sometimes rewarding, sometimes strange.  Cartwright found himself encountering all sorts of infidels such as Universalists and Mormons and with all the zeal of youth would engage in a battle of wits and doctrines.  In other places he would find people quite receptive and would baptize and enroll them in a Methodist class.  In yet other places he would encounter threats of violence and would be pleased to accommodate them as needed with a good old-fashioned fistfight.  He prayed for healings of the sick and people were cured, he encountered congregations whose pastors were drunkards and he would exhort the erring minister and see revival of religion.  It was not uncommon to be on the road for years at a time and according to Cartwright, almost always relying on the kindness of strangers for place to sleep or a few coins for his pocket to buy food or care for his horse.

Cartwright was well-suited for the frontier.  He was non-pretentious in his style and fearless in confronting rowdies and detractors at his meetings.  He was very comfortable and sympathetic with emotional outbursts and manifestations of the spirit.  He had a strong egalitarian spirit, yet enthusiastically promoted upward mobility in his congregations if it was done within the bounds of strong Christian commitment.

Cartwright was known as a fiery preacher, but also one of good humor and often opened his sermons with anecdote calculated to bring a laugh or two.  He spoke almost always extempore and like many of his ken, would not be averse to speaking of the sin matrix he encountered right in front of him.
Magazine cover depiction

According to Mark Noll, the America in which Peter Cartwright worked was largely unchurched and unchristian.  In addition to preaching, evangelical groups worked to shape the American mind using the latest technology (steam driven printing presses) to print Bibles, Gospel tracts, and religious books enough to blanket every citizen in the new republic.  Distributing literature and selling inexpensive books on his circuit was also one of Peter Cartwright’s tasks.

As a young man Cartwright was able to speak with General (soon to be President) Andrew Jackson and warned him that his soul would go to hell just as quickly as any other mans.  Another minister apologized to Jackson for the bluntness of Cartwright’s message but Jackson actually praised and respected Cartwright’s straightforward approach saying that all of Christ’s ministers should be such that they fear no mortal man.  This would not be the last time Cartwright encountered a future president of the United States.
General Jackson

Age 33 he married Frances Gaines and proceeded to have 7 daughter and 2 sons by that marriage.  Frances was very supportive of Peter’s ministry even though it required him to travel so much.  Eventually because of his views on slavery, the Cartwright family left Kentucky and moved to southern Illinois.  It is interesting to note that Cartwright was neither abolitionist nor pro-slavery.  He viewed slavery as wrong but felt that slave-owners should be converted and taught until they willingly freed their slaves.  His views may seem very mild by today’s standard but it is important to remember that prior to the Civil War and the polarization it caused, there were many differing perspectives on the slavery issue.

Cartwright was a strong democrat and was always very politically active as a minister.  He stood in the centrist position of most political issues in his day and in the vanguard of Methodist thought which sought conversion and social reform. In 1828 and 1832 Peter Cartwright twice defeated Abraham Lincoln for a seat in the Illinois legislature.  Later he ran against Lincoln for U.S. Congress but was defeated by him in that race.  It makes one wonder how a victory by Peter Cartwright in that race would have changed American history.  Lincoln would have never gone to Washington D.C. and might have remained an unknown quantity in U.S. politics.

Cartwright worked as a preacher (both in a circuit riding and fixed ministry) for 53 years.  He preached by his own accounting about 8000 sermons and saw around 10,000 conversions and 12,000 baptisms.  By his estimation his salary, after accounting for what was unpaid to him, losses of horses, being held up at gun point, people stealing religious books he was selling, and loss of clothing by theft, was (negative) -$6,400.   However, his labors were crowned with a family of adult children and grandchildren who were walking in the faith and members of the Methodist church.  Better to have success in faith and family than money any day.
Mr. and Mrs. Cartwright

Cartwright serves as a bridge between the first and third generations of Methodists in America.  He lived during the frontier days and period of explosive growth of Methodism with their circuit riders and enthusiastic camp-meetings, but lived long enough to see the church become more established and respectable along with the Baptists.  Cartwright of course lamented this change and considered it a triumph of “Yankeeism”, but the reality of it was America was changing as well losing its frontiers and growing its cities.  Circuits were growing smaller as Methodists were building beautiful buildings and calling ministers to a settled pastorate.  Camp-meetings too were a thing of the past as Bible conferences and Revival tabernacles emerged as the next big thing in American evangelicalism.

The church Cartwright served in Southern Illinois is still an active congregation within the Methodist denomination today.


Latourette, Kenneth Scott.  A History of Christianity Vol. II : Reformation to the Present  (New York : Harper and Row, 1975)

Pierard, Richard V. and Thomas A. Askew.  The American Church Experience : A Concise History.  (Grand Rapids : Baker Academic, 2004)

“Circuits”.  Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature.  McClintock and Strong Eds.  (Grand Rapids : Baker Book House, 1981)

“Peter Cartwright”  Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals.  Larson, Bebbington, and Noll eds.  (Downers Grove : Intervarsity Press, 2003)

Stark, Rodney and Roger Finke.  The Churching of America 1776-2005 : Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy.  (New Brunswick : Rutgers University Press, 2007)

Noll, Mark A.  A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada.  (Grand Rapids : Eerdmanns, 2003)

Hatch, Nathan O.  The Democratization of American Christianity.  (New Haven : Yale University Press, 1989)

Cartwright, Peter.  The Autobiography of Peter Cartwright.  (Nashville : Abingdon Press, 1981)

“Peter Cartwright”  Dictionary of Christianity in America.  Reid, Linder, Shelley, and Stout eds.  (Downers Grove : Intervarsity Press, 1990)

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

John the Golden Mouthed of Constantinople by Chris White

Chrysostom fearlessly preached to the great and small

John Chrysostom  (347-407 AD)

His birth name is John, but since the 7th century has been called “Chrysostomos” (Greek for the Golden Mouth) because of his great preaching.  He was one of the greatest preachers of the ancient Christian era and his life offers us a couple of lessons in Christian leadership.  Born to a wealthy couple in Syria, John’s father (whose name is unknown) was a prominent military officer for the Roman government in Antioch.  He died when John was quite young leaving his mother Anthusa ,who remained a widow the remainder of her life, to devote her full attention to the education and religious upbringing of their son.


John was given the best education of the day by Libanius, arguably the greatest master of rhetoric and literature of that era.  Although he lived in a time when Christianity became the required religion of the Roman Empire, he remained a pagan and was undisturbed for his beliefs because of his renown.  It is curious how Chrysostom’s mother, a devout Christian and one obviously desiring his conversion, would see fit to secure Libanius’ services for her son knowing the possible risk of his influencing him towards paganism.  But even more interesting is that three of the greatest preachers and theologians of this period, Chrysostom, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Theodore of Mopsuestia, were all trained by this same man.  John’s education was focused on  rhetoric and eloquence.  Such an education would prepare him for a career in law or government.  John briefly practiced law and for a .time was a civil servant, but when he became a Christian, he took his training and applied it to the art of preaching. 

Once converted he broke with the secular world and wanted to become a monk like St. Antony of Egypt who lived alone in the desert and devoted his entire life to prayer.  Although Anthusa was very glad for her son’s conversion, she begged and pleaded with John to not enter into the monastic life because it would mean leaving her.  John obeyed his mother in this and only after her death did he spend several years in monastic retreat living in a  mountain cave near Antioch from 374-380 AD.  Unfortunately, John was too rigorous in his asceticism early on and this ruined his health forcing him to suspend living as a solitary and instead he spent his life serving the broader church as a pastor and preacher.  This change of vocation proved to be a rich blessing for the Christian church of Antioch and the greater Body of Christ.

Icon of John

John Chrysostom’s appearance is described in one ancient book as being diminutive in stature and having what looked like an oversized head on a small body due to his constant fasting.  He was known to have a prominent nose and deep-seated eyes and due to his balding, a pronounced forehead furrowed with wrinkles.  He is said to have been handsome to look at but very easily could assume a severe expression.

For the first 16 years of his ministry he served in various capacities in Antioch (the place where followers of Jesus were first called Christians).  During this time he preached and wrote many of his books and commentaries.

Although he had no designs on the position, John was eventually elected to be the bishop of Constantinople.  This city was second only to Rome and the papacy in its ecclesiastical importance.  He was directly appointed by the emperor Arkadius who arranged for him to be spirited out of Antioch and brought under imperial guard to Constantinople.  The reason it happened this way is that it was expected that there would be riots in Antioch when the people found out their beloved preacher had been taken from them.


Constantinople was a sophisticated and worldly metropolis (as its current manifestation Istanbul Turkey is today) in the ancient world.  It was the capitol of the Roman empire and the seat of their imperial throne.  It would be inaccurate to say that Chrysostom disliked his promotion to the great city.  He saw the opportunity for influence and greater ministry especially since members of the royal household would all be under his spiritual care.

John himself was a bachelor and celibate priest but he did enjoy the companionship and help of the city’s great deaconess Olympia.  In many regards she was his equal both spiritually and intellectually.  She ran a great convent nearby the episcopal residence and regularly cared for him providing meals and laundry and advice when he needed it.  Author J. N. D. Kelly suggests that both of them had a mutual attraction to one another but were very cognizant of their roles in the church and world and took precautions to not place themselves in a position where temptation could overcome them.  Later when John was exiled, it was Olympia who would arrange for his support and would send people to encourage him.

John’s talent and eloquence at preaching was at a level well-suited for the city.  However, in a city known for its excesses and decadence, Chrysostom lived a manner of life that created tension for him most of the time.  He personally lived as an ascetic and gave his salary away to the poor and sick.  He insisted on earnest Christian living and practical works in his church and often vehemently denounced the worldliness of his congregation which did include the imperial court who were often singled out for direct rebukes and were routinely offended by them.

John's Church the "Hagia Sophia"

As bishop, Chrysostom found the priesthood of Constantinople in need of great reform and discipline.  Some supposedly celibate priests lived with women known in public as “spiritual sisters”.  Others were guilty of taking church finances and lavishly furnishing their homes and wardrobes.  All the while the poor and sick were neglected and preaching was made a low priority.  John reformed all of these things and required all finances of the diocese to be placed under his scrutiny.  Many luxuries purchased at church expense were sold off and churches were ordered to have regular services at hours where common people could attend and hear the word preached.  As with any reformer, many rejoiced to see justice and righteousness prevail, while many more were quite offended and became his enemies.  Although Chrysostom had a singular and brilliant talent in the pulpit and was a man of great holiness, he was far less gifted in understanding human relations and the management of people.  His blunt approach, while true to his character and his faith, probably more than any other factor led to his eventual downfall.

Eventually the empress Eudoxia conspired with other clergy who were jealous of John to have him falsely accused of heresy, overthrown, and placed into exile.  A secret church council known as the Council of the Oak (so-called because it was held at a country villa estate called “the Oak” nearby Constantinople) was convened and 29 false charges were brought to bear on him which led to his banishment from the church.  The central gist of the charges were that he was teaching the doctrines of Origen, a long-dead but highly influential and speculative theologian whom the church had condemned as heretical some decades before.  One of the absurdities of Chrysostom being accused of being “Origenist” is that Origen was so highly speculative and looked for spiritual and mystical meanings in the scripture.  Chrysostom was far more conservative in his interpretation of scripture almost taking an antithetical approach.  He was certainly not guilty as charged. 

However, three days after he was excused from his post a huge earthquake hit Constantinople.  A great public outcry ensued over Chrysostom’s dismissal and the natural disaster only confirmed that God was in agreement with the people.  John was hastily reinstated to his position.  Once back in the pulpit, John fearlessly continued his denouncements of public immorality and especially singled out Eudoxia who had had a silver statue of herself erected near his church the Hagia Sophia and was known for her extravagant dressing.

Eventually John was condemned again and sent into exile in 404 being banished to the wastes of eastern Asia Minor (Armenia).  Although efforts were made to have him released by Pope Innocent I, it was to no avail with the court of Constantinople.  3 years into his exile when he was being moved to a more remote location (he was growing popular with the local people in the initial location) he falls ill and collapses from exhaustion having been forced to walk a road too hard and too long for his frail constitution.  When he sensed he was dying he asked the guards in charge of him to take him to a small roadside church where he could have a final communion before passing away.  His last words were said to be “in all things, glory be to God.”

Theodosius II

Thirty years later, Theodosius II, the son of Arcadius and Eudoxia, orders the remains of John brought back to Constantinople to be buried and venerated by the church.  When the coffin arrived at nearby Chalcedon, Theodosius fell down before it and apologized to Chrysostom for his unworthy treatment at the hands of his parents.

John Chrysostom’s body of sermons and practical commentaries on the Bible are considered to be some of the most valuable of the ancient church era and most remain in print today.  Although John was a brilliant expositor he never studied Hebrew and thus most all of his surviving sermons are on the Pauline letters and Gospels of the New Testament.  What he is known for is paying attention to the context and meaning of the author and deriving its practical application for the problems of today.  Because of this many of his sermons have great relevance even in today’s modern culture.

In summing up what we might learn from the life of this great preacher a couple of thoughts come to mind:

1.  Competence in the pulpit does not make a person omni-competent in all other things.  John would have probably benefited from a leadership team that could have advised him and back him in making reforms and changes especially in a well-established city with a well-established sin matrix.  He did it as the lone righteous prophet and good as that is, prophets don't have a record of things turning out well for them.

2.  No education is a waste of time.  John was educated for political and legal eloquence but transferred his learning into usefulness for the Lord.  All work is the Lord's work (unless it is hurtful and dishonest towards people) and that same work can be used for ministry.  In fact, I know a person who was a missionary who in his field experience had to learn sanitation and waste water management.  This turned into another career for him and now he is using his career as a platform for more ministry.  God doesn't waste anyone's life.  What you have learned can be used in some way for Him.

To enjoy a sampling of the preaching genius of John Chrysostom, the “Golden Mouth”, go to:

“John Chrysostom”  Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature Vol. 2.  
                                  McClintock and Strong eds. (Grand Rapids : Baker Book House, 1981) 

“John Chrysostom”  Butler’s Lives of the Saints.  Bernard Bangley Ed.  (Brewster : Paraclete Press,

Kelly, J.N.D.  Golden Mouth: The Story of John Chrysostom, Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop. (Grand 
                       Rapids: Baker, 1995)

Cairns, Earle E.  Christianity Through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church (Grand 
                            Rapids : Academie Books, 1981)

The Oxford History of Byzantium.  Cyril Mango, Ed.  (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2001)

Gonzalez, Justo L.  The Story of Christianity Vol. 1.  (New York : Harper Collins, 2010)

Davidson, Ivor J.  A Public Faith : From Constantine to the Medieval World AD 312-600 Vol. 2.  
                             John D. Woodbridge & David F. Wright Eds.  (Grand Rapids : Baker Books,

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Whatever Happened to Simon the Zealot? by Chris White

It is a fascinating study to see the diverse kinds of people whom our Lord selected to be part of his apostolic band.  Jesus, it seems, has little interest in ‘cookie-cutter’ ministry leaders and seems to delight in taking people for who they are and using that to further the Kingdom.  The Zealots were a nationalist party in first century Israel that were anxious to end Roman rule and weren’t above using violence to further their cause.  In fact, the Zealots were the undoing of Israel and eventually led to the destruction of Jerusalem, the Temple, and were remembered for their last stand at Masada where they committed mass suicide to avoid capture by the Romans.  But Simon was called to follow Jesus and although he is not a major player in the story of the Gospels, we may rightly assume that at all the great events Simon was present and learning with the rest of the Apostles. 

 Outside the New Testament there is a very strong tradition that he was the apostle to North Africa.  Making this plausible is that North Africa was a Christian stronghold in the 2nd Century which meant this project had to get underway early in the 1st Century.  The 4th Century historian Eusebius claims that Simon also evangelized Persia and Britain and died there as a martyr in AD 60.  The emblem of Simon is a saw because tradition has it that he was sawn in two.  Had he lived through such treatment he would have been the first pastor in history to possess the much-coveted ability to be in two places at once!  However he met his end, if even half of the tradition is true, Simon took his passion for political change and put it into spiritual change. And for that the Kingdom of God is the richer for it.