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