Cartwright: Perhaps America's Most Colorful Country Preacher
MEN on horseback said good-byes. "I should not be surprised if I never see
you again," said the first.
answered the second, "if I fall and you never see me again, tell my
friends that I fell at my post trying to do my duty."
Peter Cartwright. His colorful
Autobiography remains a
favorite source on frontier conditions.
was flooded. Not a path could be seen beneath the sheet of water.
Treetops, which might guide a bold traveler, stood miles away but would be
out of sight whenever he rode into a hollow. He could easily lose his way
or flounder into a hole. Even if he reached the trees, a swollen creek
beside them would compel him to swim twenty yards. He might have to spend
the night on the sopping prairie. The rider paused. On one hand was his
duty to the souls of his frontier parish; on the other, serious danger. At
that moment he recalled his motto: "Never retreat till you know you can
advance no further." He rode forward.
That decision was characteristic of Peter Cartwright, one of the most
colorful frontier preachers in the young United States. Born in Virginia
in 1785, just two years after treaty ended the American Revolution, he was
taken West to Kentucky. There he became a tough guy in rough Logan County
known as "Rogue's Harbor" because of its swarms of badmen. His Methodist
mother pleaded and prayed with him. Her prayers wakened a response. In a
camp meeting her sixteen year old son was convicted of his sinfulness and
need for a Savior. For hours he cried out to God for forgiveness until
finally the peace of Christ flooded his soul. At once he joined the
Methodist Episcopal Church. Within two years he was a traveling preacher,
bringing the gospel to the backwoods of the new nation. His rough past and
hardy constitution served him well, for he faced floods, thieves, hunger
and disease. He met every challenge head on.
Fear no mortal man
Once Cartwright warned General Jackson (future President of the United
States) that he would be damned to Hell just as quickly as any other man
if he did not repent. A timid preacher apologized to Jackson for
Cartwright's bluntness. The general retorted that Christ's ministers ought
to love everybody and fear no mortal man, adding that he wished he had a
few thousand officers like Peter Cartwright.
Peter the pugnacious preacher
Frequently rowdies disrupted Cartwright's meetings. When one thug promised
to whip him, Cartwright invited the man to step into the woods with him
and do it. The two started for the trees. Leaping over the fence at the
edge of the campground, Cartwright landed painfully. He clutched his side.
The bully shouted that the preacher was going for a dagger and took to his
Cartwright charged a group of rowdies in the dark, yelling to imaginary
forces, "Here! here! Officers and men, take them!" The troublemakers
bolted in panic. Such events gave him a name. A story spread that he had
fought legendary river boatman Mike Fink.
Soul winner extraordinary
Crowds flocked to hear him. Throughout Kentucky, Tennessee and Illinois,
Cartwright preached to hosts of men and women, speaking three hours at a
stretch, several times a week. The conviction in his booming voice could
make women weep and strong men tremble. 10,000 came to Christ through his
preaching in meetings that often ran day and night. Cartwright baptized
thousands, adding them to the church. Several church buildings were
erected at his instigation to house services for the new converts. To
answer a desperate need for more preachers, he championed the creation of
Methodist colleges. Having schooled himself, he saw the value of learning.
Wherever he went he left behind religious books and tracts to convert and
strengthened souls in his absence. The joy of soul-winning compensated him
for all hardships.
Hardships were plentiful. Several times Cartwright went two and three days
without food. He once returned from his circuit with just 6¢ of borrowed
money in his pocket. His father had to outfit him with new clothes, saddle
and horse before he could ride again. Traveling preachers were paid a
measly $30- 50 a year with no family allowance. Nonetheless Cartwright
married and raised children. His family was not spared tragedy. Forced to
camp in the open one night, they were startled awake when a tree snapped
in two; Cartwright flung up his arms to deflect the falling log, but it
crushed his youngest daughter to death.
A Move For the Sake of the
In 1823 Peter Cartwright sold his Kentucky farm. He was disturbed by the
effects of slavery on consciences and feared his daughters would marry
slave owners. Slavery, he felt, sapped independence of spirit. His family
readily agreed to the change and his bishop appointed him to a circuit in
In Illinois he
more than once braved floods. Once he had to chase his saddle bags which
were swept downstream. Another time, in snowy weather, when even he
hesitated to enter a flooded river, his eldest daughter, riding with him,
proved her own mettle, urging him onward. In every instance, the Lord
brought him to safety. He died at eighty-seven, leaving behind an
autobiography which became a classic as much for the exploits it recounted
as for the picture it painted of frontier life. His courage won him
numerous sons and daughters for Christ. He stayed at "his post to do his
Fascinating Facts. . .
a severe earthquake struck New Madrid, Missouri. At places along the
fault the Mississippi flowed backward. Thousands cried out for
forgiveness of sins, believing the end of the world had come. Many later
Pioneers, isolated from church communities, often had little knowledge
of spiritual terms. One preacher asked a woman if she had any religious
convictions. "Naw," she replied, "nor my old man neither. He were tried
for hog-stealin' once, but he weren't convicted."
drunkenness was a problem on the frontier, Peter Cartwright thought he'd
demonstrate the danger of strong drink. He placed a worm in a glass of
wine. It wriggled. He transferred it to a glass of whiskey. It curled up
and died. "There," Cartwright said. "What does that tell you?" A man
replied, "It shows that if you drink whiskey you won't have worms."
Asbury, one of Cartwright's overseers, was the first Methodist bishop in
the United States. He traveled nearly 300,000 miles in his life,
building the Methodist church from 300 members to over 200,000.
Historian Nathan Hatch asserts: "Between 1840 and 1860, the Methodists
founded at least 35 institutions of higher education. Between the Civil
War and 1900, they founded more than one college or university per year.
. . . By 1852, eleven of thirteen congressmen from Indiana were
Methodists. In 1880, no denomination could claim the affiliation of more
governors than the Methodists."
Peter vs. Abraham
Running for Congress in 1846, Peter Cartwright lost to none other than
Abraham Lincoln. In 1832, over a decade earlier, however, Cartwright had
defeated Lincoln in a race for the Illinois legislature.
In His Own Words. . .The Price of Being a Preacher
". . .in reference to the Methodist Episcopal Church, when we consider
that her ministers were illiterate...that we were everywhere spoken
against, caricatured and misrepresented; without colleges and
seminaries, without religious books or periodicals, without missionary
funds, and almost all other religious means; and our ministers did not
for many years, on an average, receive over fifty dollars support
annually, and a Methodist preacher's library almost entirely consisted
of a Bible, Hymn Book, and a Discipline, may we not, without boasting,
say with one of old, 'What hath God wrought?' A Methodist preacher in
those days, when he felt that God had called him to preach, instead of
hunting up a college or Biblical institute, hunted up a hardy pony of a
horse and some traveling apparatus and. . .cried 'Behold the Lamb of
God, that taketh away the sin of the world.' In this way he went through
storms of wind, hail, snow, and rain; climbed hills and mountains,
traversed valleys, plunged through swamps, swam swollen streams, lay out
all night, wet, weary, and hungry, held his horse by the bridle all
night, or tied him to a limb, slept with his saddle blanket for a bed,
his saddle or saddle bags for his pillow, and his old big coat or
blanket, if he had any, for a covering. Often he slept in dirty cabins,
on earthen floors, before the fire. . .His text was always ready,
'Behold the Lamb of God.' "
More on Cartwright's
Autobiography (Editor's Notebook)
While riding to a meeting with Professor Richard Heitzenreiter, a Wesley
scholar who teaches at Southern Methodist University, I asked him how he
aroused interest in his students in Christian history. He told me one
particularly effective approach is to have his students pick up the
Autobiography of Peter Cartwright and tell them open it to just about
any page at random. There they inevitably find some fascinating anecdote
from the life of the great circuit rider that draws them in to want to
read more. Hopefully this issue has done the same for you. Get ahold of
the autobiography for fascinating reading.--Ken Curtis
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Circuit Riders and
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