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A Study in the Saddle of Circuit Riding Preachers

By Rita Juanita Mock

Earning fifteen dollars a year, being drenched with water, sore from the saddle and exhausted from the three to four hundred mile circuits they had to cover every two to six weeks, the circuit riding preachers of early America were a faithful, strong group of young men, who were committed to their ministry. They struggled along hard trails and through difficult trials, but, with the purpose of telling the nation about God, they could only continue on joyfully, following God's calling in their lives.

While some of these faithful men only had to cover small circuits of three to four churches, like John Hollingshead of Ohio (McConnell, 2000, 1), the most famous circuit riders covered much larger territories, like Enoch Mather Marvin, of Missouri, who rode a three hundred mile circuit his first year as a preacher (Goodloe, 1928-1936, 1).

Methodists, with their wide circuits and numerous riders, seemed to be everywhere. One amusing story, about a minister named Nolley and an unhappy settler, relates this quite well. Nolley was in a remote part of Mississippi when he noticed a recent set of wagon tracks. Being a traditional circuit rider, and "worth his salt," he wouldn't pass up the opportunity to make a new contact. He followed the tracks until they ended in a fresh clearing, where a settler was still unloading his wagon. Nolley introduced himself to the settler and was greeted with tremendous disgust as the settler burst out, "Another Methodist preacher! I left Virginia for Georgia to get clear of them. There they got my wife and daughter. So I come here, and here is one before I can get my wagon unloaded!"

Nolley drolly replied, "My friend, if you go to Heaven you'll find Methodist preachers there; if you go to Hell, I'm afraid you'll find some there, and you see how it is on earth, so you had better make terms with us and be at peace" (Rupp, 1976, 3).

The trail itself was always physically demanding, as one pioneer preacher records: "Every day I travel, I have to swim through creeks or swamps, and I am wet from head to feet, and some days from morning to night I am dripping with water. My horse's legs are now skinned and rough to his hock joints, and I have rheumatism in all my joints . . . what I have suffered in body and mind my pen is not able to communicate to you" (Rupp, 1976, 1-2).

As the preacher continues, he tells why he was willing to suffer as he did, "But this I can say, while my body is wet with water and chilled with cold, my soul is filled with heavenly fire, and I can say with Saint Paul, 'But none of these things shall move me. Neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy'" (Rupp, 1976, 2).

Life on the trail for the intense preachers was in fact so rugged and exacting that half of these ministers died before the age of thirty-three. However, many of them thrived on the severity of trail life, despite the hardships, including Peter Cartwright who likely held the record for stamina, with seventy-one years of itinerancy (Beougher, 1995, 3).

One of the most famous Methodist circuit riders was Francis Asbury. He clearly had a strong and deep devotion to God and the nation of America. He came over from England as a missionary to America, in 1771 (Encyclopedia of World Biography, 1998, 1), and was so busy with preaching that he often only had time to study the Word of God while in the saddle. His commitment was evidenced in the fact that though he was often plagued with illness and other physical problems, he continued preaching regularly. It was recorded that he even continued to visit his circuits when he was so ill that he had to be tied to the saddle to remain upright (Beougher, 1995, 3).

The early circuit riders preached nearly every day, healthy or ill, as John Brooks related about his first three years of itinerancy. "I lost my health and broke a noble constitution." During one raging revival, he "lay in bed," but the people "literally forced me out, and made me preach" (Wigger, 1995, 6).

Part of the difficulty of the trails that these men blazed was the uncertainty of lodgings. They often stayed with compassionate families on their circuits, or sometimes slept at inns or out in the open. One itinerant, Thomas Ware, sought shelter after a long and weary day at a secluded cabin in the back country of North Carolina. The man of the house made it immediately obvious that Ware was not welcome. Ware recounts that he "looked at him, and, smiling, said, 'that would depend upon our comparative strength.'" The young man was unwilling to wrestle the preacher, so Thomas Ware stayed in their cabin that night and baptized their children the next morning (Wigger, 1995, 6).

Because of the rigorous journeying and the two-year maximum time the preachers were allowed to travel a particular circuit, it was suggested that the itinerants remained unmarried (Rupp, 3). This was another factor in making the life of these dedicated men even harder because of the increased loneliness of circuit riding. Some of these ministers did marry, though, and the wives of these men were looked at as models in the communities where their husbands preached.

The wife of John Hollingshead was one such example to her community, but one day the members of the community came to her husband and complained about her milking the family cow. By these parishioners, it was considered inappropriate for the minister's wife to milk the cow. After just milking the cow, Mrs. Hollingshead came into the house while her neighbors were still there complaining. Mrs. Hollingshead put her hands on her hips and declared that it was quiet out there, and that she would not give up milking the cow because it was the "only peace and quiet I get, so I won't stop milking the cow!" (McConnell 1).

An illustration of these men's faithfulness to carry on, even through the hardships of the journey, the loneliness of the trail, poor health, bad weather and the uncertainty of a place to sleep, was the stormy day proverbial saying, "There is nothing out today but crows and Methodist preachers" (Wigger 7).

These Methodists who were "everywhere, and in every weather" spread the message of Christ throughout the land, changing the nation, religion and most importantly, the lives of whom they preached to. With the strength and love of God, they answered the need of a hungry nation, and fulfilled the call of God in their own lives, as well.

"Saddle up your horses, we've got a trail to blaze, through the wild blue yonder of God's amazing Grace.  Let's follow our Leader into the glorious unknown. This is a life like no other. This is the great adventure" (Chapman).         also read Circuit Riders and Peter Cartwright - America's Most Colorful Preacher


Works Cited

Beougher, Timothy K. "Did you know?" Christian History. Vol 14 Issue 1, p. 2, 2p. 3c, 1995. Online. TCC Web Databases: Academic Search Elite. http://www.tcc.cc.fl.us/dept/library/reference/resources.htm (6 Oct. 2000).
Chapman, Steven Curtis. "The Great Adventure." Steven Curtis Chapman. Sparrow Records, 1997.
"Francis Asbury." Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2nd ed. 17 Vols. Gale Research, 1998. Online. TCC Web Databases: Biography Resource Center. http://www.tcc.cc.fl.us/dept/library/reference/resources.htm (6 Oct. 2000).
Goodloe, Robert W. "Enoch Mather Marvin." Dictionary of American Biography Base Set. American Council of Learned Societies, 1928-1936. Online. TCC Web Databases: Biography Resource Center. http://www.tcc.cc.fl.us/dept/library/reference/resources.htm (6 Oct. 2000).
McConnell, Margaret. Personal interview. 2 Oct. 2000.
Rupp, Richard, and Mark Minnick. "Has He a Horse?" Faith for the Family 1976. Online. Internet. http://www.bju.edu/faith/vol4num3/horse.html (11 Sept. 2000).
Wigger, John H. "Holy, 'Knock-'Em-Down' Preachers." Christian History. Vol. 14 Issue 1, p22, 4p, 1c, 2bw, 1995. Online. TCC Web Databases: Academic Search Elite. http://www.tcc.cc.fl.us/dept/library/reference/resources.htm (6 Oct. 2000).


We pray this article has been of good use to you in learning about early Methodism.

Blessings,
Robert Wise

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