History Leaves of the Methodist Tree
Compiled by Johnny Cordell
“The Lords Plowman”
During my time reading and researching Methodist circuit riders, one of the most colorful preachers was Peter Cartwright. He was physically imposing, his face wrinkled and tough, his eyes small and twinkling, and his hair looks as if he had poked it into a bag of kilkenny cats, and had not had time to comb it. He rode circuits in Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, in a ministry that spans over fifty years. Born in Virginia in 1785, just two years after the ending of the Revolution War, 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 for him. Her prayers won. In a camp meeting, sixteen-year old Peter 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, meeting every challenge head on.
Crowds flocked to hear him. Peter preached to host of men and women, three hours at a stretch, several times a week. Women wept and strong men trembled. Thousands came to Christ in meetings that sometimes ran day and night, adding them to the church. He urged new converts to build meeting houses. To meet a desperate need for preachers, he championed the creation of Methodist colleges. Wherever he went he left behind religious books and tracts to convert and strengthen souls. The joy of soul winning compensated him for all his hardships. Hardships were many, several times Peter went days without food. Once he returned from his circuit with just six borrowed cents in his pocket. His father had to re-outfit him with clothes, saddle, and horse before he could ride again. Traveling preachers were paid thirty to fifty dollars a year. Nonetheless, Peter married and raised children. Once when his family was forced to camp in the open one night, they were startled awake when a tree snapped in two. Peter flung up his arms to deflect the falling timber, but unfortunately it crushed his youngest daughter to death. In 1823 Peter sold his Kentucky farm. He 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 Illinois. In Illinois, Peter braved floods, where once he had to chase his saddle bags which were swept downstream. In every circumstance, the Lord brought him to safety. In Illinois he ran for a seat in state legislative against Abraham Lincoln, beating him, but later Lincoln beat him in a race for U.S. Congress.
Cartwright, unlike the preachers of settled denominations, possessed the needed qualities to survive the harsh and dangerous world of American frontier wilderness. The circuit rider had to fight and preach, oftentimes dealing with ruffians, rowdies, and disrupters who attended their meetings.
Once Peter, warned General Andrew Jackson that he would be condemned to Hell just as quickly as any man if he did not repent. Another preacher apologized for Peter’s bluntness. Jackson retorted that Christ’s ministers ought to love everyone and fear no mortal man, adding that he wished he had a few thousand officers like Peter. (to be continued next month)
- Dan Graves, MSL “Colorful Peter Cartwright, Circuit Rider”
- Alfred Day http://www.umc.org/videos