History Leaves of the Methodist Tree
Compiled by Johnny Cordell
Cartwright was considerably older than Abraham Lincoln but in the 1850’s, Peter continued on the fringes of politics, backing Senator Steven Douglas in the election of 1858 in which Douglas prevailed. But Cartwright’s attitude toward Mr. Lincoln mellowed with age, in 1862, Cartwright visited New York where he spoke before a dinner of New Yorkers unfriendly to the Presidency of Abraham Lincoln: “Once we were opposing candidates for a seat in Congress, and measured up in the ballot-box, I went down in defeat. But it was defeat by a gentleman and a patriot. I stand here tonight to commend to you the Christian character, sterling integrity, and far-seeing sagacity of the President of the United States, whose official acts you have, your blind money-madness, so critically assailed tonight. I am confident he is the man to meet and go forward in this crisis to lead his countrymen amid and through the terrible strife in which we are now engaged. He is a cool-headed, God fearing, and unselfish love of his country, and knows from the top to the bottom the life and spirit of men both North and South. When you go from here to your homes tonight, I want you to bear with you the assurance of his neighbor and once political opponent that the country will be safe in his hands. I wish to have you understand that back of him will stand an unflinching host of Western men, who have no financial ghosts that terrify them and who are destined to rescue this nation from the perils now before us. We have got the men who have got the right-kind of grit in them out West. Why stand ye here idle? My God send patriotic light into your stingy souls.”
Peter Cartwright’s style of preaching is characterized by William Henry Milburn, a fellow Methodist circuit rider who saw him frequently and claimed him as a friend. Milburn gives this description of Cartwright’s preaching: “ A voice which, in his prime, was capable of almost every modulation, the earnest force of homely directness of his speech, and his power over the passions of the human heart, made him an orator to win and command the suffrages and sympathies of a western audience, and ever through the discourse, came, and went, and came and went, a humor that was resistless, now broadening the features into a merry smile, and then softening the heart until tears stood in the eyes of all. His figures and illustrations were often grand, sometimes fantastical. Like all natives of a new country, he spoke much in metaphors, and his were borrowed from the magnificent realm in which he lived. All forms of nature, save those of sounding seas, were familiar to him. You might hear in a single discourse, the thunder tread of a frightened herd of buffalo as they rushed wildly across the prairie, the crash of a window as it fell smitten by the breath of the tempest, the piercing scream of the wild cat as it scared the midnight forest, the majestic Mississippi as it harmonized the distant East and West. Thunder and lightning, fire and flood, seemed to be old acquaintances, and he spoke of them with the assured confidence of friendship. Another of his attributes was the impulse and power to create his own language; and he was best lexicon of western words, phrases, and proverbs, that I have ever met.”
Peter died at 87, leaving behind an autobiography which has become a classic as much for the exploits it recounts as for the pictures of frontier life. Cartwright summarizes his life stating “That with all the losses and crosses, labors, and sufferings peculiar to the life of a Methodist traveling preacher, I would take the same track over and over again with the same religion to bear me up rather than be the President of the United States. I ask your prayers that you remember an old man who has spent life in the service of the church, and I would do it again.”
*Compiler’s Note: At the completion of this article, I realize that today’s Methodist of settled denominations may not approve of the methods of Peter Cartwright. However, he possessed the needed qualities to survive the harsh and dangerous world of the American frontier. The Reverend Cartwright possessed three things: (1) a Bible (2) a horse (3) a gun…and he knew how to use all three. During his ministry, he baptized 10,000 converts and preached almost 15,000 sermons.
Sources: (1) Dan Graves, MSL “Colorful Peter Cartwright, Circuit Rider” (2) Rev. Alfred Day, http://www.umc.org/video (3) Robert Bray, Illinois Wesleyan University “Beating the Devil: Life and Art in Peter Cartwright’s Autobiography” (4) Leewin Williams and Kenneth Alley: “The Encyclopedia of Wit, Humor, and Wisdom” (5) The Gilder Lehrman Institute “Mr. Lincoln and Friends”
Question: What pastor instituted the first Christmas Communion at Chapel Hill? Tom Tucker
Next Month’s Question: Where did Francis Asbury do most of his readings and rehearsing of his sermons?