“The weather is so bad today, the only things out are crows and Methodist preachers.” ~Pioneer Saying
At my house The Autobiography of Peter Cartwright (1856) had long been hurting for a good read: I’d heard about Cartwright, but I’d never read the book. I myself had been privileged to know a Methodist circuit riding preacher—a rare privilege indeed, as they were a dying breed—who had himself traveled on horseback, in the Edwardian Era and World War I Era. My friend had been a stern, but kind man, who later became a pioneer in the Pentecostal Movement. So I was attracted to the story. Though about a century separated the circuit-riding days of the two preachers, listening to Cartwright talk was much like reliving my after-dinner repartee with my friend.
Cartwright (1785-1872), son of a Revolutionary War vet, began his life in Amherst County, Virginia; but, as a child, he moved west, with his parents, to Kentucky, through the Cumberland Gap. This was the romantic days of primitive travel when dirt trails wound through the hills, trudged by a couple hundred wagons and families, and bloodthirsty Indians lurked in the wilds. But if persons could make it through the mountain passes, and survive, they could build themselves rough-hewn log cabins in the Kentucky wilderness and almost be answerable to no one—except the preacher.
When the people could not go to church, the church came to them. The Methodist circuit-riding preacher never waited for an invite: he just showed up on the porch stoop, wanting to spend the night, have a little something to eat, tell people about the Good Book, and pray. And if there were enough neighbors about, he would gather them together and have a preaching meeting, where the power of God would come down, persons would be slain in the Spirit, and others would pray through to salvation, even if it took all night. Sometimes toward morning, those tarrying with the seekers would hear a whoop and a holler, someone shouting “Glory!” and know a sinner had come home.
Cartwright himself had been a bad boy in his teens, giving to drinking, playing cards, and dancing; but he had a Methodist praying mother. Thanks to her prayers and the happenstance of the Cane Ridge or Western Revival, he was born again, joined the Methodist Episcopal church, and before age twenty began riding a circuit as a Methodist Episcopal preacher, in and around the Cumberland. Though for most of us, the shortened form, Methodist, will do, Methodist Episcopal is the term Cartwright consistently used: Episcopal being the Americanized Anglican Church and Methodist being the branch associated with Wesley and Whitefield, as you can see from the historical marker at the much-photographed Christ Episcopal Church, St Simon’s Island, Georgia.
Cartwright sometimes emphasized his hard times to separate himself from the “hothouse” preachers churned out by the Eastern seminaries. Poverty—renouncing the world and its charms—was a dictum for Methodist preachers. John Wesley himself, the original circuit rider, limited his salary to £30 per annum all his life. Cartwright’s bishop and the “Father of American Methodism,” Francis Asbury (1745-1816), limited preachers’ salary to a max of $64 a year before 1800 and $80 a year after 1800, the reason being “to sort out those who preached for money.” Many circuit-riders never married; but if a man did, his wife received equal pay. A man also received sundry expenses for tolls and horseshoes. In those days, the price of a horse alone was $80.
Hard times notwithstanding—what would you expect on the frontier in the early 1800s?—Cartwright’s main trouble lay with the institution of slavery. He wasn’t too keen on any of the players involved in this awful mess. He considered slaveholders to be villainous and covetous. What excuse could they use for buying, owning, and using other human beings? Further, they were often rich, riding in fancy carriages, wearing ruffles, owning thousands of acre of land, plus livestock, and hoarding upward of $50,000 in the bank. Cartwright was not an Apostle Paul, with Philemon and Onesimus: if Cartwright got a slaveowner converted, he insisted he give up the practice and manumit his slaves. One physician who was converted under Cartwright manumitted and paid passage for all of his slaves to Liberia, West Africa, a free colony set up for that purpose, and a place serviced by Methodist missionaries.
On the other hand, Cartwright didn’t like the slaves either because they were immoral, indecent, and given to vice and crime. Nor did he like the abolitionists because they used slavery as a political issue, for their own purposes, without doing a thing to radically change the situation. “They resort to unjustifiable agitation, and the means they employ are unchristian.” According to Cartwright, an eyewitness of the times, the abolitionists freed a comparable handful of slaves through their secretive, dishonest underground railroad, but didn’t follow through to lift the slave to a better life. Thanks to the abolitionist’s feeble, misguided, mischievous efforts, many runaway slaves died from starvation or predators, or were captured and returned to slavery.
To Cartwright the only solution to this “curse” was, first of all, the gospel. As much as possible, he preached to free men, slaves, and abolitionists. If enough persons were saved, sooner or later the practice would die out. And the second solution was legislation outlawing slavery. Cartwright moved from Kentucky, a slave state, to Illinois, a free state, because he didn’t want his daughters marrying slaveowners. When he learned that some residents were clamoring to turn Illinois into a slave state, after he’d left Kentucky to get away from that “domestic, political, and moral evil,” he himself ran for political office, hoping to ensure that Illinois remained free. He was twice elected to the Illinois state house (1828, 1832), the second time outdistancing a certain rail-splitter, newly returned from the Black Hawk War, Abe Lincoln. But Cartwright did not like politics. “I found a great deal of corruption in our Legislature … almost every measure had to be carried by a corrupt bargain and sale, which should cause every honest man to blush for his country.”
In time, slavery split the Methodist church (1844) with Southerners going their own willful way. This grieved Cartwright considerably, because there was nothing Christian about slavery and there was nothing Christian about what the Southerners were doing in separating and forming their own body, just so they could keep slavery as part of their ecclesiastical platform. Years before Lincoln became President, Cartwright prophesied, truly, that because of slavery, and the dissension it caused, “this glorious Union will be dissolved, a civil war will follow, and death and carnage will ensue.”
Cartwright pleaded, “Let moral suasion be used to the last degree for the sake of the salvation of the slaveholders, and the salvation of the slaves. Let us not take a course that will cut off the Gospel from them and deliver them over to the anathemas of the devil. I have had glorious revivals of religion among the slaves, and have seen thousands of them soundly converted to God, and have stood by the bedside of the dying slave, and have heard the swelling shout of Christian victory from the dying Negro as he entered the cold waters of the river Jordan.” After the split, “Northern” Methodist circuit-riders could not even get to a plantation to preach to slaves or slaveowners. They were cut off and denied access, the Southern Methodists, in effect, damning the Negroes to hell.
Cartwright, like David Brainerd, also preached to Native Americans with some success. Each year, or thereabout, Cartwright was transferred to a new post or circuit. One of his assignments in Illinois, lasting two years, included a Potawatomi Mission on the Fox River. Jesse Walker was the missionary; Cartwright, the superintendent. Both Walker and Cartwright preached through an interpreter and won a few converts, whom they baptized in the faith. Walker built houses, opened a farm, established a school, preached and pastored, and the Methodists spent several thousand dollars improving the mission. Cartwright observed that “if it had not been for the corrupting influence of white men in selling whisky to the Indians and cheating them out of their annuities, there is no doubt but these Indians would have become civilized and Christianized.” But due to the problems, the Federal government bought out the “Indians,” the Missionary Society lost the land, and the Potawatomi and Chippewa moved on. Still, Cartwright was happy to report, in their new location the “Indians” had a missionary and many were pious Christians.
Another group that Cartwright influenced was German immigrants, including Dr William Nast (1807-1899), who came to America a rationalist and an infidel, but was converted to “old-fashioned, primitive Methodism.” Nast became a licensed Methodist minister, the “Father of German Methodism,” the first German missionary to German immigrants crowding America’s shores and inland prairies, and the editor of the German Apologist, a Methodist journal for German-speaking people. The work multiplied until there were German circuits in several Midwest states where immigrants were “reached by preachers of their own language, that could never be reached by English preachers.”
These were only a few of Cartwright’s successes. Most of his autobio is spent telling of his roughing it in the mountains of the Cumberland and on the prairie east of the Mississippi. His way was unique. He wouldn’t put up with nonsense or with rowdies disturbing his services. He was not afraid to manhandle uncouth persons who sought to break up his services, or cause trouble, or even to call the law on them, or form a posse and go after them if they ran. One time on a riverboat, when confronted with profane persons—as he himself used to be—dancing, drinking, and playing cards—he broke up their “service” and turned the cruise into a gospel revival. His preaching was known to bring sinners to their knees, and his crusades were calculated to bring in vast numbers of converts.
Another thing observable throughout his account is that Cartwright was a churchman. He was dyed-in-the-wool Methodist, and he was never going to be anything else. He served his church, attended quarterly and regional conferences, worked his circuit without complaining, kept record of what was going on, expressed warm appreciation for his peers, and was about a dozen times named a delegate to general conferences, in such places as Indianapolis, Baltimore, New York, and Boston, to which he rode on horseback or by stagecoach, there being no train in those days. Though he was often away from home for weeks at a time, he was married, fathered nine children, and owned his own farm. One son-in-law, William DR Trotter, was also a circuit-rider.
And, of course, Cartwright was opinionated and outspoken, and apt to do or say the unexpected, which makes his story so gripping. When you reach the end of the book, you don’t want it to end: you want more thrilling adventures. Cartwright did write another book or two, but none as colorful as this.
“If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write.” ~Martin Luther
Copyright © 2013 Alexandra Lee