REMINISCENCE OF A METHODIST CIRCUIT RIDER
by Wayne Dean, Sr.
It warms this old circuit riding Methodist's heart that you have invited me to share my thoughts with you after so many, many years.
It's been almost 200 years since I last traveled this way. I recall the warm hospitality and warmth of a cabin fire as I sat with a pioneer family and prayed and sang for hours-well past midnight.
Pray, bear with this weary time traveler a bit as I think back.
We have become almost Legendary Figures-the impersonation of religious romance and ministerial chivalry -the very symbol of the great Methodist denomination of the 20th century.
But what of the 18th century? We brought news of the brethren and churches, if any, within our far reaching circuits. Often time, the only books seen by the early pioneers were those brought in the circuit-rider's saddle bags.
We also brought a kind of harmless humor to the people-for our acquaintance with the world and contact with all classes and manner of men gave us quite an aptness for repartee, as you might suspect.
In fact, we have been pronounced as the best humorists of our country's Revolutionary period.
And while this romantic picture painted by poets, historians, novelists and even artists, was true in some situations, for the most part, the life of a circuit rider was one of constant hardships.
We followed as merciless a calling as ever challenged brave men. Long rides through rain, sleet and snow, nights in the open, the risks of sickness and deprivation, crossing mountains infested with savages at imminent risk of our lives These and more were all part of a day's work.
Our saddle was our desk and our office the sky. We ministered in a harsh and unforgiving world where whites and Indians both were as wild as the woods they inhabited.
But man's stress is God's opportunity, and we were privileged to be counted as one among such Godly men.
Francis Asbury began his itinerant ministry the day after his arrival in Philadelphia. Before his death, he had ridden over 247,000 miles on horseback and delivered over 17,000 sermons, mostly in rural America.
He once wrote in his journal about what he described as "an awful journey."
He related, how, on an April venture through the
mountains of North Carolina, accompanied by "the most awful thunder and
lightning," along with heavy rain, he and his companion "crept for
shelter into a dirty little house where the filth might have been taken from
the floor with a
spade." He also wrote how they "felt the want of fire but could not get little wood to make it" and what they gathered was wet.
On another journey in mid-July, he wrote of having to "lay along the floor on a few deer skins with the fleas."
Of this he remarked, "O how glad should I be of a plain, clean plank to lie on, as preferable to most of the beds; and when the beds are in a bad state, the floors are worse."
Often it became necessary for us to physically resist the rowdy element present at many frontier meetings. Methodist preacher Peter Cartwright was at a camp meeting in Ohio where the attendance consisted partly of "rabble and rowdies", drunk and armed with clubs, knives and horse whips. While in the middle of his sermon on Sunday night, two of these rowdies tried to break up the service. The magistrate present refused to preserve order, so Cartwright challenged the two and their many confederates. A fist fight, make that a brawl, ensued. Finally Peter Cartwright bested one of the leaders, and the troublemakers were arrested and fined.
Yes, many of us were shot and tomahawked-many more had to sometimes resort to violence as did Peter Cartwright. But as Francis Asbury often reflected," we must take the people as we find them, and make them better."
Perhaps one of my most colorful colleagues along the circuits was Lorenzo Dow. He was the first Methodist to preach in what is now Alabama, delivering the milestone sermon at old Tensaw in Baldwin County in the spring or summer of 1803.
Called "crazy" by many of his contemporaries, his "eccentric appearance and manners" made a startling impression wherever he went and he was often met with jeers and sneers.
At Old St. Stephens, Dow preached to the inhabitants in saloons, dance halls, and anywhere else they were gathered. The townspeople did not take to him or his meetings and ordered him out of town. Lorenzo left, but only after praying to the Almighty to send a curse upon the place and predicting the town would become "the roosting place for the bats and the owls" and that people would pass it by. This has proven true; Old St. Stephens is virtually abandoned.
The pay wasn't much of an incentive either. Rev. E.B.D. Johnson served the Mt. Pleasant Methodist Protestant circuit around 1880, traveling about 1700 miles-he received $85 for his services. Rev. H.C. Stillwell moved from Alabama to Texas in 1854 where he and his family lived in a log cabin with dirt floors. His salary was set at $225 in 1809 but he received only $46.66.
Why did we do it? To bring the Good News from the heart of God to His children.
How could we stand the rigors of circuit riding in these early days you ask? The plain and simple truth is-we didn't! We died under it. No group of men ever lived up more fully to the truth, "He that loseth his life shall find it."
Most of my early contemporaries died before their careers were much more than begun. Of the 650 preachers who joined our Methodist itineracy by the opening of the 19th century, about 500 had to "locate"-a term used for those too worn out to travel further. They had given all they could. Others had to take periods for recuperation.
Of the 1st 737 members of the various conferences to die up until the year 1847, 203 were between 25 and 35 years of age and 121 between 35 and 45. Nearly half died before they were 30 years old.
Two-thirds died before they could render even 12 years of service and almost one-third within the 1st five years.
But, despite it all, worship and praise God we did. The tiny hymn books we carried in our saddle bags had no music-only words. We sang these words to any familiar tunes the people knew. Often times these were bar room duties, but we put God's words to the devil's music.
You know John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, never intended to establish a church separate from the church and he wasn't at all happy about the outcome of The American Revolution.
But, he was a practical man and sent Thomas Coke to America with the Authority to ordain Francis Asbury-the only Methodist preacher to stay in the colonies throughout the revolution.
John Wesley had said, "Give me 100 preachers who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God, and I care not a straw whether they be clergy or laymen; such alone will shake the gates of hell, and set up the kingdom of Heaven on earth."
Over two hundred years ago about 60 of us gathered together on Christmas Eve of 1884, in a small meeting house on Lovely Lane, a few blocks from the harbor of Old Baltimore. It was a strange and solemn assembly indeed. Although most of us were from the backwoods, we were dressed in knee breeches and carrying hats with broad brims and low crowns. And though our clothes, black as dirges, cast a spell of gloom over the room, it was somewhat relieved by the youth of our faces.
Of the 60 or so itinerants who came in response to Freeborn Garrison's call, almost all were in their 20's. Even our leaders, Dr. Thomas Coke was but 37 and soon-to-be Bishop Francis Asbury, 39.
That too, was something that Wesley never intended-that Frances Asbury be made a Bishop, but indeed he was. Having been ordained deacon one day, and elder the next, Francis Asbury, at the insistence of all of us present was consecrated a bishop the third day-December 27 as I recall.
Thus, the Methodist Church became the 1st Christian denomination to be organized in America.
It was no accident that America and Methodism grew up together. Because of us, the horse-riding circuit riding preachers, the early church was able to keep pace with the young country's westward expansion. Ofttime, the first person a pioneer family encountered, even as they unloaded their wagon, was the Methodist preacher.
It was often said that, in the wilderness the only thing stirring-even in the worst weather-were the crows and the Methodist preachers.
I must take my leave now, but I leave you with this: Christ died to save us from our sins. With Christ in our hearts and souls, I implore you to, as did Wesley, make the world your parish.
Go forth an indeed "shake the gates of hell, and set up the kingdom of Heaven on earth." And may God be with you.
(Wayne Dean, Sr., a life-long Methodist, is a member of Mobile's BeeHive Church, The Government Street United Methodist Church, where he serves as Usher and is a past chairman of the Administrative Board and The Board of Trustees. He served as the Alabama-West Florida Conferences' only Lay Circuit-Rider during the American Methodist Bicentennial in 1984, when he was chosen by the Mobile District. He is listed in Marquis' Who's Who in Religion. He is currently Director of Marketing for Mercy Medical and a Public Relations/Marketing Consultant.)