The Hard Road of a Methodist Circuit Rider
It’s difficult to comprehend the hardships faced by Methodist circuit riders in early America. It is estimated that Francis Asbury traveled some 270,000 miles and preached 16,000 sermons during his tenure. The challenges of these pastors on horseback are well-documented in journals penned during days spent alone on the trail.
(Narrator reads quote) “We must reach every section of America, especially the raw frontiers. We must not be afraid of men, devils, wild animals, or disease. Our motto must always be FORWARD!” – Francis Asbury
Methodist Church records from 1844 record a church membership of over 1 million, with 4,000 ministers riding circuits in the U.S. These preachers spreading the word were a different breed, says historian Dale Patterson.
Dale Patterson, General Commission on Archives and History: “When you start across the Appalachians, or even across the Potomac, you could travel days before you got to a town, and a day or so from one farm to the next, and once you got into the frontier it was even more lonely.”
Some of their mementos give us a glimpse into their unusual circumstances.
Barbara Duffin, Barratt’s Chapel Museum: “In his lap desk, you can see that he had to carry everything he needed; fishing lines in case he needed to go fishing, wax to seal letters, even bleeding instruments are here.”
Barbara Duffin curates the collection found at historic Barratt’s Chapel.
Barbara Duffin, Barratt’s Chapel Museum: “We have Ezekiel Cooper’s lap desk. There’s also two hidden drawers in the desk in which we found letters from women proposing marriage to him. He cut out their names, so we’re not exactly sure who they were.”
Typically, circuit riders traveled 200 to 500 mile routes on horseback. At times, they preached every day. Sometimes circuits were so large that it took six weeks to complete a cycle. Exhaustion, illness, animal attacks, and unfriendly encounters were constant threats.
(Narrator reads quote) "I was pursued by the wicked, knocked down, and left almost dead on the highway, my face scarred and bleeding and then imprisoned." -- Freeborn Garrettson
Days and nights were spent in the elements, hunting or fishing for food and depending on the hospitality of strangers.
Barbara Duffin: “Circuit riders would have to spend the night with any family that would put them up and eat whatever was available to eat.”
John W. Talley’s diary recalls a meal shared by a family he stayed with.
(Narrator reads quote) “Fed upon musty cornbread, and the tough lungs of a deer fried in rancid bacon grease and corn coffee sweetened with sirup.” -- John W. Talley
Some kept careful notes. John Perner wrote:
(Voice of Barbara Duffin, showing journal pages) “‘This was a good stopping place.’ or he would say, ‘I’m never stopping there again.’ Because of the accommodations that they had. And he even talks about staying with people that were not Methodists but he tried to spread the Gospel to them also.”
Ministers rarely served longer than two years on the same circuit. Some say this provided a great opportunity to recycle sermons but the schedule also prevented preachers from marrying which might distract from the ministry.
(Narrator reads quote) “While riding through the rain and dark, with no human being with me, my soul was comforted on the reflection of the omnipresence of my Saviour: I felt he was near to bless and preserve me,” -- Isaac Boring, 1829
Theirs was a difficult and often short life. Prior to 1847, nearly half of Methodist circuit riding preachers died before the age of 30. But their passion for saving souls was unprecedented, then and now.
(Narrator reads quote) “Thanks be to God! He compensated me for all my toil; for many precious souls were awakened and converted to God.” -- Freeborn Garrettson
The United Methodist General Commission on Archives and History and UMC.org have teamed up to share the life stories of early Methodists and interesting from the history of the denomination. Watch more videos here.
This video was first posted on March 21, 2018.