Methodist Circuit Riders: Churchmen of the Frontier
During the period of the First and Second Great Awakenings, the entirety of frontier America became a church as ministers of various Christian denominations went out spreading the Word of God. Of these denominations, the Methodists particularly excelled at the practice of circuit riding, as the it was called, and it became identified with them more than any other church.
Circuits formed the nucleus of the Methodist ministry in America almost from the time John and Charles Wesley took their new church into the New World in the late-1730s, where they preached to the native American populations among others. Their establishment fell along predictable lines, and was formalized in the 1780s by Francis Asbury, the first American Methodist bishop. When a preacher first set out to spread the Word, he would usually stop each night, after a long day of hard riding on his horse, at the first settler's house he found. If the settler was filled with enough Christian compassion (and sometimes he was not), he would allow the preacher to come in for a meal and whatever rudimentary sleeping provisions could be had. The minister would begin to preach and pray with his hosts, and if they proved receptive, a meeting of the neighboring settlers would be arranged, perhaps at that very house.
At this point, the successful minister would have won enough of the local population over through baptism that he could form a church, and eventually multiple churches which would be combined to form a circuit whose spiritual care would become the minister's responsibility. This task was always arduous and often dangerous, because the minister had to ride the entire circuit on horseback, traversing all varieties of terrain such as woods and rivers. Sickness and physical infirmaties were common, as were encounters with dangerous wildlife and human villains like bandits and the occasional unfriendly Indian. In addition, most of these circuits were quite large, often hundreds or even thousands of square miles in area; the Methodist missionary Littleton Fowler, one of the first to organize Texas Methodism in the 1830s, had initial charge of a circuit consisting of most of the present state, which he rode almost alone. The typical "round" could take months, and the riders often got very little sleep. Because of these hazards, manpower shortages were chronic, and it was the lucky circuit that boasted more than two or three preachers.
(To continue the discussion of Methodist organization, a combination of two or more circuits made up a district, headed by a presiding elder; two or more districts made up a conference, headed by a bishop. Successful circuit riders could be promoted up the ranks, eventually becoming bishop. This progression, however, did not take away the responsibility of taking care of individual circuits, merely added to the minister's work.)
This system lasted through the years--through the Great Awakenings, as the church's operations became more formalized and centralized, and the circuit riding preacher was replaced, ultimately, by pastors with fixed congregations and churches; through the sectional didvision of the Methodist church, and its reunion almost a century later; and on into the present day organization. The Methodist circuit, as such, is a relic of the past, but its legacy can be seen in the dynamic nature of modern-day Methodism, even in the continuing spiritual progress of American civilization.
Methodist Circuit Riders at Work
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