Religious Leaders of America's Past --Peter Cartwright: Frontier Preacher and Circuit Rider
Peter Cartwright (September 1, 1785- September 25, 1872) was a circuit riding pioneer preacher; a revivalist who helped start the Second Great Awakening, and baptized 12,000 converts. He also ran for U.S. Congress in 1846 but lost to Abraham Lincoln. He was a veteran of the War of 1812.
His Autobiography of Peter Cartwright is something of a classic in frontier literature.
His parents moved to Logan County, Kentucky and at age sixteen he was converted at a camp meeting and joined the Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1802 he started preaching and later was ordained by Francis Asbury and William McKenney. Ten years later he was appointed as a presiding elder (now called a District Superintendent) and served for fifty years.
Noted to be charismatic and hardworking. he rode the circuits in both Tennessee and Kentucky as a Methodist circuit rider. He later moved to Illinois because he did not want to be involved with slavery
Peter Cartwright Tombstone-Pleasant Plains, Illinois
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Cartwright transferred to Illinois in 1824 because of his strong dislike for slavery. He failed to convince slaveholders to free their slaves in Kentucky. In his Autobiography he stated that he would get away from slavery in Illinois and be able to improve his financial situation and that of his children. His family consisted of his wife, the former Mary Gaines, two sons and seven daughters. His daughter Cynthia died on the journey to Illinois. This happened when he and his family were forced to camp in the open one night. A tree snapping in two startled them awake. Cartwright flung his arms up to deflect the falling tree but it crushed his daughter to death.
As a circuit rider he covered an area four hundred miles long, the west side of the Grand Prairie about two-thirds of the geographical boundaries of the state. He was charismatic and pursued what he thought of as a divine calling, which I imagine most clergy do. He was a founding member of the Illinois Annual Conference in 1834 and stayed in Illinois the rest of his life. He was an important figure in frontier Methodism and a most colorful and energetic preacher. Crowds came and he preached for three hours at a time.
He was one of the most colorful preachers of the frontier. In his youth he was a tough guy in Logan County which was a tough place known as “Rogues Harbor” according to Forgotten Word Ministries because it swarmed with badmen.
After his conversion his tough roots helped him face floods, thieves, hunger and disease. It was his style to meet challenges head on.
He wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power. He once told General Jackson that he would be damned to hell if he did not repent. Another preacher apologized for Cartwright being so blunt. “The General retorted that Christ’s ministers ought to love everybody and fear no mortal man, adding that he wished he had a few thousand officers like Peter Cartwright,” from Forgotten Word Ministries.
Once he charged a bunch of rowdies in the dark and he yelled to imaginary followers “Here! Here! Officers and men, take them!” Forgotten Word Ministries. The troublemakers bolted in panic. Such stories spread his reputation. There was even a story that he had fought legendary river boatman Mike Fink.
He gained admission to the ministry due to his conversions, not education. He gave extemporaneous sermons with anecdotes and they were participatory. He did not like religion to be too institutionalized and routine. but favored democratic, egalitarian and the associational form of the frontier. He was an Armenian theologically and convinced all people could be saved with the camp meeting as a prime vehicle. As a presiding elder his standing was below the bishops but above the overseer of the preachers in the churches of his circuit.
Although not having much formal education he came to the position of promoting Methodist education. He helped in the founding of McKendree College in Lebanon, Illinois, Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington; and the Illinois Conference Female Academy in Jacksonville, which is now MacMurray College.