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Peter Cartwright and the Circuit Riders: A Sustained Revival


In a town called Rogues’ Harbor, because of its many rogues and outlaws, Peter Cartwright found salvation from a life of debauchery. He experienced conviction of sin and redemption during the Kentucky Revival in the early 1800s. The revival itself faded due to infighting and influence from outside groups such as the Quakers, but Cartwright managed to live a life that brought revival to frontier America for the next sixty-five years. He stands as a giant in his influence in the Methodist Church and in American religion in general. His ability to sustain the fire of revival throughout his life provides an example to those seeking to sustain revival in the church today. W. S. Hooper in his introductory statements at a jubilee celebrating Cartwright’s unprecedented fifty years as a Methodist presiding elder observes Cartwright’s influence: “The whole West recognized his superiority, his supremacy. He was the primate of all Prairiedom. For two generations he ruled that realm.”[1]

Once while staying in a hotel in New York City, the clerk placed the elderly Cartwright in a shoddy room on the top floor. Cartwright took offence to the slight and began ringing the bell for the steward. He summoned the poor steward up the stairs several times and finally asked him for a hatchet. The poor steward inquired for Cartwright’s need for the woodsman’s tool and Cartwright replied that on the frontier when a man feared losing his way in the wilderness he would blaze the trees with a hatchet mark. Cartwright wanted to blaze the corners of the hotel corridor in case a fire started and he needed to escape. The clerk promptly moved Cartwright to a better room on the second floor. Cartwright blazed many trails in his life, and he constantly used frontier manners and wit to promote his primary cause—Jesus. In this paper, I will explore Cartwright’s success in extending the Kentucky Revival to three states and the next two generations of Americans. His motives and methods provide insight into sustaining revival to the current generation.

Sustained Revival Through Missional Focus

Peter Cartwright used his fists, politics, biting rhetoric, tent revivals, and home meetings to advance his cause. He sustained the revival fires of his conversion in the face of many critics of his methods because he never wavered on the motive behind his bold methods. He always sought to promote Jesus among those who desperately needed Christ. Phillip M. Watters, a key Cartwright biographer, observes Cartwright’s unyielding motive:

We find one central source dominating all these activities, as the life had its energy from one supreme source. Christ was its fountain, its wellspring of power; and to reveal Christ to others, to proclaim the good news of salvation to lost men—this was the central purpose, the controlling motive of Peter Cartwright’s career.[2]

Cartwright sustained the revival for two generations because he never lost sight of the source and purpose of revival.

Advancement into New Territory

Peter Cartwright was born on September 1, 1785 in Amherst County, Virginia, to an agnostic father and a Methodist mother a year and a half before their marriage. At his birth Indians still attacked the frontier settlers of Amherst County. His family moved to the edge of the frontier again in 1791 to what would eventually form the state of Kentucky. In 1793 they moved to an area called, due to its outlaw activity, Rogues’ Harbor. Cartwright adopted the life of the rogue and used playing cards and a racehorse to make a living in his early teens through gambling. God convicted him of his sin at seventeen through a sermon by John Page during James McCready’s Kentucky Revival in the early 1800s. He sold his racehorse and allowed his mother to burn his playing cards. Cartwright found salvation and determined to live a life in the wild frontier that honored Christ.

His family soon moved again into new and uncharted territory in 1802 to the mouth of the Cumberland River. The new territory had no Methodist churches, and Cartwright inquired as to the possibilities for faith in the new land. His leaders surprisingly gave him a license to exhort (a lay credential in the Methodist church) and papers authorizing him to explore the establishment of a circuit in the new territory. He found himself an eighteen year old with the authority to establish a new work in a new territory. Cartwright managed to establish the Livingston Circuit with seventy new members. The legendary Bishop Asbury ordained Cartwright as a deacon (a Methodist credential that allowed him to be a circuit riding preacher and establish churches) in 1806. Four years later Bishop McKendree ordained him as an elder (the highest credential level). In 1812, Bishop Asbury appointed Cartwright a presiding elder, a key leadership position that Cartwright would hold for an unprecedented fifty years. He spent the remainder of his life establishing circuits and churches in the emerging frontier eventually moving to Illinois. He was part of the formation of three conferences: Tennessee (1812), Kentucky (1820), and Illinois (1824).

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Category: Church History, Fall 2016

About the Author: F. Wesley Shortridge, D.Min. (Evangel University, 2016), M.A. (Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, 2010), B.A. (Central Bible College, 2009), is the founding pastor of Liberty Community Church in Bealeton, Virginia. Facebook LinkedIn

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