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Peter Cartwright and the Circuit Riders: A Sustained Revival

Cartwright never found satisfaction in sustaining existing saints; he constantly advanced into frontier places where people most needed Christ. Watters describes Cartwright’s missionary zeal:

He gloried in the opportunity of speaking to men who were never seen in church or class meeting—men out of touch with the gospel—aliens from the truth and outcasts from society—infidels, mockers, profligates, ruffians; and he caught them and held them and swept them before him as the wind sweeps the dry leaves in autumn. His own soul kindled with the flame of the message; sinners fell before him like men slain in battle; and the multitudes of believers lifted up their voices in a shout of victory which could be heard for miles around.[3]

Cartwright once stayed in a rough tavern in which local young people congregated for dance parties. The young people behaved much like Cartwright in his early teens, and the dancing drew him back to an activity he once enjoyed. A young attractive girl asked Cartwright to dance, and Cartwright accepted the invitation. As the fiddler tuned his instrument for the dance, Cartwright asked if he might pray for his forthcoming dance. He began praying so fervently that the young girl fell on her face before God and the assembly soon followed. Cartwright organized the dance party into a church of 32 persons and sent a pastor to the new congregation.

Cartwright proved fearless before humans and constantly pushed the cause of Christ without cultural compromise. He once escaped the weather by staying in a house filled with ungodly persons, asking if he might pray before bed. The owner of the house shuffled him into a back room to pray. Cartwright observed the thin walls in the house and began a loud all-night prayer session heard throughout the house. When he returned a few months later the house had found revival. Cartwright organized the home into a Methodist meeting.

Cartwright never lost sight of the mission and used any available means to save the lost. Benjamin Newman summed up Cartwright’s method and mission in an address at Cartwright’s fifty-year jubilee: “What is the sum and substance of pioneer preaching? First of all, it is going in advance of thickly populated towns and cities, and the announcement of personal experience, rich and fresh every day, that will thrill the heart with profound emotions.”[4]


Bringing Grace through Force

Many persons criticized Cartwright for his tendency to use force if necessary to advance his message. He ministered in a rough environment and at times had to fight. Don C. Seitz observes the climate in which Cartwright labored: “Americans took their religion like their whisky—straight. There were no fancy frills, no trifling with the temperature in hell. Satan was fought in the open… . Chief among them in militancy were the circuit riders of the Methodist Church.”[5] Cartwright walked among rough men as an equal. He writes about his pugilistic methods in his autobiography: “It was a part of my creed to love every body, but to fear no one; and I did not permit myself to believe any man could whip me till it was tried.”[6] He once gave the following advice to a young circuit rider newly given charge of the Cumberland Mission Circuit: “They must be converted somehow; and if you can’t convert them with the Gospel, do it with your fist.”[7]

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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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