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Peter Cartwright and the Circuit Riders: A Sustained Revival

Again, Cartwright never lost sight of the mission. His methods never found motivation in a desire to fight but by a desire to bring the message of Christ to violent persons. Robert Bray, a contemporary biographer, observes the motive behind Cartwright’s method: “We have seen Cartwright’s eccentricity in his impulsiveness, his pugnacity, his readiness to break heads and break with the Discipline in order to overcome impediments to getting the word to the people and the people to the word.”[8] His knack for mixing the message of Christ with the rough nature of the men and women to whom he preached is illustrated in a story in which a young and prominent gentleman challenged him to a duel. Cartwright accepted the challenge and chose, by right as the challenged party in the duel, cornstalks as the dueling weapon. He said to the challenger, “But thank God you can’t whip me; but don’t you attempt to strike me, for if you do, and the devil gets out of you into me, I shall give you the worst whipping you ever got in all your life.”[9] His perseverance and tenacity led to laughter from the challenger, and the challenger accepted Cartwright as an equal and went on to accept Christ.

Acceptance of his message and conversion of the challenger formed the motive behind Cartwright’s pugilistic method. One of the most famous stories of Cartwright’s tenacity involves a ferry operator spouting insults about Cartwright, then a well-known political candidate. The operator did not recognize Cartwright and said he would whip him if ever he saw him. Cartwright identified himself, but the operator did not believe him. Halfway across the river the operator began spouting insults again, and Cartwright seized him and threatened to baptize him in the name of Satan if he did not recant his insults. Some accounts claim Cartwright actually held him in the water until he recited the Lord’s Prayer and promised to give free passage to any Methodist minster and attend any Methodist meeting within five miles. The operator accepted Christ and voted for Cartwright in the next election.

Ruffians frequently disturbed Cartwright’s camp meetings. He confronted any challengers and often used force to bring order to the meeting. One particularly violent disturbance turned into a mob of fighting involving even the gathered preachers. The battered preachers felt unable to preach. Cartwright, however, felt justified in the violence and went on to preach. He used as his text Mathew 16:18: “The gates of Hell shall not prevail.”[10] Cartwright reports that the meeting went on without interruption for several more days and three hundred fell under the power of the Spirit with two hundred saved and added to the church. Cartwright used violence when necessary, but never used violence for self-promotion. He used whatever means necessary to advance the mission.


The Life and Cost of a Circuit Rider

Cartwright accepted manifestations that promoted God’s mission, and he proved willing to confront self-serving behavior masquerading as spiritual manifestation.

The life of a Methodist circuit rider on the frontier involved travelling through a vast and rough territory with little provision. Few married and most lived in poverty. Cartwright, however, endured the hardship longer than any circuit rider to this day. He, unlike most riders, married a young lady named Francis Gaines in 1808. His leaders assumed he would locate and assume a traditional pastoral role over one congregation. Cartwright replied that he had “resolved not to locate until the abdication and location of Beelzebub.”[11] Francis Cartwright, a heroin in her own right, remained at home to raise many children and forge a frontier farm from the wilderness of Illinois while Peter Cartwright advanced the mission.

Sustained revival meant paying any cost. Gerald F. Ensley observes the motive behind Methodist circuit riders: “Field preaching, which was the trademark of original Methodism, was a going forth of Christian evangelists to reclaim men and women in the mines and factories of the profane order, rather than waiting for men to come into the sacred precincts of the church.”[12] His motive remained clear, and Cartwright accepted the cost. T. M. Eddy in a letter presented at the Cartwright’s 50-year jubilee describes the cost of mission to the circuit rider:

To do that (describe the itinerant pioneer preacher) were to transcribe chapters from the Book of Acts, of Peter I and II—Cartwright and Akers—men who threaded forests to tell hardy woodmen and squatters how to become plants of the Father’s right hand, trees of righteousness; who along sinuous and malarious rivers searched scattered settlements to speak of ‘the river that maketh glad the City of God;’ men of Christly daring, who cut loose from the base of temporal supplies, and plunged into roadless wastes, guided by the stars of heaven, that wondering men and women in gloom and grief might see ‘the bright and morning star,’ and seeing, live![13]

Cartwright paid the price of sustained revival as a travelling circuit rider longer than anyone in Methodist history, and he brought revival to thousands as a result of the price he paid.

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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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