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Peter Cartwright and the Circuit Riders: A Sustained Revival


Apostolic Anointing

Cartwright ministered in Spirit-led anointing. Watters quotes Cartwright’s description of a typical camp meeting on the frontier:

Triumphant shouts of glory ascended by hundreds, and many sinners were seen with streaming eyes and even exulting shouts giving glory to Jesus Christ. The vast multitudes fell almost in every direction, and I sat down under a deep sense that God was there…There was no more preaching for that day and the next. The cries of the penitents and shouts of the young converts and old professors went up without intermission day and night. Two hundred professed religion, and one hundred and seventy joined the Methodist Episcopal Church before the close of the camp meeting.[14]

Cartwright feared no human, and he boldly allowed the Spirit to lead him into any territory needing revival. According to Watters, Cartwright observed the decline of Methodist passion in his later years:

In the agency of the Holy Spirit of God I have been a firm believer for more than fifty-four years, and I do firmly believe that if the ministers of the present day had more of the unction or baptismal fire of the Holy Ghost promoting their ministerial efforts, we should succeed much better than we do, and be more successful in winning souls to Christ than we are.[15]

For sixty-five years Cartwright brought the fire of the Spirit to uncharted regions and to those who desperately needed God. He never found satisfaction with ministry to the established regions but in true apostolic anointing pushed against the frontier.


Sustained Revival Through Mediating Position

Cartwright valued the mission more than winning arguments or joining an extreme position.

The Kentucky revival in which Cartwright discovered faith soon became a battleground of extreme positions. The Shaker and New Light influence promoted ecstatic experience through visions and apocalyptic rhetoric, and the extreme Calvinists promoted a polarizing position that eventually divided the revival. Cartwright took an unpopular mediating position in most controversies that emphasized the priority of Christ’s mission over winning a polarized debate. Cartwright fearlessly engaged and confronted polarized positions, and many critics assume he stood at the opposite pole. Cartwright, however, valued the mission more than winning arguments or joining an extreme position.


Cartwright and Ecstatic Experience

Revivals, including the Kentucky Revival, generally involve various expressions of ecstatic experience. Cartwright assumed a position that prevented his meetings from dissolving through excesses, personal promotion, and misuse of spiritual gifts. People often fell on their faces before God’s power in Cartwright’s meetings, but Cartwright viewed the occurrences as part of a sinner’s acceptance of Christ. Watters observes Cartwright’s ability to maintain missional purpose while allowing for spiritual manifestations:

But the sturdy common sense of Peter Cartwright enabled him to distinguish between the healthy and the unhealthy, the true and the false; and his fearless leadership saved the converts from many a wild excess and mad delusion. He loved to see an unbeliever changed into what he called a “happy, shouting Christian.”[16]

Cartwright remained focused on life change in the person to whom he ministered rather than various expressions of spiritual power.

The Kentucky revival became a battleground of extreme positions.

Cartwright rejected the visions and over-realized eschatology of the Quakers while accepting many manifestations that remain controversial today. For example, he accepted an experience called “the jerks” in which people twitched or convulsed violently. Cartwright describes his position on “the jerks”: “I always looked upon the jerks as a judgment sent from God, first, to bring sinners to repentance; and secondly, to show professors that God could work with or without means, and that he could work over and above means, and do whatever seemeth him good, to the glory of his grace and the salvation of the world.”[17] To Cartwright, ecstatic expressions proved perfectly acceptable as long as they brought sinners to repentance. He subtly emphasizes that manifestations do not promote the individual as one acted upon by God. Manifestations promote God in a person who desires God.

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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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