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Peter Cartwright and the Circuit Riders: A Sustained Revival

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

But right here I wish to say, that in most of our revivals many men and women of bad habits and ill-fame become operated on, profess religion, and join the Church. This has long been, and now is, a great objection by many to these revivals, and it has been the cause of considerable persecution to the Church. But it should be remembered that the economy of the Church, in saving souls, is compared by Jesus Christ himself to a fisherman casting his net into the sea, and enclosing a multitude of fish, both good and bad. But who ever condemned the fisherman, because his net gathered bad as well as good fish? or (sic) who ever drew the erroneous conclusion that the net was bad, because there were some bad fish enclosed in it? The net is to be thrown, the fish, bad and good, are to be inclosed (sic), and then the net is to be drawn to the shore, on dry land, and all alike, both good and bad, taken from their element. Then, and not till then, the process of assorting them is to commence.[18]

Cartwright managed to sustain a revival for sixty-five years by sorting things only after he could discern their purpose or origin.

 

Cartwright and Social Involvement

Cartwright felt strongly about many social issues of his day, particularly slavery. Sangamon County elected him twice to the Illinois State Legislature, and he lost in a congressional election to a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. His sought political position to bring godly principles to politics and to oppose slavery in the State of Illinois to which he had fled Kentucky partly to shield his children from slavery’s influence. Ensley observes Cartwright’s political involvement: “Its purpose has been not to erect a theocracy but to leaven the secular order through the conversion to the Christian life of the men who make it.”[19] In social activism, Cartwright maintained his missional focus and believed that social transformation came from the conversion of individuals.

In the divisive issue of slavery Cartwright took a middle position that proved unpopular with the extreme positions of both slaveholders and abolitionists. Cartwright describes his middle position: “I was opposed to slavery, though I did not meddle with it politically, yet I felt it my duty to bear my testimony against the moral wrong of slavery.”[20] He placed the conversion of slaveholder and slave above the extreme and polarizing position of the radical abolitionist while prophetically speaking about the coming national disaster resulting from the growing polarization on the issue: “I am perfectly satisfied that if force is resorted to, this glorious Union will be dissolved, a civil war will follow, death and carnage will ensue, and the only free nation on the earth will be destroyed. Let moral suasion be used to the last degree for the sake of the salvation of the slaveholders, and the salvation of the slaves.”[21] The eternal state of humans proved far more important to Cartwright than the issue of slavery. He saw slave states through the eyes of a missionary rather than polarized politics: “Surely here is missionary ground that ought to be occupied with, great care, for the salvation of the perishing thousands of the south, and for the final overthrow of slavery, under the benign influences of the Christian religion.”

Cartwright would not subvert God’s mission to a polarizing political issue, but Cartwright remained clear that conversion brought social change. He did not expect social change to occur before revival or for ungodly humans to act godly. For Cartwright the solution to social evil remained Christ. He trusted the activity of the Spirit to purge social evils from the faithful. On slavery, he refused to alienate the slaveholder and subsequently the slave from salvation through radical abolitionism. Cartwright describes his tactics: “Let us now henceforth use Christian weapons, and Christian weapons alone, and the mighty monster will fall.”[22] The monster of slavery needed felling, but Cartwright would only attempt its destruction through the conversion of men and women to Christ.

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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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