Forgotten Word Ministries
The Circuit Riders and the Spread of Early Methodism
Weslet Conventicle, September 28, 2003
While Methodist owed its early success to many factors, perhaps most important was its ability to match its style and approach to the character of the newly formed American nation. Once separated from England, immigrants flocked to the new continent with great hopes for a new and better life. The decades after the Revolutionary War saw enormous expansion westward as settlers opened up new, virgin land with small farms and cottage industries and crafts. This was often an unruly process with families removed from their roots and placed into new, difficult situations without much institutional support. Social morals and graces suffered.
The genius of the Methodist movement was its realization that what had begun as an informal circulation of John Wesley’s emissaries among the first classes and Methodist groups could be channeled into a means of spreading the Gospel that literally grew with the new nation out to its very frontier. Today we will look at the time of the Circuit Riders, basically the first half century following the War. As we do, it is important to realize that these traveling ministers and the “enthusiastic” response to their preaching and exhortation (often blended together) was closely coupled to the formation and operation of the class meetings at the local level. Each supported the other, and neither would probably have succeeded on its own. The circuit riders tied these local groups together, often within the quarterly meetings covering large regions, and encouraged the local lay leaders with galvanizing sermons as well as occasional materials to read and share. Converts brought into the fold at the big meetings were nurtured and remained because of the classes. For many on the frontier, these regular meetings were the only social gatherings that existed where they could meet their neighbors, share experiences, and organize help for one another.
In sharp contrast to the educated clergy that were a part of the Anglican and Puritan systems (and their descendants), the circuit rider system was a truly grass roots effort. The young men who entered this system often had some skills; many were apprenticed to trades such as blacksmithing, saddle making, or carpentry. (This paralleled to a considerable degree what was happening in England where Wesley’s ministry had its greatest appeal to the new industrial working classes that were uprooted and moved to the suddenly growing cities rather than to the farmers who continued to work the land, often for an overlord. Methodism actually had little impact on the poorest of the poor whose lack of skills and education put them at the margins of society.) Having not grown up as Methodists, the new recruits usually began to attend Methodist meetings out of curiosity about this boiling hot religion where people would jerk and twitch, stand up shouting, or fall to the ground where they might lie prostrate for hours. Many did so with the expressed disapproval of their families. After some time they would get caught up, having experiences of their own. These were often accompanied by dreams or the experience of hearing the voice of God convicting them of their guilt and telling them to embark on a new path. This gave them the grist for their own exhortations, and they might spend a year or two speaking at local meetings. For the new converts, these were exciting times. People would gather to hear their stories, and many were convinced that they had a calling to mimic the traveling leadership and begin their own circuit.
During the early days, Francis Asbury would travel the country attending annual conferences. At these meetings he would ordain new preachers and set them out on circuits, often to new territory, until they got reassigned the following year. Asbury wanted a truly national system, so he often assigned preachers to circuits well away from their home turf. This had the dual effect of forcing the preachers into a high level of dedication and self-reliance, and it kept the stories that were heard on the circuit fresh and interesting to the locals. Asbury’s task was a delicate balance between his desire to make the growing enthusiasm available to convert as many souls as possible and the vision of keeping the Methodist system together and organized with a single message. His was also the task of making sure only the best were on the road, so he chose to turn away those whose work was not sufficiently focused.
Training was done on the job. New preachers were often assigned to travel for a time with a more experienced person on a circuit. Thus they learned first hand how it was done and had the opportunity to have their efforts critiqued and improved. “Grace” rather than education was considered to be the main qualification for the job. And the measure of grace was the ability to speak to the heart and win souls to Jesus. Interestingly, new converts who became preachers often were taken with an excitement about learning as much as possible about their new Christian faith and many picked up the discipline of regular Bible reading along with a careful study of Methodist documents and the sermons of John Wesley. Older preachers encouraged this. It had the effect of gaining for the circuit riders some respectability since they could point to the Word for illustration and authority while not breaking down their common touch with too much erudition and complex argument. Some riders went into the business of distributing Bibles and tracts. In subtle ways, this was to seep into the class meetings and form one of the roots of the public education movement that was originally intended to get everyone to read the Bible.
A circuit was usually between 200 and 500 miles around, and the rider was expected to complete the course in two to six weeks. The pace was always hectic. The circuit rider would go only a few miles before stopping to set up another meeting. He might preach two or three times a day. This of course meant that meetings could happen on any day of the week, not just on Sundays. While at a stop, the preacher would also check on class meetings and visit as many of the local families as possible, usually sharing a hymn and a prayer. There were relatively few days of rest in the schedule. This ensured that most people could see the Methodist preacher about once a month. Preaching was done wherever it was convenient, most often at the home of one of the members of the Methodist group. But preachers were known to use schools, stores, and taverns (even during business hours), as well as the open air. If a minister used someone’s home, he would often stay there for the night and eat dinner with the family. Circuits were opened as fast as there was someone to visit. Some stories tell about the preachers who appeared even before the wagon was unloaded and timber felled for a new house.
The life of a circuit rider was physically grueling. They traveled, usually by horseback, with little more than the clothes that they were wearing through all kinds of weather. On the frontier where conditions were primitive, there were stories that preachers sometimes declined the offer of a bed and slept out of doors to avoid the fleas and bedbugs. Circuit riders were supported in their task mainly by the fraternity of other circuit riders, whom they would often meet at conferences. A great camaraderie developed, and many circuit riders maintained a lifelong mail correspondence among themselves. Illness and accident were constant perils. At the beginning of the 19th century, about one in six of the circuit riders died on circuit. My copy of the Sacred Harp contains hymns to be sung at the end of the preacher’s visit that commend him to God’s care in case he doesn’t make it back the next time. Celibacy was the order of the day, but for practical rather than doctrinal reasons. After several years on circuit, preachers might meet an available woman and marry, which usually led to their giving up their assignment and “locating.” There they often became preachers who performed Sunday services for an area and worked otherwise for a livelihood. At the height of the circuit riding ministry, this was considered a second class status within the church. But as towns grew out of settlements and church buildings sprang up, the stigma slowly evaporated. In a few cases, new wives supported an itinerant career from home or traveled with their husbands.
Such was the reach of this system that within a generation of the end of
the Revolutionary War, a visit by the Methodist preacher was considered to
be a normal, and expected, part of daily life in America. Thus it is
hardly surprising that Methodism’s growth outpaced by a large margin other
denominations. Perhaps more importantly, its fundamentally different
style forever changed the face of American Protestantism. It stood
in sharp contrast to the pattern of the established churches of the
colonial period in which ministers were theologically educated at
universities and the distance between the clergy and the laity was a
matter of class as much as education or wealth. By contrast, the
Methodist system blurred the distinction between minister and lay person.
Anyone with a story to tell could speak, and exhorters (even after they
became “licensed”) were usually “one of us.” The speaking itself was
aimed at the heart with the goal of winning souls to Christ, in contrast
to the nuanced interpretations of theology offered in east coast
congregations. The subjects were hell and the devil, with a clear
eye on the coming day of judgment. This reflected Wesley’s own
interest in bringing people into a direct experience of the Spirit, after
which they were on the road toward Christian perfection. Life for
the Methodist was a journey. The theology was practical, recognizing
that even if one was brought into the church that it was still possible to
falter and return to sinful ways. It emphasized discipline and moral
uprightness. It valued work. As such, it fit well with the
aspirations of new settlers who saw themselves as the creators of a new
nation and a new economy based on the industry and initiative of its
citizens. It played to their hopes more than their despairs and
frustrations. This made Methodism as much of the people as for the
people. People took to it eagerly, in part because as a result of
hearing about God’s plan and purpose (as well as God’s judgment), folks
could see themselves as a meaningful part of a great mission to build a
new world. They were enfranchised and liberated from the tyranny of
old governments. The future, whether as citizens of the nation or as
the people of God, was in their hands. Their fate was not at the
whim of either a capricious king or God. Young men who became
circuit riders saw this not as a career choice, but the highest possible
calling to which they could aspire and the best possible thing that they
could do with their lives. This vision permeated their work.
It made the American experience of religion unique and gave it its special
We pray this article has been of good use to you.