August 2020

Johnny Cordell

History Leaves of the Methodist Tree

Prepared by Johnny Cordell

August 2020

As most of you have probably surmised by now, I have a certain affinity for the early Methodist circuit riders. They, for the most part, followed the examples of Jesus and the early disciples, spreading the gospel and living off the kindness and gifts of friends and strangers. The frontier circuit riders suffered from the elements of nature, wild animals, hunger, disease, occasionally unfriendly Native Americans, and hostility from certain segments of the frontier society. It was noted that during extreme weather conditions, the only creatures that were stirring about were crows and Methodist preachers. In 1802, 26-year old Jacob Young began a new Methodist preaching circuit along the Green River in central Kentucky. Knowing he could count on little help from his supervising elder, Young devised his own strategy for evangelizing the region: “I concluded to travel five miles, as nearly as I could guess, then stop, reconnoiter the neighborhood, and find some kind person who would let me preach in his log cabin, and so on, till I had performed the entire round.” Near the end of one dreary day, Young came upon a solitary cabin in the woods. He spotted a woman in the doorway and asked for lodging, but the woman refused. Desperate, Young explained, “I am a Methodist preacher, sent by Bishop Asbury to try to form a circuit.” “This information appeared to electrify her,” recalled Young. “Her countenance changed, and her eyes fairly sparkled.” She stood for some time without speaking then exclaimed, “La, me! Has a Methodist preacher come at last?” The family were North Carolina Methodists recently migrated to Kentucky. Their home soon became a regular preaching appointment on Young’s circuit. Early circuit riders were a different kind of clergy than had ever been seen in America, serving a rapidly expanding and spiritually hungry nation. They pursued their calling with remarkable zeal, forever changing the style and tone of American religion. The early circuit riders preached and traveled at a grueling pace. John Brooks labored so intensely during the first 3 years that he reported, “I lost my health and broke a noble constitution.” During one tempestuous revival, Brooks lay “sick in bed,” but the people “literally forced me out and made me preach.” In 1799, Billy Hibbard rode a 500-mile, four-week circuit with up to 63 preaching appointments, in addition to the responsibilities of meeting the classes. Thomas Smith estimated he traveled 4,200 miles, preached 324 times, exhorted 64 times, and met classes 287 times. Indeed, in many parts of the new nation, Methodist preachers suddenly seemed to be everywhere, leading one individual to exclaim in 1788, “I know not from whence they all come, unless from the clouds.” Circuit riders also frequently had to content poor or uncertain lodging. Most often the preachers stayed with sympathetic families along the routes, though they sometimes lodged at inns or slept in the open. At the end of one weary day in the North Carolina back county, Thomas Ware sought shelter at the isolated cabin of a young couple. “The man gave me to understand, at once, that I could not stay there,” recounted Ware. “I looked at him, and smiling, said, that would depend upon our comparative strength.” Unwilling to wrestle the Methodist preacher, the couple relented, and in the morning, Ware baptized their children. (To be continued next month)

Source: John H. Wigger, Christianity Today, Issue 45

Last month’s question: What Holston Conference Bishop, regardless of the size of the congregation, would ask your name as you entered the church, then after the sermon would repeat your name back to you as you departed the church? H. Ellis Finger, Jr.