The Story of the Circuit Rider

Gloria Christie, The Murfreesboro Post, January 25, 2014

From the beginning, religion has been an important ingredient in the lives of the people of Rutherford County.

Most of these earliest settlers of Scotch-Irish decent were strong, determined folk who had been twice expatriated from Scotland then Ireland. Many were Huguenots who had escaped religious persecution from France.

These strong-willed, well-muscled, courageous people lived by wit, rifle and instinct. In a crude life full of danger, their relentless efforts cleared fields by persistently wrestling with the land. Although they experienced extreme obstacles, their efforts set the tone for the religious zeal that would sustain their life on the frontier.

Their fervent hard work allowed communities to be developed and established on a firm, spiritual foundation.

Here is a brief story based on a compilation of historic documentation. The preacher in the story is fictitious.

Preacher was an itinerant minister traveling through the wilderness land.

Before his conversion, he had been a tanner by trade. But, the irresistible holy hand of God had literally knocked him down with the power of the gospel.

Even though God did not speak to him directly, Preacher knew that it was God’s voice commanding him to leave his old life behind to become a circuit rider.

After hearing God’s call, Preacher, only 25 years old, left his craft and the family he loved to cross the Alleghany Mountains. Preacher was instinctively guided to reach the lost in the remote areas of pioneer America.

Being responsible for an area 200-500 miles in circumference, Preacher traveled at a grueling pace. Although he contended with poor uncertain lodging, adverse weather and insurmountable odds, he would complete his circuit every two weeks.

Educationally and socially, this saddlebag minister was cut from the same fabric as the farm artisan families making up his audience. Beginning at 5 a.m. in the summer and 6 a.m. in the winter, he preached extemporaneously from a basic set of scripture texts without notes or manuscript.

By 1804, Preacher had arrived in Tennessee. He discovered hostile Indians and refugees from the East plaguing this area.

In addition, he found that many of these courageous settlers were Revolutionary War veterans who had received land grants as remuneration for their services during the war. These veterans had come with their families to possess the land, to build communities, and to live in peace.

Their journey led to anything but peace. The rigors of their pioneer existence had left them fearful, despondent, and crying out to God. In these isolated homesteads, the uncertainty about their future had swept away hope leaving them clutching together on their knees.

Through the wind, hail and snow, Preacher had traveled over the Appalachians across the Cumberland Plateau. Armed with only his leather saddlebag, his Bible and torn hymnbook, he had traversed through valleys, plunged through swamps and swollen rivers by night and day. Now, his plight had led him to Middle Tennessee to the newly formed Rutherford County in October 1803.

Preacher stood atop a ridge gazing at the rolling country covered with cool, green forests thickly populated with ancient families of oak, hickory, walnut and cedar. These rustling garments of every shade began to bend and whisper in the soft, warm wind stirring a myriad of animal life — deer, elk, cougar and panther. Spring had given life to the hum of insects and the clear sweet song of birds flitting to and fro through the blue sky. This picturesque scene caused Preacher to contemplate.

How could such a place of surreal beauty be so full of hostility and danger?

The gnawing in his stomach drove him down into the valley in search of food. Near the end of the day, he came to a solitary cabin in the woods.

From a distance, he could see a young woman standing in the doorway so he cried out asking for lodging.

She replied as she turned inside to alert her husband of the suspicious interloper, “I do not, stranger!” she shouted emphatically.

Desperately Preacher began to exclaim, “I’m a circuit preacher sent by Bishop Asbury.”

The information electrified the woman changing her countenance. Her eyes sparkled as she explained enthusiastically, “La’ me, at last a preacher has finally arrived. We’ve been praying for someone like you to come for years. Finally, God had answered our prayers and here you are!”

After the American Revolution at the turn of the 19th century, a spiritual awakening was exerting a strong moral influence on wilderness communities. An innovative system of circuits was devised by John Wesley and brought to America by Francis Asbury to evangelize the West.

These irresistible boiling hot, homespun heralds of the gospel were referred to as “God’s Shock Troops.”

Bishop Francis Asbury generally referred to as the founder of the circuit rider system in America, had set the standard for all itinerants including circuits like, “Preacher.”

During his 45-year career, Asbury, who never married, traveled by horseback over a quarter of a million miles through the wilderness. He stayed in more than 10,000 households, preaching more than 17,000 sermons visiting every state at least once.

The generally young, unmarried, self-taught, zealous riders were an effective way to reach the scattered population. A circuit rider took a vow of poverty, but as Bishop Asbury declared, they “were rich in faith.”

Wearing a double-breasted black coat, short black breeches and long stockings with his hair parted down the middle to accentuate his sanctified look, a circuit rider was easy to spot.

The development circuit rider system directly affected wide-spread population growth. Religious fervor hastened the expansion of settlements into communities. During 1800-1805, thousands of Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians were converted here and experienced unprecedented growth in Middle Tennessee.

These conversions impacted not only religion but all cultural and social aspects of life including education.

Following their stories through the backwoods of Middle Tennessee, these dauntless, heroic pioneers laid the foundation of faith we experience today. 

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