"[The circuit rider] went through storms of wind, hail, snow, and rain; climbed hills and mountains, traversed valleys, plunged through swamps, swollen streams, lay out all night, wet, weary, and hungry, held his horse by the bridle all night, or tied him to a limb, slept with his saddle blanket for a bed, his saddle-bags for a pillow. Often he slept in dirty cabins, ate roasting ears for bread, drank butter-milk for coffee; took deer or bear meat, or wild turkey, for breakfast, dinner, and supper. This was old-fashioned Methodist preacher fare and fortune."*
John Wesley, the first circuit rider and the father of Methodism, was born in 1703 in England. The son of a rector, he grew up in the Anglican church. Attending Oxford University, John, his brother Charles and their friend George Whitefield, started the Holy Club, a Christian group. John and George started preaching in Anglican churches, but were not well received given their message: live your life according to the method laid down in the Bible. They believed that the Holy Spirit converts souls to Christianity and that we should strive for Christian "perfection", keeping our hearts pure. George was a dynamic preacher and when London's Anglican churches banned him, he held an open air service in the small town of Kingswood. John followed suit and attracted an audience of 3000 on his second attempt.
These open air services, or "field preaching" led to circuit riding. John Wesley took his horse, loaded his saddlebags and set out for his charges. Sometimes he faced angry mobs who tried to break up his meetings; sometimes he was stoned or beaten. Yet the Holy Spirit filled him with a fire to spread God's word: he was unstoppable. He travelled England's countryside for forty years, covering a quarter of a million miles, preaching 42,000 sermons, giving away 30,000 pounds. He also wrote 200 books and hundreds of hymns.
On this day in 1784, John Wesley chartered the first Methodist church in the United States. He had felt that after the American Revolution a decade before, English Anglicans had abandonned their American counterparts. With his own brand of Christianity, he tried to fill that spiritual void. He ordained Dr. Thomas Coke who went on to ordain Francis Asbury.
The latter continued Wesley's tradition of circuit riding in America. Circuit riders with small territories had three or four churches to visit, but riders with big circuits had to cover 300 miles. They were poorly paid, persecuted, and had little time to rest; in fact, some had to read the Bible while on horseback to prepare their sermons. Marriage was frowned upon for circuit riders and life on the road was lonely. Half of them died before the age of 33 due to the harsh conditions and unrealistic expectations.
Yet despite their struggles, circuit riders sparked a hunger for Christianity in America. By 1800, tent revivals sprung up in the Appalachians, the first meeting being held in Kentucky and attracting 10,000 people. These tent revivals led to more congregations forming which led to more churches being built. The circuit riders gave a great contribution to Methodism and to Christianity in North America (Canada also had circuit riders). And it all started with a young man named John Wesley.
*Source: "Circuit Riders in Early American Methodism", Robert Simpson.
Drawing of John Wesley on horseback courtesy http://4.bp.blogspot.com.