Circuit riders were constantly on the move and couldn’t get too settled, which meant they had to be young and single. 

Editor’s Note: N. Fred Jordan Jr. researched years ago about Methodist circuit riders from information that is housed in the N.C. Museum of History. These are some excerpts that give a glimpse into a circuit rider’s life and also about old-time camp meetings. 

Circuit riders had to be young, in good health and single (since marriage and a family forced preachers to settle in one area and leave the traveling ministry). Unlike their counterparts in other denominations, Methodist circuit riders did not have to have a formal education. Leaders of the new church wanted educated, trained circuit riders, but they wanted even more to spread their ministry to people on the frontier who needed Christian guidance.

Life was not easy for a circuit rider, partly because living conditions on the frontier were harsh. Enoch George, who later became a bishop in the Methodist Episcopal Church, said that serving the Pamlico Circuit in 1790 and 1791, he “was chilled by agues [malaria], burned by fevers and, in sickness or health, beclouded by mosquitoes.”

Circuit riders rarely served longer than one year in a circuit. Each year, they were appointed to a new area. This gave the preachers an opportunity to reuse their sermons and to perfect their delivery. It also kept them from growing too familiar with the local people and wanting to settle down.


The impact of circuit riders

Circuit riders had a simple plan of evangelism: They went where the people lived, and they ministered to their needs. Often, one of the first visitors to a family who had just arrived on the frontier was a Methodist circuit rider. During the day, he might help out with chores or assist with teaching the children. In the evening, after dinner, he would offer religious instruction to the family and to any neighbors who wished to join them. 

If the preacher had found a warm welcome, he might spend the night with the family. Upon leaving the next day, he would usually promise to return the following month on a certain date to teach, preach and hold services again.

These little pockets of people sometimes became the core of a new Methodist Episcopal congregation. As the community and population grew in size, church members often built a structure called a “brush arbor.” Brush arbors were open shelters that had a flat top covered with brush for the roof.

These temporary shelters often served as a group’s first official place of worship. The host family for these new congregations (or sometimes the family that donated the land or materials for the brush arbor) frequently gave its name to the new place.

On the first day of a camp meeting in North Carolina all roads leading to the grounds were clotted with people hurrying to the meeting, some on foot carrying their shoes in their hands; others on horseback with a child in front and a bundle of provisions behind; still others in wagons and carts, some drawn by horses, others by oxen; vehicles crowded with women and children and piled high with equipage. The camp ground was heavily wooded; nearby was a creek and spring of water. Men and women were tethering horses, erecting tents, cooking meals for the day. Children were frolicking about, in and out among the wagons, frightfully near the horses’ heels.

Not far off women were already beginning to find their places on the rude plank seats in front of the “stage.” They were leaving vacant a few seats in front. Those were the “anxious benches.” Here the “convicted” [those whom God had chosen for conversion] would come to be prayed for when the preacher issued the invitation for “mourners.” 

The only covering over the arbor sheltered the pulpit. On the stage was a knot of men solemnly shaking hands and conversing. 

On all sides of the arbor, row after row of vehicles crowded one another. Men were standing everywhere. The music struck up, quavering; mostly female voices singing two lines at a time as the deacon read them off.

After another hymn, a preacher arose and the men came filing in, taking their seats on the opposite side of the arbor if the women had not filled them all; or crowding into the aisles and back of the seats occupied by their women folk. The minister, an ordinary looking man, dragged out an ordinary address while whispered conversations hummed louder and louder. Infants wailed fretfully. A dog fight started somewhere among the wagons.

At length the evangelist arose. At once the congregation was electrified.

“And what come ye out into the wilderness for to see?” he asked, fixing his eyes upon the congregation. His voice rose powerfully, “Ayr! Ye are come as to a holiday pageant, bedecked in tinsel and costly raiment. I see before me the pride of beauty and youth; the middle-aged… the hoary hairs and decrepit limbs of age; – all trampling – hustling each other in your haste – on one beaten road – the way to death and judgment! Oh! fools and blind! slow-worms, battening upon the damps and filth of this vile earth! hugging your muck rakes while the Glorious One proffers you the Crown of Life!”

Women were in tears.

“That’s preaching!” shouted a gray-haired man. “Lord, have mercy!” another besought.

With words of doom yet upon his lips, the preacher suddenly stopped.

A female voice began a spiritual:

“This is the field, the world below, –

Where wheat and tares together grow;

Jesus, ere long, will weed the crop,

And pluck the tares in anger up.”

With a mighty roar the congregation burst into the chorus: 

“For soon the reaping time will come,

And angels shout the harvest home!”

The preachers had come down from the stage. “Sinners come home!” they shouted above the surge of the song. They went through the congregation shaking hands, singing as they went:

“For soon the reaping time will come,

And angels shout the harvest home!”

Nerves were taut. The tumult rose. Shouts of thanksgiving and wails of despair joined with the ever recurring pulse of the song.

Now a minister was praying; now he was shouting, “Washed in the blood of the Lamb!” One after another, weeping mourners arose and flung themselves in front of the anxious seats.

It was now two o’clock. After a brief intermission, while the ministers and their helpers continued to labor with the seekers, there would be prayer and exhortation. At candle-light pine torches would be lighted and there would be preaching again. So far, no one had “come through.” The ministers had hardly expected it. That would not come until the third or fourth day of the meeting.


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