Circuit Riders 1.0

Ilove history, especially the history of great Christ-following leaders who’ve gone before us. While reading about the UMC’s itinerant system for the previous post, I was once again challenged by the character and the courage of the early “circuit riders.”

The term “circuit riders” has stuck, even though it has evolved over time (e.g., the transition from horses to motor vehicles, smaller geographical areas, fewer churches on circuits in most cases). In fact, the United Methodist magazine for clergy continues to use the name Circuit Rider.

The General Commission on Archives and History has an article on The Circuit – Riders in Early American Methodism that briefly describes the practices of the early circuit riders. Basically, preachers were assigned to a number of churches that became the circuits they traveled. Often, the circuits covered a pretty large geographical area.

There are many great stories of character and courage of the early circuit riders. One of my favorite stories, from Methodist Heroes of Other Days (by Samuel Gardiner Ayres), is about George Harmon, a circuit rider in New York and Pennsylvania. He writes about an experience that took place in 1812 …

I held a quarterly meeting in the north part of the district [Susquehanna], my next being on the south part. I had to pass through the sixty miles of wilderness. I took what was called the Lycoming route. It was in the winter, the snow being two and three feet deep. I lodged all night at Spaulding’s tavern, near the head of the Towanda. I started early the next morning, and rode some eight miles to Brother Soper’s, on the Lycoming, and took breakfast. I then set out for Williamsport. When I came to what was considered the most dangerous crossing place on the route I found the river frozen over about one third of the way on each side. The snow, as above stated, was from two to three feet deep, and no one had passed to open the road. I paused but for a moment. I could not go back to Brother Soper’s, some ten or fifteen miles, the last house I had passed; the sun had gone down. If I could cross there was a log tavern within about a mile. I knew the greatest danger would be in getting on the ice on the other side, for should the ice break I and my horse would both go under. I must venture it. I saw no other course. I was on a very spirited and powerful horse. I urged him forward, and when his feet touched the bottom his head went under water. As he arose on his hind feet I put both spurs into his flanks and he at once bounded off into the river. The water was so deep that it ran over the tops of my boots as I sat upon his back. I got through without further difficulty. When I reached the tavern my first care was to have my horse attended to. But when I attempted to take off my boots they were frozen to my stockings. I bought half a pint of rum and bathed myself with it. I slept comfortably and took no cold. But my poor horse! The fatigue of worrying through the snow, and so often fording the river, so affected his limbs that I had to part with him at great sacrifice.

I am grateful for the pioneering circuit riders who have gone before us. Being a circuit rider in early Methodism was certainly not for the faint of heart.

But leading churches on God’s mission today is not for the faint of heart, either. In a future post (Circuit Riders 2.0), I’ll say more about how the mission and passion of the early circuit riders should challenge and inspire us today.

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