Circuit Riding Revivalist
By Dave Earley
In 1703 a good news carrier was born. John Wesley and others were used of God to spark a revival the led to what historians now call the First Great Awakening. At the core of its DNA was evangelizing of the masses, serving the poor, practicing spiritual discipline, and experiencing the powerful presence of God. It is estimated that during his lifetime, John Wesley preached the gospel 45,000 times as he travelled 250,000 miles on horseback crisscrossing England carrying the Good News.
Wesley’s movement expanded by multiplying meeting places (called circuits). Circuits were staffed by young preachers (called circuit riders) who oversaw several congregations. They would rise early and ride to a village where they would preach and lead the Methodist congregation in that place, or start a new one. The next day, they would go to the next village and do it again. It often took a month or more to visit all of the congregations in their circuit.
As a newly converted sixteen-year old, Francis Asbury began to help lead a Methodist “class” [small group] of two dozen others. He also led a discipleship “band” [accountability group] of five young men. As a twenty-one year old, Francis Asbury left his job as a blacksmith and become a Methodist circuit-riding preacher on a trial basis. Part of his training was reading a prescribed set of Christian books for five hours a day.
Asbury gave up all for the gospel. In his journal he wrote, “As for me, I know what I am called to. It is to give up all, and to have my hands and heart in the work.”2
Four years later, at the age of twenty-six, Asbury volunteered to go to America where he spent the next 45 years of his life as a circuit riding missionary “spreading scriptural holiness across the land.” He chose to serve west of the Appalachian Mountains where the new settlements were forming.
Asbury rose at 5 am daily and studied the Bible. Then he set out, preaching wherever he could get a crowd – fields, public squares, courthouses, log cabins, private homes, public houses, and tobacco houses. In his passion to take the gospel to the lost he was possibly the only man to outride Wesley. Although chronically ill, Asbury never-the-less averaged 6,000 miles a year on house back, memorizing chapters of the Bible as he went, preaching almost every day of the year.
With Asbury as the leader of the Methodist movement in America the church grew from 300 to 214,000 members. He oversaw the ordination of 2,000 preachers including some of the first black preachers in America. 3
Asbury wisely multiplied himself by recruiting and training a small army of young men sold out to the gospel. For the next century, they travelled the frontiers of America spreading what has been called the Second Great Awakening through the ‘unreached’ parts of the young nation. Over half of these young circuit riders died before the age of 33. Their annual pay averaged $50. They were driven with the fire to take the gospel to every person in America no matter the cost.
The life of an American circuit riding preacher was marked by total dedication, stark simplicity, poverty, humility, spiritual discipline, fasting, prayer, study, hard work constant travel and bold preaching. Life was very difficult. The frontier was lonely, hard, and dangerous. Circuit riders faced bad weather, sickness, loneliness, hunger, Indian attacks and persecution from drunken crowds. On top of that, their lives were very challenging.
[The circuit rider travelled light, and] 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.4
Our vision at Grace City is to raise an army of young men and women with the passion and work ethic of the circuit riders. We are training young adults willing to give up all to spread the gospel through the city and around the world.
- Cartwright, Peter, Autobiography of Peter Cartwright, Abingdon Press 1956.