CIRCUIT RIDERS. Ministerial circuit riding was devised by the English religious dissenter John Wesley. A circuit consisted of numerous places of worship scattered over a relatively large district and served by one or more lay preachers. The original American circuit riders introduced Methodism into the colonies. Robert Strawbridge, who came to America about 1764, was the first in the long line. Wesley sent eight official lay missionaries to America from 1769 to 1776, and several came on their own. By the end of the American Revolution there were about one hundred circuit riders in the United States, none of whom were ordained. With the formation of the Methodist Episcopal church in 1784, Francis Asbury was chosen bishop, several of the circuit riders were ordained, and the system was widely extended into the trans-Allegheny West.
Circuit riding was peculiarly adaptable to frontier conditions, since one preacher, equipped with horse and saddlebags, could proselytize in a great many communities. In this way the riders kept pace with the advancing settlement, bringing the influence of evangelical Protestantism to new and unstable communities. Peter Cartwright, active in Kentucky, Tennessee, the Ohio River valley, and Illinois, was the best known of the frontier preachers.
The circuit system largely accounts for the even distribution of Methodism throughout the United States. Other religious bodies partially adopted it, particularly the Cumberland Presbyterians. By spurning religious conventions, preaching to African Americans, and challenging the established churches, these visionary preachers gave voice to a rising egalitarian spirit in American society in the early years of the nineteenth century.
William W.Sweet/a. r.
circuit rider, itinerant preacher of the Methodist denomination who served a
consisting usually of 20 to 40
The circuit system, devised by John Wesley for his English societies in their formative period and developed in America by Francis Asbury, proved especially adapted to the conditions of the American frontier and came into its own in the trans-Allegheny region. Its success was a factor in establishing Methodism in America. The circuit rider, traveling usually on horseback because it was economical and suited to the forest pathways, preached nearly every day and twice on Sundays, thus covering his circuit every four or five weeks. His appointments were usually in pioneer cabins, schoolhouses, or tavern barrooms. The circuit rider often had a limited education, but he was usually an effective preacher and lived a very self-sacrificing life.
See E. K. Nottingham, Methodism and the Frontier (1941, repr. 1966); W. W. Sweet, The Methodists, 1783–1840 (1946, repr. 1964).