Circuit Riders

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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.


Hatch, Nathan O. The Democratization of American Christianity. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989.

Heyrman, Christine Leigh. Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt. New York: Knopf, 1997.

Wallis, Charles L., ed. Autobiography of Peter Cartwright. New York: Abingdon Press, 1956.

William W.Sweet/a. r.

See alsoAfrican American Religions and Sects ; Dissenters ; Evangelicalism and Revivalism .