The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

June 22, 2012

The circuit riders

By David Christy, News Editor
Enid News and Eagle

— Researching history or delving into family genealogy sometimes is tedious and tiring and repetitive. You easily can fall asleep while reading a book about things you already know, or get bleary-eyed while staring at a computer monitor for hours on end.

But, every now and then, something will jump off a page at you and you’ll say to yourself, “Wow, I didn’t know that.”

I live for those moments, and they seem to happen with fairly frequent regularity. I guess I just want to know everything, and I still have a long, long way to go.

So, when I stumbled across some inspiring family genealogy some years back about circuit riders, it’s kept me going back for more.

No, I’m not talking about some Saturday morning oater with John Wayne or Roy Rogers throwing bullets out of their pistols at the bad guys, who all seem to be waiting on the circuit-riding judge to come to town.

When you say circuit riding in America, you are talking about traveling preachers, who were interwoven into the fabric of this land from its earliest days.

In our colonial cities and towns along the East Coast, communities would form congregations and build churches, find and install ministers to handle their religious needs.

But in sparsely populated areas, as the frontier of America moved slowly but inexorably westward from the coast, the circuit rider became a popular term in our early years for clergymen who were assigned to travel around specific geographic areas, providing the word of God to settlers and farmers and frontiersmen, and to help in organizing congregations.

In particular, the Methodist Episcopal Church and related denominations, were most keen on employing the circuit rider to mount his horse and spread Christianity throughout a burgeoning, virgin land.

Many denominations employed these circuit-riding preachers, but the ME church seems to have been the denomination that most employed this unique way of spreading the word.

So, as Americans continued moving west in ever-increasing numbers, and farmers would begin working the land to feed themselves and their families, it certainly was out of the question these few-and-far-between settlers would have been able to erect churches and congregate together — thus, the circuit-riding preacher filled in the spiritual gaps in this nation.

In the Methodist Episcopal Church, congregations of people did not call a pastor, a preacher was assigned to an area to cover, with neither the traveling pastor or the people he ministered having much of a say in the matter.

A circuit, or in today’s parlance a charge, was a geographic area that encompassed at least two or more local churches.

In 1804, the Methodist Episcopal General Conference decreed no pastor would serve the same appointment for more than two consecutive years.

Once a clergyman was assigned a circuit, he had the responsibility of visiting across his area, conducting worship, visiting church members on a regular basis and establishing new churches.

And early-day circuit riding was not for the faint of heart. It was lonely and often dangerous work for men of the cloth.

Horseback was the preferred method for the circuit rider, or saddlebag preacher as they often were called.

These men carried few possessions with them out into the wilderness, and would preach almost every day — from people’s log cabins to early courthouses, out in fields or in meeting houses, and eventually, even on street corners in small hamlets.

Many of the so-called circuits would take from five to six weeks to cover, and these men were successful beyond their wildest dreams.

Early Americans were a spiritually-hungry people, and the statistics don’t lie.

In 1784, as the Revolutionary War made way for a burgeoning land, there were 14,986 members of the ME Church and 83 traveling preachers.

By 1839, the Methodist Episcopals became the largest denomination at that time, growing to 749,216 members served by 3,557 traveling and 5,856 local preachers.

Circuit riding, as with just about everything in society, began to change and to slowly end with the approach of the American Civil War.

More and more, people began to congregate into towns and communities, as this nation’s population settled in and filled in gaps between neighbors.

My genealogical journey was interrupted when I discovered two of my ancestors were amongst these circuit-riding preachers.

Named after famous historical figures, my three-great-grandfather — the Rev. Andrew Jackson Addington — served Virginia’s Methodist Protestant Church, and his son — the Rev. Elbert Lafayette Addington — was a circuit-rider in southwest Virginia.

A somewhat romantic figure from our early days, the circuit-riding preacher rode off into history by the 1890s — a footnote to America’s religious foundation.

Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Visit his column blog at