Francis Asbury (1745 – 1816), the founding bishop of American Methodism, set the pace. He traveled 270,000 miles and preached 16,000 sermons as he traveled the circuits. Peter Cartwright (1785-1872) described the life of the circuit- rider. He wrote in his Autobiography: “A Methodist preacher, when he felt that God had called him to preach, instead of hunting up a college or Biblical Institute, hunted up a hardy pony, and some traveling apparatus, and with his library always at hand, namely, a Bible, Hymn book, and Discipline, he started, and with a text that never wore out nor grew stale, he cried, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world.’ In this way he 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. This was old-fashioned Methodist preacher fare and fortune.”
Not only did the preacher face physical hardship, but often he endured persecution. Freeborn Garrettson (1752-1827) wrote of his experience: “I was pursued by the wicked, knocked down, and left almost dead on the highway, my face scarred and bleeding and then imprisoned.” No wonder most of these preachers died before their careers had hardly begun. Of those who died up to 1847, nearly half were less than 30 years old. Many were too worn out to travel.
What did they earn? Not much in dollars. Bishop Asbury expressed their reward when he recruited Jesse Lee, “I am going to enlist Brother Lee. What bounty? Grace here and glory hereafter, if he is faithful, will be given.”
Tipple, E. S. Francis Asbury, the Prophet of the Long Road. The Methodist Book Concern 1916.
Cartwright, Peter, Autobiography of Peter Cartwright, Abingdon Press 1956.
Maser, Frederick and Simpson, Robert Drew, If Saddlebags Could Talk, Providence Press 1998.
McEllhenney, John G, Editor United Methodism in America, Abingdon Press 1992.