In an age of fancy pants televangelists, soft-spoken ministers and almost cartoonish local clergy, it might be difficult for the average American to understand that not too long ago, there was a sect of preachers who feared neither man nor beast.
Standing head and shoulders above most, these fearless men of God braved terrifying storms, endured hunger and battled deadly gangs at nearly every turn, simply in order to fulfill their calling to “faithfully execute the Scriptures.”
These men were known as circuit riding preachers and the mark they have left upon the Appalachian mountains — and far beyond — will endure for an eternity.
Recalling his childhood memories of seeing these men firsthand, Edward Eggleston wrote, “More than anyone else, the early circuit preachers brought order out of this chaos. In no other class was the real heroic element so finely displayed. Oh how I remember the forms and weather-beaten visages of the old preachers, whose constitutions had conquered starvation and exposure — who had survived swamps, alligators, Indians, highway robbers and bilious fevers! How was my boyish soul tickled with their anecdotes of rude experience – how was my imagination wrought upon by the recital of their hair-breadth escapes! How was my heart set afire by their contagious religious enthusiasm…”
Back in an era when “The Wild West” was Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio, frontier life was lonely. Cabins were often separated by miles and sparse population densities meant that churches, once a pillar of American society, were few and far between.
Seeking to meet the religious needs of the nation’s frontier settlers hundreds of brave preachers answered a call to roam from town to town throughout the “West” preaching the Gospel of a coming Christ.
Known as “saddlebag preachers” these frontier traveling clergymen set out on horseback, roaming through the wilderness, preaching each day in tiny villages, rural court houses, fields, meeting houses and even in the homes of settlers.
Many circuits were so large that it would take 5 to 6 weeks for the preacher to make a single lap, ministering to dozens of tiny congregations along the way.
The work of these traveling preachers is in part credited for the Bible Belt’s very existence and as the country grew, so did the influence of these Daniel Boone-style preachers.
Seeking neither fame nor money, these zealous wilderness pastors soon grew into a mighty army for the Lord of heaven. In 1784, there were 83 traveling preachers. By 1839, their rank had grown to 3,557.
In addition to being an immensely lonely profession, the work of an 18th century wilderness preacher was among the most perilous professions a man could pursue.
Samuel Wakefield wrote a hymn about the perils circuit riders faced. It describes the circuit rider’s family anxiously waiting for his return, only to learn that he had died in a far away wilderness. The final stanza says:
Yet still they look with glistening eye,
Till lo! a herald hastens nigh;
He comes the tale of woe to tell,
How he, their prop and glory fell;
How died he in a stranger’s room,
How strangers laid him in the tomb,
How spoke he with his latest breath,
And loved and blessed them all in death.
Fiercely independent, rugged and filled with conviction, circuit riding preachers of the 1800’s attained a great reputation for being strong and unyielding men.
Staunchly opposed to liquor, stories abound of traveling ministers leading powerful prayers for the immediate destruction of whiskey stills and distilleries.
Some men involved in the whiskey distilling business are said to have gone so far as to flee an area rather than become the object of the prayers of circuit riding preachers.
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