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Good Words 1860
Methodism in the Far West, and it's Oldest Apostle


It is nearly sixty years since, to the north of the Ohio, a traveller might have been seen pursuing his course in a region, smiling it may be now under every token of human industry and cultivation, but then comparatively bare, rough, and uninviting. If the scene was strange, no less was the traveller. In form stalwart and muscular, in countenance strongly marked with the proofs of nervous energy, corresponding with his broad, manly person; he had for the moment, nevertheless, the air and appearance of one somewhat perplexed as to his present circumstances and prospects. He had been absent from home for three years; a journey of five hundred miles lay before him ere he could reach it; his horse had gone blind; his saddle was in a sad state of disrepair; the patched bridle might snap anew at the next jerk; his clothes bore ample traces of the backwoods through which he had torn his way; and, to crown this dearth of all comfort, the money, on the strength of which he was to travel homeward, amounted only to seventy-five cents.

It was a Methodist preacher on his way home from one of his earliest circuits. Cured of his passion for such work, he might be supposed ready to exchange it for an easier life. Continuing in it, he might have been expected soon to have fallen a martyr under his fatigues and dangers—fording rivers waist-deep, or floating across them on a rolling log, or miserable "dug-out;" doing battle for life and purse in lonely roads, and, worse still, in places where there was scarcely any road; preaching no brief homily, but for three long hours at a time, to audiences ranging from a single hearer to ten thousand, and with a voice that startled the echoes of the old forests, and swelled in thunder along the 1 prairies. Neither of these results ensued. Our preacher stuck to his duties like a Christian hero, and has attained to a good old age, with sufficient vigour left him to indite an autobiography, peculiar, yet most racy, full of thrilling incidents, and supplying glimpses into a strange life, now fast vanishing under the advancing wave of riper civilisation.

His life previous to the journey homeward which we have just mentioned, fitted Peter Cartwright— "the backwoods preacher," to give him his own title—for the rough work he had to do, and the rough scenes in which his early lot was cast. Born in Virginia about 1785, he was removed by his parents, with the rest of the family, to Kentucky. At that time it was much of a wilderness, where the bear and buffalo roamed in freedom, and the Indians did their best, by war and massacre, to exclude the whites. Of the party to which the Cartwrights belonged, seven families one night insisted on remaining at Crab Orchard, instead of proceeding further. Before the morning they had all, with the exception of one man, fallen under the tomahawk of the Indians. Logan County, in which his father ultimately settled, was the Texas of that time, and bore the name of "Rogues' Harbour," as the place to which all refugees from justice made their escape. The boy's morals were not likely to be very correct under the training of such society around him. "We have his own confession for it that he was a wild, wicked boy," fond of races and dancing, and a very successful gambler.

Peter is another instance of what the Church of Christ owes to pious mothers. His mother warned him against his youthful follies, and, with little help from the father, did what she could to imbue him with right principles. He had otherwise scanty opportunities for education. Log-cabins and cane-brakes were all the colleges he ever knew.

About the year 1801, a sacramental meeting was held by some Presbyterian ministers at Cane Ridge. It was the first of those camp-meetings which have constituted so peculiar a feature of American religious life. The effect produced by it led to meetings of a similar nature. At one of these Cartwright attended; but he had already experienced some awakening of conscience. During three months, he had been in great distress. As in the case of Bunyan, a vivid fancy wrought in him all manner of horrors, till on one occasion, like Luther, he deemed himself in personal conflict with the devil. It is easy to account for the shape which conviction took with him, from his past life, strong imagination, and slight education; and his case shews how foolish the inference, so commonly drawn in such conversions, that, because of the extravagant fancies connected with them, there could be no root of genuine repentance underneath. It does not follow that, because the great change ensues under circumstances and characteristics different from our own, we have any warrant to disparage its reality. Wretched under a sense of guilt, Peter listened, amid weeping multitudes, to the preaching of the gospel. As he prayed, the sense of pardon came to him—light and joy filled his mind—it was the hour of his deliverance;—never since has he doubted that then and there the Lord forgave his sins, and, to use the peculiar phrase of American Methodism, "gave him religion."

Having received licence as an exhorter in 1802, he addressed large congregations; and at length, abandoning secular work, he went on circuit. Large numbers under his preaching became, as he describes it, "soundly converted unto God." Year after year he renewed his itinerancy, varying the circuit, but meeting with the same success. He married in 1808; and, in the same year, was ordained elder by Bishop M'Kendree. In the Tennessee Conference, 1812, he was advanced to the dignity of presiding elder. He had no ambition for the honour; for, in spite of a stern energy of character, which would have led him to mount the forlorn hope in behalf of Methodism, there seems about him an essential vein of modesty, and he made efforts to induce Bishop Asbury to recall the official dignity to which he had been appointed. He had no difficulties on the score of the work assigned him. He was ready, at a moment's notice, for any amount of it; and the Wabash district seemed more than enough for any spiritual Hercules,—ranging, as it did, over the States of Indiana, Illinois, and Kentucky, and obliging him, in order to overtake his circuit, to cross the Ohio sixteen times in the course of the year.

No proper conception can be formed of the adventurous life which Cartwright was compelled to lead, without some reference to the thrilling incidents with which his biography teems. Take two samples of the trials which this brave, good man had to meet in his perilous journeys through the wilderness. On. his way to a conference in Sangamon county, his waggon was overturned. By the time it was set up again and reloaded, night had fallen; and as he was exhausted with his efforts to raise and reload the waggon, he struck a fire at the root of a tree, and encamped for the night. The sad result must be given in his own simple words:—

"Just as day was reappearing in the east, the tree at the root of which we had kindled a small fire fell, and it fell on our third daughter, as direct on her, from her feet to her head, as it could fall; and I suppose she never breathed after. I heard the tree crack when it started to fall, and sprang, alarmed very much, and seized it before it struck the child, but it availed nothing. Although this was an awful calamity, yet God was kind to us; for if we had stretched our tent that night we should have been obliged to lie down in another position, and in that event the tree would have fallen directly upon us, and we should all have been killed, instead of one. The tree was sound outside to the thickness of the back of a carving knife, and then all the inside had a dry rot; but this we did not suspect. I sent my teamster to those families near at hand for aid, but not a soul would come nigh. Here we were in great distress, and no one to even pity our condition. My teamster and myself fell to cutting the tree off the child, when I discovered that the tree had sprung up, and did not press the child, and we drew her out from under it, and carefully laid her in our feed trough, and moved on about twenty miles to an acquaintance's in Hamilton County, Illinois, where we buried her."

On another occasion, after a conference at Indiana, he was seized with a bilious fever. Returning home, that he might recover his strength by rest and quiet nursing, he had to cross a prairie; but the effort was too much for him. He was reduced to the utmost extremity of sickness and weakness:—

"I was immensely sick, and the day was intensely warm. At length I found a little green bush that afforded a small shade. Here I lay down to die. I saw a house a little way off over a field, but was unable to get to it. In a few minutes a lady rode up to me, and, although I had not seen her for twenty years, I instantly knew her, and she recognised me, and after a few minutes she rode off briskly after help.

"In a little time there came a man and buggy and a small boy. The boy mounted my horse. The man helped me into the buggy, and drove up to his house, and took me in, and placed me on a bed between two doors, where I had a free circulation of air. This was the house where the lady lived. The man was her husband. They took all possible care of me till I got a little better; then I started, and got safe to Brother M'Reynold's."

It is amusing to find that such was the elasticity of his character, that Cartwright, unshaken by all such difficulties and trials, resolved, in 1826, on adding political office to his spiritual work. He became a candidate for a seat in the legislature, and twice represented the Sangamon county. One fellow, in order to create a prejudice against him, defamed him bitterly, and brought against him a charge of perjury. Cartwright caught him amid a group in a public square retailing the charge, and broke in suddenly upon his harangue with a stern inquiry as to the report he had been circulating:—

"'Who are you, sir?' said he. 'I don't know you.'

"'Did you ever see me before?'

"'No, sir, not that I know of.'

"'Well, sir, my name is Peter Cartwright, about whom you have circulated the lying statement that I, in your presence, in Kentucky, offered to swear off a plain note of my indebtedness; and I have proved to this large and respectable company that you are a lying, dirty scoundrel; and now, if you do not here acknowledge yourself a liar and a dirty fellow, I will sweep the streets with you to your heart's content; and do it instantly, or I will give you a chastisement that you will remember till your latest day.'

"The crowd shouted, 'Down him, down him, Cartwright ; he ought to catch it.'

"After the crowd was a little stilled, my accuser said, 'Well, gentlemen, I acknowledge that I have done Mr Cartwright great injustice, and have, without any just cause, lied on him.' At this the crowd gave three cheers for Cartwright.

"Now, you see, gentle reader, the muddy waters that a candidate for office in our free country has to wade through; and well may we pray, ' Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.'"

In the course of his journeys, Cartwright had a stiff encounter with the famous, or rather infamous, Joe Smith. The debate closed with a solemn warning from the former, which in a short space afterwards received a singular fulfilment. "Yes," said I, "Uncle Joe, but my Bible tells me the bloody and deceitful man shall not live out half his days; and I expect the Lord will send the devil after you some of these days, and take you out of the way."

The remainder of his autobiography is occupied, to a large extent, with details in regard to the disputes on the subject of slavery, and to the secession from the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1844. Peter sincerely detests slavery. He often denounces it, directs against it what he would call "the grapeshot of truth," and speaks of it "as the abomination that maketh desolate." When a bishop, by marriage and otherwise, had become the owner of slaves, the fact came upon our friend "with the darkness and terror of a fearful storm." Still, he dislikes rabid abolitionism, would "not meddle with slavery politically," and mourns over the division which rent the Methodist Church on this point.

The sum of his labours is given us at the close of his work. He has seen fifty-three sessions of annual conferences, all of which, with a single exception, he has personally attended. He has travelled eleven circuits and twelve districts, received into communion 10,000, and baptized 8000 children and 4000 adults. For twenty years, he seldom had rest free from duty more than one day in the week. For the last thirty-three years, he has averaged four sermons. The highest allowance to a single preacher when he started was eighty dollars per annum. In spite of scanty emolument and abundant losses, Peter emits no groan or grumble of discontent. He tells us very naively, "Strange as it may appear to the present generation, we got along without starving or going naked."

It is clear that a very diversified estimate will be formed of Peter Cartwright. The odd idiosyncrasies of his character and life will shock various prejudices. The mind must lift itself out of the narrow groove of the common and the conventional to do justice to the real excellence of the man.

To many, his own prejudices will prove a stumbling-block. His contempt for pews in churches is very profound. Literary institutions and theological institutes fare no better at his hands. He "turns away sick and faint,"—the words are his own—from educated preachers, some of whom he scruples not to compare "to a lettuce growing under the shade of a peach-tree, or a gosling that had got the straddles by wading in the dew !" Colleges, universities, seminaries, academies, agencies, editorships, are all to localise and secularise the ministry. He ejaculates over such growing evils and worse prospects, "Verily, we have fallen on evil times!' If every man were a Peter Cartwright, perhaps his theory comes near the truth. It rather puzzles us to reconcile such principles with his own step of defection, when, even after he had become an exhorter, he slipped into a school taught by a Seceder minister, under the risk of imbibing heresy with his other lessons. Nevertheless, it is refreshing to find a man not ashamed to speak out his prejudices bluntly. There is no apologetic tone in announcing them; what is more, under all the extreme views he enunciates, there is occasionally a strong vein of common sense —some shrewd and suggestive remarks. The physician blunders in prescribing a remedy, but he is successful in the detection and diagnosis of a serious ailment.

Offence may be taken at the rough vigour of his character and actions. We should not forget that, if there was a John whose privilege it was to lean on the bosom of Christ, and teach, by gospel and epistle, the one great homily of love, there was another John, whose church was the wilderness, and whose message was, "Repent." At a camp-meeting in Tennessee, where "some tall sons and daughters of Belial," were brought to repent of their sins, a plan had been contrived by the "rowdies " to disturb and disperse the meeting. It was defeated by the courage and determination of our preacher:—

"Saturday afternoon was the time appointed for them to drive us from the ground; but, in the meantime, we found out their plans, and many of their names. Their captain called his name Cartwright; all their officers assumed the name of some preacher. We made our preparations accordingly, and were perfectly ready for them. They drank their whisky, mounted their horses, armed with sticks and clubs, and then came, almost full speed, into our camp. As I was captain of the interior, I met the captain of the Philistines, and planted myself near the opening between the two tents where they were to enter the enclosure. As the mounted captain drew near the entering-place, I sprang into the breach; he raised his club, bidding me to stand by, or he would knock me down.

"I cried, 'Crack away.'

"He spurred his horse and made a pass at me, sure enough; but, fortunately, I dodged his stroke. The next lick was mine, and I gave it to him, and laid him flat on his back, his foot being in the stirrup. His horse got my next stroke, which wheeled him "right about;" he dragged his rider a few steps, and dropped him, and then gave this redoubtable captain leg-bail at a mighty rate. The balance of the mounted rowdies, seeing their leader down and kicking, wheeled and ingloriously fled. We took care of the captain, of course, and fined him fifty dollars. This gave us entire control of the encampment, and peace in all our borders during our meeting."

The results of the meeting were worth the struggle so gallantly made to secure its continuance. It may seem scarcely decorous for a preacher of the gospel to have acted thus. Better employ the constable. But if no constable was to be had, or, worse still, if the constable was himself a rowdie, commend us to a Nehemiah who, to build the wall of Jerusalem in troublous times, can handle the sword as alertly as the trowel.

The overflowing humour of the man, sometimes finding vent in dry wit, and sometimes in drier sarcasm, may seem to damage the enamel of clerical reputation. His friend and admirer Milburn—and it speaks volumes in favour of Cartwright, that he won the deep admiration of that singularly-gifted mind, as well as constrained the respect of General Jackson—tells us that when the sarcastic question was put to the preacher of the backwoods—"How is it that you have no doctors of divinity in your denomination?" the prompt reply of Cartwright, giving more than he got, was—"Our divinity is not sick, and don't need doctoring." It does not follow, though the vulgar fallacy to the effect is widely spread, that a man who is never humorous is always and really grave. Deep feeling has a tendency to rebound as in a cycloid. From the days of Elijah to Knox, and from Knox to Spurgeon, men raised up for great work have dealt in sarcasm. Left in their hands, the weapon would be safe. The danger is, that small men, by such example, attempt to wield it, and the result is more harm to their friends than execution upon the enemy. Still, the bow that is never unbent is rarely the most elastic and effective.

We could conceive many readers bitterly irritated at honest Peter's diatribes against principles and doctrines opposed to the creed of Methodism. The Baptist will not relish the allusion to his peculiar tenet, when he speaks of "a mighty controversy whether we get to heaven by water or by dry land." Nor will the sound Calvinist deem it a very just and charitable representation of his own character, when a predestinarian is described "as believing, or professing to believe, that God has decreed all things which come to pass." Still, we must take Peter as we find him, "an outspoken man who loves everybody, and fears nobody." And withal, there are redeeming touches of kindly feeling to men of other Churches, when the faith of the Christian triumphs over the pride of sect.

The scenes at camp-meetings will scarcely approve themselves to the staid conventionalism of our religious habits. The revival in Ireland, with its cases of prostration, has excited disgust in one-sided minds, who look less to the essential good effected, than to the incidental evils inseparable from every movement that concerns and affects man. We would not advise readers of this spirit to read the autobiography of Peter Cartwright, in which, not merely prostrations, but jerkings, howlings, shoutings, are mentioned as incidents in conversions. Such readers might themselves, under the vivid delineations of these scenes of excitement sink under an attack of hysteria. The question, however, must be honestly faced, in spite of theories in the Lancet, and thunders from the Times; is it not possible that, under much that is painful, disgusting even, offensive to the refined feelings which superior education elicits and develops,genuine and substantial good—a change pervading the character, and amending the life—may be accomplished? Is gold less gold because it is the unshapely nugget, not the coin stamped by art into a form that meets the conventional requirements of society? Shall truthful Peter Cartwright be believed when he tells of all that was eccentric and extravagant in the Methodism of the Par West? Shall we disbelieve him when he tells how, through this paroxysm of terror, and process of agony, souls emerged, to all outward seeming, purified and transformed for life? A paramount rule in all science is, that to frame an induction, all the essential facts must be taken into account.

Who can doubt that Peter Cartwright, whatever errors and prejudices he may be held to entertain, is in the main, a good man and true? His perilous adventures in the prosecution of his work, the trials which attest his power of indomitable endurance, the earnestness of heart and soul with which he has devoted himself to his peculiar mission, the simplicity and single-heartedness of his views, his unfeigned desire for the conversion of sinners, all bespeak qualities of character exceedingly rare and worthy of all esteem. The truths he preaches may not be sound according to our creed, but crystal though split, may sometimes retain the wine. It may not be in the canons that a preacher should floor a rowdie with a blow, but the cause of truth has sometimes need of a Samuel who can hew an Agag into pieces, as well as a Jeremiah who can weep his soul away over the slain of the daughter of his people.

The general effects of his preaching are evidences that he has done good work for his Master. We can get over our aversion to the demonstrative, which forms so prominent an element in the Methodistic type of Christianity— to the camp-meetings with their questionable excitements, to the jerks, the prostrations, the howlings, and the public agony in the anxious seats,—we look beyond all these, as we are bound in honesty to do. When we read affecting cases of women sunk in profligacy, moved and melted under the appeals of our preacher, and giving the evidence of their whole subsequent life how real had been the change they professed, we shall not quarrel with the outward forms under which the change transpired, the convulsions in which it began. Of old, order and beauty sprang from the womb of a cataclysm. Peter tells us in what spirit he preached, and preaching in that spirit with only half the point with which he writes, the effect would be good, and the usages of the camp-meeting might be more adapted to the rough life of the forest and prairie, than the smooth homilies that please fastidious critics. Taking his stand, as he tells us, on some old stump, or empty waggon, Cartwright thundered forth the law, or offered the gospel, till scores at a time sank under the power of truth. We question the validity of some of his reasonings in a passage in which he announces his "confident belief in an immediate superintending agency of the Divine Spirit." We put in no demurrer to the truth of what follows:—"In the agency of the Holy Spirit of God, I have been a firm believer for more than fifty-five years, and I do firmly believe that if the ministers of the present day had more of the unction or baptismal fire of the Holy Ghost prompting their ministerial efforts, we should succeed much better than we do, and be more successful in winning souls to Christ than we are."

It may be well to add, that the religion of Peter Cartwright is not confined to the camp-meeting; does not evaporate in mere outbursts of emotion; does not sicken and die with the fire of the pine torches that illumine those strange assemblies amid the ebon gloom of old forests, where he won as a stump-orator, if you will so sneer at him, triumphs compared with which the literary garlands of Carlyle are poor, tame things. He carries religion faithfully into practice. Only on the question of slavery does he seem to falter—at least, he would not expel the slaveholder from the Church. Otherwise he seems exemplary. He fights a stern battle for faithful discipline against the drunkard. He sees more deeply than most revivalists of our day into the intimate connexion between domestic and public religion. He is urgent for family prayer. His hope of a revival over the whole Church rests, in the first instance, on a revival of family religion. He closes an appeal on the latter point with the pregnant and significant words:—"I long to see the time come when God shall abundantly revive family religion; then, and perhaps not till then, shall we see better and more glorious times of the work of God among us."

We have in our literature "Dialogues of the Dead," in which much of the effect depends upon the odd contrast presented in the characters introduced. Would that we could summon upon the same stage, for a single interview, Cartwright and the great reviler of his creed, Sydney Smith. Both have great powers—singular fertility of wit and humour. We fear, however, that the polished rapier of the English wit would be shivered under the first blow from the club of the Backwoods Preacher. In his presence, Sydney Smith would not have ventured on the ridicule in which he indulged at the expense of the Methodists. But as regards all the higher purposes of life—the real and eternal welfare of the race —for which Cartwright has toiled so earnestly and perseveringly, on what a pedestal of superiority, for all time, above the brilliant wit, dying according to his own last joke—stall-fed—stands the loving and large-hearted, yet humble and self-denied Apostle of the Prairies!


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