Friday, January 16, 2009

Circuit Riders: The Old Methodist Spirit

I'm thinking about the old spirit, call, and fortitude which are part of the history and lore of denominations, yet must be claimed in fresh ways today. Often there is both humor and inspiration in these early stories.

My thoughts are there are new frontiers to work in, and this day calls for a similar spirit. We need people today who are willing to respond to the call to share in God's work, who are willing to go no matter how difficult the task. Notice how much is built on the initial work of the lay person which is then added to by the work of the clergy. Think of the new frontiers today whether locally or the ends of the earth. Imagine a current Methodist circuit rider who may work in the inner city or who may work in west Africa. Imagine one who might work the internet or TV. Imagine one who works in settings of poverty or in suburban or affluent settings. Imagine you becoming a part of the story today in ways which your children and grandchildren would share stories that make people laugh, and which inspire new generations!

The following is an excerpt from regarding early Methodist circuit riders.

"Circuit riding took its precedent from the fluid examples of Britons John Wesley and George Whitefield, both of whom carried their ministries from city to city. Wesley said, 'The world is my parish,' and the early Methodist itinerants showed every evidence of having captured his spirit."

"With the founding of a new settlement, an ordinary layman would often take the initiative in inviting his neighbors to his cabin for religious services. A religious 'society' would be formed and brought under the 'wing' of a circuit rider who answered to a conference bishop, the church official responsible for supplying several circuits with preachers."

"The arrangement was flexible; yet it was this advantage that contributed heavily to the strain endured by itinerants (another name for a circuit rider). There simply were not enough preachers to man the circuits. Often a rider would have more than two dozen preaching stations and spend as long as a month making a single round. It is no wonder that Dr. Abel Stephens, a leading Methodist historian, states: 'Nearly half of those [circuit riders] whose deaths are recorded [by the end of the eighteenth century] died before they were thirty years old; about two thirds died before they had spent 12 years in the laborious service.' Had these preachers been looking for an easy ministry they certainly would have avoided the circuits."

"A pioneer preacher in Louisiana wrote, ' Every day I travel I have to swim through creeks or swamps, and I am wet from head to feet, and some days from morning to night I am dripping with water. My horse's legs are now skinned and rough to his hock joints, and I have rheumatism in all my joints…what I have suffered in body and mind my pen is not able to communicate to you.' This would be a bleak commentary had the preacher ended here, but hastening on he records, 'But none of these things shall move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy.'"

Methodists Everywhere
"Despite the hardships of the ministry, circuit riding seemed to attract the strongest young men, and by the time of Asbury's death he had seen hundreds join the ranks. The circuits were large, and the 1800s brought a tremendous surge in population; yet somehow the Methodist itinerants appeared everywhere. "

"An amusing example of this is recorded from the life of a rugged preacher by the name of Nolley, who was in a remote section of Mississippi when he noticed some wagon tracks that appeared to be quite recent. No circuit rider worth his salt ever ignored the possibility to make a new contact; so Nolley followed the wagon tracks until they ended in a fresh clearing. A settler had just a few moments before he begun to unload his wagon. "

"Nolley introduced himself to the new family, but when the settler found out who the visitor was he expressed the greatest disgust, exclaiming, ' Another Methodist preacher! I left Virginia for Georgia to get clear of them. There they got my wife and daughter. So I come here, and here is one before I can get my wagon unloaded!' "

"'My friend,' said Nolley, ' if you go to Heaven you'll find Methodist preachers there; if you go to Hell I'm afraid you'll find some there; and you see how it is on earth, so you had better make terms with us and be at peace.'"

"The ' before I can get my wagon unloaded' incident became a standard joke at later conference meetings. There's humor in the incident, but it also indicates the splendid determination and spirit of the circuit rider."

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