Not long after the War of American Independence the Lewis and Clark expedition began in 1804.As the Westward expansion progressed along with the Lewis and Clark Expedition the need and opportunity to “…go into all the world…”(Mt. 28:18-20) became greater and greater. The trails West were first established by the Mountain Men but almost literally right on their heals were the brave and fearless “Frontier Preachers” and “Circuit Riders” preaching the “good news” to a wild frontier. Frontier Preachers / Circuit Riders ventured into the wilderness to encounter Mountain Men, Indians, settlers, tradesman, individuals, families and all they could find to spread the good news.
For the Circuit Rider / Frontier Preacher training was mostly done on the job. New preachers were often assigned to travel for a time with a more experienced person on a circuit. Thus they learned first hand how it was done and had the opportunity to have their efforts critiqued and improved. Unlike their Eastern counterparts; education was not the prime prerequisite. Their love for God, the people and the desire to touch lives was often the most stringent requirement for the position.The enthusiastic response to their preaching and exhortation (which were often blended together) at a Camp Meeting or other meeting would often result in the formation of a new weekly home group that would continue on even after the Circuit Rider’s return 4-6 weeks later.
The Circuit Rider tied these local groups together; often with quarterly / regularly scheduled meetings which were sometimes referred to as “Camp Meetings “. Camp Meetings were times when people living throughout a region who were involved with the local home groups would gather together in unity for fellowship, encouraging and teaching. These were wonderful times that were electrified with the unity of God’s people.With the combination of Camp Meetings and the Frontier Preacher’s personal visits he would encourage the local home group leaders with personal testimony and galvanizing sermons as well as occasional materials to read and share with others. New Believers brought into the fold at the larger Camp Meetings were nurtured and remained because of the smaller home fellowships and the life long relationships that were formed therein. For many on the frontier, the Camp Meetings, home groups and other meetings were the only social gatherings that existed where they could meet their neighbors, share experiences and organize help for one another.
The Frontier Preacher’s Life
The Frontier Preachers pace was always busy. Between the periodic Camp Meetings he would often travel only a few miles before stopping for a home group meeting. He might preach at or lead home meetings two or three times a day. This of course meant that gatherings could and would occur on any day of the week. While at a stop, the Frontier Preacher would check on the weekly home groups and also visit as many of the local families as possible, usually sharing a hymn and a prayer. There were relatively few days of rest in the Circuit Rider or Frontier Preacher’s schedule. Preaching was done wherever it was convenient which was most often in a home. Along with homes and Camp Meetings the Frontier Preachers were known to utilize schools, stores, and taverns (even during business hours), as well as the open air. If a Frontier Preacher used someone’s home, he would often stay there for the night and eat dinner with the family.The life of a Circuit Rider was physically demanding. They traveled, usually by horseback, through all kinds of weather with little more than the clothes that they were wearing. On the frontier where conditions were primitive, there were stories that preachers sometimes declined the offer of a bed and slept out of doors to avoid the fleas and bedbugs. Circuit Riders were supported in their task mainly by the fraternity of the other Circuit Riders, whom they would often meet at a Camp Meeting or other conferences. A great camaraderie developed, and many Circuit Riders maintained a lifelong mail correspondence among themselves. For the Circuit Rider, illness and accident were constant perils. At the beginning of the 19th century, about one in six of the Circuit Riders died between Camp Meetings and home group meetings while on circuit.
Frontier Preachers were heading West as fast as there were people to reach. Some stories tell about preachers who appeared even before the wagon was unloaded and timber felled for a new house.
Usually after several years of service the Frontier Preacher would sometimes meet an available woman and marry, which usually led to the conclusion of his traveling and the beginning of a more local ministry. Once this occurred they would often pastor a local congregation and then work at another trade to help pay the bills.
The Fruit of Their Labors
Due to the diligence of these hardworking men; within a generation of the War of American Independence it was not unusual to receive a visit by the Circuit Rider / Frontier Preacher and it even came to be expected. Their messages were often pointed and aimed toward the heart and winning souls. The subjects were often of hell and the devil, with a clear eye on the coming day of judgement. The theology was practical, recognizing that even if one was brought into the family of God it was still possible to falter and return to sinful ways. The Frontier Preacher’s message emphasized discipline, moral uprightness and strong work ethics. As such, it fit well with the aspirations of new settlers who saw themselves as the creators of a new nation and a new economy based on the industry and initiative of its citizens. It addressed their hopes more than their despairs and frustrations.People took to these messages eagerly, in part because as a result to hearing about God’s plan and purpose (as well as God’s judgment), folks could see themselves as a meaningful part of a “Great Commission” to build a new world. They were enfranchised and liberated from the tyranny of old governments. The future, whether as citizens of the nation or as the people of God was in their hands. Their fate was not at the whim of a capricious king. Young men who became Circuit Riders saw this not as a career choice, but the highest calling to which they could aspire and the best possible thing they could do with their lives; this vision permeated their work.I’ll see you out in the field, Parson Rayphe