Good News Archive: Methodist Heritage: Peter Cartwright (1785-1872) —
By Edmund Robb III
Good News, March-April 1976
In the fall of 1818, Peter Cartwright was invited by one of the prominent Presbyterian pastors of Nashville to preach in his church on Monday evening. As usual, a great crowd of people gathered to hear the famous frontier Methodist preacher.
Cartwright’s sermon text that night was, “What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”
As Cartwright was reading his text, General Andrew Jackson walked up the aisle to the middle post and gracefully leaned against it. There were no vacant seats.
“Just then,” Cartwright recalled, “I felt someone pull my coat, and turning my head, my fastidious preacher – whispering a little loud – said, ‘General Jackson has come in! General Jackson has come in.’
“I said, “Who is General Jackson? If he don’t get his soul converted, God will damn his soul as quick as He will a Guinea [slave].’“
The host preacher was, needless to say, highly embarrassed. He tucked his head down low and would have been thankful for leave of absence. But the congregation – General Jackson and all, burst out laughing.
The next day General Jackson met the Methodist preacher and said, “Mr. Cartwright, you are a man after my own heart … I highly approve of your independence. A minister of Jesus Christ ought to love everybody, and fear no mortal man … If I had a few thousand such independent, fearless officers as you were, and a well-drilled army, I could take old England.”
Andrew Jackson had sized up Peter Cartwright correctly: He was fearless and he was independent. In this respect he was right for the times.
Our nation, our church, and Peter Cartwright grew up together. In 1783, the treaty was signed in Paris recognizing the United States of America’s independence. In 1784, the Methodist Episcopal Church was organized in Baltimore. In 1785, Peter Cartwright was born in Amherst County, Virginia.
The times were marvelously favorable for the nation, the Church, and the boy. The principles of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” which in Europe were beginning to assert themselves in the mad struggles of the French Revolution, were in America established upon a firm basis of a constitutional democracy.
For the infant Church, also, the times were auspicious. The Methodists, with their missionary spirit and matchless organization, were superbly fitted to meet the needs of those pioneer days – to carry the Gospel message into the remotest hamlets, and to organize the scattered converts into the disciplined life of Christ. And for the boy, born into a home of poverty and hardship, grappling from early childhood with problems of frontier life, these, too, were times of promising hope.
While Peter was growing up, there were two strong influences contending for him. One was his father, who was not a Christian. The other was his Christian mother.
Peter’s father gave him a race horse and a pack of cards and encouraged him into a wild life. “I was naturally a wild, wicked boy,” Cartwright later wrote, “and delighted in horse-racing, card-playing, and dancing. My mother remonstrated almost daily with me, and I had to keep my cards hid from her; for if she could have found them, she would have burned them ….”
In the end, it was his mother’s saintly influence which prevailed. In the spring of 1802, Peter Cartwright “found peace with God.” That same year he received a license “to exercise his gifts as an Exhorter in the Methodist Episcopal Church, so long as his practice is agreeable to the Gospel.”
Speaking of his call to preach, Cartwright later wrote, “If I had been seeking for money I would not have traveled, for I knew that I could have made more money splitting rails than I could traveling a circuit when I started. It was not honor, there was no honor about it. It was to fulfill my own convictions of duty.”
Peter Cartwright rose to fame as a campmeeting preacher. Both Methodists and Presbyterians held campmeetings in those days. They were, in fact, the great events of the entire year. Thousands of people from miles around would gather. Ten, twenty and sometimes thirty ministers of different denominations would come together and preach – night and day. At times these meetings lasted three or four weeks.
Amid such scenes as this Peter Cartwright, as a preacher, was almost without a peer. He had a clear, strong bass voice which he seldom strained even in times of strongest emotion. He could sing, preach, and pray day and night for an entire week. His own soul kindled with the flame of his message, and sinners often fell before him like soldiers slain in battle.
Here is a description of a scene which followed his preaching one Sunday morning: “Just as I was closing up my sermon, and pressing it with all the force I could command, the power of God suddenly was displayed, and sinners fell by scores through all the assembly. We had no need of a mourners’ bench. It was supposed that several hundred fell in five minutes; sinners turned pale; some ran into the woods; some tried to get away and fell in the attempt; some shouted aloud for joy.”
At times strange physical manifestations and self-delusions and even impostures were associated with the revival meetings. Cartwright gives us a quaint description of a violent affliction known as “the jerks,” which at times would sweep through a congregation.
He says: “A new exercise broke out among us, called ‘the jerks,’ which was overwhelming in its effects upon the bodies and the minds of the people. No matter whether they were saints or sinners, they would be taken under a warm song or sermon and seized with a convulsive jerking all over, which they could not by any possibility avoid. The more they resisted the more they jerked … I have seen more than 500 persons jerking at one time in my large congregations. Most usually persons taken with the jerks, to obtain relief, as they said, would rise up and dance. Some would run but could not get away. Some would resist; on such the jerks were usually very severe.”
Cartwright was a thundering preacher, whose bluntness and fervor suited him ideally for the frontier where the pulpit was often a stump, or a rude log platform in a clearing, or even a dance floor!
One Saturday night he stopped to eat at a frontier inn. A fiddler started playing, and a beautiful young woman walked up and asked Cartwright to dance not recognizing him as the preacher who thundered against dancing.
But Cartwright calmly took her hand and walked to the middle of the dance floor. Recalls Cartwright, “I then spoke to the fiddler to hold a moment and added that for several years I had not undertaken any matter of importance without first asking the blessing of God upon it. … Here I grasped the young lady’s hand tightly and said, ‘let us kneel down and pray’ and instantly dropped on my knees and commenced praying ….
“The young lady tried to get loose … but presently she fell on her knees. Some of the company kneeled, some stood, some sat still and all looked curious. … While I prayed, some wept and wept out loud, and some cried for mercy.
“I rose from my knees and commenced an exhortation, after which I sang a hymn. The young lady lay prostrate, crying for mercy ….
“Our meeting lasted the next day and the next night, as many more were powerfully converted. I organized a society, took 32 into the church and sent them a preacher.”
Several of the converts became ministers of the Gospel, and Cartwright later observed, “In some conditions of society I should have failed; in some I should have been mobbed; in others I should have been considered a lunatic.” The reason for Cartwright’s triumph on the dance floor – and, indeed, the triumphs of his ministry: “the immediate superintending agency of the Divine Spirit of God.”
Probably Peter Cartwright is as widely known for the strength of his right arm as for his preaching. His was a muscular Christianity. The great crowds which thronged to the camp meetings included not only the devout and curious but also the lawless. Often scoffers and other ruffians tried to break up the services.
For example, in a campmeeting he was conducting “in the edge of Tennessee” about the year 1824, a group of local hoodlums armed themselves with clubs and vowed they would ride their horses through the camp and break up the meeting.
The next day when they invaded the camp, Peter Cartwright was ready. He recalls, “Their leader spurred his horse and made a pass at me; but fortunately I dodged his blow. The next lick was mine, and I gave it to him and laid him flat on his back.”
The rest of the mounted rowdies, seeing their leader knocked down, wheeled around and fled. Such were the campmeeting battles during those pioneer days.
Like most frontier preachers, Cartwright had little formal education. “A Methodist preacher in those days,” he says, “when he felt that God called him to preach, instead of hunting up a college or Biblical institute, hunted up a hardy pony of a horse, and some traveling apparatus, and with his library always at hand, namely, a Bible, hymn book and Discipline, he started.”
Cartwright, however, was no enemy of education. He was an eager reader of books and was a patron of good reading in the many homes he visited. He claimed that during the first 50 years of his ministry he had distributed $10,000 worth of literature through the scattered hamlets of the frontier.
“It has often been a question that I shall never be able to answer on earth,” he wrote, “whether I have done the most good by preaching or distributing religious books.” Furthermore, he was a supporter of schools. Both Illinois Wesleyan University and McKendree College boast of him as one of their founders.
Peter Cartwright was a constant and earnest student of the Bible. In his early years, especially, he hankered for debates and theological foes. With wit and subtleties of argument he would castigate Arians and Calvinists and demolish Baptists and Campbellites. Cartwright was simply caught up in the times. The robust individualism of the frontier fostered this type of rampant sectarianism.
Looking back 150 years, we realize Cartwright sometimes squandered his energy on petty conflicts. But more often he fought mightily against spiritual deadness prevalent on the American frontier. And on the vital social problems of his day he had no hesitation to speak out and take action.
He was, for example, uncompromising in his hatred of slavery. That’s why in 1824 he moved to Illinois – to “get clear of the evil of slavery” and so his children would not marry into slave families.
But the slavery dispute moved to Illinois, too, so Cartwright entered politics to oppose it. In 1828 he was elected to the lower house of the Illinois General Assembly. And in 1832 he beat another anti-slavery candidate – Abraham Lincoln. “I was beaten,” Lincoln later wrote, “the only time I have ever been beaten by the people.”
Cartwright later ran for the U.S. House of Representatives. This time, however, he was defeated by Abraham Lincoln.
For 65 years Peter Cartwright served in the active ranks of the Methodist ministry, 50 of these years as a presiding elder. He was elected to General Conference 13 times.
Within his ministry he had seen in American Methodism growth unparalleled in Christian history. He had also seen an army of Methodist preachers come out of the homes of common people to win the West, societies springing up in the wilderness, and churches rising in new villages. Cartwright had seen the small and despised people of his mother’s church grow to be one of the mightiest of Christian denominations.
Peter Cartwright was Mr. Methodist of the 19th century!
Edmund Robb III was the contributing editor to Good News at the time of this article’s publication. This article appeared in the March-April 1976 issue of Good News. Dr. Robb went on to be the founding pastor of The Woodlands United Methodist Church in The Woodlands, Texas.
Portrait of Peter Cartwright is public domain (uA Youth’s History of Kentucky for School and General Reading by Ed Porter Thompson, 1897).–