Robert Richford Roberts, Frontier Bishop

Dan Graves, MSL

Robert Richford Roberts, Frontier Bishop

When Robert Richford Roberts was four, his mother taught him to read. By seven, he was reading the Bible through. Later he had eight months of formal education and one winter to learn numbers. The rest of his learning was through personal reading. He was typical of Methodist circuit riders in the United States.

Robert's father was a staunch Episcopalian. Robert however converted to Methodism along with some brothers and sisters. Eventually his father also became Methodist.

As a young man Robert rode with his brothers to view some land in Pennsylvania. Although the youngest of the party, he proved to have the clearest-head-- and to be the best cook. Others were soon turning to him for leadership. When his brothers gave up hope of finding suitable land, he remained behind with a friend to explore and found a tract upon which he eventually settled and where he built a mill. He became a good hunter. Later, when he was a bishop, some soldiers thought to have some fun with him and challenged him to a shooting match. He outshot them all.

While Robert was underage, his father would not let him move to Pennsylvania. But when he did move there, his family followed. There he experienced a spiritual crisis. His neighbors asked him to be their spiritual leader and he resisted. However, he began preaching to trees for practice. By then he was married. One day in distress he laid his head in his wife Elizabeth's lap. She said to him, "It's no use, Robert. Don't delay any longer. It's ruining your life. The Lord has called you and you must go." They gave up everything to follow God's call. He was the first married circuit rider accepted by the Methodists.

Eventually Franics Asbury appointed Roberts to the east coast where he served for eight years. After he was elected bishop, Roberts moved to southern Indiana which was centrally located to his circuit and he built a sawmill and cleared a farm while carrying one his church duties. Altogether he endured the hard life of a circuit rider for forty years, sometimes riding while sick or doing without food for days at a time. He had to leave Elizabeth for months at a time.

In 1842, the last full year of his life, he rode over 5,400 miles in harsh conditions, visiting six states and four Indian nations. He returned home seriously ill. Early in 1843, despite asthma, he rode ten miles to Bedford from his home in Lawrenceport, Indiana to preach. Despite a storm the next day, he insisted on riding back to Lawrenceport where he had promised to bring some books for the opening of a school. Friends pleaded with him to wait for more favorable weather, but his word was his bond and he would not. As a result, he contracted a severe cold and his asthma flared up. He rallied to preach one last sermon the following Sunday, taking as his theme "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." He told his listeners that he knew he was soon to die. However, the end dragged on as he lay sick.

He died at home at 1 a.m. on the night of March 26, 1843, lifting his hands as if giving a blessing before lapsing into unconsciousness. A storm prevented his immediate burial, but a day later he was interred on his farm. Soon afterward, Methodist leaders asked to move his body to Baltimore beside Asbury's, but Indiana folk insisted on transferring it to Indiana Asbury University (now DePauw) which he had helped found; and that is where it lies today.


  1. "Roberts, Robert Richford." The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography. New York: J.T. White, 1930- .
  2. "Roberts, Robert Richford." Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Scribner, 1958-1964.
  3. Tippy, Worth Marion. Frontier Bishop; the life and times of Robert Richford Roberts. New York: Abingdon, 1963.
  4. "Robert Richford Roberts." Virtual American Biographies.

Last updated June, 2007

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