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Colorful Peter Cartwright, Circuit Rider

May 03, 2010
Colorful Peter Cartwright, Circuit Rider

When Peter Cartwright died on this day, September 25, 1872, the frontier lost a colorful preacher. Born in Virginia in 1785, just two years after treaty ended the American Revolution, he was taken west to Kentucky. There he became a tough guy in rough Logan County known as "Rogue's Harbor" because of its swarms of badmen. His Methodist mother pleaded and prayed for him.

Her prayers won. In a camp meeting, sixteen year old Peter was convicted of his sinfulness and need for a Savior. For hours he cried out to God for forgiveness until finally the peace of Christ flooded his soul. At once he joined the Methodist Episcopal Church. Within two years he was a traveling preacher, bringing the gospel to the backwoods of the new nation. His rough past and hardy constitution served him well, for he faced floods, thieves, hunger and disease, meeting every challenge head on.

Once Peter warned General Andrew Jackson (future President of the United States) that he would be damned to Hell just as quickly as any other man if he did not repent. Another preacher apologized for Peter's bluntness. Jackson retorted that Christ's ministers ought to love everybody and fear no mortal man, adding that he wished he had a few thousand officers like Peter.

Rowdies often interrupted Peter's meetings. When one thug promised to whip him, Peter invited the man to step into the woods with him. The two started for the trees. Leaping over a fence at the edge of the campground, Peter landed painfully and clutched his side. The bully shouted that the preacher was going for a dagger and took to his heels.

Another time Peter charged a group of rowdies in the dark, yelling to imaginary forces, "Here! here! Officers and men, take them!" The troublemakers bolted in panic. Such events gave him a name. A story spread that he had fought legendary river boatman Mike Fink.

Crowds flocked to hear him. Throughout Kentucky, Tennessee and Illinois, Peter preached to hosts of men and women, three hours at a stretch, several times a week. Women wept and strong men trembled. 10,000 came to Christ in meetings that sometimes ran day and night. Peter baptized thousands, adding them to the church. He urged new converts to build meeting houses. To meet a desperate need for preachers, he championed the creation of Methodist colleges. Wherever he went he left behind religious books and tracts to convert and strengthen souls. The joy of soul-winning compensated him for all his hardships.

Hardships were many. Several times Peter went days without food. Once he returned from his circuit with just 6 borrowed cents in his pocket. His father had to re-outfit him with clothes, saddle and horse before he could ride again. Traveling preachers were paid a measly $30- 50 a year. Nonetheless Peter married and raised children. His family experienced tragedy. Forced to camp in the open one night, they were startled awake when a tree snapped in two; Peter flung up his arms to deflect the falling timber, but it crushed his youngest daughter to death.

In 1823 Peter Cartwright sold his Kentucky farm. He feared his daughters would marry slave owners. Slavery, he felt, sapped independence of spirit. His family readily agreed to the change and his bishop appointed him to a circuit in Illinois.

In Illinois, Peter braved floods. Once he had to chase his saddle bags which were swept downstream. In every circumstance, the Lord brought him to safety. In Illinois he ran for a seat in the Illinois legislature against Abraham Lincoln, beating him. But later Lincoln beat him in a race for the U.S. Congress. Peter died at eighty-seven, leaving behind an autobiography which has become a classic as much for the exploits it recounts as for the pictures it paints of frontier life.


  1. Adapted from "Peter Cartwright: Perhaps America's Most Colorful Country Preacher;" Glimpses #85. Worcester, Pennsylvania: Christian History Institute.
  2. Cartwright, Peter. Autobiography of Peter Cartwright. Abingdon Press, 1986.
  3. "Cartwright, Peter." Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals. Timothy Larsen, editor. Downers-Grove, Illinois: Intevarsity Press, 2003.
  4. "Cartwright, Peter." Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Scribner, 1958-1964.
  5. Various encyclopedia and internet articles.

Last updated June, 2006.


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