Explore the life and legacy of Peter Cartwright, one of the most fascinating ministers of the gospel in American history. Peter Cartwright was born on September 1st, 1785, to poor parents in Amherst County, nestled along the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, in the state of Virginia. His father was a soldier fighting for liberty in the Revolutionary War.
After the colonies gained their independence, his parents immigrated on pack horses to Kentucky. At that time, the area was known as an unbroken wilderness, and the trail from Virginia to Kentucky was filled with thousands of hostile Indians who murdered and scalped many a white adventurer.
Upon reaching the Commonwealth of Kentucky, the 15th state in the Union, the Cartwrights lived in a rented farmhouse in Lincoln County for two years. Then, in 1793, they moved to Logan County, only one mile from the state line of Tennessee. Logan County, Kentucky, had an ominous reputation. It was referred to as Rogues Harbor and was populated with every vile sort of despot, from murders and highway bandits to horse thieves. There were no grocery stores, mills, or schools to be found. Those living there had to live off the land. The woods were filled, however, with lots of wild game, from 'canes to turkeys.' The Cartwrights would kill their own meat, beat their own meal, bake their own bread, and spin their own clothes. Thus was the lifestyle of the early American pioneer family.
Young Peter Cartwright was a wild young man who loved playing cards, gambling, and dancing. His father overlooked many of his vices, but if his mother caught him betting on a horse race or engaging in some other unsettling behavior, she would have some stern words for him, ending with a tearful yet admonishing prayer. Peter Cartwright's father 'wasn't much into religion, but his mother was a Methodist.
When Peter Cartwright was sixteen years old, he began to feel guilty and condemned because of his sinful condition. For three months, he wrestled with a deep agony over this malady. He thought he was going to die and was ill-prepared to meet his maker. One night he promised God that if He would spare his life, then he would "seek and serve him." Sometime after that, he heard a voice from heaven saying, "Peter, look at me." His mother prayed with him many times during this seeking period, but still, there was no relief for his soul. He was often tempted to think that he might be a reprobate who was eternally lost without any chance of salvation.
From 1800 to 1801, the region was powerfully affected by the Holy Spirit because of a great spiritual awakening that broke out called the Cane Ridge Revival. This outpouring of the Holy Spirit was the birthing of America's Pentecost. "I counted seven ministers, all preaching at one time, some on stumps, others in wagons, and one standing on a tree that had, in falling, lodged against another," wrote eyewitness James Finley in his biography. "I stepped up on a log where I could have a better view of the surging sea of humanity. The scene that then presented itself to my mind was indescribable. At one time I saw at least five hundred swept down in a moment as if a battery of a thousand guns had been opened upon them, and then immediately followed shrieks and shouts that rent the very heavens." On Saturday night in May of 1801, Peter Cartwright attended a similarly charged camp meeting where he accepted Jesus as his Savior. At this open-air assembly, with his mother and friends present, he was mightily converted and became a Christian. The next month he joined the Methodist Church and attended the Ebenezer Society, held in a building probably built from blue ash logs cut with broad axes.
In the fall of 1802, his family moved again, about eighty miles west of Logan County, near the mouth of the Cumberland River. When applying for a church membership transfer, he received a letter licensing him as an exhorter in the Methodist church. The letter read, "Peter Cartwright is hereby permitted to exercise his gifts as an exhorter in the Methodist Episcopal Church, so long as his practice is agreeable to the Gospel. Signed in behalf of the society at Ebenezer, Jesse Walker, A. P. May 1802."
After moving, he attended school for a short while and was briefly persecuted for his faith by the other students. When his teacher refused to intervene, he quit school, later regretting that he never finished his education. He did learn, however, to "read, write, and cipher."
Peter Cartwright was only eighteen years old when, in October of 1803, he was asked to accompany "Brother Lotspeich" on the Cumberland Circuit. At the first meeting, Brother Lotspeich asked Peter Cartwright to preach. Peter Cartwright responded by saying that he carried only an exhorter's license. Lotspeich prevailed on his concerns, and Cartwright withdrew his protest. Before the meeting, Peter Cartwright prayed fervently and asked God for a sign that he was truly called to preach by allowing at least one soul to be born again. That night he "entered the meeting house, took his stand, gave out a hymn, sang, and prayed. " Then with all the boldness he could muster up, he preached, "Trust ye in the Lord forever; for in the Lord Jehovah is everlasting strength." (Isaiah 26:4) That night, those present broke out in tears, and sure enough, God confirmed his calling; a "professional infidel" was born again.
For the next several years, Peter Cartwright met the hardships of frontier preaching with apostolic faith and resolve. Working with a seldom-kept promise of eighty dollars of support a year, he spent days on the intrepid trail. It would take some 4 to 5 weeks to complete the excursion, preaching every day and night with only two days rest. Francis Asbury himself, the founding bishop of American Methodism, demonstrated the lifestyle of the circuit rider, having traveled some 270,000 miles and preached over 16,000 sermons. Peter Cartwright carried that same pioneering grit. Peter Cartwright wrote about the life of a circuit rider in his autobiography:
"A Methodist preacher, when he felt that God had called him to preach, instead of hunting up a college or Biblical Institute, hunted up a hardy pony and some traveling apparatus, and with his library always at hand, namely, a Bible, hymn book, and (Methodist) discipline, he started, and with a text that never wore out nor grew stale, he cried, "Behold, the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world." In this way, he went through storms of wind, hail, snow, and rain; climbed hills and mountains; traversed valleys; plunged through swamps and swollen streams; laid out all night, wet, weary, and hungry; held his horse by the bridle all night or tied him to a limb; slept with his saddle blanket for a bed; and his saddlebags for a pillow. Often he slept in dirty cabins, ate roasting ears for bread, drank buttermilk for coffee, and took deer or bear meat, or wild turkey, for breakfast, dinner, and supper. This was old-fashioned Methodist preacher fare and fortune."
Peter Cartwright married nineteen-year-old Frances Gaines in August of 1808. She had moved to Kentucky with her parents from Virginia two years earlier. Together, they had two sons and seven daughters.
Peter Cartwright had peculiar signs and wonders occur at many of his meetings, particularly what was referred to as "the jerks." Suddenly, during a song or a sermon, those in attendance would start to jerk. It didn't matter if they were saints or sinners. If they resisted, the jerks would get more violent. If they yielded and prayed, they would subside. Some would rise up and dance, and others would run to "obtain relief." Peter Cartwright said he saw as many as 500 people at a time get these jerks. To him, it was an amusing sign of God's presence.
Peter Cartwright tells the story of two fashionably dressed sisters who attended one of his meetings in 1804. Their brothers, who didn't attend the meetings but stayed outside, saw their sisters get jerked around. This greatly disturbed them, and they determined to whip Peter Cartwright when the meeting was over. After the service, the two brothers met Peter Cartwright outside the church. They said they had seen him take something out of his pocket and give it to their sisters, and that's why they got the jerks. What they didn't know was that Peter Cartwright often carried a tin of peppermint in his pocket and would put one in his mouth before he spoke. It was the peppermint that they saw him retrieve from his pocket. Peter Cartwright, trying to avoid the whipping, answered them directly. Taking the peppermint tin out of his pocket, he said, "I need not deny it." "Yes, I gave them the jerks, and I can give them to you too." Fear struck the brothers, and they ran away, yelling at him not to follow them or they would kill him.
Peter Cartwright, unlike the preachers of settled denominations, possessed the qualities needed to survive the harsh and dangerous world of the American frontier wilderness. The circuit rider had to fight and preach, oftentimes dealing with ruffians, rowdies, and disrupters who attended their meetings.
Peter Cartwright, in his autobiography, writes of recruiting one of the area's most feared rowdy leaders to help him maintain order outside the camp grounds. The rowdy agreed as long as he could select his own companion helpers. In those days, they would seat men and women on different sides of the church. A young man of swaggerer fashion had his hair in a roach with a fancy curl across the top from front to back, and he would come and sit each time in the ladies section. Peter Cartwright spoke to him about this forbidden encroachment, but the young man persisted. Determined to solve this problem, Peter Cartwright met with the rowdy leader about this young man's obstinance. The rowdy leader told Cartwright he would take care of it as long as Peter Cartwright would let him have a little fun. Under the pretense of offering the young man something to drink, the rowdies lured him into the woods, where they took scissors and gave him the "newest Nashville fashion." The young man, trembling with fear, beelined back to the campground, where he met Peter Cartwright. Taking off his hat, he said, "Look what those rowdies have done!" Peter Cartwright had a very difficult time keeping from breaking out in laughter. He told him he should say nothing about it, or the rowdies might do something worse. The young man was prevented from disrupting any more meetings.
In 1823, Peter and Frances sold their farm in Kentucky and moved their family to Sangamon County, Illinois, where they purchased a small farm for two hundred dollars. They moved because they were strongly opposed to slavery and didn't want their daughters to marry a slave owner. Upon their arrival, Peter Cartwright was quickly assigned another circuit. Five years later, Peter Cartwright entered politics, believing that Illinois would soon enact laws permitting slavery that he called an "abomination of desolation." He served as a representative in the 6th and 8th General Assemblies of the Illinois State Legislature, having been elected in 1828 and again in 1832. He was defeated for the U.S. Congress in 1846 by a former opponent, a rail splitter named Abraham Lincoln.
Peter Cartwright served the Lord faithfully throughout his many years of service. He passed away on September 25, 1872. He was 87 years old. Peter Cartwright, God's breaking plow, left behind the legacy of great American pioneering ministers of the gospel. He and Frances are buried in the Pleasant Plains, Illinois, Cemetery, just south of town. Inscribed on his tombstone are the text of his first sermon and the words of his favorite hymn.
(c) Apostle Jonas Clark
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