Summary: Content for this discourse has been excerpted from Wikipedia free-content encyclopedia and reworked into a message originally presented at a Flag Day Ecumenical Service held outdoors in the city park in Bird Island, Minnesota, June 13, 2013.
The United Methodist Church and the many other offshoots of the Methodist movement comprise one of the largest groupings of Protestant denominations in the world today. The Methodist movement was started in the 18th Century by John and Charles Wesley to minister to the needs of the poorer socio-economic classes of England in reaction to the apathy shown by the Church of England, sometimes referred to as the Anglican Church. The movement quickly spread to the American colonies. Though John Wesley intended the Methodists to remain a reform movement within the Church of England, the American Revolution decisively separated the Methodists in America from the life and sacraments of the Church of England.
In 1784, after unsuccessful attempts to have the Church of England send a bishop to start a new church in the colonies, Wesley appointed fellow priest Thomas Coke to organize an independent Methodist group in America. This new church was destined to make a distinctive contribution to our American Christian heritage, largely because of the philosophy of serving those whom others ignored. This philosophy led to the ministry of the circuit rider, many of whom were laymen who traveled the backwoods of what was then a mostly rural nation by horseback to preach the Gospel and to establish churches in communities in which the larger established churches seem to have little interest. These nearly 4000 preachers worked tirelessly until there was scarcely any village in the new nation without a Methodist presence.
Methodist preachers made a point of taking the message to anyone left outside organized religion at that time. This included laborers and criminals as well as people living in the backwoods frontier. In the United States, Methodism became the religion of many slaves who later formed their own churches in the Methodist tradition.
Because of the frontier Circuit Riders, religion changed in America. But it was not only religion in America that was affected, the culture as a whole was shaped by the efforts of these Circuit Riding preachers. Because of these traveling preachers who visited people whom others discounted, a new understanding of religion in the hearts and minds of the common classes emerged in America. As a result, this new religion in which laity had an equal voice helped shape the enduring ideals of social equality and democracy in America.
Peter Cartwright was among the greatest of these early Circuit Riders. In his autobiography, Cartwright writes, “Many nights, in early times, the itinerant had to camp out, without fire or food for man or beast. Our pocket Bible, hymn Book, and Discipline constituted our library. It is true we could not, many of us, conjugate a verb or parse a sentence, and murdered the King’s English almost every lick. But there was a Divine unction that attended the word preached, and thousands fell under the mighty power of God, and thus the Methodist Episcopal Church was planted firmly in the Western Wilderness, and many glorious signs have followed, and will follow, to the end of time…. From the time I had joined the traveling ranks in 1804 to 1820-21, a period of sixteen years, from thirty-two traveling preachers, we had increased to two hundred and eighty… and there was not a single literary man among the preachers.”
Like Lincoln, Cartwright had moved westward to Illinois after a childhood in Kentucky. In addition to his preaching activities, Cartwright served two terms in the Illinois State Legislature, having defeated Lincoln who had also stood for the office. Cartwright stood in opposition to Lincoln for the office of U.S. Congress in 1846. This time Lincoln prevailed, and the rest is history.
There can be no doubt of Cartwright’s influence on Lincoln. John Wesley Hill, a friend of Lincoln, writes in his book “Abraham Lincoln - Man of God”: "In August 1837, Mr. Lincoln, with six other lawyers and two doctors, went in a bad wagon from Springfield to Salem to attend a camp-meeting. On the way Lincoln cracked jokes about the horses, the wagon, the lawyers, the doctors – indeed about nearly everything. At the camp-meeting, Dr. Peter Akers, like Peter Cartwright, a great Bible preacher of his day, then in the fullness of his powers, preached a sermon on 'The Dominion of Jesus Christ.’ The object of the sermon was to show that the dominion of Christ could not come in America until American slavery was wiped out, and that the institution of slavery would at last be destroyed by civil war. For three hours the preacher enrolled his argument and even gave graphic pictures of the war that was to come. ‘I am not a prophet nor the son of a prophet,’ said he, ‘but a student of the prophets. As I read prophecy, American slavery will come to an end in some near decade, I think in the sixties.’”