The Circuit preacher

Timothy Shay Arthur, 1851

The Methodist circuit-preacher is in the way of seeing human nature in many rare and curious aspects. Under the itinerating system, the United States are divided into conferences, districts, and circuits. The conference usually embraces a State, the district a certain division of the State or conference, and the circuit a portion of the district. To every circuit is assigned a preacher, who is expected to provide himself with a horse, and his duty is to pass around his circuit regularly at appointed seasons through the year, and meet the members of the church at the various places of worship established on the circuit. Every year, he attends the annual conference of preachers, and is liable to be assigned a new circuit, in the selection of which, as a general thing, he has no choice the district making all the appointments; and so, term after term, he goes to a new place, among strangers. Before any strong attachments can be formed, the relation between him and his people is severed; and he begins, as it were, life anew, hundreds of miles away, it may be, from any former field of labour. To a married man, this system is one involving great self-denial and sacrifice, assuming often a painful character.

In those circuits that embrace wealthy and populous sections of the country, the Methodist minister is well taken care of; but there are many other sections, where the people are not only very poor, but indifferent to matters of religion, ignorant in the extreme, and not over-burdened with kind or generous feelings. On circuits of this character, the preacher meets sometimes with pretty rough treatment; and if, for his year's service, a single man is able to get by on fifty or sixty dollars, he may think himself pretty well off.

To one of these hard circuits, a preacher, whom we shall call the Rev. Mr. Odell, of the New Jersey conference, found himself assigned by the bishop who presided at the annual conference. The change was felt as pretty severe, he having been on a comfortable station for two years; but as he must take the evil with the good, he conscientiously repressed all natural regrets and murmurings, and, as in duty bound, started, at the close of the conference, for his new field of labor. A day or two before leaving, and after the appointments were announced, Mr. Odell said to the brother who had ridden that circuit during the previous year "So, I am to follow in your footsteps?"

"It appears so," was the brief reply.

"How did you like the circuit?"

"I am very well pleased to leave."

"Not much encouragement in that answer."

"We can't all have good places. Some of us must take our turn in the highways and byways of the land."

"True; I am not disposed to complain. I have taken up the cross, and mean to bear it to the end, if possible, without a murmur."

"As we all should. Well, brother Odell, if you pass the year on the circuit without a murmur, your faith and firmness will be strong. I can assure you that it will be more than I did a great deal more."

"I have been among some pretty rough people in my time."

"So have I; but " and he checked himself; "however, I will not prejudice your mind; it would be wrong. They do as well, I suppose, as they know how, and the best can do no more."

"Truly said. And the more crude, ignorant, and selfish they are the more need they have of gospel instruction, and the more willing should we be to break the bread of life for them. If our Master had not even 'where to lay his head,' it ill becomes us to murmur because every natural good is not spread out before us."

In this state of mind, Odell went to his new circuit. Having deposited his family, consisting of a wife and one child, in the little village of S , with a kind brother, who offered them a home at a mere nominal board, he mounted his horse and started forth on a three weeks' tour among the members of the church to whom he was to minister, during the next twelve months, in holy things. The first preaching-place was ten miles distant, and the little meeting-house stood on the roadside, nearly a mile from any dwelling, and in an exceedingly poor district of country.

Before leaving town, Mr. Odell made inquiries of the brother at whose house he was staying, in regard to the route he was to take, and the people among whom he was going. As to the route, all that was made satisfactory enough; but the account given of the people was not encouraging in a very high degree.

"The fact is," said the brother, rather warmly, "it's my opinion that they don't deserve to have the gospel preached among them."

To this, however, the preacher very naturally demurred, and said that he was not sent to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.

"Where will I stop tonight?" he inquired. It was Saturday afternoon, and on Sunday morning he was to preach at his first appointment.

"Well," said the brother, slowly and thoughtfully, "I can tell you where you ought to stop, but I don't know you will be so welcome there as at a poorer place. Brother Martin is better able to entertain the preachers comfortably than anyone else in that section; but I believe he has never invited them home, and they have generally gone to the house of a good widow-lady, named Russell, whose barrel of meal and cruse of oil deserve never to fail. She is about the only real Christian among them."

"Is brother Martin a farmer?"

"Yes, and comfortably off; but how he ever expects to get his load of selfishness into Heaven, is more than I can tell."

"You must not be uncharitable, brother," said Odell.

"I know that; but truth is truth. However, you must see and judge for yourself. I think you had better go to the house of sister Russell, who will welcome you with all her heart, and give you the best she has."

"And I want no more," said the preacher.

After getting precise directions for finding sister Russell, he started on his journey. It was nearly five o'clock, and he made his calculation to reach sister Russell's by seven, where he would remain all night, and go with her to the preaching-place on Sunday morning. He had not, however, been half an hour on his journey, before heavy masses of dark clouds began to roll up from the horizon and spread over the sky; and before he had accomplished half the distance he was going, large drops of rain began to fall, as the beginning of a heavy storm. The preacher was constrained to turn aside and seek the shelter of a farm-house, where he was received with much kindness.

Night-fall brought no abatement of the tempest. The lightning still blazed out in broad masses of fire, the thunder jarred and rattled amid the clouds like parks of artillery, and the rain continued to pour down unceasingly. The invitation to remain all night, which the farmer and his wife offered in all sincerity, was not, of course, declined by the preacher.

In the morning, after being served with a plentiful breakfast, Odell returned his warmest thanks for the kindness he had received, and proceeded on his journey. He had five miles to ride; but it was only half-past eight o'clock when he started, and as the hour for preaching was ten, there was plenty of time for him to proceed at his leisure. As sister Russell lived nearly a mile away from a direct course, he did not turn aside to call upon her, but went on to the meeting-house. On reaching the little country church, Mr. Odell found a small company of men assembled in front of the humble building, who looked at him curiously, and with something of shyness in their manner, as he rode up and dismounted. No one offering to take his horse, he led him aside to a little grove and tied the reins to a tree. One or two of the men nodded, distantly, as he passed them on his way to the meeting-house door, but none of them spoke to him.

On entering the meeting-house, Mr. Odell found some thirty people assembled, most of them women. If there were any "official members" present, they made themselves in no way known to the preacher, who, after pausing at the door leading into the little altar or chancel for a short time, and looking around with an expression of inquiry on his face, ascended the pulpit-stairs and took his seat. All was as silent, almost, as if the house had been tenantless.

In a little while, the preacher arose and gave out a hymn; but there was no one to raise the tune. One looked at another uneasily; sundry people coughed and cleared their throats, but all remained silent. Odell was not much of a singer, but had practiced on "Old Hundred" so much, that he could lead that tune very well; and the hymn happening, by good luck, to be set to a long-metre tune, he was able to start it. This done, the congregation joined in, and the singing went off pretty well.

After praying and reading a chapter in the Bible, Odell sat down to collect his thoughts for the sermon, which was, of course, to be extempore, as Methodist sermons usually are. It is customary for the choir, if there is one, to sing an anthem during this pause; or, where no singers are set apart, for some members to strike up an appropriate hymn, in which the congregation joins. On this occasion, all was silent.

After the lapse of a few minutes, Mr. Odell arose, and turning, in the Bible, to the chapter where the text, from which he was to preach, was recorded, read the verse that was to form the groundwork of his remarks. Before opening the subject, he stated, briefly, that he was the preacher who was to labor among them during the ensuing year, and hoped, in the Divine Providence, that good, both to them and to him, would result from the new spiritual relations that were about to be commenced. Then proceeding with his discourse, he preached to and exhorted them with great earnestness, but without seeming to make any impression. Not an "amen" was heard from any part of the house; not an eye grew moist; not an audible groan or sigh disturbed the air. Nothing responded to his appeals but the echo of his own voice.

Never had the preacher delivered a discourse in which he felt so little freedom of speech. His words came back upon his ears with a kind of a dull reverberation, as if the hearts of his hearers were of ice, instead of flesh.

Before singing the last hymn, which Mr. Odell gave out at the conclusion of the sermon, he announced that he would hold a class-meeting. After he had finally pronounced the benediction, there was a general movement towards the door; only seven remained, and these were all female members, most of them pretty well advanced in their life-journey. Mr. Martin was at the meeting, but before the preacher had descended the pulpit-stairs, he was out of the house and preparing to leave for home.

"Where is the new preacher going?" asked a member, of Mr. Martin, as he led out his horse.

"To sister Russell's, I presume."

"Sister Russell is not here."

"Isn't she?"

"No; she's sick."

"He stayed there last night, I suppose, and will go back after class." Martin sprang upon his horse as he said this.

"We ought to be sure of it," remarked the other.

"I can't invite him home," said Martin. "If I do, I shall have him through the whole year, and that is not convenient. The preachers have always stayed at sister Russell's, and there is no reason why they shouldn't continue to do so."

"I haven't a corner to put him in," remarked the other. "Besides, these preachers are too particular for me."

"It's all right, no doubt," said Martin, as he balanced himself in his saddle; "all right. He stayed at sister Russell's last evening, and will go back and stay there until tomorrow morning." And, with this self-satisfying remark, the farmer rode away.

The man with whom he had been talking, was, like him, a member; and, like him, had omitted to attend class, in order to shift off upon someone else, the burden of entertaining the new preacher; for whoever first offered him the hospitalities of his house and table, would most probably have to do it through the year. He, too, rode off, and left others to see that the preacher was duly cared for. An icy coldness pervaded the class-meeting.

Only four, out of the seven sisters, one of whom was an old black woman, could muster up courage enough to tell, in answer to the preacher's call, the "dealings of God" with their souls; and only two of them could effect an utterance louder than a whisper. What they did say had in it but little coherence, and Mr. Odell had to content himself with an exhortation to each, of a general rather than a particular character. When the hymn was sung at the close, only one thin voice joined in the song of praise, and not a sob or sigh was heard in response to his prayer.

The class-paper showed the names of thirty members, but here were only seven! This was rather discouraging for a commencement. Mr. Odell hardly knew what course to take; whether to stir up with some pretty sharp remarks the little company of believers who were present, and thus seek to impress the whole through them; or to wait until he came around again, and have a good chance at them from the pulpit. He concluded in the end, that the last course might be the best one.

In calling over the names on the class-paper he found that sister Russell was absent. On dismissing the meeting, all except the old black woman retired. She lingered, however, to shake hands with the new preacher, and to show him that, if she was old, her teeth were good, and her eyes bright and lively.

On emerging into the open air, Odell saw the last of his flock slowly retiring from the scene of worship. For two of the women, their husbands had waited on the outside of the meeting-house, and they had taken into their wagons two other women who lived near them. These wagons were already in motion, when the preacher came out followed by the old black woman, who it now appeared, had the key of the meeting-house door, which she locked.

"Then you are the sexton, Aunty," remarked Odell, with a smile.

"Yes, massa, I keeps de key."

"Well, Nancy," said Odell, who had already made up his mind what he would do, "I am going home to dinner with you."

"Me, massa!" Old Nancy looked much surprised.

"Yes. You see they've all gone and left me, and I feel hungry. You'll give me some of your dinner?"

"Yes, massa! I'll give you all of it but, it's only pork and hominy."

"Very good; and it will be all the sweeter because I am welcome."

"Indeed massa, and you is welcome, five hundred times over! But it was a downright shame for all de white folks to go off so. I never seed such people."

"Never mind, Nancy, don't trouble yourself; I shall be well enough taken care of. I'll trust to you for that."

And so Mr. Odell mounted his horse, and accompanied the old woman home. She lived rather over a mile from the meeting-house and the way was past the comfortable residence of Mr. Martin. The latter did not feel altogether satisfied with himself as he rode home. He was not certain that the preacher had stayed at sister Russell's the night before. He might have ridden over since morning. This suggestion caused him to feel rather more uneasy in mind; for, if this were the case, it was doubtful whether, after class was over, there would be anyone to invite him home.

"What kind of a man is the new preacher?" asked Mrs. Martin of her husband, on his return from meeting.

"He seemed like a very good sort of man," replied Martin, indifferently.

"Is he young or old?"

"He's about my age, I would think."


"I'm sure I don't know."

"Did you speak to him?"

"No, I came away after the sermon."

"Then you didn't stop to go to class?"


"Sister Russell was not there, of course?"

"No; she's sick."

"So I heard. The preacher didn't stay at her house last night."

"How do you know?"

"Mrs. Williams called in while you were away. She had just been to sister Russell's."

"And the new preacher didn't stay at her house last night?"

"No. Mrs. Williams asked particularly."

"He must have ridden over this morning. I am sorry I didn't wait and ask him to come home and stay with us."

"I wish you had. Sister Russell is too sick to have him at her house, if he should go there. Who stayed to class-meeting?"

"Not over half a dozen, and they were all women. I left Bill Taylor and Harry Chester waiting outside for their wives."

"They wouldn't ask him home."

"No; and if they did, I would be sorry to have him go there. I wish I had stayed in, and invited him home. But it can't be helped now, and there's no use in fretting over it."

Soon after this, dinner was announced, and the farmer sat down with his family to a table loaded with good and substantial things. He ate and enjoyed himself; though not as highly as he would have done, had not thoughts of the new preacher intruded themselves.

After dinner, Martin took a comfortable nap, which lasted about an hour. He then went out and took a little walk. While standing at the gate, which opened from his farm on to the county road, a man, who lived half a mile below, came along. This man was not a member of any church, and took some delight, at times, in having his jest with professors of religion.

"Fine afternoon, Mr. Ellis," said Martin, as the man stopped.

"Very fine. How are you all?"

"Quite well. Any news stirring?"

"Why, no, not much. Only they say that the Methodists around here have all joined the Amalgamation Society."

"Who says so?" inquired Martin, slightly coloring.

"Well, they say it down our way. I thought it was only a joke, at first. But a little while after dinner, Aunt Nancy's Tom came over to my house for some oats and hay for your new minister's horse. He said the preachers were going to stop at the old woman's after this. I half-doubted the rascal's story, though I let him have the provender. Sure enough, as I came along just now, who should I see but the preacher sitting before the door of old Nancy's log-hut, as much at home as if his skin were the color of ebony. These are rather strange doings, friend Martin; I don't know what folks will say."

We will not pause to describe the astonishment and confusion of Martin, on learning this, but step down to Aunt Nancy's, where Odell, after dining on pork and hominy, with the addition of potatoes and corn-bread, was sitting in the shade before the log cabin of the old negro. The latter was busy as a bee inside in preparation of something for the preacher's supper, that she thought would be more suited to his mode of living and appetite, than pork, corn-bread, and hominy.

Odell was rather more inclined to feel amused than annoyed at his new position. Aunt Nancy's dinner had tasted very good; and had been sweetened rather than spoiled by the old creature's loquacious kindness, and concern lest what she had to set before him would not be relished. While he thus sat musing the subject of his thoughts is of no particular consequence to be known his attention was arrested by hearing Aunt Nancy exclaim

"Here comes Massa Martin!"

The preacher turned his head and saw a man approaching with the decided and rather quick step of one who had something on his mind.

"Is that brother Martin?" asked Mr. Odell, calling to Aunt Nancy, who was near the window of her hut.

"Yes, please goodness! Wonder what he coming here about."

"We'll soon see," returned the preacher, composing himself in his chair.

In a few minutes, the farmer, looking sadly "flustered," arrived at the door of the old negro's humble hut. Odell kept his seat with an air of entire self-possession and unconcern, and looked at the newcomer as he would have done at any other stranger.

"Mr. Odell, the new preacher on this circuit?" said Martin, in a respectful manner, as he advanced towards the minister.

"Yes, sir," replied Odell, without rising or evincing any surprise at the question.

"I am very sorry indeed, sir! very sorry," began Martin in a deprecating and troubled voice, "that you should have been so badly neglected as you were today. I had no idea I never once thought the preachers have always stayed at sister Russell's I took it for granted that you were there. To think you should not have been invited home by anyone! I am mortified to death."

"Oh, no," returned the preacher, smiling; "it is not quite so bad as that. Our good old sister here very kindly offered me the hospitalities of her humble home, which I accepted gratefully. No one could be kinder to me than she has been no one could have given me a warmer welcome."

"But but," stammered forth Martin, "this is no place for a preacher to stay."

"A far better place than my Lord and Master had. The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man has no where to lay his head. The servant must not seek to be greater than his Lord."

"But my dear sir! my house is a far more suitable and congenial home for you," urged the distressed brother Martin. "You must go home with me at once. My wife is terribly hurt about the matter. She would have come over for you herself, but she is not very well today."

"Tell the good sister," replied Odell, affecting not to know the individual before him, "that I am so comfortable here; that I cannot think of changing my quarters. Besides, after Aunt Nancy has been so kind as to invite me home, and provide for both me and my horse, when no one else took the least notice of me, nor seemed to care whether I got the shelter of a roof or a mouthful of food it would not be right for me to turn away from her because a more comfortable place is offered."

It was in vain that Martin argued and persuaded. The preacher's mind was made up to stay where he was. And he did stay with Aunt Nancy until the next morning, when, after praying with the old lady and giving her his blessing, he started on his journey.

When, at the end of four weeks, Mr. Odell again appeared at the little meeting-house, you may be sure he was received with marked attention. Martin was the most forward of all, and, after preaching and class-meeting there was a pretty full attendance at both took the minister home with him. Ever since that time, the preachers have been entertained at his house.