Circuit Rider visits Brundidge Brown Bag

Published 3:00 am Friday, July 20, 2018

The Rev. Ed Shirley, pastor of Brundidge United Methodist Church, and his horse, Butterscotch, were the program guests at the Tupper Lightfoot Memorial Library Brown Bag event Thursday. They were there as a circuit-riding preacher and his trusty horse who rode the trails across the American frontier during the 1770s and late 1800s.

Shirley’s portrayal of a circuit-riding preacher left little doubt that he had the powerful voice and stamina that were required of circuit riders. However, Butterscotch didn’t appear to have what it takes to ride the trail.

Shirley purchased a lifeless Butterscotch at a flea market and a church member brought the horse to life with a screwdriver battery. Butterscotch was semi-active throughout Shirley’s presentation and added much to the tales that unfolded.

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“The first circuit riders appeared in England around 1739,” Shirley said. “But it was not until 1771 that circuit riders appeared in America.  A young man from Birmingham, England, Francis Asbury, organized the circuit riders to help share the Good News with settlers that ‘Jesus Saves,’”

Asbury rode more than 270,000 miles on the circuit and preacher more than 16,000 sermons. He was one of the most dedicated circuit riders and enlisted many others that he felt were qualified to take the Gospel message throughout the American wilderness.

“Before a man could become a circuit rider, he had to answer four questions,” Shirley said. “He was asked if he was truly converted, if he could keep rules, if he could preach effectively and if he had a horse.”

Shirley said the American circuit riders were instrumental in building a foundation of faith in America.

The circuit riders brought settlers together at camp meetings, the first of which was at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, August 6, 1801.

“About 200 settlers were expected at that first camp meeting but people began coming for all directions, from over the mountains and through the valleys until there were 40,000 of them,” Shirley said. “The circuit riders quickly learned, if you want to preach to a crowd, plan a camp meeting.”

Circuit riders traveled light. In their saddlebags they carried a “preaching suit,” a Bible and a hymnal and a pistol for protection from the wilds. Their salaries were about $64 a year so they depended on the generosity of the settlers for food and shelter.

“The life of a circuit rider was hard,” Shirley said. “Not many of them lived beyond age 35. But they carried God’s word all across this country and provided the foundation of faith that we stand on today.”