One of the requirements that I had to meet when completing Drivers Ed in high school was 6 hours of driving. Some of this was done in a simulator but I still had to get in a car and do some actual driving. Because of my schedule, I did this driving after school with a Shelby County Deputy Sheriff as my instructor.
Each day, I would meet him at the car, and he would tell me to just start driving. Now, because my family had just moved to the Memphis area, I did not know a whole lot about the area, so I drove on the roads I knew.
For four days, I left the high school, dropped down to Stage Road and headed east toward the intersection of Stage Road with Austin Peay and Jackson. When I got to the intersection, I would turn right onto Austin Peay and drive out to the Naval Air Station at Millington and then turn around and drive back home. It was a straight road with one turn, no stop signs, probably one traffic light, and virtually no traffic.
So it was that on my last day of driving, as I prepared to make my usual right hand turn onto Austin Peay, the Deputy told me to make a left hand turn onto Jackson. This was territory into which I had never gone; I had no idea what I might encounter in the ways of stop signs or stop lights or other traffic. But I made the turn and headed into the unknown territory of Jackson Avenue. And as we approached the first of two bridges, the Deputy told me to take a right and go under the bridge. This would allow me to turn around and head for home.
Clearly, what the Deputy was doing was getting me used to traffic and driving in unfamiliar situations.
One can only imagine what the people gathered at Jerusalem on Pentecost must have thought when they were told to take the Gospel message beyond the constraints of Jerusalem.
Clearly, they knew that there was a world beyond the boundaries of their daily lives. The list of various nationalities that were there on Pentecost tells us this.
The Roman Empire had built a network of roads to connect the empire. They had built the roads to allow the rapid transport of military units to maintain the Pax Romana, but these roads would also allow Paul and the other disciples to take the Gospel message from Jerusalem to the other parts of the Empire.
So those gathered knew that there was a world outside Jerusalem but that would not tell them how they would be received when they presented the Good News.
Did they remember the story of Abram and Sarai leaving the Ur valley for an unknown land with only a promise that it would be a good land? Or did they fear the consequences of leaving home and becoming enslaved like the sons of Jacob who traveled to Egypt?
Tradition tells us that 11 of the 12 disciples (Matthias having been chosen to replace Judas Iscariot) would meet a violent death. Only John Zebedee, the Beloved Disciple, would die a natural death, though in exile on the island of Patmos.
In addition, we know that there were internal conflicts among Christians about the nature of Christianity. At first it was an internal dispute that focused on the nature of Christianity, but over the years we would see the original church split into the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox churches which was later followed by the Protestant Reformation and further splits in that the various denominations we have today. Internal divisions in the church seem to be a part of our faith tradition but these divisions were never about the mission of the church, but it always seemed to focus on the how and not the why.
The tradition of taking the Gospel message to the people is also very much a part of our Methodist tradition. It was the Methodist circuit rider who took the message to the people of first the thirteen colonies and then the newly formed states. We see the results of those efforts today. Many of the United Methodist Churches in the Hudson Valley were once a stop on a circuit.
Circuit riders had to be young, in good health, and single (since marriage and a family forced preachers to settle in one area and leave the traveling ministry). Unlike their counterparts in other denominations, Methodist circuit riders did not have to have a formal education. Leaders of the new church wanted educated, trained circuit riders, but they wanted even more to spread their ministry to people on the frontier who needed Christian guidance.
Circuit riders rarely served longer than one or two years in a circuit before being appointed to a new circuit. This gave the preachers an opportunity to reuse their sermons and to perfect their delivery. It also kept them from growing too familiar with the local people and wanting to settle down.
Life was not easy for a circuit rider, partly because living conditions on the frontier were harsh. Often, a stormy night was described as so bad that only crows and Methodist preachers were out.
We can only imagine the troubles and turmoil that the early circuit riders went through. Five hundred of the first six hundred and fifty Methodist circuit-riders retired prematurely from the ministry. Nearly one fourth of the first eight hundred ministers who died were under the age of thirty-five. Over one hundred and twenty-five itinerants were between the ages of thirty-five and forty-five when they died: and over half of the eight hundred died before they reached thirty! About two hundred traveling preachers died within the first five years of their entrance into the ministry and nearly two thirds died before they had preached twelve years.
The traveling minister in the Methodist Church was noted for his self-sacrificing spirit. He endured hardships in the ministry which few men of the present age can fathom. Richard Hofstadter, the widely respected American historian, once stated,
“The bulwark and the pride of the early American Methodists were the famous circuit-riding preachers who made up in mobility, flexibility, courage, hard work, and dedication what they might lack in ministerial training or dignity. These itinerants were justly proud of the strenuous sacrifices they made to bring the gospel to the people.”
It was their devotion to God and America that kept them going. It was a demanding life, as one early preacher wrote,
Every day I travel, I have to swim through creeks or swamps, and I am wet from head to feet, and some days from morning to night I am dripping with water. My horse’s legs are now skinned and rough to his hock joints, and I have rheumatism in all my joints. . . what I have suffered in body and mind my pen is not able to communicate to you.
As the preacher continued, he tells why he suffered as he did,
But this I can tell say, while my body is wet with water and chilled with cold, my soul is filled with heavenly fire, and I can say with Saint Paul, ‘But none of these things shall move me. Neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy. (“Nothing But Crows and Methodist Preachers”)
Enoch George, who later became a bishop in the Methodist Episcopal Church, said that serving the Pamlico Circuit (NC) in 1790 and 1791, he “was chilled by agues [malaria], burned by fevers, and, in sickness or health, beclouded by mosquitoes.”
The lifestyle of the early Methodist traveling preacher perished with the settlement and growth of the nation; however, their dedication remained an inspiration to every generation.
The one thing that ties our circuit riding forbears to the disciples in Jerusalem is/was the presence of the Holy Spirit that empowered them to go out into the world, relying on local travel knowledge as accurate maps did not exist, and not knowing who or what they may encounter.
We no longer have the traditional circuit riders but there is still a need to bring the Gospel message to the people. And while we may know the territory into which we will take the Message, at times it is just as inhospitable as anything our circuit riding forbearers or the first disciples ever encountered.
If you have been following the news of the UMC, you know that the General Conference scheduled for 2020 was postponed and is not scheduled to meet until next year. And the primary topic for this General Conference will be whether we as a faith can continue to be known as “United Methodists.”
There are those who call themselves “United Methodists” but whose words, thoughts, deeds, and actions reflect a more fundamentalist and legalistic approach. They are requesting/demanding that radical changes be made to the nature of Methodism. These individuals will say that they are reforming the United Methodist Church and returning it to its Wesleyan roots. But while John Wesley was attempting to reform his church, the Anglican Church, and he never intended to create a new church, these “reformers” are intent on destroying the present United Methodist Church.
As Reverend Paul Chilcote noted in “5 Reasons to Stay in the United Methodist Church, (https://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2022/04/15/5-reasons-to-stay-in-the-united-methodist-church-by-paul-chilcote/; see also Why Stay? – Stay UMC – https://www.stayumc.com/about/), their words sound more like something a Baptist would draft, not the words of a United Methodist.
I will be so bold as to say these individuals are not interested in the Gospel but power. They want to tell us what to believe and how to believe. They want to tell us who can preach and who can come into the sanctuary. And, if you should choose to defy their edicts, they want to take you to an ecclesiastical court and then banish you from the faith.
We know that John Wesley initially favored a faith with a legalistic and structured approach (why do you think we are called Methodists?). But it was an approach that did not work, and it was only when John Wesley went to the Chapel on Aldersgate Street and accepted the Holy Spirit that the movement that became known as the Methodist Revival began to succeed.
Notwithstanding differences between denominations, the fundamental message of Christianity remains the same. As Clarence Jordan noted,
“It seems to me that we Christians have an idea here that the world is tremendously in need of. When we’re tottering fearfully on the brink of utter annihilation, looking so desperately for hope from somewhere, walking in deep darkness, looking for one little streak of light, do not we Christians have some light? Can’t we say, ‘Sure, we know the way. It’s the way of love and of peace. We shall not confront the world with guns in our hands and bombs behind our backs. We shall confront the world without fear, with utter helplessness except for the strength of God.” – Clarence Jordan, The God Movement, The Substance of Faith
A few years back it looked like I might have to leave the denomination. But I made the decision to stay. In part, it was because I could see no other denomination where I might fit in. But the decision to stay lie also in what the denomination had done for me.
As a chemist, I know how to answer questions that deal with how things are done; as a Christian, I seek to answer questions about why. In that regard, I had pastors who taught me, guided me, and helped me find the answers to the questions I was asking.
Without their teaching and guidance, I may never have understood the nature of God’s call or realize that one day some years later I needed to do more than simply say that I am a Christian and a Methodist.
Three hundred and fifty years ago, when John Wesley and his friends began what became known as the Methodist Revival, the conditions for a violent revolution in England were present. It is a matter of the historical record that the Methodist revival, which began after Aldersgate, prevented the type of violent revolution that swept over France at the same time.
And in today’s world marked by more violence, where wars are waging and poverty, homelessness, and sickness are more and more part of our lives, where people are excluded because of their race or identity, more and more people are asking “why”.
Where will those seeking answers to their questions find them?
We are being called.
As Pentecost approaches, we are being called.
We are being called to help people find answers to their questions of why?
We are being called to answer the question, “Where is God in the world out there?”
We are being called to take the Good News into the world out there.
We are being called to tell the world out there that there is a better way, a way of love and peace, a way where all succeed, where pain is relieved, where injustice is overcome, where repression is banished to the 11th level of Sheol, never to escape.
We are being called to go outside our comfort zone and into the world out there.
We are being called.
Yes, it was scary when that Deputy Sheriff told me to “turn left at the light” and go into unknown territory. But I trusted that he knew what he was doing. He had watched me drive for four days and knew what I could do.
Those gathered in Jerusalem two thousand years ago were told to wait until the Holy Spirit had come and empowered them.
I remember that first summer when a District Superintendent asked to me lead a series of churches for ten weeks. And while I may not have known it at that time, I have come to know that every time I stepped up to the pulpit, I did not do it alone, for the Holy Spirit was there with me.
And as we go into the world out there, we know that we do not go alone. We go with our friends, and we go empowered by the Holy Spirit.
The world out there awaits the Good News, so go in peace, and take the Word.
Notes on the history of circuit riders –
“Into the Wilderness: Circuit Riders Take Religion to the People”, Jordan Fred, Jr., Spring, 1998 (https://www.ncpedia.org/anchor/wilderness-circuit-riders)
“Methodist circuit-riders in America, 1776 – 1844, William A. Powell, Jr., 1977 (https://scholarship.richmond.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1836&context=masters-theses)
Elmer T. Clark, Album of Methodist History (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1932), p. 107.
Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Vintage Books, 1963), p. 95.
Methodist Revival and the non-English Revolution
http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/367 disputes this notion