Most Christians have heard of the First Great Awakening, the revival that swept across the 13 American colonies in the 1700’s. And some may recognize the name of George Whitefield or John Wesley as leaders within that historic movement. But one group of Christians which God powerfully used in that revival may not be as well-known: these are the circuit riders of the great awakening.
Who were the circuit riders? Before the mid-1700’s, the common way to start churches was to have an appointed priest or pastor settle in a new area and build the congregation by inviting people to attend and slowly adding to its attendance rolls.
The circuit riders were a new paradigm to fit into the challenges of the new world. In America, pioneers and settlers alike were often spread far apart and scattered as the colonies expanded. This was especially true of the frontier regions at the time, in places like the Carolinas. The reasoning behind circuit riding was that the only way to get the news of the Gospel to all the new colonists, and even the native American Indians, was to ride hard to all these distant places and get the Word out to them. These traveling preachers “rode their circuit” as they and their horses journeyed from community to community in their appointed geographical section.
The Methodists, under John Wesley’s leadership, gave birth to this strategy of sending out circuit riders along set routes to visit towns and settlements, preaching at each place for a few days, and then restarting the whole grueling process again from the beginning. George Whitefield practiced this informally as an itinerant evangelist and revivalist from 1739 onwards in the colonies. In just the first 15 months of his preaching, he journeyed over 5000 miles and impacted one quarter of the entire colonial population. God would set Whitefield’s messages alight with Holy Spirit fire, drawing crowds of over 25,000 in Boston and leaving deep spiritual transformation in their wake. He also travelled through North Carolina, planting seeds in coastal towns like New Bern and Bath.
Francis Asbury would later be raised up by God to help found the American Methodist church, and he would organize and propel the idea of circuit riding as a key strategy for their movement. He himself and his teammate Harry Hosier would, over their lifetimes, personally see over 270,000 miles travelled and 16,000 sermons preached. North Carolina benefitted directly from Asbury’s treks as he made many visits to preaching centers in this state.
The typical circuit rider was young, in good health, and unattached. Unlike most other ministers, they were not required to have a lengthy formal education. All they needed was a clear grasp of the Gospel, Holy Spirit fire in their hearts, and the commitment to endure great hardship. This included risks of mosquito-borne illness, sudden storms, predatory bandits, physical fatigue, rejection by hecklers, and extremely low salaries. Each circuit covered an area as large as 500 miles in circumference, typically taking 4 weeks traveling by horse to visit every stop along the route. Each assignment for the rider might last up to 1 year, giving each community along the way a chance to hear from this preacher multiple times over this period.
North Carolina was not a very responsive region when revival first arrived in the 1730’s. Even as late as 1790, only 1 person out of 30 in North Carolina attended any church. The first formal Carolina circuit only began in 1775 with just 3 riders. Yet, by the persistent and mighty moving of the Holy Spirit through the faithful circuit riders, by 1802, North Carolina had 200 circuits with over 350 itinerant preachers to care for the flock that now numbered over 80,000.
Sometimes revival fires take a while to burst into full flame, but it will do so when God’s timing is just right and the heart of the Church is ready.
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