My reading habits wander from book to book, often prompted by a reference in one book guiding me to another. It makes for eclectic reading through various genres and eras, usually weighted toward my interests in history, biography, and missions. Such a process led me to The Autobiography of Peter Cartwright – considered by many the classic memoir of a circuit-riding preacher. Cartwright lived an amazing life. His exploits and opinions, stories, and perspectives are inspirational, humbling, and often laugh-out-loud funny. His first-hand account of events in the Second Great Awakening are unparalleled – a remarkable reporting of one of the most important religious revivals in American history.
One theme which pulsates through Cartwright’s life is his passion for ministry and his dependence on the Holy Spirit to sustain him. He wrote it this way:
“A Methodist preacher in those days, when he felt that God had called him to preach, instead of hunting up a college or a Biblical institute, hunted up a hardy pony of a horse, and some traveling apparatus, and with his library always at hand, namely, Bible, Hymn Book, and Discipline, he started, and with a text that never wore out nor grew stale, he cried ‘Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world.’ In this way, he went through storms of wind, hail, snow, and rain; climbed hills and mountains, traversed valleys, plunged through swamps, swam swollen streams, layout all night, wet, weary, and hungry, held his horse by the bridle all night, or tied him to a limb, slept with his saddle blanket for a bed, his saddle or saddlebags for his pillow, and his old big coat or blanket, if he had any for a covering. Often he slept in dirty cabins, on earthen floors, before the fire; ate roasting ears for bread, drank buttermilk for coffee, or sage tea for imperial; took, with a hearty zest, deer or bear meat, or wild turkey, for breakfast, dinner, and supper, if he could get it. His text was always ready, “Behold the Lamb of God.” This was old-fashioned Methodist preacher fare and fortune. Under such circumstances who would now say “Here am I, Lord send me?’”
Today, we are much more sophisticated in our approach. A church planter recently told me, for example, he needed to be assured of a significant annual compensation package before he could take the risk to plant a new church. Another young minister laid out his terms for considering any position – including salary, work schedule, and time constraints he insisted must be in place to protect his family – and asked me for the best way to communicate this to churches who might be interested in his services.
While reasonable compensation is appreciated and comfortable work environments are a blessing, Cartwright’s call to sacrifice needs to be heard in our generation. Passion for ministry today may not require “a hardy pony of a horse” or sleeping “on earthen floors” but it still requires leaders who will set aside personal privileges and expectations to advance God’s kingdom.
At a seminary like Gateway, we know the breadth and depth of our message is more than “Behold the Lamb of God” but surely it is never less than that. In our sophistication, it’s easy to forget our most important role is gospel herald, not gospel interpreter or even gospel defender.
Peter Cartwright represents thousands of circuit-riding preachers who took the gospel into every nook and cranny of an emerging nation. Their passion for ministry propelled them; the call to personal sacrifice compelled them. May God give us similar passion, translated into the sacrifices needed in our contexts to share the gospel with a nation – and a world – in need of this hope-filled message.
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