Circuit Riders, Riding for Christ

circut riderBy John Fulton

The phrase, “…fit for crows and Methodist preachers,” was coined during the early spread of the Methodist Church to refer to Methodist preachers who traveled on horseback. They were called Circuit Riders and preached from town to town, day by day. They had charge of a circuit of churches; it often took three months for them to travel to all the locations. Of necessity, they rode their horses in all kinds of weather, thus the phrase, “This weather is only fit for crows and Methodist preachers,” said Pastor Buff Coe of the Vicksburg United Methodist Church.

Pastor Coe never traveled horseback on his circuit, but after graduating from seminary, he was aassigned a Two-Point Charge. He was pastor of two Methodist churches, one in Dryden and one in Attica. The men who traveled on horseback had to be tough and rugged individuals. They traversed difficult terrain alone and carried everything they would need for months at a time, in the horse’s saddle bags.

Pastor Coe said, “These men only lasted a few years on the circuit because the conditions were so rough; only young men could withstand the harsh conditions.” Circuit riding was rough and dangerous for the horses, too. Most circuit riders hoped for a permanent location by the time they were in their early thirties. Pastor Coe said, “The toll taken on these men is evident in the name of the fund established to take care of them when they were no longer able to be circuit riders. It was called “The Fund for Worn Out Preachers.”

The circuit rider visited each congregation at least once in three months. In the early years, congregations met in barns, schools, or out in the open. They were small and very local. The circuit riders appointed elders to lead the church between visits. The circuit rider position evolved into what today is the district superintendent position in the United Methodist Church. The district superintendent oversees the churches in his or her district, much as the circuit rider did in years past.

The roots of Methodism in Schoolcraft and Vicksburg began as early as 1832, just a couple of years after John Vickers built a grist mill on Portage Creek, in what would later become the village of Vicksburg. Early records show that around 1832, Reverend Erastus Felton, of the Ohio Annual Conference, preached in a schoolhouse outside Schoolcraft as part of his circuit.

Later, Southwest Michigan became part of the Northwest District and James Armstrong was named presiding elder. In 1840, the Vicksburg District was formed and Franklin Gage was the first appointed pastor. Meetings were held in the Gourdneck Lake area. Worship services in Vicksburg proper began around 1843, and the circuit was called the Schoolcraft and Vicksburg Circuit. Eventually, in 1879, the two towns were set apart and each had its own church.

For many years, worship services were held in the old Finley Hotel. As the churches grew, they began to look for a permanent facility. The result was the Vicksburg United Methodist Church building on S. Main Street, completed in 1870. As new church congregations became established, they were appointed a pastor, and the circuit riders rode off into the sunset.

Leave a Reply