THROUGH HELL ON HORSEBACK:
FLORIDA CIRCUIT RIDERS
John W. Cowart
When he returned home from preaching, the Rev. Tilman D. Peurifoy discovered a horror.
While the 19th century Florida Methodist circuit rider had been spreading the gospel of peace, Seminole Indians had attacked his home.
In a letter dated February 12, 1839, Peurifoy told a friend what he found:
My precious children, Lorick, Pierce and Elizabeth, were killed and burned up in the house. My dear wife was shot, stabbed and stamped, seemingly to death, in the yard.
But after the wretches went to pack up their plunder, she revived, and crawled off from the sceen of death to suffer a thousand deaths during the dreadful night which she spent alone by the side of a pond bleeding at four bullet holes and more than a dozen stabs – three deep gashes to the bone on her head, and three stabs through the ribs, besides a number of smaller cuts and bruises.
She is yet living, and, O help me pray that she may still live… Pray for me. When I think of the wickedness of the people of this country, the flood of vice that sweeps over the land from the Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico, I cannot be surprised that it streams with blood; but why this upon my precious family, I am not able to resolve.
That account and other historical information for the preparation of this story was supplied by the Rev. Roland D. Vanzant, superintendent of the Jacksonville district of the United Methodist Church.
Early circuit riders were encouraged to keep a daily record of all they saw and did, Vanzant said. These diaries and journals give a vivid picture of how Methodism came to Florida.
A 19th-Century Class Leader’s Manual attempted to prepare traveling preachers like Peurifoy for what they would face:
“In a world cursed by sin, and peopled with sinners, it cannot be expected that the instrumentalities employed for the diffusion of truth and godliness will meet with no resistance, or that those who are personally engaged in this work will encounter no difficulties”.
Spain ceded Florida to the United States in 1821. To encourage settlement, Congress offered 160 acres of land to any man who would bring a rifle and so many pounds of ammunition and build a house on that tract.
Hopeful farmers, land speculators and outright rogues – anyone who could afford a rifle and ammunition – poured into the newly opened territory.
The early Methodist preachers adopted the motto: Wherever men can go for money, we can go for the love of Christ and for souls.
Wherever they found people, they preached.
They rode horseback from house to house and settlement to settlement bringing the good news to people – many of whom had never previously heard a sermon. Circuit riders preached at family hearths, timber camps and quilting bees. In towns they even mounted the scaffolds at public hangings.
At the time the population density of Florida was two to six inhabitants per square mile. And the diaries of circuit riders often speak of 40-mile treks through road less swamps and palmetto clumps without seeing a single house.
And when they arrived at a home, it was floored with dirt and “built by driving four forked poles into the ground, for plates, rafters, etc., the same kind of poles, these fastened with withes or vines; thatching the sides and roofs with the broad palmetto leaves, the house was complete and fit for the habitation of man,” said John C. Ley, who rode a North Florida circuit for 52 years.
Ley’s comments were drawn from his journal.
Most Florida pioneers welcomed the traveling preachers to their simple homes as sources of news and entertainment as well as spiritual counsel.
And the settlers extended their hospitality as best they could.
The Rev. John W. Talley’s diary mentions a feast offered by a family he stayed with:
“Fed upon musty corn bread, the meal beaten in a mortar, and the tough lungs of a deer fried in rancid bacon grease and corn coffee sweetened with sirup”.
Yellow fever, tuberculosis, lack of roads and hazards such as rattlesnakes and bandits hindered the preachers’ work.
Their diaries record other hardships that they encountered:
Ticks – “The ticks indeed, which are innumerable, are a little troublesome: they burrow in the flesh and raise pimples which are sometimes quite alarming and look like the effects of a very disagreeable disorder. But they are nothing when opposed to my affection for my Lord, one said.
Loneliness – “I often think of my father’s house; I know I could find a lodging place there; but I am far away from home and among strangers, and some who appear to be unfriendly toward me. But I remember that my Master before me had not where to lay his head. I am better treated than he was… I preached from the Psalm,’ another said.
Weather – “May 25, 1829, while riding through the rain and dark, with no human being with me, my soul was comforted on the reflection of the omnipresence of my Saviour: I felt he was near to bless and preserve me,” wrote Isaac Boring, who rode the St. Augustine, Fernandina, Jacksonville, Palatka, Gainesville, Lake City, Micanopy circuit in the 1829s.
Indians – The National Intelligencer newspaper for November 15, 1817, said, “The Indians are incorrigible in their cruelties. They are naturally enemies to a civilized state society, as it destroys their independence. They resemble wolves, who would rather be exterminated than domesticated”.
Boring developed a plan for reaching the Seminoles.
“I intend first to preach to the blacks among them (Many runaway slaves took refuge among the Seminoles and spoke their language.) I am in hopes that if the blacks who can understand English will hear preaching, they will influence the Indians to hear me.
“I go to them not knowing what will be the consequences. I hope it is of the Lord and the Lord will open the door for his Gospel to be preached to this nations of Indians”.
He gathered a congregation of 50 in this manner. “At the close of the service, many came forward with tears in their eyes to bid me farewell,” he said.
Later, he conferred with Seminole chiefs Tuskenahhah, Olack-limoco and John Hicks, who was the mot powerful of the three leaders.
Chief Hicks “observed that I was traveling alone among them. (And that) I was certainly trying to do them some good”.
But, “He replied that he had been opposed to preaching and was determined to continue so.
“I then told him that persons who would not hear the good word and continued to do bad displeased the Almighty, and when they died would go to the bad world.
“To this he replied that many whites did not attend to the Good Talk and that they were as wicked as himself…
“What a lamentable truth!” Boring wrote.
Disappointment – “Wednesday, March 18, 1830. Rode 45 miles to Paladkey (old spelling for Palatka). Swam horse across the St. Johns River. No one attended preaching,” another circuit rider said in his diary.
One minister said, “My funds being all exhausted, I sold my boots off my feet to purchase provisions with; and after making all the preparations that I could to render my family comfortable, started out again upon my circuit”.
Pain – One circuit rider’s daily journal entry reads only “Pain. Pain. Pain”.
How did they endure such hardship?
Nationally, of the first 737 circuit riders from whom any record remains, nearly half died before they were 30 years old. Most of these preachers were teenagers when they began their ministries and 199 of them died within five years of starting. Two thirds died before serving 20 years.
Yet, the circuit riders thought the Lord they served was worth any sacrifice.
Freeborn Garrettson, who survived 50 years as a circuit rider over much of the East Coast, evaluated his ministry:
“I had often to wade through morasses, half-leg deep in mud and water; frequently satisfying my hunger with a piece of bread and pork from my knapsack, quenching my thirst from a brook, and resting my weary limbs on the leaves of the trees. Thanks be to God! He compensated me for all my toil; for many precious souls were awakened and converted to God”.
Many of the Florida circuit riders were men of vision.
J.N. Glenn, the first Methodist preacher whose work was entirely in Florida, wrote in the December 12, 1823 issue of Methodist Magazine saying, “We hope yet to see the Floridas – which not long since were completely barred against the intrusion of a Protestant minister, but which law is happily removed by the cession of those provinces to the United States – blooming like the Rose of Sharon and producing, under the cultured hand of the Redeemer, fruit which shall rebound to the Glory of God”.
The first session of the Methodist Florida Annual Conference was held in Tallahassee on Feb. 6, 1845. Three weeks later, President John Tyler signed the bill that made Florida a state.
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