Peter Cartwright, Legendary Frontier Preacher
by Robert Bray
University of Illinois Press, 2005
eISBN: 978-0-252-09059-2 | Cloth: 978-0-252-02986-8
Library of Congress Classification BX8495.C36B72 2005
Dewey Decimal Classification 287.6092
Reference metadata exposed for Zotero via unAPI.
Contents Preface Prologue: Virginians Part 1. The Kentucky Boy 1. Conviction 2. Conversion 3. Commitment 4. Controversy Part 2. The Elder in Illinois 5. Politics 6. Power 7. Perishing 8. Public 9. Preacher 10. Pasture Notes Index 5 Preface The title of this book comes from a phrase in an 1869 article in Zion's Herald, a Boston publication of the Methodist Episcopal Church. The author of the piece noted that in every institution, from royal courts to republican governments to Christian churches, there were those rare figures who were `greater than the king.' While not having received the final preferments of their organizations, such men were nonetheless their most powerful and influential members. According to Zion's Herald, Peter Cartwright (1785-1872), the humble-born and uneducated pioneer circuit rider of Kentucky and Illinois was, both within the Methodist Episcopal Church and in the national imagination, somehow greater than all the church's prelates. In idea and fact, this elusive `somehow' is what I have tried to capture in the life of Peter Cartwright. Any biography of the man must be a fencing-match with his Autobiography (1856). It is a classic of Americana and the ur- source of most of the stories that have contributed to Cartwright's folkloric reputation as a western frontier hero. Another way of putting this is to admit that much of what we believe we know about the subject is based on what he chose to remember in that single book. I have therefore subjected the Autobiography to a skeptical analysis, matching its claims, wherever possible, against the sketchy documentary record. And I have striven to fill in the Autobiography's personal and political silences by providing a context wider than American Methodism. For Cartwright was deeply involved with important national issues like slavery, and for more than twenty years (beginning in 1832) he was a political, social and religious antagonist of Abraham Lincoln. Finally, he was also a redoubtable `man of words' in preaching and debate and a writer (though he denied any gift as such) whose best-selling book has proved a lasting contribution to ante-bellum United States literature. In my account of Cartwright's Kentucky years, I have relied on the foundational research of Theodore Agnew, whose 1950 Harvard PhD dissertation was the first scholarly study of the preacher's earlier life. Brian Hohlt's more recent dissertation on Cartwright's Illinois political career (St. Louis University, 1998) has been immensely valuable. The Great Rivers Conference United Methodist Archives in Bloomington, Illinois, holds important documents relating to Cartwright's nearly fifty-year ministry in Illinois. The Great Rivers archivist, Catherine Knight, has unstintingly helped me find what I sought in her collection, for which I am most grateful. And thanks also to the conference historian, Richard Chrisman, taught me the complexities of Methodist Church polity in the Illinois Conference. Three eminent Lincolnists have helped me understand the complex interaction between Cartwright and Abraham Lincoln: Rodney Davis and Douglas Wilson of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois; and Michael Burlingame, late of Connecticut College. John Hallwas, of Western Illinois University, has read the manuscript twice, offering excellent advice each time. Two devoted editors at the University of 6 Illinois Press have seen this long project through: Richard Wentworth from the start, and Judith McCulloh, who has recently pushed me towards the finish line. Finally, my own institution, Illinois Wesleyan University, has generously supported the research, writing and publication of this book through its faculty development grants program. 7 Prologue: Virginians Farewell, my friends, I'm bound for Canaan, I'm traveling through the wilderness --"Parting Friends," John G. McCurry Born, he said long after, in Amherst County, September 1, 1785.1 Born, he didn't say, a year and a half before his parents married.2 Born, he said from legendary twilight, in a canebrake where his mother had been hastily hidden during an Indian attack.3 And born again at a frontier Kentucky revival in 1801 (37-8). Vague about Virginia, as he would be vague about Kentucky and Illinois, indeed about most places and persons, particularly himself, he spoke in passing of an early boyhood somewhere "on James River" near the Blue Ridge, insuring that anyone looking for the spot would have the devil of a time finding it. The sole property of record for the family was a poor piece of upland, barely held, described in the plat book according to its metes and bounds: "a parcel of Land Containing forty Acres (be the same more or less) Lying and being . . . on the Branches of Purgatory below Findley's Gap . . . bounded as followeth to witt Beginning at pointers Corner to William Cabell and Richard Murrow & running thence on Jessee Martins line North Sixty five Degrees East sixty poles to a Red Oak, thence with a line of Marked Trees fifty eight poles crossing a Branch to a small Red Oak and Pointers in the Old Line, and with it south twenty two Degrees West one hundred and Eleven Poles to Pointers in William Cabell's line & with it South twenty three poles to the begining."4 Not much of a farm if farmed at all. Forty acres more or less, and no evidence of a mule. But plenty of scrubby trees, more than they could ever clear or use; fields of rocks that sparked and snapped the plow: it was third-rate land, bought before by speculators hoping someone like the Cartwrights would come along. Subsistence in the1780s: broadax ringing down the valley, slash and burn, smoke and ash; lowing, manuring cattle; noonday scream of wheeling hawk, a crying in the cabin. And behind these, never still, heard in the quiet, the burble and seep of Purgatory, swampy creek sliding to the James. No, not much of a place, even for the Piedmont, foot of the mountain, hind quarter of Virginia society. They had come about as far from cavalier gentility as they could and still stay on an eastern watershed, still within the "Old Dominion." If they despised the big planters, who had the best land and the most slaves, they also envied and wanted to emulate them--and could not, from lack of acreage, slaves, money. So like Jefferson from Monticello, after the Revolution they looked west, fancying that real liberty lay beyond the washboard of receding blue ridges, a world away from the stinking salt smell of Tidewater. Kentucky: Kain-tuck: Canaan. Now there was a notion for a new nation, a hopeful gleam in Peter Sr.'s eye, since the boy was born, and one that wouldn't go away no matter how hard he blinked and rubbed: Why stay here, he thought, when I can be an over-the-mountain man, for which he had the makings if not the means: boyhood 8 woodcraft perfected during the late war, his rifle and a man's Republican discontent in the after years: poor and poorly landed (some would say forever shiftless in a shifty, shifting country, but to his son forever an unnamed buckskin hero), with just a western land warrant and a cache of war stories to show for his Revolutionary service. A decade or a dozen years back he had come to Amherst from St. Mary's County, Maryland (or maybe it was from Pennsylvania, or Carolina, or God knows where), emigrating with four brothers (or was it five? later culled to two at the battle of Brandywine, or was it three?), all of them tucking snugly into the covert wrinkles of the Ridge.5 He knew the best land was gone, the mediocre too expensive. So he would be a sojourner there: Purgatory before Canaan. But in another respect coming to Virginia was a good move: somewhere in those dark blanket folds of hills and valleys, perhaps during a stint of Revolutionary frontier fighting, he met his "destiny." She was a woman whom history has known slightly and variously as an orphan from Pennsylvania, a "Widow Wilcox," and simply a "spinster." Whoever she was, whatever her social state, she knew her mind: she was of age and she determined to have this man--after a decent trial, of course. Thus for a while they cohabited. When his active service was over, they rode out the rest of the war like a long spell of lowering weather in the valleys, surviving, loving, celebrating peace at last with a new birth. Before they knew it, the boy was walking, ready to talk. "Isn't it time?" he asked her. Taking pen in hand, she answered, "long past," instructing the judge: "This shall be your Sufficient Warrant to issue Peter Cartwright a License to marry me, Given under my hand & Seal, Christian Garvin, Feb. the 26, 1787."6 By their act down in Amherst, they made legitimate a son who would soon be two years old. But out on the branches of Purgatory, a days' ride from town, life was lived by common law and custom, and the published fact of marriage made little difference (except to release their precious £50 of bonding money, or at least the moiety not put up by brother William). Afterwards, father was still a hardhanded planter on a tiny hardscrabble farm. Mother still wrung the neck of each day for the family's meager existence. Babies still came, with or without a piece of paper saying they were lawful. As the 1780s wore on, the Cartwrights continued too poor or too proud for slaves, probably both. For more than a hundred years in Virginia, tobacco had meant cash and chattels, but where in Purgatory could they plant tobacco? Praying for a cash crop next year, always next year, they in the meantime ate off and slept on the floor of the crude cabin, scratching out board from what he hunted and bartered, what she gathered from a truck patch that left no time or space for flowers. It sounds desperate. Yet through the obscurity of mountain shade and windowless cabin shone one golden ray that was Christiana's alone: she took Methodism to keep back madness, drank the draught as the men took whiskey, daily and deeply, but with a crucial difference: this water of life, as even her infidel husband Peter had to admit, promised heaven even as it 9 brought the family a kind of quotidian salvation too. Methodism exalted Christiana's soul in passionate order. How and when did faith find her? Bishop Francis Asbury himself had ridden through in October of '80 on one of his relentless horseback tours. On Sunday the 8th "St. Francis the Traveler" preached to a mountain crowd of 500, urging them to renounce "the hidden things of dishonesty" and praying that the light of the gospel would reach those "whom the god of this world hath blinded." If Christiana happened to hear Asbury she would surely have recognized herself in his sermon. But even in those early days of the church, the bishop wasn't the first Methodist to reach the precincts of Purgatory, nor perhaps was that austere man the first to touch her hidden heart. For Beverly Allen had arrived the year before: Beverly Allen, who would later become so important to the family and so notorious in the tightly-networked Methodist world. Allen came to Amherst in the fall of 1779 and wintered over. By March he was reporting large congregations, warm enthusiasm, a successful ministry.7 And after Asbury and Allen followed a steady string of itinerants on the newly-formed Amherst circuit. If neither of the leading lights had "turned" Christiana, who finally did and when? Did she marry because of Methodism, to cleanse the stain of years of "living in sin"? Or was she already comfortably married when she decided to join the church? Or dry tinder for the lightning of the great summer revivals that swept southern Virginia in 1787? A small, intense nighttime meeting in the packed cabin; prayers, hymns, exhortations; "soul-telling," weeping and weaving, agony and joy and hymns again. All the while her husband Peter, whatever his real feelings, stands silently by, watching, then shrugs tolerantly and goes outside. He doesn't profess, then or ever. He knows well enough where she wants to go and hopes she'll make it. For he has kindred dreams of crossing over, to a place that counts in his worldly mind for the Canaan he can even now hear her inside shouting and singing about. From that day on, because Christiana lives within herself and for something beyond, she can live on earth wherever they go. She knows the inextinguishable Kentucky light in his eyes, she gradually leans into the freshening western wind, reluctant but resigned. But she does speak her qualms: isn't that military tract "south of Green River" where you want to go called "the Barrens"? Won't our land be as bad as Purgatory? No, he explains patiently, because it isn't barren that way: mostly open, meadowed, clear of trees for once--and praise your Lord for that! You'll have more sunshine than shadow, and together we'll have a real chance at a competence. She answers: the way you go on Kentucky sounds like no place on earth, about as close to Canaan as we're likely to get in this world. Yes, I'll go with you. Sell the place for what it'll bring (he did: it brought "twenty four pounds current money of Virginia," about half a pound an acre): Write your brother Justinian and let him know we're coming, sooner or later. I'll tell the family. She turned and left him there, walked outdoors and down the Purgatory to the east-flowing James, singing: 10 I go away, behind to leave you, Perhaps never to meet again, But if we never have the pleasure, I hope we'll meet on Canaan's land. 11 Part 1 The Kentucky Boy