Peter Cartwright

The American preacher Peter Cartwright (1785-1872) was largely responsible for the rapid growth of Methodism in the Ohio River and Mississippi River valleys.

Born on Sept. 1, 1785, Peter Cartwright followed his pioneering father, Justinian, from their home in Virginia to Logan County, Ky., a brigand-infested locality near Tennessee. Justinian encouraged Peter's gambling habits, but his mother, who mourned the criminal debaucheries of two of her children, constantly urged repentance. At age 16 Peter converted to Methodism. After briefly studying at Brown's Academy, Cartwright began circuit riding in October 1803. In 1806 Bishop Francis Asbury ordained him deacon. At 23 "the Kentucky boy," as he was called, was ordained an elder. The low salary of an itinerant preacher encouraged bachelorhood, but Cartwright married 19-year-old Frances Gaines because, as he said, he thought it his duty.

As the Methodists spread throughout the South, their long-standing strictures against slave holding lost strength. Fearing the effects of slavery upon the moral character of his offspring, Cartwright moved his family to Illinois in 1824. He served two terms in the Illinois Legislature, where he successfully battled the introduction of slavery to the state. In 1846 Abraham Lincoln defeated Cartwright's only bid for Congress; Cartwright had centered his campaign upon Lincoln's alleged godlessness.

Cartwright's Autobiography (1856) chronicled his colorful career as "backwoods preacher." It provided glimpses of pioneer church life in the manner of tall-tale Western folklore. Often humorous, the Autobiography proudly recorded his "slaying" of countless sinners, besting rivals in conflicts both verbal and physical and riveting Methodist social taboos upon unruly frontiersmen. Yet Cartwright lived to lament the results his own success elicited. Prosperity and the consequent sophistication of rural life led his followers to demand settled clergy, fine buildings, seminaries, academies, and eastern luxuries, all of which, Cartwright believed, eroded the authority and simple faith of traveling revivalists and their flocks. Theologically, he denounced such "heresies" as predestinarianism, Second Coming millennialism, universalism, Catholicism, and, especially, Mormonism. He strongly approved expulsion of the Mormons from their settlement in western Illinois. While espousing a crude gospel of salvation, he deplored the excess known as "the jerks," a phenomenon his vibrant sermons often aroused.

Cartwright was elected 12 times to the General Conference, where he argued against the Methodists' sectional split of 1844 and against attempts to curb the power of bishops over the circuit-riding system. Though opposed to ministers' owning slaves, he held abolitionists and proslavery apologists equally accountable for dividing church and nation. Cartwright represented the typical Western churchman's view of slavery as a moral evil but saw the black man as a member of "a degraded race." Cartwright died Sept. 25, 1872.


Further Reading on Peter Cartwright

The Autobiography of Peter Cartwright, the Backwoods Preacher, edited by W. P. Strickland (1856), was republished as Autobiography, with an introduction, bibliography, and index by Charles L. Wallis (1956). General works which discuss Cartwright are Wade Crawford Barclay, History of Methodist Missions, vol. 2 (1950), and Emery Stevens Bucke, ed., The History of American Methodism (3 vols., 1964).

Additional Biography Sources

Cartwright, Peter, Autobiography of Peter Cartwright, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1986.