Circuit Preachers: Saving Souls with a Bible in One Hand and a Gun in the Other

Margaret Brownley margaretbrownley-150x150



The hero of my book A Lady Like Sarah is a preacher named Justin Wells. Prior to his arrival in Rocky Creek, Texas folks depended on a circuit rider for their spiritual needs who rode into town every six months and “always preached the same sermon.” 

Though itinerant preachers still exist today in some rural parts of the United States, they were the norm in the Old West.  Known as circuit riders or saddlebag preachers, they rode from town to town preaching the gospel from horse and saddle pulpits.  Weddings and baptisms were carefully planned to correspond with a preacher’s expected arrival.  Funerals were seldom as conveniently timed.

In the early years, Circuit riders were most often lay preachers without formal education. They were young, poor, and, for the most part, single. Traveling thousands of miles a year they were probably also saddle-sore.  

Though circuit riders eventually represented many different denominations none were more aggressive or effective than the Methodists. In 1838, there were only six Methodist circuit preachers for the whole Republic of Texas, but this number soon grew.  Supervised by presiding elders under the authority of itinerant bishops, circuit riders helped make the Methodists the largest religious group in Texas. This chwestern sayinganged during the Civil War when church membership dropped 50%.

Circuit riders preached in fields, barns and private homes.  Oftentimes, saloons or dance halls were the only buildings large enough to hold a worship service.  If nothing else, these “dens of inequities” assured good attendance.

Finding a place to preach was the least of it. Early Texas circuit riders fought for independence, ran revival meetings, built schools and churches, and served as fort chaplains and medical assistants. They also battled Indians, outlaws and wild animals.


Holy Scalawags

Often the realities of the trail conflicted with church policy or beliefs. In her book Pistol Packin’ Preachers, Barbara Barton writes about a preacher named Jackson Porter who, after being ambushed, shot two Indians.  “A bishop admonished him saying that scripturally speaking, “our weapons are not carnal.”  Porter quickly responded that Indians didn’t exist when the Bible was written.

Drinking, smoking, snuff-dipping and other “wages of sin” provided frontier preachers with perhaps some of their toughest battles. Women were often just as guilty as men. The Texas Baptist Herald addressed this issue in 1867. “I despise above all things to see ladies dipping.  If they are pretty, it spoils their beauty and if they are homely, it still makes them more so.”  No mention was made of how snuff- dipping affected the looks of men.

Though most circuit preachers were good Christians, some were better at preaching the Ten Commandments then obeying them.  A circuit rider name George Morrison poisoned his wife after falling in love with another woman.  Although Morrison was convinced that God would forgive him, the good citizens of Wilbarger County were less willing to do so.  He hung at 12 noon on October 29, 1899.

Neither Rain nor Snow…

Circuit preachers received little pay, and sometimes only farm crops for their services.  Each congregation was responsible for collecting a circuit rider’s salary but many early pioneers had little or no money to spare. This posed a great hardship for preachers with families to support.   However, the difficulty of getting paid was nothing compared to the poor working conditions. Lack of roads, bad weather, diseases, and far-flung communities took their toll. Of the 737 Methodist circuit preachers that died prior to 1847 nearly half were under the age of 30.

Had the good citizens of Rocky Creek known the difficulties of the job, perhaps they would have been more lenient toward their “one sermon” preacher.  Or, then again, maybe not.   What do you think?

In Bookstores now.


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24 thoughts on “Circuit Preachers: Saving Souls with a Bible in One Hand and a Gun in the Other”

  1. Hi Margaret! I love your cover, and I thoroughly enjoyed the story. Justin and Sarah made a great couple 🙂

    Interestng stat about how many circuit preachers died before the age of 30. Preaching was as dangerous as being a gunslinger!

    Have a great day!

  2. Hi, Margaret. Thanks for the interesting post.

    My pastor is a modern-day circuit preacher, LOL! (No gun, though!) We have five little churches in our parish and he preaches at 2 churches on one Sunday and 3 on the next Sunday! Three of the churches are in little towns and the other 2 are out in the country. His wife tried to follow his schedule, but just found it easier to come to the church that is the in our little town. 🙂

    I look forward to checking out Justin and Sarah’s story.

  3. Interesting post, Margaret. I’ve often wondered about the lonely road of those circuit preachers. Missionaries on home soil.

    I’m reading Sarah and Justin’s story right now and am enjoying it immensely. Looking forward to the ride as these two opposites attract!

  4. Thanks for this post, Margaret. Both my husband and I have circuit preachers in the branches of our family trees. Mine was so tall he rode with his feet lifted out to the sides so his boots wouldn’t drag the ground. DH’s life was saved by his Bible. A drunk attacked him with a knife, but instead of piercing his heart, it got stuck in the Bible he carried in his breast pocket.

  5. very interesting post, Margaret. I believe and hope the people would have been more understanding if they knew the hardships of the circuit preachers. The chance of dying young and the being away from family for so long brought about extreme hardships on everyone.

    We had pastors who had 3 churches to preach at(and they were miles apart) every Sunday in the 1960’s and onward. A full day to say the least.

  6. Karen,
    Thank you for writing–and for reading my book!

    I never thought about circuit preachers much until I did the research for this blog. I’ve come to view them as unsung heroes.

  7. Great post Margaret, very interesting! I love to read books set in this time period! We’ve come a long way now! Its sad that the preachers only lived to be about thirty! I was raised in a little country church that the preacher built himself! He worked a job and kept his little church going! I also got married in that church!

  8. Hi Margaret,
    Loved this post! Some very fun facts and then some, not-so-fun facts about the lives of circuit preachers. I would imagine most of them were extremely dedicated. Doesn’t sound like there were many earthly rewards. Hope your book sells like hotcakes!!

  9. Hi Margaret, super post! I knew a little about traveling preachers but you sure brought them to life. Best wishes for a ton of sales…and more great reads from you! oxoxoxoxox

  10. Tracey,

    What interesting family history! I hope he finds a place in one of your books.

    Bibles saving lives (literally), especially during wartime, wasn’t that unusual. We have an old World War 11 Heart-shield Bible that was designed to be worn in a soldier’s pocket over the heart. The cover is made of steel. I’ve stories about how these Bibles saved lives.

  11. Great blog, Margaret. I’d heard of circuit preachers, but there’s a lot here I didn’t know before. Your book sounds wonderful. Love the cover, especially the expression on the heroine’s face. Hope it finds lots of readers.

  12. I have a friend from MN who had a couple of ancestors who were born “before the wedding” because the parents just couldn’t wait for the yearly visit of the circuit pastor to marry them. They would have regular Sunday services, but had to wait for the pastor to do all the sacraments once a year.

  13. very interesting post!
    you would really have to have a strong faith and calling to do that job!!
    i would think it was very lonely

    we kind of have a circuit preacher in my home town too–she services 3 different small town churches–i think it’s a bit easier these days though 🙂

  14. Interesting post, Margaret. I found the early death rate so sad. Those preachers sure must be commended for answering the “call.” What a hard life! I can’t imagine being married to one! I also like your aside on the WWII Heart Shield Bibles. Wow. Amazing that someone thought about making them and that they actually worked! I wonder if the government supplied those–doubt it would happen nowadays…

  15. In 1967. I attended mass at a small church in the Sierras. It was one of 3 or 4 churches where the priest said mass every Sunday. The churches were rather spread out and he had a minimum of an hour’s drive between them. He needed a new set of tires and we collected for them after mass. With fewer clergy now, I’m sure there are more parishes having to share.
    The fact that so many of those Methodist ministers were under 30 when they died is a big surprise. It was a much more difficult life than I thought. Never really considered their having families.

  16. What an enjoyable post. When I read true facts about the old west, it dissapates all my longing to be a woman in that time period. I loved A Lady Like Sarah. Even now when I think about the book, I picture the places you took me with vivid imagery. Can’t wait for you next release.

  17. Hi,
    I have been searching HI AND LOW for information on my gggrandfather, Rev. R. F.(Russell Franklin) Gray. He was a Methodist Curcuit Preacher, born 1824 NY, died 1894, Temple Texas, buried Llano, Tx. He 1st m. Joicy Ferguson , DeSoto Parish, La. 2nd Mary Jane Rodgers, Falls Co. Tx.
    Do you have any idea where I can look. I would specifically like to have information about his ministry as a preacher.
    Your time is greatly appreciated.
    God Bless, Geri Lilly

  18. My grandfather, O.E. (Orville Emerson)Connett (1982-1958 & my father, James Aaron Connett (1915-1958) were both Methodist Ministers in the Southern Illinois Conference. They both started out as circuit preachers, going to little towns that had no full time minister. Yes, many times they were not paid in cash/salary, but in farm produce. Both my grandfather and father were great fishermen & accurate shotgun hunters. If it weren’t for that, we might have starved. However, nowadays, it would be a delicacy to eat quail, pheasant, duck, or deer, we had it for breakfast many times along with biscuits & gravy!
    My father was in WWII and my mother gave him The Shield and New Testament, which he carried in his breast pocket over his heart. I have it today. He was with the Rainbow Division 222nd Inf Reg that liberated Dachau prison camp.
    My brother, Reynold, also became a Methodist minister, Chaplain in the Army and served in Viet Nam, the Middle East, and Afghan wars.

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