Circuit Rider in the Methodist Church is a term referring to clergy in the earliest years of the United States who were assigned to travel regularly throughout by horse within their district or Conference to minister to many churches' congregations. Later, Circuit Riders would travel by freight trains. This system was set up due to a large shortage of pastors within the Methodist Church.
A Chicago Example
Southwest of Chicago, there was a strong need for ministering to churches in this area, but not enough pastors to be assign to each church. There was large shortage that the Methodist Church assigned student pastors. Below is Rev. Leoppert's account as a Circuit Rider:
I left Berea [Ohio on] December 15 - 1889 to go to Sandwich, Illinois, and be the new Pastor of that church. It was in fear and trembling and much prayer that I took up my work here. I had a circuit of 4 Appointments, had to preach one Sunday twice and the next Sunday three times, had to buy a horse and buggy and travel from one end to the other a distance of 40 Miles on real Mud-roads. Besides, I tried to keep up my studies. The people had much patience with the new Student Pastor.
Rev. Freeborn Garrettson: Methodism’s Paul Revere
Rev. Garrettson was one of the first American born preachers to serve the Methodist Church. His ministry began in 1775 and his 50 years of service was an unusually long tenure for a Methodist preacher of his day [read below to see the average Circuit Rider's tenure].
During a single year, Rev. Garrettson journeyed over 5,000 miles and preached to five hundred gatherings.
Excerpts from William A. Powell, Jr. Methodist circuit-riders in America, 1766-1844
The Methodist Episcopal Church became the largest religious denomination in the United States during the 1820's. Local expressions of the national body were established in nearly every American community. Methodist expansion was largely a result of the activity of circuit riders. These itinerants traveled and proclaimed the gospel to citizens, many of whom joined the Church and became part of a religious movement which influenced the l development of culture in the United States.
The traveling minister in the Methodist Church was noted for his self-sacrificing spirit. He endured hardships in the ministry which few men of the present age can fathom. Richard Hofstadter, the widely respected American historian, once stated, "The bulwark and the pride of the early American Methodists were the famous circuit-riding preachers who made up in mobility, flexibility, courage, hard work, and dedication what they might lack in ministerial training or dignity. These itinerants," he continued, "were justly proud of the strenous [sp] sacrifices they made to bring the gospel to the people." But these sacrifices cost a precious price.
Five hundred of the first six hundred and fifty Methodist circuit-riders retired prematurely from the ministry. Nearly one fourth of the first eight hundred ministers who died we under the age of thirty five. Over one hundred and twenty-five itinerants were between the ages of thirty-five and forty-five when they died; and over half of the eight hundred died before they reached thirty! About two hundred traveling preachers died within the first five years of their entrance into the ministry and nearly two thirds died before they had preached twelve years. The life style of the early Methodist traveling preacher perished in the United States with the settlement and growth of the nations however, his dedication is an inspiration to every generation.