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Wednesday March 01, 2017
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Circuit Rider Elijah Pilcher

 

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He slept in settlers' log cabins, preaching for bed and board. "The mansion was surrounded by a rail fence, in such a condition that it allowed the pigs to have free access to the yard, and...to the parlor," Pilcher wrote of one home. "Besides them there were two or three dogs, which were commoners in the house, interspersed with some chickens and children." He spent that night in bug-infested bedding. "These are only some of the pleasures that go to make up the woof of an itinerant Methodist preacher's life," he wrote, "and tend to give spice and romance to it."

Raised near Canaan, Ohio, Pilcher was one of nearly 3,000 Methodist circuit riders who followed settlers westward in the early nineteenth century. The church's rudimentary "entrance exam" purportedly consisted of only four questions: Is this man truly converted? Does he know and keep our rules? Can he preach acceptably? Has he a horse?

The itinerant preachers gained converts by personally visiting settlers and espousing a populist doctrine of universal salvation and instantaneous conversion, as popularized at camp-meeting revivals. In Pilcher's district, the woolliest stop was the rowdy frontier town of Jackson--when Jackson was selected as the site for the state prison, locals joked that the state should simply wall in the town. There, in "the bar-room of a log tavern, with the bottles staring me in the face," lifelong teetotaler Pilcher preached one of his first Michigan sermons.

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