Circuit Rider Elijah Pilcher
Preaching for 24 cents a day
by Laura Bien
Slimy logs shifting along the swollen Grand River trapped the horse's hock. But the rider didn't curse--that would be unseemly for an itinerant Methodist preacher on the Michigan frontier. Elijah Pilcher freed his horse's leg, then rode into the October-chilled water near Jackson. Unexpectedly deep, it lapped over his thighs and into the leather saddlebags that held his Bible, his volume of Shakespeare, and his only change of clothes. The horse struggled up the bank--and sank into a marsh. "Stripping up to my sleeves," Pilcher recalled in his memoirs many years later, "I thrust my hand into the mire and raised his feet and placed them upon new turf." Muddy and cold, he started for Ann Arbor at sundown, with 10 cents in his pocket.
Michigan in 1830 was a severe test for anyone, let alone a twenty-year-old preacher. But in an era when half of all Methodist circuit riders died, exhausted, before age thirty, Pilcher's cast-iron stamina and vinegary humor would take him from a boyhood on a small Ohio pioneer farm to the U-M Board of Regents and Michigan's state legislature.
Ann Arbor, settled only six years before Pilcher's October drenching, was the linchpin of his 400-mile circuit. Traveling on horseback, he completed a circuit every four weeks, preaching twenty-eight times in Ann Arbor, Jackson, Marshall, Coldwater, Clinton, Tecumseh, Adrian, Manchester, and Saline.
The sparsely settled region had few roads. Pilcher followed Indian trails and crossed marshes, oak openings, and forests. He once spent four days near Marshall blazing trees with an ax from horseback, to mark his way back. For days afterwards, his right arm was crippled.
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.
At a time when lowly farmhands earned up to a dollar a day, Pilcher was paid just $87 a year. That works out to 24 cents a day, the equivalent of $5 today. "Who, not moved by the Holy Ghost to the work of the ministry, would undertake it?" he later wondered. "Long and fatiguing rides were to be performed on horseback; storms were to be breasted; rivers and smaller streams were to be forded and swum; lodgings were to be found in rude log cabins, and sometimes with ruder people..."
This Job-like list of hardships temporarily ended when Pilcher obtained a coveted ministerial station in Ann Arbor in 1837. According to a biography written by his son James, he also served as a U-M regent from 1845 to 1851 and earned a medical degree from U-M in 1859, though he never practiced. But the Methodists kept their ministers moving. Pilcher served as presiding elder for congregations in Monroe, Adrian, Port Huron, Detroit, and Ontario, and founded churches in Detroit, Manchester, Dexter, Chelsea, Saline, Jackson, Grass Lake, Marshall, Coldwater, Hastings, and Ingham County. In between he earned a law degree, helped found Albion College, bought land in Jackson for a farm where, his son wrote, he "evolved vegetables," and wrote editorials for the Kalamazoo Gazette boosting agricultural schools. That helped spur the legislature's establishment of the Michigan Agricultural College, now MSU.
Each year the Methodists gave a one-year break to "superannuated, or worn-out preachers." Pilcher requested this sabbatical in 1836, after the first of his three marriages. Forty-three years later he requested another, using the time to write his relentlessly detailed Protestantism in Michigan: Being a Special History of the Methodist Episcopal Church and Incidentally of Other Denominations. The book presents a biographical inventory of Michigan ministers, in dignified, floral prose--with one exception. Of the Grand Rapids church, he says, "This whole valley only returned twenty-seven members in 1836. The next year there was no report, owing to circumstances over which we prefer to draw a veil."
This referred to Frederick Seaborn, a minister who'd been run out of town for lewd behavior, heaved onto a gaunt horse with a bundle of straw dressed in women's clothes tied behind him. But Seaborn was the exception to Michigan's minister corps, who helped raise Methodism to such a force that in 1868 Ulysses S. Grant remarked that there were three great parties in the United States: the Republican, the Democratic, and the Methodist Church.
Before his death in 1887, Pilcher suffered a stroke that crippled his right arm--so he learned to write with his left. When he sent his recollections to the Pioneer Society of Michigan, he didn't mention the churches he'd founded or his roles as presiding elder. Nor did he mention his degrees or honors.
He dwelt instead on his long-ago green years as a young itinerant in Michigan. Then, a day's work might consist of composing a sermon on horseback over lonely miles, preaching to an audience of two, and freeing a horse's foot in an October sunset.
[Originally published in December, 2009.]