Peter Cartwright (exhorter)

Peter Cartwright (exhorter)

Peter Cartwright (September 1, 1785 – September 25, 1872) was an American Methodist revivalist in the Midwest, as well as twice an elected legislator in Illinois. Cartwright, a Methodist missionary, helped start the Second Great Awakening, personally baptizing twelve thousand converts. Opposed to slavery, Cartwright moved from Kentucky to Illinois, and was elected to the lower house of the Illinois General Assembly in 1828 and 1832. In 1846 Abraham Lincoln defeated Cartwright for a seat in the United States Congress. As a Methodist circuit rider, Cartwright rode circuits in Kentucky and Illinois, as well as Tennessee, Indiana and Ohio. His Autobiography (1856) made him nationally prominent.


Born in Amherst County (now Nelson County, Virginia), between Findlay Mountain and Purgatory Swamp, soon after his birth, Cartwright's family moved to what was then Kentucky County, now Logan County, Kentucky. At the age of 16 Peter was converted at a camp meeting and joined the Methodist Episcopal Church. He became a preacher in 1802 and was later ordained by Francis Asbury and William McKendree. In 1812 Cartwright was appointed a presiding elder (now District Superintendent), and he served in that office for the next thirty-five years.

In 1808, Cartwright married Frances Gaines. Together they had two sons and seven daughters, one of whom, Cynthia, died on the journey to Illinois.

Cartwright served as a military chaplain during the War of 1812. His hatred of slavery in Kentucky, and his failure to convince the slaveholders to free their slaves, led him to move to Illinois in 1824, where slavery was illegal. In his Autobiography he said that in Illinois he "would get entirely clear of the evil of slavery, that he could improve his financial situation and procure lands for my children as they grew up. And... I could carry the Gospel to destitute souls that had, by their removal into some new country, been deprived of the means of grace."


Cartwright called himself "God's Plowman." As a circuit rider, he explained in his Autobiography, "My district was four hundred miles long, and covered all the west side of the Grand Prairie, fully two-thirds of the geographical boundaries of the state." 

Cartwright was a founding member of the Illinois Annual Conference in 1824, and remained in Illinois for the rest of his life. He was a towering figure of frontier Methodism and one of the most colorful and energetic preachers Methodism has produced. During his five decades of ministry, he was elected to 13 General Conferences (1816 through 1856, missing only 1832).

Cartwright was charismatic; he pursued a divine calling, not a profession. His conversion of others to Methodism, rather than his own education, gained him admission to the ministry and verified his methods. His sermons were always extemporaneous, anecdotal, and participatory. He was a master of charismatic domination and used it effectively to create the ecstatic conversion required to be reborn. He opposed the routinization and institutionalization of religion and favored the more democratic, egalitarian, and associational form of the frontier circuits. Theologically he was an Arminian, and was convinced that all people could be saved, especially through the camp meeting revival.[1]

In the Methodist church, the presiding elder oversaw the works of preachers and churches to which he was assigned, and was below the bishop in the denomination's chain of command. In the 19th-century presiding elders were the most important officers in the Methodist "army" that sought to "conquer the land for Christ." Cartwright who served as a presiding elder for 50 years, demonstrating that the office was that of a sub-bishop who was not always popular with his subordinates. Cartwright was strong-willed in his office and was often accused as being dictatorial, but he eventually earned notoriety as the father of Illinois Methodism.[2]


Cartwright had little formal education and was skeptical of its value at first, but reversed course and promoted Methodist education. He helped found McKendree College (Lebanon), Illinois Wesleyan University (Bloomington); and Illinois Conference Female Academy in Jacksonville (now MacMurray College).


Cartwright jumped into politics as a Democrat. In the election for what became his second term in the Illinois legislature, Cartwright was one of four candidates elected (in a field of thirteen including a Kentucky store clerk and rail splitter named Abraham Lincoln, who came in eighth). “I was beaten”, Abraham Lincoln later wrote, “the only time I have even been beaten by the people.”citation needed Cartwright had first met Lincoln in 1830, during his own unsuccessful run for Governor.[3] In 1846, the Springfield Whig, Lincoln, defeated Cartwright to represent the area in the United States Congress, some constituents being offended by Cartwright's mixing of religion and politics, others by his vehemence against alcohol.[4]

Politically, Cartwright was a Jacksonian Democrat who trusted in the ability of the common man. Unlike Jackson, Cartwright opposed slavery. He advocated moral suasion to end it, fearing that political action would threaten the federal union, another core element of national identity. Cartwright also supported expansionism -- both to spread American values and to increase economic opportunity. To him, manhood was demonstrated by singleness of purpose despite all obstacles and by economic independence.[5]


A Virginia Historical marker honors Cartwright near his birthplace.[6][7] Kentucky's Adairville marks his boyhood home.[8] An Illinois Historical marker honors Peter Cartwright in Sangamon County, near his home and grave.[9]

The present Cartwright Church began in 1824 as a class in the Cartwright home. In 1838, Cartwright donated land and $300 towards the construction of a log chapel where the congregation worshipped until 1853. By that time, the church had grown so much that it had to divide into two congregations. One moved two miles west and built the Bethel Methodist Episcopal Church (which was torn down in 1953). The other moved into the new village of Pleasant Plains and constructed the current building in 1857. Two additions have been made, but the sanctuary is nearly the same as during Cartwright's time.

Autobiographical excerpt

Cartwright describes his conversion in his own words:

In 1801, when I was in my sixteenth year, my father, my eldest half brother, and myself, attended a wedding about five miles from home, where there was great deal of drinking and dancing, which was very common at marriages those days. I drank little or nothing; my delight was in dancing. After a late hour in the night, we mounted our horses and started for home. I was riding my race-horse.

A few minutes after we had put up the horses, and were sitting by the fire, I began to reflect on the manner in which I had spent the day and evening felt guilty and condemned. I rose and walked the floor. My mother was in bed. It seemed to me, all of a sudden, my blood rushed to my head, my heart palpitated, in a few minutes I turned blind; an awful impression rested on my mind that death had come and I was unprepared to die. I fell on my knees and began to ask God to have mercy on me.

My mother sprang from her bed, and was soon on her knees by my side, praying for me, and exhorting me to look to Christ for mercy, and then and there I promised the Lord that if he would spare me, I would seek and serve him; and I never fully broke that promise. My mother prayed for me a long time. At length we lay down, but there was little sleep for me. Next morning I rose, feeling wretched beyond expression. I tried to read in the Testament, and retired many times to secret prayer through the day, but found no relief. I gave up my racehorse to my father, and requested him to sell him. I went and brought my pack of cards, and gave them to mother, who threw them into the fire, and they were consumed. I fasted, watched, and prayed, and engaged in regular reading of the Testament. I was so distressed and miserable, that I was incapable of any regular business.

My father was greatly distressed on my account, thinking I must die, and he would lose his only son. He bade me retire altogether from business, and take care of myself. Soon it was noised abroad that I was distracted, and many of my associates in wickedness came to see me, to try and divert my mind from those gloomy thoughts of my wretchedness; but all in vain. I exhorted them to desist from the course of wickedness which we had been guilty of together. The class-leader and local preacher were sent for. They tried to point me to the bleeding Lamb, they prayed for me most fervently. Still I found no comfort, and although I had never believed in the doctrine of unconditional election and reprobation, I was sorely tempted to believe I was a reprobate, and doomed, and lost eternally, without any chance of salvation.

At length one day I retired to the horse-lot, and was walking and wringing my hands in great anguish, trying to pray, on the borders of utter despair. It appeared to me that I heard a voice from heaven, saying, "Peter, look at me." A feeling of relief flashed over me as quick as an electric shock. It gave me hopeful feelings, and some encouragement to seek mercy, but still my load of guilt remained. I repaired to the house, and told my mother what had happened to me in the horse-lot. Instantly she seemed to understand it, and told me the Lord had done this to encourage me to hope for mercy, and exhorted me to take encouragement, and seek on, and God would bless me with the pardon of my sins at another time.

Some days after this, I retired to a cave on my father's farm to pray in secret. My soul was in an agony; I wept, I prayed, and said, "Now, Lord, if there is mercy for me, let me find it," and it really seemed to me that I could almost lay hold of the Saviour, and realize a reconciled God, All of a sudden, such a fear of the devil fell upon me that it really appeared to me that he was surely personally there, to seize and drag me down to hell, soul and body, and such a horror fell on me that I sprang to my feet and ran to my mother at the house. My mother told me this was a device of Satan to prevent me from finding the blessing then. Three months rolled away, and still I did not find the blessing of the pardon of my sins.

This year, 1801, the Western Conference existed, and I think there was but one presiding elder's district in it, called the Kentucky District. William M'Kendree (afterward bishop) was appointed to the Kentucky District. Cumberland Circuit, which, perhaps, was six hundred miles round, and lying partly in Kentucky and partly in Tennessee, was one of the circuits of this district. John Page and Thomas Wilkerson were appointed to this circuit.

In the spring of this year, Mr. M'Grady, a minister of the Presbyterian Church, who had a congregation and meeting-house, as we then called them, about three miles north of my father's house, appointed a sacramental meeting in this congregation, and invited the Methodist preachers to attend with them, and especially John Page, who was a powerful Gospel minister, and was very popular among the Presbyterians. Accordingly he came, and preached with great power and success.

There were no camp-meetings in regular form at this time, but as there was a great waking up among the Churches, from the revival that had broken out at Cane Ridge, before mentioned, many flocked to those sacramental meetings. The church would not hold the tenth part of the congregation. Accordingly, the officers of the Church erected a stand in a contiguous shady grove, and prepared seats for a large congregation.

The people crowded to this meeting from far and near. They came in their large wagons, with victuals mostly prepared. The women slept in the wagons, and the men under them. Many stayed on the ground night and day for a number of nights and days together. Others were provided for among the neighbors around. The power of God was wonderfully displayed; scores of sinners fell under the preaching, like men slain in mighty battle; Christians shouted aloud for joy.

To this meeting I repaired, a guilty, wretched sinner. On the Saturday evening of said meeting, I went, with weeping multitudes, and bowed before the stand, and earnestly prayed for mercy. In the midst of a solemn struggle of soul, an impression was made on my mind, as though a voice said to me, "Thy sins are all forgiven thee." Divine light flashed all round me, unspeakable joy sprung up in my soul. I rose to my feet, opened my eyes, and it really seemed as if I was in heaven; the trees, the leaves on them, and everything seemed, and I really thought were, praising God. My mother raised the shout, my Christian friends crowded around me and joined me in praising God; and though I have been since then, in many instances, unfaithful, yet I have never, for one moment, doubted that the Lord did, then and there, forgive my sins and give me religion.

Further reading

  • Bray, Robert. Peter Cartwright, Legendary Frontier Preacher (University of Illinois Press, 2005), 314pp

External links

  • Auto-biography from Illinois Historical Digitization Project