The unsung heroes of the past might well include traveling preachers. Those ministers of yesteryear rode into town every six months or so 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 appearance. Funerals were seldom as conveniently timed. Nor, in some cases, was the arrival of babies.
"My wardrobe was on one end of the saddle;
my bookcase on the other."
-Methodist circuit preacher Horace Bishop
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 the pistol-packing preachers 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 changed during the Civil War when church membership dropped fifty percent.
"Of all the deaths that any people died,
there is none so distressing as being preached to death."