Thursday, April 20, 2023

Wild West Circuit Preachers: A Funny Place to Hold Church

Photograph of the Circuit Rider, a sculpture by A. Phimister Proctor; public domain image

Wild West circuit preachers rode many miles alone through the wilderness to bring light and solace to their “charges.” This was no small undertaking, as a preacher's circuit could traverse between 200 and 500 miles, taking up to six months to complete. It wasn’t uncommon for a saddlebag preacher (as they were also called) to travel thousands of miles per year. Such a rough lifestyle didn’t leave much room for marriage. Most remained single.
Circuit preachers were often zealous for the Word of God. Neither attacks from Indians, wild animals, and outlaws nor bad roads, storms, or sicknesses could dent their dedication. These unsung knights laid down their lives to bring the gospel to towns swarming with saloons and dance halls with nary a church in sight. Here’s how Francis Asbury, an itinerant Methodist bishop who logged an estimated 300,000 miles in 45 years of service, put it: "We must reach every section of America, especially the raw frontiers. We must not be afraid of men, devils, wild animals, or disease. Our motto must always be FORWARD!"
Illustration from The Circuit Rider:
A Tale of the Heroic Age by Edward Eggleston
depicting a Methodist circuit rider on horseback.

In exchange for the privations they endured, circuit preachers received scant wages. They sometimes accepted payment in crops—from their impoverished congregations. This created hardships, particularly for those with families, and contributed to a heartbreaking statistic. The Methodist church reports that, of the 737 circuit preachers it sent out prior to 1847, nearly half died before reaching age 30.

William Wesley Van Orsdel stood out among circuit preachers. His straight-forward honesty and zeal charmed the rough-and-ready denizens of Montana’s Fort Benton. Soon after his around 1874 arrival, they affectionately dubbed him Brother Van. Saloons, mining camps, and even Indian villages welcomed him. Local lore grew up around him, much of it true.

Reverend William Wesley Van Orsdel;
public domain image
Fort Benton historian Ken Robinson, describes an incident in which a lone gunman held up Brother Van and a group of tourists in Yellowstone.

Brother Van turned out his pockets. “You wouldn’t rob a poor Methodist preacher, would you?”

After asking him to confirm that he was, indeed, a Methodist preacher, the outlaw told him to lower his hands. “I am a Methodist preacher myself,” the man stated.

This story illustrates the unfortunate fact that a few circuit preachers did go astray.

According to historian Myron J. Fodge in “Montana: The Magazine of Western History” the townspeople of Radersburg, Montan, once accused Brother Van of horse thievery. He tried to persuade them that this wasn’t the case, but to no avail. Desperate, he climbed onto a wagon, using it as a makeshift platform. He launched into singing, giving renditions of hymn after hymn. The townsfolk gave up and let him leave in peace.

Afterwards, Brother Van loved to boast that he had once saved a man’s life with his singing. When asked whose life he had saved, he would reply, “Mine!”

Like other circuit preachers, Brother Van gave his sermons wherever he could. In the absence of a church, a field, barn, or home would do. The only buildings in town large enough for a worship service might normally be used for quite different purposes—as a saloon or dance hall. Brother Van went down in Bannack, Montana history for striding into the saloon on a Sunday morning and calling for the building to be given over for a church service. The owner agreed and shut the bar for an hour. He kept the hymns simple for the miners in attendance. The men did their best to warble along with Brother Van and even made requests.

I modeled Shane Hayes, the hero of Hills of Nevermore (Montana Gold, book 1) after Brother Van and wrote a similar scene as a tribute. You can find out more about the books in the Montana Gold series at the end of this post.

Meanwhile, what do you think of Brother Van’s way of spreading the gospel?

What's New with Janalyn Voigt

Life is a whirlwind since The Whispering Wind (Montana Gold, book 6) launched on April 5th. That's only ten days ago, so I suppose this is normal. Bringing a brand new book into the world is not unlike giving birth to a child--laborious, but then you forget what you went through. Of course, it's all worth it to bring readers into the stories in my head. Each person creates a unique story while reading, and I'll never tire of that miracle.

We're busy putting in a garden here. The seedlings sprout as the cold of early spring melts into warmth. It's a reminder that, despite all the shadows in our world these days, that the God who loves us will not neglect to bring us new life. 

For more encouragement, read "Finding Serenity in a Crazy World" at Janalyn Voigt's website.

The Montana Gold series follows the lives and loves of a family of Irish immigrants surviving during a troubled time in America. Based on actual historical events, the books explore faith, love, and courage in the Wild West. Learn more>>