Circuit rider clergy, in the earliest years of the United States, were clergy assigned to travel around specific geographic territories to minister to settlers and organize congregations. Circuit riders were clergy in the Methodist Episcopal Church and related denominations, although similar itinerant preachers could be found in other faiths as well, particularly among minority faith groups.
In sparsely populated areas of the United States it always has been common for clergy in many denominations to serve more than one congregation at a time, a form of church organization sometimes called a “preaching circuit”. In the contemporary United Methodist Church, a minister serving more than one church has a “(number of churches) point charge”. However, in the rough frontier days of the early United States, the pattern of organization in the Methodist Episcopal denomination and its successors worked especially well in the service of rural villages and unorganized settlements. In the Methodist denominations, congregations do not “call” (or employ) a pastor of their own choice. Instead, a bishop “appoints” (assigns) a pastor to a congregation or a group of congregations, and until late in the 20th century, neither pastor nor congregation had any say in the appointment. This meant that in the early days of the United States, as the population developed, Methodist clergy could be appointed to circuits wherever people were settling.
A “circuit” (today referred to as a charge) was a geographic area that encompassed two or more local churches. Pastors met each year at “Annual Conference” where their bishops would appoint them either to a new circuit or to remain at the same one. Most often they were moved to another appointment every year. (In 1804, the Methodist Episcopal General Conference decreed that no pastor was to serve the same appointment for more than two consecutive years.) Once a pastor was assigned a circuit, it was his responsibility to conduct worship and visit members of each church in his charge on a regular basis in addition to possibly establishing new churches. He was supervised by a Presiding Elder (now called a District Superintendent) who would visit each charge four times a year (the “Quarterly Conference”).
Riding on horseback between distant churches, these preachers were popularly called “circuit riders” or “saddlebag preachers” although their official role was “traveling clergy” (a term still used in Methodist denominations). Carrying only what could fit in their saddlebags, they traveled through wilderness and villages, preaching every day at any place available (peoples’ cabins, courthouses, fields, meeting houses, even basements and street corners). Unlike clergy in urban areas, Methodist circuit riders were always on the move, needing five to six weeks to cover the longest routes. Their ministerial activity boosted Methodism into the largest Protestant denomination at the time, with 14,986 members and 83 traveling preachers in 1784 and by 1839, 749,216 members served by 3,557 traveling preachers and 5,856 local preachers.
Bishop Francis Asbury
Francis Asbury (1745–1816), the founding bishop of American Methodism, established the precedent for circuit riding. Together with his driver and partner “Black Harry” Hosier, he traveled 270,000 miles and preached 16,000 sermons as he made his way up and down early America supervising clergy. The title circuit rider, however, was an American coinage born of American necessities. Although John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, covered enormous distances on horseback during his career, and early British Methodist preachers also rode around their circuits, in general they had far less formidable traveling commitments than their American counterparts.