Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News

Walter Albritton

January 20, 2019


He stopped the dancing and prayed all night


            Peter Cartwright’s name is not well known among today’s Methodists. He was a pioneer Methodist preacher in America. Born in Virginia in 1785 to poor parents, Cartwright had little education but became the best camp-meeting preacher of his day. Historians describe Cartwright as one of the principal agents God used in the great revival near the beginning of the 19th Century.

            Cartwright’s parents moved to the backwoods of Kentucky when he was a child. There he grew up “a wild, wicked boy who delighted in horse-racing, card-playing and dancing.” When he was 16, a great camp-meeting revival broke out at Cane Ridge where “scores of sinners fell under the mighty power of God, like men slain in a mighty battle.” After attending some of the services, the young man felt he was “a lost, undone sinner” and soon, he said, fell on his knees and asked God “to have mercy on me.” His struggle ended at the altar where “earnestly praying for mercy,” he felt his sins forgiven as “unspeakable joy sprung up in my soul.”

            Two years later Cartwright preached his first sermon and became a circuit-riding preacher. Though he had no training, he was immediately effective in winning people to Christ. Riding his horse from one camp meeting to another, he saw scores of people turn to God in response to his preaching. He described his meetings with comments like this: “Suddenly an awful power fell on the congregation and many instantly fell right and left, and cried aloud for mercy.”

            My favorite story about Cartwright is his tale about what happened one time when he was passing over the Cumberland Mountains. He stopped over night at a house where folks were dancing. Cartwright sat in a corner of the room watching the dance. He made up his mind he would stay over until Sunday and preach to the people there. But soon a young lady walked over to him and, smiling, invited him to dance with her. He rose and took her hand but then asked the fiddle player to stop playing for a moment. He then explained to everyone that he wanted to ask the blessing of God “upon this beautiful young lady” and all the people there who had been so polite to a total stranger.

            Grasping the young lady’s hand tightly, he said, “Let us all kneel down and pray.” Then he dropped to his knees and began praying aloud. Here is how he describes what happened next: “The young lady tried to get loose from me, but I held her tight. Presently she fell to her knees. Some of the company kneeled, some stood, some fled, some sat still, all looked curious. The fiddler ran off into the kitchen, saying, ‘Lord have mercy, what de matter?’”

            “While I prayed,” he said, “some wept, and wept out loud, and some cried for mercy. I rose from my knees and commenced an exhortation, after which I sang a hymn. The young lady who invited me on the floor lay prostate, crying for mercy. I exhorted again, I sang and prayed nearly all night.” The dance turned into a revival meeting that last two days and many “were powerfully converted.”

            And what did Cartwright do? “I organized a society, took 32 into the church, and sent them a preacher.” Several of the young men converted at the dance became ministers as a revival spread throughout that region.

            That is but one of many fascinating stories spawned by one of America’s pioneer Methodist preachers. A rugged big man, he sometimes used his strength to quiet the rowdies who tried to break up his meetings. His creed was “to love everybody and fear nobody.” More than once, he thrashed the worst rowdies and resumed his preaching.

            When I read about a preacher like Peter Cartwright, I experience mixed emotions. While I admire the man for his boldness, it is that boldness that stirs some regret in me. I must confess that I have been a rather tame preacher, domesticated by my culture. So often when I had opportunities to be bold, I opted for politeness. If I had had half of Cartwright’s courage, I might have persuaded many more people to turn to Christ.

            Is this the confession of an old preacher consumed with regret? No, far from it! Grace covers my regret and frees me from its bondage. My life is not over. So, brushing remorse aside, I look now for ways to witness more boldly for Christ in a society that often chastises Christians for even mentioning the name of Jesus.

These thoughts I share with the hope that I may encourage other tamed disciples to find the courage needed for these days. Cartwright found such boldness in his day. We can find it in ours – once we admit we need it.  + + +