26 January 2009

Professions: Circuit Riders

By Anna C. Bowling

Today, if someone would like a member of the clergy to perform weddings, funerals, baptisms of children or adults, give spiritual counsel or instruction or perform a worship service, the options are endless. A drive through most major cities will result in passing several churches, synagogues, mosques, meeting houses or other such places, and a flip through the yellow pages or a quick online search will bring up dozens of choices even beyond that.

In earlier times, such as the American colonial era or during the western expansion, people had to be a little...or a lot...more patient. Settling a new land or territory, more often than not, happened in stages, and settlers knew going into the new venture that they would have to forgo things taken for granted in their locale of origin. The way one conducted one's spiritual life was no exception.

While a person's faith travels with them no matter who or what is or isn't along for the ride, the way such faith is expressed can definitely be affected. Food, shelter and safety are prime concerns in these situations, with other aspects of life having to sit tight and wait a while. Enter the circuit rider.

Going from town to town, servicing those without a permanent clergy member or house of worship, the circuit rider had to be a spiritual jack of all trades, arriving in each stop on his circuit knowing that he'd need to pack weeks, months, or even years worth of pastoring into a short period of time.

He might find himself using the same ceremony to marry a young couple and baptize their child...or children. In some communities where a circuit rider was the only clergy they could get, this wasn't entirely uncommon, and the couple might actually be considered married by declaration until the preacher came by to make things legal. Memorial services for those buried weeks or months ago might also be on the schedule, and baptisms for any who wished it, from babies to new believers. He might be asked to perform services for denominations other than his own, and depended on the offerings of the communities for his upkeep.

Often without a permanent home of his own, the circuit rider had all the ups and downs of pastoring a regular church...times five, six, seven or however many stops he had on his circuit, not to mention the constant travel. Depending on what he could afford, he might travel his circuit actually riding on beast or wagon, or travelling by shank's mare: on foot. The life of a circuit rider was not easy or predictable, but for those with a true vocation and at least a touch of wanderlust, it could be a rewarding job choice.

I've said "he" in referring to the circuit riders of the past, as prior to the late 20th century, most Protestant denominations did not ordain women. Not so today--I know several modern-day itinerant ministers (what one might call the circuit riders of our day), male and female alike.

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