Peter Cartwright: The Work of an Evangelist


(Editor's note: The following is a transcript of the 2016 Peter Cartwright Memorial Sermon preached by Paul Black, IGRC Director of Communication Ministries on Sept. 16, 2016 at Peter Cartwright UMC in Pleasant Plains, Ill.)

SCRIPTURE: II Timothy 3:14-4:5
Peter Cartwright“As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.”
Evangelism is a word that is used less frequently in the church than it used to be and as a result, we don’t tend to do well to those things to which we don’t pay attention.

Evangelism – literally “the spreading of the Christian gospel by public preaching or personal witness” – has dimmed in many mainline denominations and we have lost our voice in proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ.

In fact, in the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference, 507 of the 840 congregations had no professions of faith in 2015. That more than 60 percent! (2016 Illinois Great Rivers Conference, Journal-Yearbook) For some churches, it has been years since they have had a profession of faith and an adult profession of faith is even rarer. When we look at the 40-year decline in membership and worship attendance, we need not look far – our evangelistic efforts could stand improvement.

And while mainline Christianity has started shying away from the word “evangelist,” business and industry have adopted it. An article in the Aug. 28, 2015, issue of Forbes magazine was entitled, Why Every Tech Company Needs a Chief Evangelist.

Author Theo Priestly writes, “Roles within Sales and Marketing has become much more complex amid the cacophony from social networks, the proliferations of mobile devices, and changing TV viewer habits. In fact, the positions merge further when you consider just how much content marketing now plays a part in the sales process, especially in light of the ‘social selling’ trends.

“To manage this, evangelism has to evolve beyond its current definition. An evangelist is a person who builds up support for a given technology, and then establishes it as a standard in the given industry. The title of ‘Chief Evangelist’ has been around for a few years now in Silicon Valley, and the term evangelist itself conjures images of some feverish person on their TV soapbox. The most notable example is Guy Kawasaki, who was perhaps the first to coin the term itself when he spent his career at Apple and was quoted as saying, “Evangelism isn’t a job title, it’s a way of life” (Priestly 2015).

Today, we gather for the Annual Cartwright Sermon named in honor of Peter Cartwright, who preached to hosts of men and women throughout Kentucky, Tennessee and Illinois during westward expansion in 19th century America. Speaking three hours at a stretch, several times a week, Cartwright shared the Good News with a booming voice that could make women weep and strong men tremble.

Over a 70-year ministry, 10,000 came to Christ, thousands were baptized and added to God’s Kingdom.

As a presiding elder (or what we might call District Superintendent), Cartwright saw to the building of several church buildings and when more preachers were needed, he championed the creation of Methodist colleges, including McKendree University in 1828. Cartwright, like Abraham Lincoln was self-taught but he understood the value of learning. During his circuit riding, it was commonplace for Cartwright to leave tracts and books to edify believers. And the joy of winning souls for God’s Kingdom offset the pain and hardship of riding a frontier circuit.

Today’s scripture reading comes from a letter penned by the Apostle Paul in his later years to a young protégé named Timothy. Timothy came from “good stock” having been brought up in the Christian faith by his grandmother Lois, and mother, Eunice. Timothy had answered the call to ministry but Paul’s admonition to “do the work of an evangelist” seemed to be the requisite for “doing ministry fully” (II Timothy 4:5).

So the question is: “Why have we lost our passion for evangelism?” Lifeway Resources, the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Church, asked that question in an unscientific Twitter poll in 2015, conducted by its CEO Thom Rainer. The results are very enlightening. 

The most common responses can easily be seen in three broad categories that I once heard someone explain why Jesus chose fishermen to be his disciples.

FIRST, FISHERMEN GO WHERE THE FISH ARE. The Great Commission of Jesus was to “Go…”  Long gone are the days where a church takes out a newspaper ad or publishes it is going to have services and people come. But I would suggest it was never meant to be that way.

What we have lost is a sense of urgency to reach lost people. We do not befriend and spend time with lost persons because we never leave the church building. We have become lazy and apathetic and churches have lost their focus on making disciples who are equipped and motivated to reach the lost.

Peter Cartwright’s gospel message was one that demanded human agency (Steickland, 2014, loc. 538). Unlike the Calvinist doctrine of irresistible grace preached by the Baptists and Presbyterians, Cartwright’s success in the pulpit stemmed from a message that was response-able. The Wesleyan doctrine of free grace represents a salvation that necessitates human action. Although salvation begins with an invitation from God, it is affected in the acceptance of the justified (Black, 2015).

SECOND, FISHERMEN DON’T ARGUE WITH THE FISH ABOUT THE BAIT.  Fishermen are intent on one thing – catching fish! If they are hitting on worms, fishermen bait the hook with worms. If crickets, they use crickets. If stink bait, they use stink bait.

Today, the church so often is known for what we are against rather than what we are for. Church members think that evangelism is what we pay the pastor to do and the role of the church is to meet my needs rather than reaching the lost. In fact, we have churches with theological systems that do not encourage evangelism, or we get bogged down in the “activities” of the church and stay “busy,” so as to never get around to doing those things that matter.

I think one of the strongest cases as United Methodists is our sacraments – Communion and Baptism. We celebrate an Open Table, meaning that all are welcome because God is the one who issues the invitation. When a person joins the church, we recognize baptisms of the Christian faith that have already been performed. There isn’t anything magical about our water or the method in which one is baptized. It is what God has already done and our willingness to receive it.

Cartwright told the story about riding the circuit in Green County, Tenn., in Stockton Valley. When riding the circuit at age 19, Cartwright was asked to do a funeral in a boarded up Baptist meeting house. In the course of his preaching, revival broke out, causing him to preach a second time that night and 23 were converted.

“I was young and inexperienced in doctrine, and especially I was unacquainted with the proselytizing tricks of those that held to exclusive immersion as the mode, and the only mode of baptism,” he wrote. “I believe if I had opened the doors of the Church, then, all of them would have joined the Methodist Church, but I thought I would give them time to inform themselves. Accordingly, I told them that when I came again I would explain our rules and open the doors of the Church, and they could join us if they liked our rules and doctrines.”

While he was gone, three Baptist preachers came to the area with their declaration of “Water, water; you must follow your Lord down into the water.” They scheduled a “union meeting” for the purpose of performing baptisms. The few scattered Methodists, fearing the new converts would be run down into the water, summoned Cartwright.

Cartwright returned to Green County and kept a low profile and during one of the Baptist meetings, after another sermon on water baptism, persons were invited to join the Church by giving their testimony. One of Cartwright’s converts stood, gave his testimony, claiming that Cartwright, under God, was the instrument of his conviction and conversion. Before the meeting was over, all 23 had stood and done likewise.  All 23 were given the right hand of fellowship – sort of an approval for membership in the Baptist Church.

Stewing in his seat, Cartwright stood up and gave his testimony and acted like he was going to join the Baptist Church. And there was great joy in the camp over the conversion of a Methodist preaching boy.

The 23 and Cartwright were directed to be at the creek at 9 a.m. to be baptized. They were told to bring a change of clothes for the baptism was to be by immersion.

“At the appointed hour we all met at the creek, but I took no change of apparel. I had been baptized, and I did not intend to abjure my baptism. But I kept this to myself.”

Cartwright presented himself first, “Brother M, who was the preacher and administrator, ‘I wish to join the Baptist Church if I can come in with a good conscience, I have been baptized, and my conscience is perfectly satisfied with it, and I cannot submit to be re-baptized. Can I come into your Church on these terms?”

He asked Cartwright when he was baptized. Cartwright responded it was “years gone by” by “one of the best preachers the Lord ever made.” When asked if he was sprinkled, to which Cartwright answered in the affirmative, he was told “that is no baptism at all.”

“I replied, ‘The Scriptures say that baptism is not the putting away the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience, and my conscience is perfectly satisfied with my baptism, and your conscience has nothing to do with it.’

“’Well, said he, ‘it is contrary to our faith and order to let you come into the Baptist Church in that way. We cannot do it.’

“’Brother M,’ said I, “your faith and order must be wrong. The Church has heard my experience and pronounced it good; and you believe that I am a Christian, and cannot fall away so as to be finally lost. What am I to do? Are you going to keep me out of the Church, bleating ‘round the walls like a lost sheep in a gang by myself?”

The Baptist preacher refused and then as others were in line to be baptized – one by one – each of the 23 said to the Baptist preachers, “If Brother Cartwright, who has been the means, in the hand of God, of my conversion and saving of so many precious souls, cannot come into the Church, I cannot and will not join it” (Cartwright Autobiography, loc. 873-987 of 6967).

A similar battle came when Communion was served and the Baptist preachers refused to serve Cartwright. What resulted was the establishment of a Methodist church with the 23 plus a few others who objected to the Baptists “arguing with the fish about the bait.”

FINALLY, FISHERMEN ARE ALWAYS GLAD TO TELL WHAT THEY CAUGHT.  When a church retreats as culture becomes more worldly and unbiblical, when we no longer believe that Christ is the only way to salvation, when we fail to pray that God will equip us to reach the lost, when we become fearful of sharing the Gospel message because others might be offended, then we lose the passion that comes from telling our story and sharing the faith stories of others.

Most telling, however, is that for many, they have no faith story to tell and one cannot lead someone where they haven’t been themselves.
Peter Cartwright never forgot that at age 16 (in 1801), following attendance at a wedding where there was a great deal of drinking and dancing (his enjoyment was the dancing), he reflected on the manner in which had spent the last few hours.

“I felt guilty and condemned, I rose and walked the floor. My mother was in bed. It seemed to me, all of a sudden, my blood rushed to my head, my heart palpitated, in a few minutes I turned blind; an awful impression rested on my mind that death had come and I was unprepared to die. I fell on my knees and began to ask God to have mercy on me.

“My mother sprang from her bed, and was soon on her knees by my side, praying for me, and exhorting me to look to Christ for mercy, and then and there I promised the Lord that if he would spare me I would seek and serve him; and I never fully broke that promise. (Cartwright, Autobiography, loc. 481 of 6967).

That experience drove Peter Cartwright to the frontiers of 19th century America, to endure all sorts of hardship and to do the work of an evangelist.
But folks, the work of evangelism belongs to all of us. The call of evangelism is to us because each of us have places to serve and to share what God is doing in our life. And if you haven’t started that journey, I invite you to do so today.

Black, Andrew. “Peter Cartwright: Methodism and the New Frontier.” Historical Messenger, IGRC Historical Society, The Current, May 2015, 14-15.
Bray, Robert. Peter Cartwright: Legendary Frontier Preacher. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005.
Buckley, J. M. A History of Methodists in the United States. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, Third Edition, 1900.
Cartwright, Peter. Autobiography of Peter Cartwright: The Backwoods Preacher. Originally published in 1856.
Cartwright, Peter and Hooper, W.S. Fifty Years as a Presiding Elder. Cincinnati: Hitchcock and Walden, 1871.
Graves, Dan. Colorful Peter Cartwright, Circuit Rider., accessed Oct. 6, 2016.
Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference, 2016 Journal-Yearbook
Priestly, Theo. “Why Every Tech Company Needs a Chief Evangelist,” Forbes, August 28, 2015, accessed online at:
Richey, Russell; Rowe, Kenneth E.; and Schmidt, Jean Miller. The Methodist Experience in America: A History, Volume 1. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010.