(Editor’s note: The Historical Messenger is a publication of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference Historical Society and is published four times a year in The Current. The article below was the text of a message presented by Conference Historian, the Rev. Richard Chrisman as the Prentice Memorial Sermon on April 26, 2014, at the Petersburg UMC. This article represents Volume 46, No. 2 for April to June 2014.)
By Richard Chrisman
What is the Prentice Sermon? This series of sermons began with a bequest from a Methodist layman in Springfield to honor a group of persons who are well known for their untiring proclamation of the Gospel, the pioneer Methodist circuit riding preachers. That man was Hiram Buck Prentice who made his bequest to the Illinois Conference in 1922 to pay the expenses of one of the ministers of the Illinois Conference to preach upon the topic, “the Ministry and service as exemplified by the lives and labors of pioneer preachers of the Illinois Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church.” So today we are continuing in that tradition, helping to carry out our duty to recover, preserve and transmit our heritage.
S. R. Beggs, one of the earliest pioneer preachers in central Illinois, saw the success of these preachers as part of a divine plan. “It seems as if God had sifted the whole inhabited region of North America, and selected the choice spirits therefrom, with their iron constitutions, to plant and cultivate the tree of Methodism in the West. Our design is to reach all of our population, from the northernmost inhabitant of Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, and from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and thence, by missionary effort, to plant the standard of the Cross and the liberty of the Gospel, as Methodism interprets it, to the uttermost verge of our green earth.” (Beggs, Early History of the West and North-West, 243)
The first generation of pioneer preachers, the pathfinders, occupied new fields, beginning in southern Illinois and pushing ever northward as population expanded in that direction. Presiding Elder William McKendree enlisted that St. Paul of Illinois Methodism, Jesse Walker, to accompany him on a missionary scouting trip, fording rivers, securing their own food, and sleeping at night under the stars. As a result of this trip, Walker was appointed to the Illinois Circuit, and his trip from his home in Kentucky to his new assignment was anything but uneventful, among other things losing his horse and having to walk 50 miles to a settlement to rent a horse to go back and search for his own.
The first preacher assigned in 1806 was responsible for all the work in Illinois, and by 1810 there were still but two circuits, the Cache River in far Southern Illinois, and the Illinois that covered everything else. After the close of the War of 1812 population exploded, and the church along with it. A population that had grown to 72,817 in 1825, expanded in fifteen years to 476,000, and Methodist Church membership grew from 3,705 to 31,669, a ten-fold increase.
While still a part of the Western Conference, which included everything west of the Allegheny Mountains, the first conference session in Illinois was held at Shiloh, near Edwardsville, in 1818. There were eight conference members present from Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas, and together they reported church membership of 2000. In 1820, the new Sangamon circuit, including both sides of the Sangamon River, was one of seven in the state. When the Illinois Conference was organized in 1824, it was no longer a missionary conference, its activities directed and controlled from Kentucky or Missouri. At this first Conference session, a noted preacher from Kentucky and Ohio, by the name of Peter Cartwright, joined and would become our best-known, if controversial, preacher.
By 1832 the Methodist Church had reached Chicago, Galena, Rock Island, Peoria, Tazewell country near Pekin, Bloomington, Clinton, Decatur, Jacksonville, Springfield, Shelbyville, Mount Vernon, Kaskaskia, Shawneetown, Paris, and Mount Carmel. (J. D. Barnhardt, “The Rise of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Illinois from the Beginning to the Year 1832,” Journal Illinois State Historical Society, XII, 198) Methodist preaching was brought to these places by men like William See who carried the gospel to newly formed settlements in the Peoria area, and organized the scattered Methodists into societies. Levi Springer organized a Methodist class of nearly a dozen members in the home of G. A. Davidson at Petersburg, in 1836, as Abraham Lincoln was laying out the town, The church grew rapidly after Petersburg became the county seat of Menard County in 1839.
This growth was typical of Methodist expansion in Illinois, as historian Carlyle Buley has pointed out: “Of all the denominations the Methodists were the best equipped for success on the frontier: effective organization, self-sacrificing workers, and popular doctrines assured the wide and rapid spread of their church.” (The Old Northwest, II, 449) The preachers were everywhere, as a man in Stark County said to another: “I was at church last night,” and upon being asked who preached, replied, “Why a Methodist, of course, for they are always on the frontier.” (“West Jersey Church History”)
The lives of the circuit riders were anything but easy. Young preachers were advised to remain single, keep every appointment, and be always on time, even if it meant risking their necks or drowning. In times of foul weather it became a commonplace to observe that the weather was so bad “there’s nothing out but crows and Methodist preachers.”
The message of Methodism resonated with the pioneers, with its doctrines of grace and freedom, and its strict morality helped bring law and order on the frontier. The converted person was expected to be a moral person, and failure would likely result in expulsion from the Church. Horse racing, a popular sport was frowned upon by the preachers, as well as Sabbath-breaking, slavery, whiskey, and “superfluous dress.” Concerning the latter, the story is told of the eccentric old bachelor preacher, Jesse Haile, who was appointed to the Pekin mission in 1832. “Some of his brethren thought he ought to get married, and arranged for him to visit a lady they had selected, and she willing to make the best impression possible, arrayed herself in goodly raiment and set off with flowers and ribbons, in that day quite un-Methodistic. The preacher viewed carefully the dress of the lady candidate for matrimony and then said, ‘Sister, are you not afraid the devil will get you?’ The sequel was not a wedding.” (“History of Cherry Point Church,” 62)
By 1836, when the work in Indiana was separated off from Illinois, there was preaching in every county in the state, with 60 circuit preachers, 300 local preachers, 20,217 white and 109 colored members. By 1840, when Illinois was thoroughly settled, there were nine districts, with 24,687 members. The success of Methodism in Illinois was such that by 1815 there was one Methodist for every 46 persons in the state, by 1865 it was one in 20.
These increases reflect the ceaseless efforts of the circuit rider. “He was a man with an experience, and a passion. There was little place for a preacher that did not have a thrilling story to tell of his ‘experience,’ and when he had nothing else to say he could relate his experience.” (Arthur S. Chapman; 100th Anniversary script) The pioneer preacher, Jesse Walker, rode up to a cabin in Blooming Grove during the winter of 1824, so frozen he had to be helped off his horse by the new settler, John Hendrix. He was placed on the floor to thaw out, and when sufficiently warmed, questioned Hendrix and his wife about their salvation. Being assured they were converted, and anticipating the arrival of more settlers, Walker named Hendrix class leader and promised to return and hold preaching.
Supervising the work of the Church were the presiding elders, who traveled to each of their circuits four times a year to hold quarterly meetings or conferences. At these week-end meetings the elder would hold business meetings, try cases and appeals, examine and license preachers, exhorters and class leaders, administer the sacraments, see that the Disciplinary rules of the Church were carried out, and above all, to preach. “The pastor reported the work of the quarter, which was really the recounting of his adventures of the past three months, and every one’s heart was stirred and gladdened as he told of the number of souls that had been converted to God and the transformation that had been wrought in their lives. The pastor was followed in his reports by the local preachers, and mighty men of God were some of these.” (Chapman, 100th Anniversary Program)
The presiding elders frequently had exciting experiences on their travels to and from quarterly meetings. In the spring of 1845, Richard Haney started from Peoria on horseback for a quarterly meeting at Preemption, about twenty-two miles from Rock Island. Rain had fallen steadily all day and it was near nightfall when he reached the bridge that spanned the Edwards River. Just before crossing it, he and his horse were struck by lightning, the stirrup under his left foot was melted and how he and his horse escaped death seemed little short of a miracle.
While the first generation of preachers were the pathfinders, preaching wherever they could find a place to do so, organizing classes and churches, the second generation consolidated these gains and built institutions. The center of attention shifted from the circuit rider to a local church and its program. Circuits were reduced in size from 20 or more preaching places to a station or a much smaller circuit. Log cabin churches were replaced by frame buildings, and later by brick churches; building and maintaining churches and parsonages required much money, time and effort.
As class meetings declined, they were replaced by Sunday schools, youth and women’s organizations, socials and picnics, and yearly “protracted meetings” or revivals. The need for young people to be educated prompted the growth of academies and colleges, nearly every circuit trying to have an academy and many attempting to start colleges.
The lives of the preachers changed in the second generation. The prejudice against married preachers diminished, and churches began providing parsonages. Support for preachers changed from a flat amount to salaries varying from one church to another, no longer, if they were fortunate enough to receive all their pay, were they required to refund any income over a certain amount for the benefit of their less fortunate brethren. In the early days the limit was $64, giving rise to the phrase, “Sixty-four and no more.” Travel became less onerous, with the improvement of roads and the development of railroads. After 1855, preachers began attending seminary, Garrett Biblical Institute in Evanston being one of the first. Preachers, at least in the town churches, were expected to be refined and eloquent speakers.
Annual Conference remained the highlight of the year, and was looked forward to by the preachers. There was spirited singing and spiritual refreshment, the preachers swapping stories, trading horses and buying books. The reunion with co-workers not seen for a year was eagerly anticipated. Conference was a place where the preachers had their characters passed, formed their opinions of the preaching of the prominent men, and learned their fate for the coming year as the appointments were read.
William T. Beadles, who would later become one of the leading preachers, was received on trial in 1874, and in describing his first conference said: “I would stand by and listen to the preachers talk and while I thought that certainly the talk would be of a religious nature I soon found that it dwelt on the making of appointments and ‘who would go where.’ In listening I found that a good many were talking of the ‘RING’ which they said existed in the Conference, and I was not long in finding out that the ‘Ring’ in their judgment was made up of four men: Revs. Hiram Buck, W. S. Prentice, Jesse Moore and J. L. Crane.” (William Beadles’ Diary, 14)
Two of these four most powerful men in the Conference were the heroes of Hiram Buck Prentice, the man who founded this series of sermons: his father, William S. Prentice, and his father’s close friend, Hiram Buck, for whom he was named.
Hiram Buck was born in Steuben County, New York, converted in 1836, and became a member of the Illinois Conference in 1843, followed by a ministry of 49 years. During this time he was instrumental in the organization of no less than a hundred Methodist churches, a record not surpassed by any other early leader. From the very first he was recognized in the Conference as a man of great ability and with an outstanding and attractive personality, for he was appointed a presiding elder at the age of 33, and served 23 years.
It is said that Buck’s “mental structure was cast in the molds of the ‘Old Masters,’ and any deviation therefrom on the part of more recent thinkers ‘vexed his righteous soul,’ and yet withal he retained his mental flexibility and expansive intellectual capacity to the end of his life…” (“Memoir,” in Illinois Conference Journal, 1892, 67)
“But perhaps Dr. Buck is best remembered as a friend and benefactor of Christian education, and especially of Illinois Wesleyan. He was one of the special committee of four appointed by the trustees to seek the adoption of that institution by the Conference in 1856. … He spent the year 1863 as a special financial agent of Illinois Female College, now MacMurray, and the three years 1869-1872 in this capacity for Illinois Wesleyan which awarded him the Doctor of Divinity degree. In the estimation of IWU President William H. Wilder, … he was ‘the real founder of Illinois Wesleyan.’ Be that as it may it is very doubtful if this university would have survived without his generous financial gifts,” (Historical Messenger, April-June, 1972) which were quite large for the time.
William S. Prentice, a descendant of Captain Thomas Prentice, who settled in Massachusetts in 1650, was born in 1819 in St. Clair County, Illinois. After getting the best education available in his day, he was appointed clerk of the Government Land Office at Vandalia, then the state capital. Following several government positions, his friend, Stephen A. Douglas, secured him an appointment in Washington, D. C. After returning to Illinois, he was converted at Shelbyville, entered the ministry in 1849, and soon rose to prominence, not only in the Conference, but in the general church as well. Of him it was said: “He had the art of influencing and controlling men in the affairs of the Church developed to a larger degree than any other man I have known, and yet was seldom heard on the conference floor, … I think all who knew him will readily concede that he was the greatest Presiding Elder in the history of the Illinois conference.” “He was a very superior preacher. There was no cant about him, no stage effect, no attempt at display, but there was clearness of statement, logical development of his subject, and a copiousness of illustration that made him really a preacher of superior power.” (Illinois Conference Journal 1887, 57)
Prentice “was a thorough Methodist, not only by education but by conviction, believing and loving the doctrine and polity of the M. E. Church, and was true and loyal to all her interests. He loved the Illinois Conference, and his last message was: ‘Tell the Brethren I love them all.’” (Illinois Conference Journal, 1887, 58) “From the earliest days of the Illinois Wesleyan University he was one of its wisest counselors and truest friends,“ and was also awarded the Doctor of Divinity degree. (Historical Sketch and Alumni Record, 54)
The other two members of the “ring,” the four outstanding leaders of the Illinois Conference in the second generation, are noted for quite different characteristics. Jesse H. Moore, whose father was a Revolutionary War solider, was born in St Clair County, graduated from McKendree College, and joined the Illinois Conference in 1846. After a decade teaching at McKendree, he entered the pastorate where he remained until 1861, when he began a military career, organizing “the Second Preachers’ Regiment,” made up of preachers from many denominations, as the first was filled by Methodists. His regiment was badly ”cut up” in the Battle of Chickamauga, one of the bloodiest of the Civil War, resulting in a defeat by the Confederates. He was promoted to Brigadier General “for gallant and meritorious conduct on the field of battle,” having two horses shot from under him. He was also involved in all the battles of the Atlanta Campaign, and in the Franklin and Nashville battles. Following the war he returned to Illinois and served as a presiding elder and in several political positions: two terms in Congress, Postmaster at Springfield, and the U. S. Consul in Peru, where he died in 1883 while in service there.
The final member of the “Ring,” James L. Crane, was a most colorful character. After joining the Conference in 1846, he served charges and was a presiding elder. After a short time in U. S. Grant’s 21st Illinois Infantry Regiment, he returned to preaching, which he continued until his death in 1879. A noted literary person, he wrote a novel about early preacher life, and made frequent contributions to the Northwestern Christian Advocate. One of these was called “The Dignified Preacher,” in which he wrote: “True ministerial dignity is nature and art sanctified, and imbued with the spirit of the gospel. He feels the power and glory of the subject himself, and … is the solid, living embodiment and manifestation of the truth he utters.” (Northwestern Christian Advocate, May 12, 1858)
While liberalizing tendencies were beginning to appear in the church, Crane would have none of them. Leaton said that he was “Thoroughly evangelical and Methodistic, preached a pure gospel, and had but little sympathy with what is known as “liberal views,” advanced thought, and ”broad gauge theology.” (Leaton, Methodism in Illinois, 3, 211)
Conditions were much improved for the second generation, but some of the thrills of earlier times remained. While going from Springfield in 1867 to hold a quarterly conference, Crane was able to take a train to Nilwood, but then had to get to the place of meeting eight miles in the country. They started in a home-made sleigh, but “great snowballs formed on the horse’s feet so that often one or two of his legs is six inches longer than the others, giving a very undignified and awkward style to his locomotion.” The creek they had to cross was swollen, and as they neared it they hit a hidden stump and were thrown out of the sleigh as it overturned. It was clear no one had attempted to cross since the water had risen. As they debated whether to go on, one suggested they go back as no one would be expecting them, “but backing out is something that traveling preachers are but little accustomed to.” The presiding elder made his way upstream until he came to a tree fallen across the river, with much difficulty making his way to the other side, and then walked back to the crossing ford, and called for the others to come across. Upon crossing, they lost the trail, but after passing through several gates and fields, arrived at the school house where the quarterly meeting was to be held. (March 13, 1867)
Although there were many changes in the ministry through these two generations, the preachers remained true to the message of the Gospel, as understood by Methodism. What James Leaton said about John T. Mitchell was true of them all: “He embraced with his whole soul the theology of Wesley, and never wavered in the conviction that it was more a transcript of the teachings of Christ than any other system of doctrine held among men.” (Methodism in Illinois, 398) The pioneers fought many battles with Calvinists, Universalists, immersionists, Mormons, and others, while preaching the Good News was always their great love. They followed the words of the Psalmist who instructed his hearers to “laud [God’s] work from one generation to the next.” (Psalm 145:4) So they continued the work of the founders of Methodism in America, who took as their task the challenge of John Wesley, “to reform the continent, and to spread scriptural holiness over these lands.”