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Story Archives: Two circuit riders, Capt. Bowie & a wilderness chapel
|Two circuit riders, Capt. Bowie & a wilderness chapel|
(Eighth in a series)
The Methodist circuit riders who planted the seed of Methodism in this region 200 years ago were men born on the frontier when the American colonists were fighting for their independence from England. A quarter century later in Natchez country and in northeastern Louisiana, these men risked life and limb to preach and establish churches on America's newest frontier -- the Mississippi and Louisiana territories.
Methodism, according to John Griffin Jones in his book ("A Concise History of the Introduction of Protestantism into Mississippi and the Southwest," 1866), was first introduced in America in 1760: "Previous to the Revolutionary war it had spread extensively throughout the Colonies; during the war it was surprisingly successful, and after the war closed its spread became general in the United States."
Following the creation of Mississippi Territory by Congress in 1798, the Methodist leadership decided the following year to make Natchez country a new field for missionary work mostly because it was "destined to be settled speedily by an American population," according to Jones. At a conference in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1799, Tobias Gibson, age 29, was chosen as the first Methodist missionary for Natchez. A preacher for the previous eight years, Gibson was a bachelor whose relative, Randal Gibson, lived on Clarks Creek in Claiborne County, Miss.
Tobias Gibson arrived in the region in the spring of 1799 and soon organized in Washington, six miles northeast of Natchez, the first Methodist church in Mississippi. Washington became the territorial capital in 1802. "The first time he opened the door of the Church he received eight persons," Jones wrote of Gibson, including six white and two black. These original members, he said, "lived to a great age, and seemed to be faithful until death."
Gibson visited many of the settlements in Natchez country "between Fort Adams and Walnut Hills, near the present site of Vicksburg, in most of which he laid the foundation of future Churches. In 1800 and 1801 this remote and extensive missionary circuit was still held as an outpost of the South Carolina Conference, but in 1802 it was attached to the Great Western Conference, and included in the Kentucky District, and Mr. Gibson still continued as preacher in charge."
Another minister later assisted Gibson and a number of circuit riders afterward struggled in their daunting task to build churches in settlements hidden in the vast wilderness. Jones said the preachers, "by making a round each in four, six, or eight weeks, and preaching nearly every day, and often at night, were enabled to supply the people with the gospel of salvation and the ordinances of the Church."
Although pioneer preachers had been crossing the Mighty Miss in Louisiana during this period, including eccentric evangelist Lorenzo Dow, it wasn't until 1807 that circuits were officially established in Louisiana. Around that time, 31-year-old Jacob Young was named the presiding elder of the Mississippi District, while James Axley was assigned the Catahoula and Ouachita circuits that included most of northeastern and central Louisiana, stretching from Catahoula Lake to Sicily Island and northward to Monroe.
Young was born on the Pennsylvania frontier in 1776. There, his father and uncle built cabins 30 yards apart as protection against Indians. As the frontiersmen and Native Americans skirmished and battled from time to time, Young slept in his cradle under the watchful eye of his mother and two brothers, while his father and uncle cleared ground to plant corn. In his book ("Autobiography of a Pioneer"), Young wrote, "While one worked the other watched with a loaded gun in hand, his dog being always near to give the alarm."
In his journey to Natchez country from Nashville down the Natchez Trace, Young and his fellow travelers, including Methodist circuit rider James Axley, survived on ground coffee, beef tongues and bread. Eleven days later they arrived in Port Gibson where Lorenzo Dow and wife Peggy were enduring illness and financial difficulties while trying to build a sawmill on Clarks Creek. Although Dow was trained in the Methodist church and supported most of the Methodist doctrines and beliefs, he had earlier become an independent evangelist. But he always worked closely with Methodist circuit riders.
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