A Soul’s Solemn Struggle

Peter Cartwright (1785–1872) was famous for his camp-meeting exploits even before he wrote his 1857 Autobiography—but afterward, even more so. In it he recounts his long and flamboyant ministry on the frontier. Whether in person or in print, he was a magnificent storyteller.

His Autobiography tells us not only about Cartwright, but also about his era. For example, his lengthy, anguished conversion was not untypical; it illustrates how spiritual matters were of grave concern in his day. An excerpt:

Camp-meeting conversion. In 1801, Presbyterians of southern Kentucky organized a “Communion.” “To this meeting I repaired,” wrote Peter Cartwright, “a guilty, wretched sinner.” But before it was through, “unspeakable joy sprung up in my soul.”

Gloomy thoughts of wretchedness

In 1801, when I was in my sixteenth year, my father, my eldest half-brother, and [I] attended a wedding about five miles from home, where there was a great deal of drinking and dancing, which was very common at marriages in those days. I drank little or nothing; my delight was in dancing. After a late hour in the night, we mounted our horses and started for home. I was riding my racehorse.

A few minutes after we had put up the horses and were sitting by the fire, I began to reflect on the manner in which I had spent the day and evening. 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, ...

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