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, 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. My mother prayed for me a long time. At length we lay down, but there was little sleep for me.

Next morning I rose feeling wretched beyond expression. I tried to read in the Testament and retired many times to secret prayer through the day but found no relief. I gave up my racehorse to my father and requested him to sell him. I went and brought my pack of cards and gave them to Mother, who threw them into the fire, and they were consumed. I fasted, watched, and prayed, and engaged in regular reading of the Testament. I was so distressed and miserable that I was incapable of any regular business.

My father was greatly distressed on my account, thinking I must die and he would lose his only son. He bade me retire altogether from business and take care of myself.

Soon it was noised abroad that I was distracted, and many of my associates in wickedness came to see me, to try and divert my mind from those gloomy thoughts of my wretchedness, but all in vain. I exhorted them to desist from the course of wickedness which we had been guilty of together.

The class-leader and local preacher were sent for. They tried to point me to the bleeding Lamb; they prayed for me most fervently. Still I found no comfort, and although I had never believed in the doctrine of unconditional election and reprobation, I was sorely tempted to believe I was a reprobate and doomed and lost eternally, without any chance of salvation.

Flashes of light

At length one day, I retired to the horse-lot and was walking and wringing my hands in great anguish, trying to pray, on the borders of utter despair. It appeared to me that I heard a voice from heaven, saying, “Peter, look at me.” A feeling of relief flashed over me as quick as an electric shock.

It gave me hopeful feeling, and some encouragement to seek mercy, but still my load of guilt remained. I repaired to the house, and told my mother what had happened to me in the horse-lot. Instantly she seemed to understand it and told me the Lord had done this to encourage me to hope for mercy, and exhorted me to take encouragement and seek on, and God would bless me with the pardon of my sins at another time.

Some days after this, I retired to a cave on my father’s farm to pray in secret. My soul was in an agony; I wept, I prayed, and said, “Now, Lord, if there is mercy for me, let me find it,” and it really seemed to me that I could almost lay hold of the Savior, and realize a reconciled God.

All of a sudden, such a fear of the Devil fell upon me that it really appeared to me that he was surely personally there, to seize and drag me down to hell, soul and body, and such a horror fell on me that I sprang to my feet and ran to my mother at the house. My mother told me this was a device of Satan to prevent me from finding the blessing then. Three months rolled away, and still I did not find the blessing of the pardon of my sins.

In the spring, Mr. McGready, a minister of the Presbyterian church, who had a congregation and meetinghouse about three miles north of my father’s house, appointed a sacramental meeting in this congregation. As there was a great waking up among the churches from the revival that had broken out, many flocked to [such meetings]. The church would not hold the tenth part of the congregation. Accordingly the officers of the church erected a stand in a contiguous shady grove and prepared seats for a large congregation.

The people crowded to this meeting from far and near. They came in their large wagons, with victuals mostly prepared. The women slept in the wagons, and the men under them. Many stayed on the ground night and day for a number of nights and days together. Others were provided for among the neighbors around. The power of God was wonderfully displayed; scores of sinners fell under the preaching, like men slain in mighty battle; Christians shouted aloud for joy.

To this meeting I repaired—a guilty, wretched sinner. On the Saturday evening, I went with weeping multitudes and bowed before the stand and earnestly prayed for mercy. In the midst of a solemn struggle of soul, an impression was made on my mind, as though a voice said to me, “Thy sins are all forgiven thee.” Divine light flashed all round me, unspeakable joy sprung up in my soul.

I rose to my feet, opened my eyes, and it really seemed as if I was in heaven—the trees, the leaves on them, and everything, I really thought, were praising God. My mother raised the shout, my Christian friends crowded around me and joined me in praising God. And though I have been since then, in many instances, unfaithful, yet I have never, for one moment, doubted that the Lord did, then and there, forgive my sins and give me religion.

Driving Off the Mormons

Cartwright was the prototype of the rough, battling circuit rider, as this excerpt shows. It also shows the frontier as a religious free market, where dynamic leaders and groups—Baptists, Shakers, Mormons, among others—competed fiercely for souls.

“It fell to my lot to become acquainted with Joe Smith personally,” Cartwright says, speaking of the Mormon founder. He then recounts their meeting.

Great debate

I found him to be a very illiterate and impudent desperado in morals, but, at the same time, he had a vast fund of low cunning.

In the first place, he made his onset on me by flattery, and he laid on the soft sodder thick and fast. He expressed great and almost unbounded pleasure in the high privilege of becoming acquainted with me, one of whom he had heard so many great and good things. And he had no doubt I was one among God’s noblest creatures, an honest man.

He believed that among all the churches in the world the Methodist was the nearest right, and that, as far as they went, they were right. But they had stopped short by not claiming the gift of tongues, of prophecy, and of miracles, and then quoted a batch of Scripture to prove his positions correct.

Upon the whole, he did pretty well for clumsy Joe. I gave him rope, as the sailors say, and, indeed, I seemed to lay this plattering unction pleasurably to my soul.

“Indeed,” said Joe, “if the Methodists would only advance a step or two further, they would take the world. And if you would come in and go with us, we could sweep not only the Methodist church, but all others, and you would be looked up to as one of the Lord’s greatest prophets. You would be honored by countless thousands, and have of the good things of this world all that heart could wish.”

I then began to inquire into some of the tenets of the Latter-Day Saints. He explained. I criticized his explanations till, unfortunately, we got into high debate.

The next pass he made at me was to move upon my fears. He said that in all ages of the world, the good and right way was evil spoken of, and that it was an awful thing to fight against God.

“Now,” said he, “if you will go with me to Nauvoo, I will show you many living witnesses that will testify that they were, by the saints, cured of blindness, lameness, deafness, dumbness, and all the diseases that human flesh is heir to. And I will show you,” said he, “that we have the gift of tongues, and can speak in unknown languages, and that the saints can drink any deadly poison, and it will not hurt them.” [He] closed by saying, “The idle stories you hear about us are nothing but sheer persecution.”

“This is my camp meeting”

I then gave him the following history of an encounter I had at a camp meeting in Morgan County, some time before, with some of his Mormons, and assured him I could prove all I said by thousands that were present.

The camp meeting was numerously attended, and we had a good and gracious work of religion going on among the people. On Saturday there came some 20 or 30 Mormons to the meeting. During the intermission after the 11:00 sermon, they collected in one corner of the encampment and began to sing, and they sang well. As fast as the people rose from their dinners, they drew up to hear the singing, until a large company surrounded them.

At length (according, I have no doubt, to a preconcerted plan) an old lady Mormon began to shout, and after shouting a while, she swooned away and fell into the arms of her husband. The old man proclaimed that his wife had gone into a trance, and that when she came to, she would speak in an unknown tongue and he would interpret. This proclamation produced considerable excitement, and the multitude crowded thick around. Presently the old lady arose and began to speak in an unknown tongue, sure enough.

Just then my attention was called to the matter. I saw in one moment that the whole maneuver was intended to bring the Mormons into notice and break up the good of our meeting.

I advanced instantly toward the crowd and asked the people to give way and let me in to this old lady, who was then being held in the arms of her husband. I came right up to them and took hold of her arm, and ordered her peremptorily to hush that gibberish, that I would have no more of it, that it was presumptuous and blasphemous nonsense. I stopped very suddenly her unknown tongue.

She opened her eyes, took me by the hand, and said, “My dear friend, I have a message directly from God to you.”

I stopped her short and said, “I will have none of your message. If God can speak through no better medium than an old, hypocritical, lying woman, I will hear nothing of it!”

Her husband, who was to be the interpreter of her message, flew into a mighty rage, and said, “Sir, this is my wife, and I will defend her at the risk of my life!”

I replied, “Sir, this is my camp meeting, and I will maintain the good order of it at the risk of my life. If this is your wife, take her off from here, and clear yourselves in five minutes, or I will have you under guard.”

The old lady slipped out and was off quickly. The old man stayed a little and began to pour a tirade of abuse on me. I stopped him short and said, “Not another word of abuse from you, sir. I have no doubt you are an old thief, and if your back was examined, no doubt you carry the marks of the cowhide for your villainy.”

And sure enough, as if I had spoken by inspiration, he, in some of the old states, had been lashed to the whipping post for stealing. To cap the climax, a young gentleman stepped up and said he had no doubt all I said of this old man was true, and much more, for he had caught him stealing corn out of his father’s crib.

By this time, such was the old man’s excitement that great drops of sweat ran down his face, and he called out, “Don’t crowd me, gentlemen; it is mighty warm.”

Said I, “Open the way, gentlemen, and let him out.” When the way was opened, I cried, “Now start, and don’t show your face here again, nor one of the Mormons. If you do, you will get Lynch’s law.”

They all disappeared, and our meeting went on prosperously; a great many were converted to God.

Wrath boiled over

My friend Joe Smith became very restive before I got through with my narrative. And when I closed, his wrath boiled over, and he cursed me in the name of his God and said, “I will show you, sir, that I will raise up a government in these United States which will overturn the present government, and I will raise up a new religion that will overturn every other form of religion in this country!”

“Yes,” said I, “Uncle Joe; but my Bible tells me ‘the bloody and deceitful man shall not live out half his days,’ and I expect the Lord will send the Devil after you some of these days and take you out of the way.”

“No, sir,” said he; “I shall live and prosper, while you will die in your sins.”

“Well, sir,” said I, “if you live and prosper, you must quit your stealing and abominable whoredoms!”

Thus we parted, to meet no more on earth; for in a few years after this, an outraged and deeply injured people took the law into their own hands and killed him, and drove the Mormons from the state.