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updated: 12/14/2011 10:55 AM

Circuit riders part of early Arlington Heights history

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Like our nation, Arlington Heights has many roots. Those roots nurture us at a primeval level and enrich our expectations.

When we are aware that our backyards were once Indian hunting grounds, our skies Indian skies, we gain perspective on our past. Learning about the Potawatomi who lived "where we walk to school each day," and camped along the Des Plaines River and in Dunton Court makes us appreciate that the dirt beneath our feet harbors more than earthworms. It has history.

Early circuit riders were another important -- and romantic -- root of our community.

Aware like everyone else of the bedbug invasion advancing on our area makes me think of those early preachers who brought Methodism to these parts at risk of life and limb and multiple itchy welts. While offering religion to local folk, they battled insects and many other hazards.

One itinerant preacher, given a bearskin to bed down beside the fire, told how he shared the wrapping "with a tribe of busy hungry insects. They came out upon me," he remembered, and "contended earnestly for their rights. They annoyed me very much, but they could not disturb my peace of mind."

Circuit riders were phenomenal. In their zeal to bring religion to the frontier, they endured every sort of privation. As a result they didn't live very long. They were most often converted to preaching at camp meetings when they were teens. They got on their horses, put their Bibles in their saddlebags and rode their circuits in every sort of weather during their 20s. They seldom lived past their 30s.

They traveled from church to church, year in and year out, with no fixed abode of their own. No wonder they died young. They practically never got a rest or dried out from all the rivers they floundered in.

One famed preacher described the life of a rider: "He went through storms of wind, hail, snow and rain; climbed hills and mountains; traversed valleys, swam swollen streams, lay out all night -- wet, cold, weary and hungry; held his horse by the bridle all night or tied him to a limb, slept with his saddlebags for a pillow, and his old big coat or blanket, if he had any, for a covering. Often he slept in dirty cabins on earthen floors."

What is today the First United Methodist Church of Arlington Heights got its start in the culture of circuit riders. It sparked to life in a stand of elm, oak, walnut and hickory called Elk Grove in the middle of the 19th century. It began with what was commonly called "a class" organized by a retired Methodist minister, the Rev. Caleb Lamb. Like the circuit riders, he preached conversion.

We'd be surprised today to see a circuit rider galloping up to the Methodist sanctuary on East Euclid (and bunking out on a bearskin). But that is part of their history. And the history of all of us.