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posted: 9/25/2012 1:00 PM

Circuit riders part of Arlington Hts. DNA

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Last month, I advanced the fanciful notion that villages, like the people who live in them, have strands of DNA that determine their character. So during the past weeks my mind has been suggesting exciting DNA strands for Arlington Heights.

I particularly like the idea of adding circuit riders to the DNA mix or, more technically, to the double helix. They add a note of knights of old to the familiar sobersides image of our town.

Circuit riders rode in on their horses. They carried a potent weapon, the Bible. They pretty much devoted their lives to their cause, which was preaching Methodism.

They were men who felt that God had called on them to be preachers They preached up such a storm that Abraham Lincoln said of the results of their work that Methodism was the religion most truly American.

One of Illinois' most famous circuit riders was Peter Cartwright, who had an eminent descendant in Arlington, Joan Grisell. She years ago helped launch the ecumenical movement in Arlington Heights, not as a Methodist but as a member of First Presbyterian Church.

Cartwright said of his fellow preachers, "Instead of hunting up a college or a biblical institute, (the circuit rider) hunted up a hardy pony or a horse and some traveling apparatus, and with his library always at hand, namely Bible, Hymn Book and Discipline, he started, and with a text that never wore out or grew stale, he cried out. 'Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world.'"

Circuit riders are an important DNA strand because they link us in our comfortable existence to the hardy folk who came early to our village and braved hardship. Not to the extent of the circuit riders, of course. The first residents of our village had houses, however simple and hard to heat.

Many of the circuit riders had no cabin at all. Anywhere. They were true traveling men.

Cartwright described circuit riders pushing through storms of wind, hail, snow and rain. He said a circuit rider "climbed hills and mountains, traversed valleys, plunged through swamps, 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."

Despite the exercise they got, the life of a circuit rider was not a healthy one. Circuit riders mostly died young. Few lived to be 40. Unusual for his vocation, Peter Cartwright lived to be an old man who could tell the story of an early day in his preaching career when he was attacked by a mob with whips. Undaunted, he had a trumpet blown and continued to preach.

And he bore out the popular saying of the day on any occasion of truculent weather, "There's nothing out today but crows and Methodist preachers."