A story written many years ago by J. William Lester ably described the men who played an important part in the lives of the pioneers, the roving preachers or the Circuit Riders.
"Faithful, courageous, and resourceful, the Circuit Riders of pioneer days played an important part in the upbuilding of civilization. Strong men they were, physically, mentally, and morally, who fearlessly rode the lonely trails, thru unbroken forests and unbridged streams, and defied the elements, wild animals, and wilder men.
"Seldom were they vanquished, though time and time again their metal was sorely tried by the rough criminal element that invariably infested the loosely organized settlements of the frontier. To these sturdy men of God, armed only as a rule with saddlebag and Bible, many of our most prominent churches of today owe their very existence," wrote Lester.
According to an old book, the first circuit rider in America was Robert Strawbridge, who came to the colonies in 1764, followed by many more men in the following decades. A system of circuit riding was established in all parts of the country, and in the West a single circuit might cover a whole state! The preachers traveled by horseback or by buggy from settlement to settlement, holding meetings in homes or wherever possible. Some were not highly educated, but were very effective evangelists, especially on the frontier.
One of the best known circuit riding preachers in Lake County was Rev. Timothy H. Ball (1826-1913), also remembered for his many books of local history. He wrote notes for his books as he traveled the circuit and stayed many nights as the guest of a friendly pioneer. One elderly farmer was known to remark: "Here comes that preacher fella, he knew we had supper ready."
Rev. Ball was a graduate of Franklin College in Indiana, and of Newton Theological Institute near Boston. His "History of Lake County," 1904, contained many biographies, including his own. The following paragraph from that story tells about his work as circuit preacher:
"As a missionary pastor, the only minister of his denomination [Baptist] in the county for several years, he has preached in all the southern and central parts of the county, in churches and in school houses, and has conducted burial services at twenty-two cemeteries in the county and in Porter County. This record extends from 1853 to 1904. Hon. Bartlett Woods is reported to have remarked that Rev. Ball has carried the gospel to more people in Lake County than any other minister ever did or ever will."
Preaching often in the Lowell area, Rev. Ball attended many family gatherings there and at Cedar Lake.
In the early days of St. Edward Catholic Church, when the parish was a mission, several priests rode their horses from surrounding communities for Sunday services, first in homes, then at a little church on Burnham St. They came from the 1860's to 1898, when the first resident pastor came.
These are the words of Rev. Merritt Freeman Straight, from an interview on Mar. 15, 1924, four years before his passing: "I was born the eighth day of March 1850, where the Methodist parsonage at Crown Point now stands. My father, a minister, lived there but a year when we moved to a station near LaPorte.
"While in Lake County, father preached in Lowell, Plum Grove, West Creek, Orchard Grove and at the home of William Nichols, northwest of Hebron. As there were no improved roads, he used large trees as guides, or landmarks, on his trips.
"On one occasion, in 1850, a group of boys took one of the wheels off of his buggy and threw it in the river. He went to bed as usual, but the next morning when he went to look for the wheel, he was surprised to find that during the night a number of muskrats had come to his aid by gnawing a hole in the mill dam, leaving the wheel high and dry!
"In my experience as a minister, I was posted about 1880 at Lowell for two years, at Hebron for three years, and at Rolling Prairie two years. From there I went into the Indiana Conference.
"I had but one station. Aside from that I was on the circuit all the time.
"I never had a charge that was more helpful than the congregation at Lowell. They were very helpful in their support. Then, too, there were good people at Hebron. I made my headquarters about 1882 at Lowell, and preached at Creston, West Creek, Jones School House, Sugar Grove, and at Plum Grove. I generally boarded with my parishioners.
"I moved from Lowell to Hebron, had a charge in Porter County, in a school house west of Lowell, which, I think, was on the farm of William Fisher. Then I had charges for three years near Madison, Wis.
"I was well acquainted with Solon Robinson, the founder of Crown Point, Ind., and with Timothy Ball, the historian, who was head of a school there. I frequently passed thru the present site of Gary, on my way to Rolling Prairie, Pine and Chicago. The country was rugged, and there were trees everywhere, with but few scattered farms in the locality."
Circuit preachers also covered the southern states, and, according to a book given to the Old Timer, Rev. John Jasper was one of the most well- known circuit riders. Born a slave and poorly educated, he was well known for his famous sermon "The Sun Do Move," an oration that he preached more than two hundred and fifty times!
Yes, the faithful, courageous, resourceful circuit riders of those pioneer days did play an important part in the upbuilding of the civilization in Lake County and in the country. To these sturdy men of God, armed only with saddlebags and Bibles, many of the area's most prominent churches do, indeed, owe their very existence.
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