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Circuit Riders

The history of religion on the American frontier (or in places that had only recently enjoyed frontier status) is the phenomenon of “too much, too soon.” Uncertain where their flocks might settle and stabilize in numbers sufficient to warrant a place of worship and resident clergy, they cast their nets wide, using temporary, often borrowed, quarters such as courtrooms or lodge meeting halls above the general store.

The pattern had been established by Francis Asbury, one of the first two bishops of the Methodist denomination in the United States. Asbury (for whom many Methodist churches have been named, including the one in Agincourt, Iowa) set the record of more than 300,000 miles on horseback carrying the Gospel to any who would hear — and many who wouldn’t had his spirit not been indomitable.

The current Methodist facility in Agincourt was designed and built circa 1920, among the last of the true Akron-Auditorium church buildings that have fascinated me for more than forty years and about which I hope to write a book. That would have been preceded by at least one, possibly two, earlier church structures. The first, no doubt, came from a pattern book as was published by the denomination; the second, from the collaborative mind of building committee and local building talent — often with mixed results.

The Rev Candice Varenhorst is the current pastor at Asbury UMC. Who her predecessors were I can’t yet say (but you know I will) but I can assure you that they rode circuit to communities within a reasonable radius of Agincourt, in the hope of established a congregation sufficient to support a building and eventually its own resident clergy. This postcard view of a storefront Methodist church in upstate New York could easily have been in some hamlet a few miles from the “mother church.” With a little photoshopping, I think this can become the icon for riding the circuit.

nybennettsvilleme.jpg


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