I treasure the journal of my great-great-great-grandfather, who was a circuit rider in Illinois and Missouri. He writes of moving from church to church each week, staying in the houses of people he has never met, hoping that they will give him food for his horse.
He was dependent on the lay leadership to continue the worship life of the churches while he rotated on the circuit, and on one occasion discovered that in his absence the church building had been used to house animals, was full of tobacco stains, and had spider webs covering the sanctuary. He preached a rousing sermon about not desecrating the house of the Lord and then dropped them from the circuit.
He describes the good meals he shares, the hospitality he experiences, and the opportunities to witness in the homes where he is staying. Other times he writes poignantly of the several-week-long trek to his annual conference meeting, visiting family for the first time in years, and not knowing where he would be assigned at the close of the conference session.
My closest experience to the life of a circuit rider was the summer I worked in Nicaragua. When I got off the plane, I did not know who would be meeting me or where I would stay. I went to the small house of a Pentecostal pastor, where they created a “bedroom” for me by building a plywood bed with a layer of carpet for a mattress and hanging a sheet around it so that I would have some privacy in the middle of their living room. From this house, I had a two hour journey by bus and bike to get to the mission project, so I spent three to four nights a week depending on the hospitality of the people in the project. I was a pilgrim, completely dependent on others for my basic needs.
This is itineracy.
When Francis Asbury began his forty-five years of itinerant ministry, the pre-Revolutionary United States looked quite different. Methodism itself was confined east of the Alleghenies and only later was Asbury the first bishop to cross those mountains. Methodism spread because the flexible preachers reflected the pioneer ethos and attracted like-minded individuals who could carry on the community when the circuit riders were away. To retire meant to locate, whether out of desire for a family or as a result of fatigue; attrition was high and 20% of these mostly single, poor, young male preachers died before the age of 35.
This is itineracy.
*For more on these stats, see a) my Methodist history prof or b) Frederick A. Norwood, The Story of American Methodism (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1974), 138-9.