Autobiography of Peter Cartwright

First Published 1856

FOR many years past, and especially during the last ten or twelve, I have been almost unceasingly importuned to write out a history of my life, as one among the oldest Methodist traveling preachers west of the mountains. This would necessarily connect with it a history of the rise and progress of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the great valley of the Mississippi. And surely a work of this kind, written by a competent historiographer, who had kept himself posted, or had kept a journal of his life, and the many thrilling incidents connected with the history of the Church, or the life of a pioneer traveling preacher, could not fail to interest the Church and many of her friends, and would rescue from oblivion many, very many incidents that are now lost, and gone forever beyond the reach of the historian's pen.

I have regretted through life that some of my contemporaries, who were much better qualified for the task than I am, did not write out such a work as is contemplated in this imperfect sketch. Had I seriously thought of sending such a work into the world, I should have tried hard to have been better prepared. But it must be remembered that many of us early traveling preachers, who entered the vast wilderness of the West at an early day, had little or no education; no books, and no time to read or study them if we could have had them. We had no colleges, nor even a respectable common school, within hundreds of miles of us. Old Dyke or Dilworth was our spelling book; and what little we did learn, as we grew up, and the means of education increased among us, we found, to our heart's content, that we had to unlearn, and this was the hardest work of all.

And now that I am old and well stricken in years, it has been, and is, my abiding conviction that I cannot write a book that will be respectable, or one that will be worth reading; but I have reluctantly yielded to the many solicitations of my friends, and I am conscious that there must be many imperfections and inaccuracies in the work. I have no books to guide me; my memory is greatly at fault; ten thousand interesting facts have escaped my recollection; names and places have passed from me which cannot be recalled; and I fear that many scenes and incidents, as they now occur to my recollection, will be added to, or diminished from.

Moreover, as I well understand that I have been considered constitutionally an eccentric minister, thousands of the thrilling incidents that have gained publicity, and have been attributed to me, when they are not found in my book will create disappointment. But I trust their place will be supplied by a true version, and though some of them may not be as marvelous, may nevertheless be quite as interesting. I have many to record that have not seen the light, which will be quite as thrilling as any that have been narrated, and their truthfulness will make them more so.

Some of our beloved bishops, book agents, editors, and old men, preachers and private members, as well as a host of our young, strong men and ministers, who are now actively engaged in building up the Church, have urged me to undertake this sketch of my life, and I have not felt at liberty to decline, but send it out with all its imperfections, hoping that it may in some way, and to some extent, conduce to the interests of the Redeemer's kingdom, and do more than merely gratify an idle curiosity, or offend the fastidious taste of some of our present more highly favored and better educated ministers, who enjoy the many glorious advantages of books, a better education, and improved state of society, from which we as early pioneers were almost wholly excluded.

Right here I wish to say, (I hope without the charge of egotism,) when I consider the insurmountable disadvantages and difficulties that the early pioneer Methodist preachers labored under in spreading the Gospel in these Western wilds in the great valley of the Mississippi, and contrast the disabilities which surrounded them on every hand, with the glorious human advantages that are enjoyed by their present successors, it is confoundingly miraculous to me that our modern preachers cannot preach better, and do more good than they do. Many nights, in early times, the itinerant had to camp out, without fire or food for man or beast. Our pocket Bible, Hymn Book, and Discipline constituted our library. It is true we could not, many of us, conjugate a verb or parse a sentence, and murdered the king's English almost every lick. But there was a Divine unction attended the word preached, and thousands fell under the mighty power of God, and thus the Methodist Episcopal Church was planted firmly in this Western wilderness, and many glorious signs have followed, and will follow, to the end of time.

I will here state, that, at an early period of my ministry, I commenced keeping a journal, and kept it up for several years, till at length several of our early missionaries to the Natchez country returned, and many of them, I found, were keeping a journal of their lives and labors, and it seemed to me we were outdoing the thing, and under this conviction I threw my manuscript journals to the moles and bats. This act of my life I have deeply regretted, for if I had persisted in journalizing, I could now avail myself of many interesting facts, dates, names, and circumstances that would greatly aid me in my sketch.

I know it is impossible for my friends to realize the embarrassments I labor under, for the want of some safe guide to my failing and treacherous memory. I therefore ask great indulgence from any and all who may chance to read this imperfect sketch, and pray that our kind Saviour may forgive any inaccuracies or errors that it may contain. If I had my ministerial life to live over again, my present conviction is that I would scrupulously keep a journal. But this cannot be; therefore I must submit.

And now, in the conclusion of this introduction, I will say, I ask forgiveness of God for all the errors of this work, and all the errors of my whole life, especially of my ministerial life. I also ask for the forgiveness of the Methodist Episcopal Church, as one of her unworthy ministers, for any wrongs I may have done to her, or to the world. I also most sincerely ask the prayers of the Church, that while my sun is fast declining, and must soon set to rise on earth no more, I may have a peaceful and happy end, and that I may meet any that I may have been the instrument of doing good to, with all my dear brethren, safe in heaven, to praise God together forever.