History of Methodism in Illinois: From 1793 to 1832

by Rev. James Leaton, D.D., of the Illinois Conference


Printed by Walden and Stowe

for the author


Pages 315-330

If Alfred W. Arrington was the most eloquent man ever received in the Illinois Conference, WILSON PITNER was certainly the most eccentric. He was born on Cedar Creek, Wilson County, Tennessee, in the Spring of 1806. He had six brothers and five sisters, who with his parents afterward became members of the Methodist Episcopal Church. But at the time of his conversion, which occurred when he was about sixteen, his parents were irreligious, and much opposed to the noisy religion of the Methodists, through whose instrumentality he was led to the Savior. Soon after his conversion he joined the Church; but so ignorant was he that he thought every one uniting with it had to pay quarterage, which he understood to be a quarter of a dollar; and so, when he went forward to give his [316] hand to the preacher, imagining, perhaps, that he might not be regarded as suitable for admission, he cried out with confidence, "I've got the money!" At a Bible meeting in Belleville, in 1848, he related this of himself:

"Soon after I Joined the Church I felt that I must have a Bible. I had never owned one, but I could read, and was determined to have a Bible of my own. Father had given me a little piece of ground to work for myself. I put it in cotton; and when it was gathered I took it to Nashville and sold it, and with the money I received I bought a Bible. I was so delighted I could hardly contain myself. I put it in my bosom and hurried home as fast as I could to get an opportunity to read it. But I could not resist the temptation of taking it out of my bosom and smelling of it, and it seemed to me that it smelt of the Holy Ghost."

Whilst yet a youth, one night, after he had retired, like Samuel, he heard a voice calling to him, "Wilson, Wilson!" He got up and searched the room to find out where the voice came from, but could find nothing. After a while he got courage to speak, when the voice said to him, "Go, preach my Gospel." But he felt that he could not preach. He had but the rudiments of an education. His father had threatened him severely, commanding him to desist from his prayers and songs of praise. But the Spirit of God wrought powerfully upon him, and impelled him not only to attend the meetings himself, but to hold meetings at which not a few were awakened and converted.

[317] While thus hesitating about preaching, he felt moved to pray in his father's family, but he was afraid to ask permission. So, late one evening he retired a little distance from the house to pray, and while there wrestling with the angel of the covenant; both the parents were powerfully convinced of sin, and sent for him to come to the house and pray for them. As he received this message he was so overcome that he felt himself unworthy to walk to the house, but falling on the ground, he rolled nearly all the way. With two of his sisters, who had by this time found the Savior, he labored with the old folks till a late hour, when both were happily converted to God.

In 1829, having received license to preach, he was received on trial in the Illinois Conference and appointed to Shoal Creek Circuit as junior preacher with William Chambers. He did considerable good, but his unlettered mind, his peculiar and awkward deportment, his impulsive and erratic mode of speech, and his very singular illustrations in the pulpit, while taking finely with some, were strongly objected to by others as unbecoming in a minister of the Gospel, and the result was that at the next session of the conference he was discontinued.

He had some ludicrous adventures this year, to one or two of which it may not be amiss to refer. The following was related by himself to the writer as they were returning together from conference at Nashville in 1844, and passing very near the place where the circumstance occurred. He heard that a little town had sprung up in the Okaw timber in [318] which the Gospel had never been preached. Greatly desirous of being a pioneer preacher to some, he accordingly sent them an appointment. When he reached the place he found the whole population assembled in a little log school-house, and preached to them as best he could. After the sermon he began singing (he was a good singer), and, as was common in those days, he thought he would go through the congregation and shake hands with the people. It happened that the first person to whom he offered his hand was a Connecticut dancing master who had recently come to the place and started a dancing school, and who, by the people, was looked on as the very pink of politeness. Now, the dancing master had never seen any such thing as this Western hand-shaking in meeting, and so, when the preacher offered his hand, thinking that it was a friendly way of taking his leave of the congregation, he rose, and with a polite bow, took his hand and said, "Good-bye, sir." This was almost too much for the preacher's gravity. He had to keep on singing to avoid bursting out in laughter. The next one he approached was a raw native, who took it for granted that the dancing master's move was the latest fashion, and so he jumped up, and with an awkward bow, cried, "Good-bye, sir." By this time the preacher was almost upset, and it was only by persisting in singing, at the top of his voice that he kept from screaming with laughter. But he thought it would not do to stop then, and so he went on through the male portion of the congregation, every one, however, imitating the example [319] of the dancing master. As soon as he had received the "good-bye, sir," of the last one, he seized his hat and saddle-bags, and without dismissing the congregation, left the house, hastily mounted his horse and rode away, convulsed with laughter, and never had the courage to visit them again.

The following is related by his brother-in-law, Rev. J. H. Dickens: "It was during this year he was called on by his presiding elder, S. H. Thompson, to exhort at a camp-meeting, held below Carlisle, in a sassafras grove. The meeting had been a drag, and so Pitner was put up as a kind of forlorn hope, to exhort and move the masses, as he often did. He pulled string after string, but there was no move. At last he undertook to tell sinners how strong the Lord was with whom they were trifling; as a climax he said, "I wouldn't be surprised if God Almighty would come down in a thundergust of woodpeckers and sweep all these sassafras bushes and sinners down to hell together,' and just then he grasped one of the saplings and shook it, when down fell the top of it, for it was dead, upon the people in the altar. The effect was fearful. The people thought they were going down. The women screamed terribly. But in a little while the reaction came, the excitement was felt to be any thing but religious, and the meeting closed without a mourner. Wilson's mortification was indescribable. He felt that he had been led into over-acting, and heartily ashamed, he got away as soon as he could."

At the instance of his friends he concluded he would go to school for awhile and acquire an education [320] that he might be better fitted for the work of the ministry. He accordingly attended Illinois College at Jacksonville, with his talented cousin, Peter R. Borein; but after remaining six months, he could not be persuaded to continue longer. And when asked the reason, he replied, "It will be lost time and money, for my head is chock-full of learning, and as fast as I get a new idea in my head, it crowds out an old one." He felt, too, as he told the writer, that it was wicked for him to stay there in college, when souls were perishing all about him whom he might direct to Christ. Leaving the school then, he was employed by the presiding elder on the Athens Circuit for the remainder of the year, and in 1832 he was again received on trial in the conference, and appointed to Carrollton Circuit with John Van Cleve as his senior. For the two following years he was alone on the Pittsfield Circuit. In 1835 he was sent to Rushville, but traveled the circuit only part of the year, being removed by his presiding elder to the Black Hawk purchase in Iowa, Dr. John P. Richmond being employed for the remainder of the year. In 1836 his appointment was Canton; 1837, Buckhart; 1838, Canton again; 1839, Vermillion; 1840, Mercer Mission; 1841, Peoria Circuit; 1842, Carthage; 1843, Randolph; 1844 and 1845, Jacksonville Circuit; 1846, Urbana; 1847, Charleston. In 1848, at the resuscitation of the Missouri Conference, he was transferred to it, and appointed to the St. Louis County Mission, in which he labored two years. In 1850 he was re-transferred to the Illinois Conference and [321] appointed to Ewington, and the next year to Mt. Pulaski. At the close of the year he located and soon afterwards removed to California. In 1859 he was readmitted in the California Conference, traveled in succession the Colusi, Cosumnes, and Michigan Bar charges, and in 1862 again located. He afterwards removed to Washington Territory, where he closed his labors and sufferings in February, 1880.

Mr. Pitner was, probably, less influenced by artificial rules than any one who ever traveled in Illinois. In all his actions and addresses he was a perfect child of nature. He looked at things as no other man did; and whatever thought came into his mind, no matter how odd or incongruous or foreign to the occasion or subject, would be very likely to find utterance. He was preaching once to a large audience, and with much freedom, when he suddenly stopped and quaintly remarked, "Brethren, I had a good idea, but somehow it's gone. We'll sit down and sing a verse or two, and it will come back again." So he sat down, started a familiar hymn, and in a few moments sprang up, crying, "I told you it would come back, I have it now," and went on with his sermon as though nothing had happened. Of course his hearers were greatly amused, but on the whole the effect was good.

He was so constituted that he could not preach at all if there happened to be any thing very strange or novel before him. "I was present once," says Mr. Dickens, "when he preached in his brother's house. There was hanging just before him a new-fashioned [322] pin-cushion. His eye fell upon it as he was preaching. He tried for a few moments to preach while attempting to make out what it was, when he suddenly stopped, and asked what sort of a thing it was, saying that he had never seen such a droll thing in his life. At his request it was removed, and then he proceeded with his sermon with a good degree of liberty; but it was not easy for the amused hearers to bring back their feeling to a devotional frame again."

On another occasion, while preaching at a private house, after he had commenced his sermon, he espied on the opposite side of the room a very oddly constructed spinning-wheel. For a little while he tried to divert his mind from it, but the more he tried the more confused he became, until at length he suddenly paused in his sermon, and addressing the man of the house, said, "Brother, I wish you would take that wheel away. I never saw such an ugly looking thing before. I could make a better wheel than that myself." So, amid the laughter that such a ludicrous remark would produce, the brother removed the wheel from the house, and the preacher resumed his sermon.

While preaching in a country school-house by the side of a public road on the Jacksonville Circuit, one warm Summer afternoon, he was much annoyed by the antics of a little dog just in front of the desk behind which he stood. Still preaching, he stepped from behind the desk, seized the dog by the back of his neck, deliberately walked to the open door and threw the little beast as far into [323] the road as he could, and deliberately marched back to the desk, preaching all the time as hard as he could, as though his act was nothing out of the way. The congregation had been a little drowsy before, but that act thoroughly aroused them, and if no spiritual good was accomplished, he certainly had the wakeful attention of those present during the rest of the service.

At another time, while exhorting after a sermon preached by G. W. Robbins, in a grove, in the midst of his exhortation he happened to look up, and saw on one of the trees before him a limb with a peculiar crook in it. He suddenly stopped in his exhortation, and said, "That limb would make a first rate saddle-tree." Of course none sought religion as the effect of that exhortation.

He was a great hunter, and in some of his early charges drew no small portion of his support from his fishing and trapping. He was particularly expert in finding bee-trees and securing the honey lodged in them. Once at a camp-meeting in Fulton County, he was put up to exhort, and, if possible, arouse the people, who seemed quite indifferent to their spiritual interests. While exhorting at the top of his voice, he suddenly paused, and, pointing in a certain direction, cried out, "There went a bee!" There were no seekers of religion at that exhortation. Once, while immersing a person in one of the streams in the military tract, just as he was about to plunge him under the water, and had commenced the formula, "I baptize thee," his eye caught sight of a bee; he paused for a little [324] while, until he had got the exact direction in which the bee was flying, and then completed the ceremony. And as soon as possible after he came from the water he started in search of the bee-tree.

In the central portion of Illinois there is a weed vulgarly called cuckle-burr, that is a great annoyance in the fields and gardens. One Sabbath afternoon, in the Summer of 1845, the writer had preached, and called on Brother Pitner to pray at the close of the sermon. It seems that there was something in it with which he was pleased, and with more than ordinary fervor he prayed, "O Lord, bless the sermon we have just heard, bless it mightily; make it the means of doing great harm to the devil's kingdom; O Lord, make it like cuckle-burrs in the devil's garden."

But despite these eccentricities, he was a deeply devoted and conscientious Christian. Perhaps no member of the conference was more faithful and regular in his private and family devotions than he; for he firmly believed that if he neglected these duties God would send some great calamity upon him. Though illiterate, in the ordinary sense of the term, for it is said that he declared he had never read but three books in his life, the Bible, the Hymn-book, and the Discipline, his close and constant study of the Scriptures had given him a wonderful command of language, and sometimes when preaching, and more frequently in exhortation, his language would not only be grammatically correct, but the most appropriate words would spring forth to express his ideas, and thoughts the [325] most sublime would roll from him in measured cadence like the grandest blank verse, reaching the souls of the most cultivated as well as the most illiterate of his hearers, and stirring them to their profoundest depths. There were times, indeed, when he seemed to be inspired, and when the people felt that it was not Pitner who was speaking, but God, who was speaking through him.

At a conference in Springfield he was appointed to speak at the missionary anniversary and take the collection. The railroad from Naples to Springfield was then in operation, the cars being drawn by mules. After the speaker had portrayed as best he could the necessity of saving the world and the grandeur of the work, he compared the missionary machinery to a long train of cars, heavily freighted with all the appliances of salvation. "But where," he asked, "is the motive power? Brethren, I tell you it has to go. This grand train must go, and it will go, for God Almighty himself is hitched to it." Rough and irreverent as it was, the effect was electrical; shouts were heard all over the house, and the collection was a grand one.

Dr. Cartwright describes a camp-meeting in Fulton County, at which Pitner was present, and says of him: "We had a very singular and remarkable man among us, a traveling preacher in the Illinois Conference; his name was Wilson Pitner. He was at this camp-meeting. He was uneducated, and it seemed impossible for him to learn; but, notwithstanding his want of learning, and in common he was an ordinary preacher, yet at times, as we say in [326] the back-woods, when he swung clear there were very few that could excel him in the pulpit, and, perhaps, he was one of the most eloquent and powerful exhorters that was in the land. On Monday he came to me and desired me to let him preach at 11 o'clock, saying, 'I have faith to believe that God will this day convert many of these rowdies and persecutors.' I consented, and he preached with great liberty and power. Nearly the whole congregation were powerfully moved, as he closed by calling for every rowdy and persecutor to meet him in the altar; for, said he, 'I have faith to believe that God will convert every one of you that will come and kneel at the place of prayer.' There was a general rush for the altar, and many of our persecutors, and those who had interrupted us in the forepart of the meeting, came and fell on their knees and cried aloud for mercy; and it is certainly beyond my power to describe the scene; but more than fifty souls were converted to God that day and night. Our meeting continued for several days, and about ninety professed to obtain the pardon of their sins, most of whom joined the Church, and much good was accomplished, although we waded through tribulation to accomplish it. Such success often attended the Gospel labors of this brother."

"In 1841," says Mr. Beggs, "W. Pitner was appointed to Peoria Circuit, and held a camp-meeting at Princeville. I had the privilege of attending this camp-meeting. It was increasingly prosperous till Sabbath morning, when W. Pitner was to preach and I to exhort and call up the mourners. [327] The preacher began in his odd way of portraying the downward path of the sinner. His apt and unvarnished illustration of a sinner on the way to hell excited laughter all over the house. Every one seemed too merry and trifling to have any good result from such a sermon, and most of us gave up all expectations of inviting up the mourners at its close. I felt that I could not exhort after that sermon, and told the elder so; when all of a sudden he changed to one of the most terrific descriptions of the finally impenitent, and the wailings of the damned, till it seemed as if the sound of those wailings reached our ears, and we could almost feel the darkness of despair brooding over the sinner, and see his tearless eyeballs rolling in their burning sockets, and his poor, unsheltered soul cry out, 'Lost, lost, lost!' All eyes seemed as if turned toward the yawning pit, and the deep sighs heaved from a thousand breasts, 'Lord, save! Lord, save the sinner!' And then he pointed to the Savior as the sinner's only refuge, telling how, through him, there was yet hope; that all might come and receive pardon, and that the joys of heaven were freely offered, without money and without price. I have never witnessed another such a scene. It was as if they realized that the judgment was near at hand. Some fell, and lay all night and cried for mercy; others screamed as if hell was moving from beneath to meet them at their coming. And how beautifully he cleared up the way and invited the sinners to the altar. Such as had strength came rushing and fairly tumbling along, some, with uplifted voices, crying, [328] 'Thou son of David, have mercy on us.' In the midst of all this the preacher's mellowing tones and his invitation to come to Jesus, beggar all description. The cries for mercy, the bursting forth of praise, and the preacher's voice sounding out over all with its melting tones of pardon, produced a scene, I imagine, like that of God's ancient people when laying the foundation of the second temple, when the old men 'wept with a loud shout, so that they could not discern the noise of the shouts of joy from the voice of the weeping people.' This camp-meeting ended with glorious results, which may be seen to this day."

He was appointed to preach one Sunday night at a camp-meeting in Hancock County. There had been a good religious interest, and some souls had been converted. After supper the men and women had been out in the woods holding prayer-meetings, each on its own side of the ground. As the horn blew for service, rejoicing in God they came in from their prayer-meetings and met at the head of the main aisle. As they marched up to take their seats on either side of it, Brother Pitner, who was already in the pulpit, seized the horn, which hung on one side of it, and blew a blast loud and long, and then grasping the Bible, and holding it open toward the moving crowd, he cried out with a voice like a trumpet, "Hallelujah, the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth." The people, already powerfully excited, seemed now to be overwhelmed, some fell; when the preacher blew another blast, and again cried, "Hallelujah, the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth," [329] Saints shouted aloud, sinners began to cry for mercy. The preacher leaped from the pulpit and gave a brief invitation to seekers of salvation. Multitudes rushed to the altar, and multitudes were that night led to the Savior, how many eternity will reveal. Brother Pitner told the writer afterwards that while he had intended to take as a text the words he uttered, and while the Bible was open at the passage, the thought of the trumpet flashed into his mind the moment he seized it, and that as he stood there holding the open Bible before the congregation, he felt flashes of power darting out from the ends of his fingers, and his whole frame was convulsed as if from the shocks of a battery.

"His conversion," says Mr. Dickens, "was clear and powerful. His call to preach was convincing and even miraculous. His preaching, when he swung clear, as he expressed it, was masterly and often overwhelming. When energized with the Spirit, he was the most powerful and successful exhorter I ever knew, and thousands, I doubt not, will own him in heaven as their spiritual father. His preaching and exhortations were unlike any other man's. He was always original. A true Benjaminite, he always hit on the left side." The writer was his colleague in 1844 on the Jacksonville Circuit, and heard him frequently. "While in his sermons he often failed, at times his exhortations were eloquent and powerful beyond description. With the simplicity and guilelessness of a child, he possessed the intellect of a giant, and had that intellect been cultivated, he must have been one of [330] the most powerful men in the Church. He was an original thinker. While his illustrations -- and his addresses abounded in them -- were sometimes crude and sometimes ridiculous, they were often the most sublime that the mind could grasp, and clothed in language so appropriate, beautiful, and poetic that the most fastidious critic could find no fault in them. Of the business of the Church he had very little idea. His forte was to save souls and to build up the Church. A man of wonderful faith, at times he was yet subject to deep depression of spirit, when he thought he had not a single friend in the world. When he attempted to speak in his own strength he always failed, but when he spoke in dependence on God, and feeling that without divine help he must fail, then the Spirit seemed to speak through him as he spoke through the prophets of old, and mighty results followed.

For several years before he died he was able to preach but little. But he remained deeply pious, loving the Church, with all her ministers, members, and institutions, to the last. He was ready when the summons came, and died in full faith and hope.