Church HistoryMethodist

Methodist Circuit Riders in Old Ontario

Several times I have wondered what it would be like for aliens to learn about jazz through textbooks. If they knew anything about music theory, they could probably comprehend the basic characteristics as well as common elements like the Mixolydian mode and the triplet rhythm on the ride cymbal. With some historical study, they also might be able to understand, if only vaguely, the origins of jazz and its place in cultures around the world. But I do not think that these aliens would truly know jazz; music must be listened to and felt, preferably in a setting for which the music was designed. It is one thing to know how Dizzy Gillespie’s melodies departed from the major scale; it is quite another thing to hear him blaze through a solo as the full band swings behind him.

I believe that we could say something similar about religious movements such as settlement-era Methodism in the United States and Canada. Students can read about it in textbooks and come to understand its teachings about conversion and entire sanctification. They can also study the life of the Wesley brothers and learn about the historical background of early Methodism. This information is valuable and does give one a certain kind of understanding. Yet, a richer and much more meaningful understanding can come through experiencing particulars, real events involving real people in real settings. Of course, we contemporary people cannot experience these particulars first-hand, but we can enjoy them second-hand through texts that show us, if only imperfectly, what old-time Methodism was like in the age of the circuit rider. To help readers get this stronger understanding, in this article I will relay a number of stories of Methodism in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Ontario, Canada.


In the final years of the eighteenth century and the first several decades of the nineteenth century, what is now southern Ontario, bordering on Michigan and western New York State, was part of a British province called Upper Canada. It was mostly bush country and was sparsely populated, though there were a number of important and growing European settlements, mainly along the shores of Lake Ontario and the Saint Lawrence River. A very large proportion of its population had come through the States, some as Loyalists, who were loyal to the British Crown over the United States, and some simply as immigrants; in 1812, 80 percent of Upper Canadians were American in background. As these migrants poured in, they brought with them their cultures, customs, and religious traditions. Aside from Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Roman Catholics, there were Quakers, Mennonites, Lutherans, Tunkers, and Methodists.[1]

The bad blood between the British Empire and the American republic did not stop the American Methodists, who were ambitious and well organized, from ministering to and with their neighbours across the border. In these pioneer years, the (American) Methodist Episcopal Church sent dozens of mounted missionaries riding through the wilderness to preach the gospel and minister to the settlers who lived there. The Upper Canadian Methodists could not support their own village ministers, so as in the States, the Methodist Episcopal Church had its preachers travel along long routes, called “circuits,” visiting homes and settlements and often relying on the hospitality of strangers. These circuit riders, as they are often called, had to overcome myriad trials and obstacles as they rode along their routes.[2] Naturally, a large proportion of the men who volunteered for this job were eccentric characters with memorable characteristics.

Converting the Opposition

The first Episcopal Methodist preacher to minister in Upper Canada was William Losee, who seems to have been a rather intense and gruff man. Although he had a “shrivelled arm,” as historian John Carroll records, he was a brave rider and often kept the horse at a gallop as he traversed the bush country. As with many circuit riders, his bold preaching did not always find a warm reception. In one case a young man named Joseph Brouse was so disapproving of Losee as to disrupt a religious meeting he was holding. The fiery Losee responded by calling out, “Smite him, my God! My God, smite him!” Then, Carroll says, “he fell like a bullock under the butcher’s axe, and writhed on the floor in agony, until the Lord in mercy set his soul at liberty.” Uncle Joe Brouse, as he was later known to many, became one of Losee’s early converts.[3]

Another early Methodist who served in Upper Canada was Darius Dunham. He is remembered for being stern but also for having a knack for sarcasm. One time a squire criticized him for riding a nice horse, noting that the Lord himself had ridden a humble donkey. Dunham replied that he would happily ride a donkey if only the government had not turned them all into magistrates.[4] The minister faced much stronger opposition than that of the squire, however. One morning, when he was staying with a sympathetic couple on one of his circuits, a man banged on the door early in the morning, asking for Dunham. The preacher rose from bed to meet him, and the caller came at him with an axe. Fortunately, Dunham’s hosts were able to rescue him, and the assailant went on to become yet another Methodist convert in Upper Canada.[5]

Treacherous River Crossings

In 1808, preacher William Case rode his horse to the banks of the Niagara River at a place called “Black-Rock,” which I understand to be part of present-day Buffalo, New York. He had been commissioned to serve in Upper Canada, but an embargo precluded regular passage across the river. After Case turned to God in prayer, a man suggested he cross in a boat and have his horse swim along with him. If the Niagara River at that time was anything like it is now, such a crossing would have been extremely treacherous due to the fast, powerful current rushing to and over Niagara Falls. Nevertheless, the dedicated Case took the advice and led his horse by the bridle into the water and to the other side, presumably landing far upstream from where they had left.[6] Case went on to become a major leader and hero of Upper Canadian Methodism.

A few years later, Upper Canada was visited by Bishop Francis Asbury, the pre-eminent figure of early American Methodism. He came through Vermont and approached the mighty Saint Lawrence River across from the Upper Canadian settlement of Cornwall. Before he reached the river, he tried to cross a small bridge made of poles, and his horses’ legs slipped between them. The bishop’s belongings fell into the water, and the horse was so stuck in the bridge that it had to be pried free.[7]Asbury pressed on and, according to a man who claimed to have gone with him, crossed the river in a manner that hardly seems believable. Here are the other man’s own words:

We had four Indians to paddle us over. They lashed three canoes together, and put our horses into them, their fore feet in one canoe, their hind feet in another. It was a singular load; three canoes, three passengers (the Bishop, Bela Smith [the Canadian preacher], and myself), three horses, and four Indians. . . . It was late in the afternoon when we started, and we were a long time crossing, for some part was rough, especially the rapids.[8]

The group made it through the rapids to the other side, and Asbury continued his long journey, travelling along the Upper Canadian side of the river and preaching often as he went.[9]

The Ministry Expands

One of the great preachers and revivalists of Ontario history is Nathan Bangs. Originally from the States, he moved to Upper Canada and had a conversion experience in St. David’s, not far from Niagara Falls, before becoming a circuit rider and ordained Methodist minister.[10] Early in his ministry he received a letter from a German Baptist who lived by the River Thames in the southwest of the province, asking Bangs to come preach in his area, where there was a dire need for Christian leadership. Bangs wanted to respond to the call, but his superior assigned him to a circuit along the faraway Lake Ontario. During his time riding this circuit, there was a wave of typhus that killed many people, and Bangs continued ministering until he caught the illness. His condition became so bad that he was thought to be without hope of recovery, and he decided to make a will. All he had, aside from his clothes, were a horse and a watch, and he resolved to leave them both to whomever would go to the southwest and minister to the people there. To his surprise, Bangs got better and, with the blessing of Bishop Asbury himself, set off to see with his own eyes the land he had dreamed of.[11]

After an arduous journey through the wilderness, he arrived at a settlement and led a powerful meeting, using as his text Acts 3:17: “Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord” (KJV). The audience was highly receptive to the preacher’s message and responded enthusiastically to his offer of returning again soon if he were able. The meeting finished, Bangs conversed with a man, previously of New Jersey, who was a Methodist and knew Bishop Asbury. He happily agreed to let Bangs preach at his house, about ten miles away, and before the afternoon was spent, Bangs had preached yet again. After that meeting, Bangs met an elderly Mr. Messmore, who, as it turned out, was the German Baptist who had written the letter that so moved and inspired the preacher. The next day, Bangs preached at Messmore’s house before moving on further, eventually reaching the town of Sandwich (now Windsor), which lay opposite Detroit. There he preached at a jail, where he found a convert in a young man who had been sentenced to death for stealing a horse.[12]

Bangs travelled a great deal through the southwestern part of Ontario, and he continued to minister when, there too, a horrible fever afflicted the population and killed many. Again Bangs fell ill but recovered, and after some time he headed eastward to safer, more settled territory. The next year, William Case, who had led his horse across the Niagara River, journeyed to the southwestern part of the River Thames and ministered to the people there.[13] Thus the work of the Methodist Episcopal Church extended further among the settlers of Upper Canada.

Concluding Thoughts

To those who have learned something about early North American Methodism in the usual way, these stories offer a more personal understanding of the young Protestant tradition, with its ruggedness, its pioneer spirit, and its eccentricities. Contemporary Christians may sense both affinity with and distance from these travelling preachers. On the one hand, they, like many twenty-first-century Western Christians, were passionate believers who had a strong sense of mission and who went out among the people instead of expecting them to come to a church building. We also might identify with Bangs’s emphasis on repentance and his use of the Acts passage. (It so happened that as I was preparing the material for this article, I, following the lectionary of the Anglican Church in North America, preached on that very text.)

But on the other hand, we will likely find these stories quite strange and unsettling. Few contemporary pastors, I presume, have the necessary personality and theological underpinnings to call upon God to smite a person during a religious meeting. The sense of danger, too, will likely be unfamiliar to many Christians in Canada and similar countries; we would not be inclined to think of ordination as entailing a high risk of an early death. As someone from southern Ontario, the sense of strangeness is amplified for me. I am personally familiar with some of the places described in these stories and others in the same sources, and it is very challenging for me to picture a typhus-weakened Nathan Bangs riding through them on horseback. This dual sense of familiarity and unfamiliarity, of affinity and distance, can be one of the main joys of studying history. Appreciating it and cultivating it is also important, especially in historical study that tends to focus on the big picture or on ideas, since it helps us resist the temptation to remake our forebears in our own image.

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David Doherty

David Doherty

David works in Christian higher education in Ontario, Canada. He holds a Bachelor of Religious Education from Emmanuel Bible College (Kitchener, Ontario) and a Master of Theological Studies from McMaster Divinity College (Hamilton, Ontario). His research interests include the Gospel of John, metaphors in religious thought, and the development of Christian theology in the West. Together since their mid-teens, he and his wife adventure through life together and encourage each other in their faith and research.

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