Material History of American Religion Project

Asbury's powder horn

The early decades of the nineteenth century were witness to what historians call the “Westward Expansion” of American Protestantism. Specifically, popular religious movements (often termed “evangelical”)—spearheaded by the Methodists and Baptists—expanded their domains into the newly formed southern territories.

The continuing problem these popular religious movements faced in carrying out their mission to the south was the geographical diffuse nature of settlements. This problem was rectified through innovations in practice, particularly through the invention of the camp meeting revivalism and a transformation of the clerical role. Whereas many of their mainstream counterparts were made up of educated and cultured clergy situated in a solitary urban congregations, these popular religious movements were constituted of less couth individuals each of whom attempted to service numerous congregations throughout a particular region. Among the Methodists, these men were dubbed the “circuit riders” because they rode on horseback throughout a Methodist Conference- established geographical region, which was dubbed a “circuit.”

As has been well documented the southern regions were dangerous places for the circuit rider. They were dangerous to the circuit riders for two principal reasons, (1) because the regions were not well populated and featured a variety of wildlife that was often hostile to the traveler, and (2) because the popular religious movements were met, initially, with much hostility from the southern people. The above object is the powder horn of one of the most famous circuit riders of this period—Francis Asbury. The horn was, apparently, for a pistol that Asbury, one of the first Bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America, carried during his travels. While Asbury admonished circuit riders against garnishing weapons to save themselves from mobs, the very fact he carried the pistol suggests some ambiguity regarding the place of violence in the Christian community. More importantly, however, it illustrates this tension felt in these early nineteenth century religious movements between evangelicalism and the frontier.

The date inscribed on the horn, May 1, 1790, signifies Asbury’s first visit to Kentucky. The Reverend R.W. Searles discovered the horn, which is now housed in the Methodist Archives at Drew University, at an antique shop.

This image and text were submitted by Michael K. Turner, a graduate student in American religious history at Vanderbilt University.

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