Illinois Wesleyan Professor Publishes First Biography of Peter Cartwright
BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — Long before the red state-blue state phenomenon, a Methodist frontier
circuit rider named Peter Cartwright introduced evangelical Christianity into politics,
running several campaigns of his own and even using a famous opponent’s “unchurched”
status against him in one of those races.
Cartwright’s life in politics and his contentious relationship with Abraham Lincoln
are among the fascinating details brought to light in a new book by Robert Bray, the
R. Forrest Colwell Professor of English Literature at Illinois Wesleyan University.
Peter Cartwright, Legendary Frontier Preacher, published by the University of Illinois Press, is the first full-length biography
of the 19th-century preacher, who called himself “God’s breaking plough” and is credited
for the rapid growth of Methodism in the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys.
Bray’s initial interest in Cartwright was based, in part, on the frontier preacher’s
role as one of the founders of Illinois Wesleyan. But Bray soon found that Cartwright
belonged to a much wider context than just American Methodism. He was active in national
issues, including slavery, and was, for 20 years, “a social, political, and religious
antagonist” of Abraham Lincoln.
In his book, Bray traces Cartwright’s journey from his birthplace in Virginia to Illinois,
where he moved in 1824 because of his opposition of slavery and a desire to live on
“free soil.” He remained a lifelong resident of the state.
In Illinois, where clergy were not prohibited from running for elected office, Cartwright
became active politically, running for the state legislature four times and winning
twice. In an 1832 campaign, he placed fourth in an at-large contest to elect four,
thereby defeating Lincoln, who finished eighth.
“Cartwright was one of the first to use his local and national constituencies as a
preacher to help him be effective as a politician — first to get elected and then
to work for policy,” said Bray. “But in many respects, Cartwright stood over on the
Jacksonian side of the political fence — very much unlike the evangelical Republicans
of today who, though they claim to be interested in things like state’s rights, really
are more strongly federal in their top-down idea of what the morality of the United
States should be.
“Cartwright clearly thought that the Christian Republic had to be based on Christian
moral principles and the Bible. But he did not want to reach into every home and tell
people how to live.”
Cartwright did use the issue of religion against Lincoln in 1846 when the two men
were opponents for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Cartwright ran as
a Democrat; Lincoln as a Whig.
Noting that Cartwright and Lincoln agreed on many of the issues of the day, including
the Mexican War and slavery, Bray wrote that Cartwright had “just one issue to push:
religion, or his Whig opponent’s lack of it — the very matter that, by conscience
and practical good sense, he ought to have avoided.”
In his campaign, Cartwright called Lincoln an “infidel,” by which, Bray said, he meant
that Lincoln “had not been evangelized.”
Although Lincoln won the race handily, he did feel it necessary to issue a handbill
in which he countered Cartwright’s charges, admitting that he was not a church member
but claiming he has “never denied the truth of the Scriptures.”
“I don’t believe that Lincoln was deeply concerned about losing the race to Cartwright,”
Bray said. “But the mere fact that he felt, in his caution, that he had to put out
the handbill shows that he was aware that, even at the lowest level of national office,
a candidates’ religious principles were a litmus test for office.”
Bray also examines the various accounts of Cartwright’s later expressions of admiration
and support for President Lincoln, especially in his prosecution of the Civil War.
“Whether Cartwright ended up thinking that Lincoln was a great leader and a great
man is a real open question,” said Bray. “There are fascinating accounts of a speech
that Cartwright made in New York in 1861 in which he allegedly defends Lincoln to
a group of New York businessmen. But that is the very last you ever hear of Cartwright
speaking of Lincoln.”
Bray, who is currently working on a new book about Lincoln, said that a primary goal
of his Cartwright autobiography was making it accessible for all readers.
To discuss the book with Bray, contact either Ann Aubry or Jeffery G. Hanna at 309/556-3181.