Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Peter Cartwright, Legendary Frontier Preacher

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Peter Cartwright, Legendary Frontier Preacher

Article excerpt

Peter Cartwright, Legendary Frontier Preacher. By Robert Bray (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005. Pp. x, 314. Illus., notes, index. Cloth, $35.00).

Robert Bray, R. Forrest Colwell Professor of American Literature at Illinois Wesleyan University, had researched the life of Peter Cartwright for twenty years prior to the publication of this volume in 2005. Outside of a couple of important dissertations on Cartwright, Theodore Agnew's 1950 study at Harvard and Brian Höhlt's work at Saint Louis University in 1998, solid biographies probing the life of the "Legendary Preacher" are not available. Robert Bray's recent thorough biography fills an important gap in a most readable and enjoyable way.

Some figures don't leave enough material behind to give clues to their thoughts, ideas, beliefs, and life experiences. In Cartwright's case that is not true since his long Autobiography was published in 1856 and made him famous throughout the nation. He later published his Fifty Years a Presiding Elder in 1871, when he was 86 years old. Thus, a great deal of firsthand testimony is available for the biographer to consider while researching into the vast amount of material accumulated by the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) in the nineteenth century. The major stumbling block is deciding to what extent the biographer can rely on Cartwright's writing. Professor Bray does an outstanding job of analyzing Cartwright's Autobiography. What can be believed and what most likely should be questioned? He is able to evaluate what Cartwright has written in light of other sources as well as with the common sense and wisdom of one who has lived with his subject for years.

The various stories in his biography are fascinating and make pleasant, informative, and humorous reading. A short review does not allow space to relate even one of these stories in full. However, as many know, Cartwright had little formal education and was skeptical of its value. He claimed that D.D. (Doctor of Divinity) stood for "Double Dunce." Yet after he was awarded a D.D. by McKendree College in 1845, "Bro." Cartwright became "Dr." Cartwright and the initials D.D. usually followed his signature. Cartwright was obviously in favor of education. He helped establish McKendree College in Lebanon, Illinois in 1828 and later was one of the key founders of Illinois Conference Female Academy in Jacksonville, Illinois in 1846. This school is now MacMurray College (unfortunately rendered Macmurray throughout Bray's book) and is still related to the Methodist Church, as is McKendree.

In addition, the biographer has to be thoroughly familiar with Illinois history as well as Cartwright's contemporaries including Peter Akers and especially Abraham Lincoln. Politically Cartwright was a Jacksonian Democrat while Lincoln was a Henry Clay Whig. …

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