Preacher's Memoirs a Gateway to 19th-Century America : History: The recently discovered manuscript by a Methodist circuit rider describes life from the settlement of the Southeastern frontier to Reconstruction.


In the year 1888, at age 84, Lorenzo Dow Langford was leading his mare through the barnyard with a sack of corn on his shoulder when the horse snatched her head back and knocked him down.

Sore and unable to be of much help in the field anymore--"it was three or four months before I could crawl from the bed to the fireplace"-- Langford sat down to write about his life as a Methodist circuit rider, a preacher on horseback working the settlements on the Mississippi frontier.

More than a century later, Langford's crumbling notebook has surfaced in Methodist archives, its existence unknown to his descendants.

The manuscript was too faded and fragile to be photocopied, according to Mrs. Gerry Reiff, the church archivist at Millsaps College. So I went to Jackson, Miss., and copied it by hand.

Lorenzo Dow Langford was my great-great-grandfather.

In a tortured scrawl on a ruled notebook, he writes the story of a man who was there, in person, during a moving and momentous period of American history, from the settlement of the Southeastern frontier to the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Grandpa tells of his pioneer family's restless migrations in the years just after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 that lured settlers westward. They traveled by ox wagon over rude Indian trails and forded swollen streams where there were no bridges.

Grandpa tells how as a young man he and his family, with the help of a neighbor's family, went out into "government land" in the wilderness of northern Alabama and felled trees to build themselves a church. He tells how as an old man his house burned and he and his wife had to move into a corn crib until the neighbors turned out and built them a new home within a week.

But mainly his journal tells about his 60 years as a preacher obsessed with "saving souls" among the settlers. He worked on or near the notorious Natchez Trace, the old trail linking Natchez, Miss., and Nashville, Tenn.

Grandpa's journal is as remarkable for what he did not say as what he did say. He never mentions the Indians, the Cherokees and Choctaws through whose lands his family migrated and his government eventually took. He carefully sidestepped the slavery issue in the pulpit, but even as his three sons went off to fight the Yankees in the Civil War he was ministering exclusively to plantation slaves.

By 1840, the debate over slavery had become hot and divisive, a debate that would lead the Southern Methodists to split off and form the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Grandpa wrote that he "found animosity in the church infecting between the aristocracy and the poorer class."

"It was a year of great political excitement (that) ran very high so that I had to be on my watch all the time and not suffer myself to drop any expressions that would lead other parties to become prejudice (sic) against me."

He tells how in his late teens he would ride for 20 or 30 miles to attend a Methodist camp meeting, how he could think of little else than "the salvation of sinners."

On Dec. 27, 1827, in Marion County, Ala., Lorenzo Dow Langford married Catharine Malloy. She would bear him nine children, including two boys who would die in infancy and a daughter who would die as a young girl.

While still hacking out a living as a stump-digging farmer, Grandpa, on Oct. 20, 1831, was licensed as a local preacher in Tuscaloosa County, Ala.

There were two kinds of preachers in those days, itinerant and local. The locals had no pastoral duties, had other means of supporting themselves, and preached when and where they chose. The itinerants engaged entirely in ministerial work and looked to the church for support.

In 1837, after he had moved to Choctaw County, Miss., Grandpa was admitted on trial as an itinerant minister and in 1838 became a circuit rider on the Louisville circuit, the first full-time pastor the Louisville Methodists ever had.

With the job, he wrote, "came the hardest thing I had ever met," the agony over what he perceived to be his duty to preach full time and his obligation to provide for his wife and children. He then had six children, the youngest 10 months, the oldest two girls, 8 and 9.

The circuit would require Grandpa to be gone four weeks at a time, riding horseback for hundreds of miles, preaching 20 or so sermons a month.

"I could not do the work and have any time to spend with my family," he wrote. But at his wife's urging he took the job.

"We received into the church that year on that circuit 370 members, 275 white and 95 coloured," Grandpa recorded. "I received that year $370."

If Grandpa had misgivings about taking on the duties of a circuit rider, the Methodists in Louisville had misgivings about taking him on as their first pastor because he was a "plain, uneducated man" with a large family. But they did take him on and took care of him.

According to one church historian: "When Lorenzo Langford visited Louisville he seldom had to pay for meals, lodging and horse feed. His clothing and some for his children were often made by the good women of the societies. The men sometimes presented him with gifts in the form of hats, shoes, or small amounts of money. When the Rev. Langford lost a horse by death, the men of the church collected enough money to buy him another one!"

That was his life for the next six years.

But by the end of 1843 in French Camp, Grandpa was desperately in debt. He had been paid just $180 in cash, plus 400 pounds of pork for the year's work. "I saw I would be obliged to sell my little home to get out of debt and depend on renting land to support my weakly, sickly wife and 7 children." He requested to "locate," to revert to part-time preaching.

For the next few years he settled in northern Holmes County, where he continued to preach. In 1849, he was elected county tax assessor, running as a Whig, taking advantage of the opportunity to get in a little politicking while traveling to spread the Gospel.

Two years later his wife died, and 14 months after that he married the widow Sarah C. Pope.

In 1853 he moved once more, to a place eight miles southeast of Yazoo City, just a stone's throw from Fletchers Chapel Methodist Church, strangely one of the few churches in the region that he never mentions by name in his narrative. It is the place where he and many of his descendants are buried.

"For the first six years after I settled in Yazoo I was employed by the (presiding elder) as a missionary to the coloured people to whom I preached at four Sundays in each month. I would stay with the overseer on Saturday night who would call his people together immediately after breakfast." That ministry came to an end, he says, when the Yankees seized control of the nearby Yazoo River and the port of Satartia during the Civil War.

He died at his home in Yazoo County on June 16, 1892, in his 88th year.

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