The Preacher’s Circuit:Visiting ISKCON’s lonely outposts

The Methodist circuit preacher on horseback, bent double against wind and rain, saddlebags filled with good books, is an icon of American history. Long before the saloons and general stores came to the American West, and certainly long before the railroads came, the Methodist preacher man was there. There’s an old American expression to describe how wild a place was: “Aint nothing out there but crows and Methodist preachers!”

In some cases there are recorded histories of mine workers and other settlers who had not been into a church or even heard the word of God for nearly 20 years. When the preacher came to their camp, his powerful oratory conjuring up vivid imagery of  ‘the Wrath that awaits you after your death,’ his listeners would cry out in genuine fear and sometimes roll on the ground in remorse for a life ill-spent.

By being the first preachers, always on the frontier, the Methodists eventually became very numerous in America, even outnumbering their English counterparts across the Atlantic. By the first decade of the 1800s their frontier techniques of loud and enthusiastic camp meetings had reached England, causing no small consternation to the denomination’s now staid and middle class membership.

I have a diary on my bookshelf of just one such early frontier preacher, Lorenzo Dow by name. The pages of his 1805 text show a man utterly committed to travelling and preaching, sometimes several times a day. Like his forebear, John Wesley, Lorenzo Dow was burning with a sense of mission. Unlike John Wesley, it seems, Lorenzo was not a man of educated speech or polished habits. He stirred up the people with his oratory alright, but they sometimes stirred him right out of town. His diary is filled with his preaching failures as well as successes.

But the fact is that he who preaches wins. And he who regularly teaches those he has preached to, he wins. And of course, he who genuinely cares for those to whom he preaches and teaches: he wins. A preacher has two jobs: ‘To afflict the comfortable, and to comfort the afflicted.’ Exhorting all he meets to a higher awareness of God, and offering practical help to all, thus demonstrating God’s love.

It’s lonely work, no doubt; and sometimes a thankless task, but one that must be done. From Saint Paul’s wanderings through the travelling and preaching of Saint Dominic, and on to the tireless missionaries of today, being a preacher has always involved travelling to lonely places so that people can be given a higher message. A message that frees them from spiritual loneliness.

ISKCON’s early years involved great travelling, perfectly exemplified by His Divine Grace Srila Prabhupada, who moved constantly from city to city all over the world, taking the timeless message of the Vedas with him. He left behind him thousands of followers on each continent.

In the decades that followed, those followers often went to new countries with the message of their guru, opening up frontiers in Russia, South America, and many other places. As things became more established and settled, there was less tendency for disciples to travel and preach. For the married couples it was almost impossible, even if they wanted to.

But the young men and women of ISKCON went everywhere to distribute the Vedas, and by such travelling many thousands of people came to express their profound interest in the oldest religion of all. But those people numbered perhaps 10 in each city, or 5 in a smaller town.

As in the history of every religion’s growth, that created, once more, lonely outposts; places where small numbers of followers were reading the sacred books of the religion but needed further teaching, encouragement and practical guidance if they were to progress further. And that, as it’s always done, created the need for the travelling circuit preacher.

Here in Britain we recently created a ‘Travelling Preacher’s Circuit.’ Like the Methodists of old, we have a printed Circuit Plan, a chart with towns along the top, dates down the side, and the preacher’s initials in the boxes thus created.

We’ve started small, but at least it’s a start. And the travelling circuit preachers are not sannyasis, or even brahmacaris, they are mostly married men who volunteer their services three or four times a year to travel out to the smallest places on our lists, often to meet with just a handful of dedicated Vaishnavas.

Through 2008 our 16 volunteers clocked up 265 hours of preaching, teaching, and comforting time – not including the time it took to travel to their appointed spots. It’s not an enormous amount, but it’s respectable – and it is definitely a beginning, and a very welcome addition to all the other preaching that takes place in London and other major cities.

And to the devotees who heard about devotional service to Krishna from those preachers, it meant an awful lot. If you’d like to know more about the opportunities open for travelling and preaching (sorry, we have no horses) kindly write to me on:



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6 responses to “The Preacher’s Circuit:Visiting ISKCON’s lonely outposts

  1. braja-raja-suta dasa

    the title lured me in. i thought it’d be about the bare-boned temples here in the u.s.
    but the story was different.
    the description of the harper’s weekly illustration then kept me.
    my grandfather was born in 1893 and was named ‘elmer curry’ duke after a travelling methodist circuit preacher. his first son, my dad, was given the same name — with the ‘jr.’ added.

    so i suppose to the degree that i can follow my spiritual master, serving him, this one circuit preacher [‘the’ elmer curry] will be successful.

    all glories to the circuit preachers.

    • You have a great parampara in your name! If you’re inspired to travel and preach like your namesakes that will be a great contribution to all you meet. No-one may ask you to do it, of course, and people may not even thank you, but Krishna will appreciate it. Thank you for reading the blog, and, curiously enough, inspiring me to write something about how to better serve those lonely outposts in the U.S., ‘bare-boned’ or otherwise.

  2. Sita

    I had been thinking of starting a Balvihar Class for for the children in our Apartment Complex.This post gives me the motivation/inspiration to make
    it happen.In India,too, it is the travelling teacher /story-teller/ pandit who acts as a messenger between the Holy Books and the Masses.Usually upanyasams are conducted in the temples and the Pandit travels from one village to the next explaining the holy booksfor 3-10 days sometimes even a month. He is hosted in one house for sleeping and ablutions but the whole agrahaaram takes part in feeding him.oneday in each house.He would expound on the Gita here and the Vishnusahasranama in the next villageand the Devi Bhagavatham in the third,so should a person from this village travel to the next one ,he would hear/learn something different. Thanks for inspiring me , Hari Om .

  3. Sita

    By the way now adays the T.V. is helping us hear these kinds of upanyasams,and both Men and women,young and old do it. Somethings change with the times and places while others dont;it is same everywhere and at all times. my Pranams,
    Hari Om

  4. “Thanks be to God!” wrote John Wesley, founder of Methodism, to the Bishop of London in 1747. “Since the time I gave up the use of flesh-meats and wine, I have been delivered from all physical ills.” Wesley was a vegetarian for spiritual reasons as well. He based his vegetarianism on the Biblical prophecies concerning the Kingdom of Peace, where “on the new earth, no creature will kill, or hurt, or give pain to any other.” He further taught that animals “shall receive an ample amends for all their present sufferings.”

    Wesley’s teachings placed an emphasis on inner religion and the effect of the Holy Spirit upon the consciousness of such followers. Wesley taught that animals will attain heaven: in the “general deliverance” from the evils of this world, animals would be given vigor, strength and swiftness…to a far higher degree than they ever enjoyed.” Wesley urged parents to educate their children about compassion towards animals. He wrote: “I am persuaded you are not insensible of the pain given to every Christian, every humane heart, by those savage diversions, bull-baiting, cock-fighting, horse-racing, and hunting.”

  5. Wesley also had lots to say about rising early in the morning; around 4 of the clock if I’m not mistaken!

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