Eli Lindsey, a nineteen year old, was the first circuit rider in Arkansas holding regular services in an official circuit. He was authorized under the Tennessee Conference to the new Spring River Circuit in 1815, twenty-one years before Arkansas was to be named a state. This was indeed quite a feat for such a young man. Lindsey preached regularly between Batesville and villages in the surrounding areas through 1816.
There is still on going debate as to where the original church was located, but Lindsey is known to have preached many places in those early days. Old stories tell of his preaching in his log cabin with its dog-trot and even his smokehouse. Some tell of the “fine church with the stone chimney” in a large log cabin near what is today Lake Charles in Lawrence County. Before his death, Lindsey and his family made their way to Grant County where he is buried in an unmarked grave in a cemetery with many members of his family.
Eli was quite a character. There is an old story that told about one service he was preaching when a bear stopped it cold. The story says Eli ended the service with a prayer thanking the Lord for “men who can shoot and women who can pray.”(Britton, Two Hundred Years of Methodism in Arkansas: 1800-200. p21.)
Why do I take the time to tell you about this little known disciple of our Lord Jesus Christ? Lest we forget the role our early circuit riders played in opening the wilderness for civilization and the growth of our faith, such great men must be remembered. Lindsey alone was said to have ridden a circuit that covered from the White River to the Little Red River to the Strawberry to the Spring River…what at that time was Lawrence County. If you look at a territorial map of Arkansas, Lawrence County was roughly the upper northeast quarter of the state. One learned man, riding a horse, preaching the gospel, caring for the people he met, and helping the frontiersmen begin to tame the wilderness is the picture we have of this young man and the others like him of the few denominations, the early Baptists and Disciples of Christ, that were riding circuits at that time. They established home churches, much like Paul and the apostles did in the New Testament. One such church grew to be the church Lonnie Thomison and his family attended in the Shiloh story.
The Eli Lindsey Memorial Church in Jessup, a tiny community in Lawrence County, Arkansas, is still a viable congregation today. It is the oldest continuous Methodist congregation in Arkansas. Attributed to Eli Lindsey as beginning in 1816, with the original building site being a mystery, Eli’s home site is approximately a mile behind the present church building. The first Shady Grove church building was constructed in 1848 or 1849 on that same site, and it would have been the building where Laurel and Mac would have celebrated their first Easter together. Lon made his profession of faith in that log church on that Easter morning. Shady Grove was rebuilt in 1905 as a beautiful rock church that still stands today. In 1948, they church was renamed to honor Eli Lindsey for the work the circuit rider did in bringing the gospel to the Arkansas wilderness. The church is a National Methodist Historic Landmark.
John Stoll and his wife Elaine serve the Eli Lindsey congregation today, and they have bimonthly services in the historic church.
The current Lawrence County Judge John Thomison and his wife Rita are dear friends of mine and they came to my recent book signing at First United Methodist Church Jonesboro. They live near the site where Eli Lindsey lived in the 1800’s, and today there is a simple marker that indicates his homesite existed at one time in Lawrence County. They have promised me a field trip to see the marker as soon as we have enough frost and cold weather to kill the chiggers and ticks. I am looking forward to seeing this historic place in person.