Frontier Methodist circuit rider Peter Cartwright was born in Amherst County, Virginia, shortly before his parents moved to Logan County, Kentucky. When he was fifteen years old, Cartwright attended one of the religious meetings that were part of the camp meeting phenomenon known as the Great Western Revival. There he was converted and soon became known for his testimonies. In 1802, when his family moved farther west, Cartwright received a letter commissioning him to create a new frontier circuit. With no formal religious education, but a passion for the Gospel, Cartwright began his duties, eventually riding circuit in Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee, and Illinois. During the course of his journeys he engaged in a personal reading program to provide background for his sermons.
Cartwright became known for his battles, both verbal and physical, with scoffers and lawbreakers. His militant spirit brought him into conflict with other denominations, which he denounced as readily as sin. When the Tennessee Conference met in Nashville in 1818, Cartwright admonished Andrew Jackson to save his soul, a warning that terrified other ministers, who feared Jackson's reaction. According to Cartwright, Jackson admired his independence and fearlessness.
Cartwright abhorred slavery, but found abolitionism equally despicable. He preferred to “ameliorate the condition of slaves, and Christianize them, and finally secure their freedom [without] meddl[ing] politically with slavery.” (1) In 1824 he moved his family to Illinois to remove his children from the influence of slavery. When slavery proponents attempted to legalize it in Illinois, Cartwright entered politics and won two terms in the Illinois House in 1828 and 1830. In the 1830 election Cartwright defeated Abraham Lincoln. Cartwright's last political campaign occurred in 1846, when he unsuccessfully ran against Lincoln for Congress.
A champion of education, Cartwright was one of the founders of Illinois Wesleyan University and McKendree College. His habit of carrying books and pamphlets on his circuit and passing them on to frontier congregations brought religion and learning to people without much of either. In his later years Cartwright turned to writing and published two volumes: Autobiography (1855) and Fifty Years as a Presiding Elder (1871). Cartwright retired to his farm near Pleasant Plains, Illinois, where he died in 1872.