Peter Cartwright was born in Amherst County, Virginia. His father was a colonial soldier in the War of Independence. Shortly after the War, the family moved to Kentucky, which was then a wilderness filled with thousands of hostile Indians. There, in those frontier surroundings, Peter Cartwright was reared. And, like many of the young men in that primitive area, became wild and wicked, engaging in many sinful practices. His mother was a devout Christian woman, who opened their cabin home for preaching by the Methodist circuit preachers.
As a young man of 16, Peter was convicted of his sins as a result of these meetings. And, after several weeks of deep agony and contrition, he was soundly converted at an outdoor revival meeting. His new faith completely changed his life, and he immediately began to witness for Christ.
One year later, he was licensed as an "exhorter" and began riding a circuit of his own. His appointments were few and far between, and he preached wherever people would open their homes, because meeting houses were few. At the end of three months, he had taken 25 people into the Methodist Church, and had received a salary of $6.00. This was the beginning of his long career as a circuit-riding Methodist preacher.
Cartwright was a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher after the style of Wesley, and his character and personality often matched his sermons. Often, he personally thrashed the rowdies who disturbed his camp meetingsafter which he saw many of them "get religion."
His fearlessness is described in an incident which took place in Nashville. As he was preaching, General Andrew Jackson entered the service. The local preacher whispered the news to Cartwright, which prompted him to thunder, "And who is General Jackson? If General Jackson doesn't get his soul converted, God will damn him as quickly as anyone else!" Jackson smiled and later told Cartwright that he was "a man after my own heart."
In over 50 years of traveling circuits in Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, Cartwright received 10,000 members into the Methodist Church, personally baptized 12,000, conducted over 500 funerals, and preached more than 15,000 sermons. He was strongly opposed to comfort in religion, education, and culture in the ministry; his equipment consisted of a black broadcloth suit and a horse with saddlebags, while his library was composed of his Bible, hymnbook, and Methodist discipline. He was the epitome of the Methodist circuit riders who preached, traveled, suffered, and firmly planted the old-time religion in the frontier of the infant United States of America.