The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

September 22, 2012

Preacher revisits history on horseback

JOHNSTOWN — A Bible-waving preacher rode in on horseback Saturday for a tent meeting at Oakland United Methodist Church in Stonycreek Township.

“How’s your soul?” he asked. “People don’t ask that question today.”

The Rev. Douglas Burns took a page from the history of the Methodist denomination when preachers traveled miles on horseback to minister to churches on the circuit in the 1700s and 1800s.

Burns, dressed in period attire, rode a 20-year-old quarter horse named Ginger, the same horse his father, the late Richard Burns, sometimes rode as a traveling evangelist.

“My father was a circuit rider,” he said. “I’m just glad to be able to ride the same horse he rode carrying the message of the Gospel.”

Burns, 52, who pastors Christ United Methodist Church in North Huntingdon, visited the church where he grew up and where his dad once pastored.   

It was part of Oakland United Methodist Church’s 100th anniversary.

The three-day celebration included a tent meeting, testimonies from former church members now in the ministry and a reunion of God’s Matches, a singing group from the 1970s.

The tent meeting was a history lesson of sorts. Methodist founders John Wesley (1703-1791) and Francis Asbury (1745-1816) traveled on horseback.

“The founder of our church, John Wesley, traveled 4,000 miles (across England) every year for 50 years,” Burns said.

“He preached 40,000 sermons in his lifetime.

“In America, Francis Asbury rode 270,000 miles on horseback,” he said.

Most circuit-riding preachers didn’t live long, he said.

“The circuit rider lived into their early 30s,” said Burns, a husband and father of two grown children.

“They were constantly under the weather and attacked by Indians.

“If your horse went lame clear out in the frontier, they didn’t have much hope,” he said.

Burns didn’t have far to ride on Saturday because the horse is kept with an Oakland church member who lives nearby.  

Burns said he doesn’t ride often. He saddles up once every few years to keep the tradition alive.

“It brings the past into the present,” he said.

The Oakland church was once a part of the circuit visited by men on horses, the Rev. Randy Bain said.

And Burns’ father had a passion for horses, he said.

“Dick Burns was a horseman, an outdoorsman and was involved in Scouting,” Bain said.

“To have Doug here is a great way to celebrate 100 years.”

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