Wednesday, May 16, 2012

My first Introduction to a Methodist Circuit Rider

Last month, I posted the marriage license of William Fletcher King, the brother of my 2nd great- grandmother, Dora King. According to the marriage license, they were married in Oregon County by a “local elder” named Joseph M Willard. [1]

I found Reverend Joseph M Willard on FindAGrave thanks to a cousin who emailed a link to his memorial to me. From there I noted that another cousin, Mary Jo Freeman, had posted some photos of him and his wife, Rhoda. Here is a photo of them together, with permission of Mary Jo Freeman:

According to Mary Jo’s website, Joseph M Willard, her great-grandfather, was a Methodist circuit rider preacher for the districts of West Plains and Koshkonong, Missouri, and Independence County, Arkansas. Both of these neighboring towns bordered the Missouri-Arkansas State Line. Methodist circuit riders travelled around to various communities and preached to their members and tried to set up congregations.

Joseph Martin Willard was born July 14th, 1865 in Oregon County, Missouri to John and Sarah Colyott Willard. He began preaching when he was 21 years of age. He met his bride-to-be, Susan Rhoda Spurlock at a Methodist Church in Liberty Hill, Sharp County, Arkansas where he was preaching. They were married March 19, 1889 in King’s Mill, Sharp County, Arkansas. They lived in Rover, Oregon County, Missouri until their children were grown at which point they moved to neighboring West Plains, Howell County, Missouri. In his 70s, Joseph became a Judge. Joseph and his wife celebrated their 73rd wedding anniversary before she passed away in 1962 and he followed shortly thereafter.  [2]

The first question I had when I saw Joseph Willard’s name on my 2nd great uncle’s marriage license was “I wonder if he is related to Posey Willard, my great-grandmother’s half brother’s father?” I wrote about Posey Willard being the father of my great-grandmother’s half brother, William Herbert Peters previously. Well Mary Jo Freeman was kind enough to write me back and she informed me that yes, in fact, Posey Willard and Joseph Martin Willard were related. They were 2nd cousins and shared the same great-grandfather, Henry Willard (This is suggested, but not proven).

The Reverend Joseph M Willard lived fairly close by to Fletcher and Mary King in Highland Township in 1900 and Joseph was only 34 years old at the time the census was taken which means he was only 28 years old when he married Fletcher and Mary. He started preaching when he was 21. And the census lists him as a “farmer” which also threw me off, but it was him as the children and wife match up with what Mary Jo has listed for his family members.  

This was a fun experiment in looking at not just bride and groom but also the other key players like the person who married them! I am always skeptical when someone says that “the people who witness the deed are always related.” However, in this case, I was able to provide some context in which the elder and groom had some connection, if not directly related by blood, but by an extramarital affair!

Additional resources:
[1] The marriage license between William Fletcher King and Mary A French.  And the question of who was the “local elder.”
[2] More about Reverend Joseph Martin Willard and his family on his great-granddaughter Mary Jo Freeman’s website.
[3] Read about how the mystery of my great-grandmother’s half brother’s parents was solved


  1. This is very interesting! The first I heard of these traveling Methodist preachers was in a biography of Frank L. Baum a while back. My in-laws live in upstate NY. They are Methodist, and little Methodist churches dot the landscape in their area. There are TWO Methodist churches in their very tiny town. I wondered how something like that could happen. It was interesting to read about your Methodist preacher from another part of the country!

    1. Hi Cynthia, thank you! It was cool to learn about him as well. I had heard about the Baptist preachers who rode around and preached to communities, but not the Methodists. And they were successful as you can see, in establishing congregations too. I guess it's kind of equivocal to the folks who go door to door now, except I don't think they are trying to persuade people to actually "build" the church, just to believe...


  2. Ms. Smith,

    My wife is a descendant of Henry Cleveland Willard, born 1832 in Syracuse, Onondaga County, New York. Her maternal grandmother's maiden name was Willard and was the granddaughter of Henry Cleveland.

    There are not a lot of Willards in the United States and that fact that the common great-grandfather of Posey and Joseph Martin Willard is named Henry is very exciting for me. If he's three generations up from men born in the 1860's he might be two generations (the grandfather) of Henry Cleveland Willard. Do you have information about the Henry Willard mentioned in your post?

    I would be MOST grateful to learn of it. This is the only branch of my wife's maternal tree that I can't get back to at least 1800. Her father is German/Swedish and all of his American ancestors arrived in the country in the 1800's, so that side is pretty much hopeless without a long trip to Europe. Her German ancestors were from Crimmitschau, a supporting town flattened when Dresden was bombed and then run by the Communists for 40 years, which means that the churches were closed and the records scattered.
    And of course the Swedish "X son of Y" changing surname makes genealogy without direct family connections there just short of impossible.

    So I'm hoping at least to complete her maternal side back to immigrants. She has Cornell's and Sherman's in Portsmouth, RI right after the establishment of the colony. So she has deep American roots on her mom's side.