In the earliest years of the United States, circuit riders were clergy assigned to travel around specific geographic territories to minister to settlers and organize congregations.
In sparsely populated areas of the United States it has always been common for clergy to serve more than one congregation at a time, a form of church organization sometimes called a “preaching circuit”. In the contemporary United Methodist Church, a minister serving more than one church has a “(number of churches) point charge”. However, in the rough frontier days of the early United States, this pattern of organization in the Methodist Episcopal Church and its successors worked especially well in the service of rural villages and unorganized settlements. In the Methodist denominations, congregations do not “call” (or employ) a pastor of their own choice. Instead, a bishop appoints a pastor to a congregation or a group of congregations, and until late in the 20th century, neither pastor nor congregation had any say in the appointment. This meant that in the early days of the United States, as the population developed, Methodist clergy could be appointed to circuits wherever people were settling.
A circuit, today referred to as a charge, was a geographic area that encompassed two or more local churches. Pastors met each year at Annual Conference where their bishops would appoint them either to a new circuit or to remain at the same one. Most often they were moved to another appointment every year. In 1804, the Methodist Episcopal Church General Conference decreed that no pastor was to serve the same appointment for more than two consecutive years. Once a pastor was assigned a circuit, it was his responsibility to conduct worship and visit members of each church in his charge on a regular basis in addition to possibly establishing new churches. He was supervised by a Presiding Elder, now called a District Superintendent, who would visit each charge four times a year.
Unlike clergy in urban areas, Methodist circuit riders were always on the move, needing five to six weeks to cover the longest routes. Their ministerial activity boosted Methodism into the largest Protestant denomination at the time with 14,986 members served by 83 traveling pastors in 1784, by 1839 there were 749,216 members served by 3,557 traveling pastors and 5,856 local pastors.
Francis Asbury, the founding bishop of American Methodism, established the precedent for circuit riding. Asbury traveled 270,000 miles on horseback and preached 16,000 sermons as he made his way up and down early America supervising clergy.