Wednesday, March 09, 2011

One of last real circuit riders passes away.

The image of the Methodist circuit rider on horseback is one of the most iconic in Methodism. Lest you think that all the horseback riding circuit preachers were in the 19th century, let me tell you about a 20th century Texas Methodist preacher who rode a circuit by horseback.

His name was Burney C. Cope. He was born in 1917 near Buffalo in Leon County and, after the death of his parents, raised by his older sisters. He graduated from Centerville Hill School, but drifted a bit until a relative encouraged him to get more education. He borrowed $10, put all of his worldly possession in a paper grocery sack and hitchhiked to Jacksonville where he enrolled in Lon Morris College as a 21 year old freshman.

Lon Morris, a college owned by the Texas Conference of the Methodist Church, had revivials, religious emphasis week, and promoted an atmosphere of preparation for church careers. Walter Rabb Willis was preaching a college revival, and Burney C. Cope was converted. He continued at Lon Morris, and worked in the college dairy for his tuition. He began to think of becoming a preacher.

Upon finishing Lon Morris he went to Southwestern University in Georgetown and began preaching at one of the local churches. Once again, he worked to suport himself--this time not by milking cows, but by being a gardener for the university at the President's house. After graduation, and still a local pastor, he was assigned the Nursery Circuit in Victoria County.

It was here that he became a horseback riding circuit preacher. He was too poor to afford a car, but one of the parishioners loaned him a horse to ride the four point circuit. I interviewed him about riding circuit on horseback. Burney Cope reported it to be a great experience. He said it gave him time to practice his sermons. He would sing as he rode along. When the horse needed to rest, he would stop by a creek and read his Bible while the horse rested. When it grew dark, he would find a farm house, and announce himself in the traditional manner, "I'm a Methodist preacher, and I'm going to spend the night with you." At one stop he reported the man who answered the door replied, "I have a can of peaches and a pack of crackers. We can have one for supper and one for breakfast. Which one do you want tonight?"

After riding the Nursery Circuit, Burney was appointed to other churches in the Southwest Texas Conference, Portland and San Diego. While at San Diego, he began to regret his decision to begin preaching without attending seminary. He confided that regret to his brother-in-law, John Wesley Hardt, who had gone to Perkins School of Theology at SMU. Hardt told Cope, "It's not too late." Thirty minutes later they were on their way to see Dean Eugene Hawk of Perkins. Enrollment in seminary depended upon having a preaching appointment to support his family while he attended school, and the Southwest Texas Conference was too far from Dallas to supply one. As he talked with Dean Hawk about his desire for a seminary education, Hawk said, "An Oklahoma District Superintendent just called me about a vacancy right over the Red River. It would be close enough for you to serve that church and come to school here." Burney Cope said, "I'll take it."

Thus began a ministerial career in the Oklahoma Conference for the orphan boy from Buffalo who rode a Texas circuit by horseback. Funeral services were held Tuesday, March 8, 2011, at Mannsville UMC near Ardmore, Oklahoma, for Burney Cope. He was my uncle whom I loved dearly.


Blogger The Rev. James Richardson said...

I am doing research about my ancestor, The Rev. George Richardson, who founded Samuel Huston College in Austin, and rode a circuit in Texas in the 1870s. He mentions in his journal meeting "Bishop Andrews" but does not record the bishop's first name. Can you help?
I am writing a biography, and I am happy to send you a copy when finished if you are interested.
My email address:

5:07 AM  

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