We have many ancestors who were pastors, especially in the Biddle branch of our family. Many of them were pastors in the United Brethren church, which eventually merged with the Methodist church. One of our ancestors who was a circuit-riding pastor was Alexander Biddle (1810-1899). Alexander was the 10th of 12 children of John Jacob Biddle and Rachel Todd. Alexander and his wife, Magdalena Noftzgar had two children, two of whom, John and William Rinehart, served in the Civil War. Alexander was the uncle of George Washington Biddle, who was the father of Martha Ellen Biddle, who married Henry Albert Snyder. Alexander was born in Bedford, Pennsylvania and died in Galion, Ohio. He became a traveling minister or “circuit rider” at the age of 21.
I found an interesting but long article about Alexander in a book published in 1908 that was titled “Our Heroes: Or United Brethren Home Missionaries.” Here is the article:
“Among the many gifted and heroic men who have devoted their lives to the cause of pioneer mission work in the United Brethren Church, none have met with more distinguished success than Alexander Biddle. His paternal grandfather was a native of Hesse-Cassel, Germany, who, with his three brothers, Peter, Thomas and Andrew, emigrated to America about the year 1760, settling in the colony of Maryland, from which Andrew served with distinction as an officer in the War of the Revolution. His mother was of English descent, her people having emigrated from England with the second Lord Baltimore about the year 1647.
Alexander Biddle was born in Bedford County, Pa., April 24, 1810. When five years of age, his father cut his way through the dense forests into Beaver County, where he moved his family. In that lonely region of pure air and rugged scenery, the boy grew to manhood. Thus, at the very outset, he was inducted into the experience of pioneer life. To settle in a new county and to go forward in the face of obstacles came natural to him. From his parents he inherited a hardy constitution and the highest principles of independence, industry, and downright honesty. His school advantages were very limited. The tuition of an Irish schoolmaster for two winter seasons gave him the rudiments of reading, writing, and arithmetic, but in after years he applied himself closely as a student and built up and education of surprising breadth and thoroughness.
Until he was about eighteen years of age, young Biddle gave the matter of religion but little thought. He occasionally attended the services of the Episcopal Church with his mother, of which she was a member. On a summer evening, in the year 1828, while leisurely walking one of the streets of Pittsburgh, he passed a plain church building in which services were then being held by the colored people. He was attracted within by the loud voice of the minister, who was picturing in livid colors the sufferings of a lost soul. The sermon made a profound impression upon the young man. Indeed, it was the turning-point in his life.
While attending a Methodist camp-meeting some time later, a mighty conviction of sin came upon him, but not until the fourth of October of the following year did he experience the peace of forgiveness, at which time he joined the United Brethern Church, and was baptized in the Ohio River by Rev. Jacob Geisinger. Describing his experience, he says: “As we came up out of the water, the glory of God seemed to appear. The sky flamed with supernatural brightness; the hills about me were transformed into mountains of gold; the river was as the River of Life, and the trees as the trees of Paradise. Heaven was opened and in its splendor my soul was bathed.” He believed he had seen the King in his beauty, and in the strength of that faith he walked all his days.
Mr. Biddle at once began religious work, and at twenty years of age his ability as a preacher was attracting much attention. He joined the Muskingum Conference in 1831, and was licensed to preach by Bishop Henry Kumler Sr. His first circuit to which he was appointed by that conference covered Harrison, Guernsey, and Monroe counties. It was two hundred miles around, with twenty-four appointments. There being but two little church-buildings in the territory, he held services in private homes, in barns, or in the woods, as seemed best. His father gave him a horse, saddle, and the indispensable saddle-bags, while his mother furnished his wardrobe. His library consisted of a Bible and hymn-book. A little later he added Walker’s Dictionary and Clark’s Commentaries. He had a clear, ringing, majestic voice and was a sweet singer; but, above all, he had his marvelous personal experience to tell and tell it he did with boundless enthusiasm. At the end of the year he reported fifty additions to the Church and a salary of fifty-four dollars.
The following year he was appointed to the Lisbon Circuit. It was three hundred miles in circumference, with twenty-four appointments and no church houses. Four new societies were formed, out of which grew the Western Reserve Conference. Seventy-two new members were added to the church during the year, and for his work he received seventy-two dollars. Four years later he was appointed to this same charge, which then included four hundred miles of travel, with forty-nine appointments. James McGraw was appointed to assist in the work. It was a year of marvelous success. A meeting was held in Beaver County, conversions, of who three became preachers. A wonderful manifestation of power was also witnessed at a camp-meeting in Stark County, Ohio. A band of wicked men organized to break up the meeting. McGraw was preaching when the mob appeared. He hesitated for a moment, when Mr. Biddle arose, and, lifting his massive form to its great height, he cried with a mighty voice, “Lord God Almighty, let thy power come.” The people responded, “Amen,” and come it did. The leader of the mob fell upon the ground, crying for mercy, while his followers fled, and a harvest of souls was gathered.
“In the Western Reserve, distances between settlements were generally great, and the roads very bad – mere paths, made by cutting out the underbrush and marking the trees. As the soil is composed of rich clay and loam, and as much of the country is flat, the roads in all seasons became very muddy; and half frozen in the spring and fall, our horses suffered extremely. In passing across a prairie from one ridge of the timbered land to another, in foggy or snowy weather, one was often out of sight of timbered land, and the paths were so dim, especially in snowstorms, that the traveler risked losing his way and perishing of the frost before he could reach a human habitation. To increase the danger, these prairies were frequently covered with water, and if frozen, but not so as to bear man or beast, both were liable to be wounded by the ice. We had but few bridges and were obliged to ford streams, or to cross the ice. Somtimes we took saddle and saddle-bags to a canoe and swam the horse by its side; sometimes when unable to get our horses across we went to our appointments afoot rather than disappoint a congregation. Preachers were often lost in the woods. Lemuel Lane was attacked one night by wolves; sticks, clubs, shouts proved ineffectual; he bethought him of music charming the savage beast; he sang, and the retreating wolves left him to sleep in the snow.” These words of a missionary, written in 1832, may give some idea of the difficulties encountered by Mr. Biddle on his first mission fields.
This veteran hero of the Cross recognized the period from 1837 to 1847, when he served as presiding elder, as the golden years of his ministry. They were fruitful of toils, trials, and conflicts and most marvelous victories. In the year 1841 he found a community dominated by a Mr. Dilk, who professed to be God. He was a large man of most commanding presence, piercing eye, thrilling voice and overmastering will. In the face of the greatest opposition and threats of injury, Mr. Biddle conducted a meeting in that community, which resulted in completely breaking the power of this false prophet, and adding many of his delivered followers to the Church. Returning from this triumph, he found his home in ashes and his family homeless and brokenhearted. He rode by the ruins, unmoved, to where his family was stopping, but when his little boy, John, climbed upon his knee and placed his arms about his neck and with sobs said, “Papa, we have no home,” the mighty spirit of his father gave way, and rising from his seat, he turned his face to the wall and wept like a child. But his poverty and privations were soon forgotten in his purpose to glorify God and save souls – an aim which he constantly pursued like a giant of destiny, with no regard for losses, defeats, or obstacles.
As a preacher and evangelist, Alexander Biddle stands in the history of the early missionary work of Eastern Ohio without a peer. A few of his triumphs are here given:
At the dedication of a church in Richester, Pennsylvania, seventy were at the altar at one time and over one hundred were added to the church.
One of his greatest triumphs came at a camp-meeting held on his father-in-laws farm. It was a veritable Pentecost. On Sunday morning the service began at eight o’clock and continued throughout the entire day. It seemed that nothing could stop it. Sinners flocked to the altar, found peace, and went away to bring others. All day and all night the glorious work went on, and not until the new day opened could the preacher stop for rest. The spoils of that day and night were over one hundred souls.
Near Canton, Ohio, he began a mission in a new community and held services in a wagon shop. The first week but little impression seemed to be made, but on the second Sabbath the congregation was mightily moved. The preacher swept everything before the torrent of his eloquence. Thirty-five persons came to the altar during the sermon. The whole community was reformed, a class of seventy-five members were added to the church. He closed his fifteen years of service in the Muskingum Conference with a wonderful revival in Stark County, Ohio, where scores of souls were converted and united with the church. When he joined the conference in 1831, there were three itinerant members; when he left in 1848, there were twenty-eight ministers and charges. Most of this increase is due to his powerful influence and work.
There were times when Mr. Biddle and his family were in great want. In 1850 he endorsed notes for friends and was compelled to pay them. One of his children thus speaks of that occasion: “I was in my ninth year when the sheriff came to attach father’s property. He asked how many horses we had, how many sheep, and all about his property. Father told him the truth to the letter and gave their probable value. We had some twenty or thirty sheep and mother thought a great deal of them. After the papers had been made out and a neighbor went on his bond for the property, mother said to him, with tears in her eyes, “Why did you not save out a few of the sheep?” He made no reply.
In 1847, Mr. Biddle moved to Crawford County, Ohio, and the following year joined the Sandusky Conference. His distinguished ability and leadership were at once recognized. He represented the conference in the General Conferences of 1857, 1861, and 1865. In these gatherings he always took a prominent part, and on each of these occasions he was prominently spoken of for bishop. He identified himself with every progressive movement of the Church and was a close student of theology and history. He saw his Church changing, but he kept abreast of his age and was always young and receptive. His loyalty to his Church was one of his chief characteristics. He was one of the Lord’s prophets, who saw things that were to be and spoke of them as if already present; hence he was a leader of God’s hosts. In the midst of discouragement he was always brave; in counsel, always wise; in service, always ready. His son, an attorney in Fort Scott, Kansas, says; “I never saw father
weep but twice. One morning, as he was spreading the clothing of my mother’s death-bed over a pile of stones in the yard and hanging some on the trees, while her body was in a coffin in the room, I, a boy of nine years old spoke to him about my mother, and it so affected him that he wept aloud, and caused me to shudder. I could not conceive how so strong a man could give way as he did on that occasion, but it was like tearing an oak-tree out by its roots. On another occasion, father’s district as presiding elder was in western Ohio, quite a distance from home, and he was away from home on each trip nine weeks. This was shortly after my mother’s death in 1857, and our house was kept by a housekeeper. When he left us on the first trip, as he bade us good-bye, great tears coursed over his cheeks.”
One of the great occasions of Mr. Biddle’s life, showing his power over men, came to him while residing in Galion, Ohio. One of his parishioners, a railroad engineer, had been killed in a railway collision. When the people began to gather for the funeral, it was apparent that the church would accommodate but a small per cent of the gathering throng, so he suggested that they adjourn to the public square. Using a carriage as his pulpit in the center of the square, he addressed the assembled multitudes. He was in good condition, and his great thrilling voice rang out over the vast throng. The people hung upon his eloquent words for one hour, and began to stir only when he sat down. A prominent attorney who was present gives the following description: “The square was literally packed with people. Every office and every building around the square was filled. Everyone could hear him distinctly, and he seemed to speak from inspiration. He held this vast assemblage for one hour. Not one person left, and he had perfect order from the beginning of his discourse to the end.” Mr. Biddle was a man of large mold in body and mind, full of vigor and hope. He was fearless, independent and industrious, positive and progressive. He grew with the people and was always abreast of the foremost ranks of his time.
Mr. Biddle was an optimist of the noblest type. He was wholly given up to God and absorbed by his prospects, which constantly expanded before his vision. God and the world passed before him in greatness. He had the divine ability of heart to separate the grandeur of earth from its infirmities, to hear strains of beautiful music rising above its harshest tumult, and thus the road of life was taken up by his great heart and transfigured until it became like Jacob’s ladder – a way to heaven.
The discipline of life served to broaden and deepen his faith, so that at last he stood as nearly a perfect specimen of fully-rounded character as could be found. He belonged to a class of men who seem to be chosen of Heaven to illustrate the sublime possibilities of Christian attainment – men of seraphic fervor and devotion, and whose one overmatering passion is to win souls to Christ and to be holy like him themselves.
Father Biddle retired from active service in 1876, but did not cease to preach until he had passed his eightieth year. He was for sixty-eight years a minister in the United Brethren Church, and at the time of his death was the oldest living preacher in the denomination. The burdens of those years were exceedingly heavy, but his physical endurance kept pace and he had reason to be thankful that he was of the hardy race of American pioneers.
On the first of February, 1899, having reached the mature age of eighty-eight years, nine month, and seven days, he exchanged earth for heaven and everlasting life. Awhile before his death he wrote: “I am feeling keenly the burden of almost eighty-seven years, but I am enjoying fair health. As to the future, I am living by the day, with a bright prospect of the heirship of eternal life. In the quiet of my lonely home, my soul feasts on the riches of divine grace. The time of the sunset has come, and its tints are those of a golden autumn day. The sun is going down without a cloud, and as the earthly is fading out of sight, the heavenly breaks upon my vision and I long to be at home in the bright, eternal day which has no sunset.” His body sleeps beside the Biddle Church, a few miles from Galion, Crawford Co., Ohio.