Trevor Saxby writes about Lorenzo Dow, an eccentric preacher
LORENZO Dow (1777-1834), from Connecticut, USA, took eccentricity to a new level. From childhood he felt sweeps of emotion beyond his peers, higher highs and deeper lows.
At 21, he was accepted as a circuit preacher by the Methodists. Later he was an independent evangelist. He quickly gained a reputation, both for his appearance and his methods. He and his wife Peggy embraced poverty for the gospel’s sake. They would often sleep rough in the woods. Lorenzo usually had just the clothes he stood up in, which he wore until they were so unsightly that some person in the audience would donate a replacement – which wasn’t always the right size! He had a beard down to his chest and never combed it.
After his death, one obituary said: “Who will forget his orang-utan features, his outlandish clothes, the beard that swept his aged breast, or the piping treble voice in which he preached the gospel of the kingdom.”
Dow’s preaching mannerisms were a revelation. A generation before, the great open-air preacher George Whitfield was passionate but serious and measured. Lorenzo Dow shouted, screamed, wept and challenged people’s complacent beliefs. He told stories and jokes. It is recorded that he could hold an audience of 10,000 spellbound. He gained the nickname “Crazy Dow” and happily accepted it.
He had a keen eye for the theatrical. He loved to turn up at a public event, go to the centre or on to the stage (uninvited) and announce loudly that he would preach on that spot in one year’s time.
His engagement to Peggy was suitably unusual. He would marry her, he said, but “if you should stand in my way in the service of the gospel, I will pray to God to remove you!” Stout-hearted Peggy said yes nevertheless and they married in 1804. She accompanied him on many of his travels, which were long and arduous. They would camp in the woods without a tent, hearing wolves but trusting God. This they did out of love for the hundreds of settlers, born and bred in the wilderness, and now adult, who had never seen a preacher.
One record exists of Dow arriving at a village in Alabama: his pantaloons were worn through, and for several hundred miles he had ridden without a cloak, for he had sold it. He was barefoot and his umbrella was held by just three spokes. Small wonder that Peggy entitled her autobiography Vicissitudes in the Wilderness. When Peggy died, Lorenzo married Lucy, who was every bit as feisty as he: at their wedding she promised “to be a thorn in his flesh and a sword in his side”!
Despite their poverty, Dow made a point of refusing lavish gifts from well-wishers, accepting only the bare essentials. Such a lifestyle took a toll on his health. He had asthma and malaria and, like the great Methodist circuit preacher Francis Asbury, could not stand up for the whole time preaching but had to lean on something.
Dow was a phenomenon, a source of entertainment as well as awe. Many a child was christened Lorenzo in his honour.
But he also provoked opposition, especially in southern states, where he opposed slavery. He was sometimes pelted with stones, eggs, and rotten vegetables. That never stopped him; he simply walked to the next town and gave the same sermon again!
In all, Dow made three trips to Britain. He was received as something of a curiosity but his preaching was respected everywhere. He introduced a group of Methodists to the American-style “camp meeting“, where revivalist preachers spoke to crowds in giant open-air congregations, which might last three days. As a result, Hugh Bourne and the Primitive Methodists began holding them in England.
The editor of his journal continued: “His eccentric dress and style of preaching attracted great attention, while his shrewdness, and quick discernment of character gave him no inconsiderable influence over the multitudes that attended his ministry. Who has not heard of Lorenzo Dow? He was one of the most remarkable men of his age for his zeal and labour in the cause of religion. It is probable that more persons have heard the Gospel from his lips, than any other individual since the days of Whitfield.”