Lorenzo Dow gained fame as a traveling evangelist who led revivals throughout the United States, England, and Ireland. He is credited with leading the first camp meeting revival on Mississippi soil on 12 November 1804 near Washington.
Born on 16 October 1777 in Coventry, Connecticut, to Humphrey Dean Dow and Tabitha Parker Dow, Lorenzo claimed that at the age of thirteen he “was taken up by a whirlwind above the sky,” where he witnessed God and Jesus sitting on an ivory throne. During this mystical experience, the angel Gabriel challenged Dow to be faithful to return to heaven. Throughout the 1790s Dow strongly felt the call to preach, though his parents opposed his efforts. In March 1796 John Wesley came to Dow in another vision, making it clear that Lorenzo had been called to preach the gospel. Dow garnered letters attesting to his moral character and set out riding circuits throughout New England. The Methodist Conference initially refused to grant Dow credentials to preach in connection with the church. Undeterred, Dow set out on his own and recalled how people were “offended” by his “plainness both of dress, expressions, and way of address,” leading him to be known as Crazy Dow. The nickname and his consistently unkempt appearance became staples of Dow’s career. By 1798 he presented the Methodist Conference with a letter signed by thirty pastors and respectable citizens and received his license.
Dow subsequently continued evangelistic work in New England, traveled to Ireland, and ventured on multiple Georgia preaching tours with stops in Tennessee, the Carolinas, and Virginia. On 3 September 1804 he married Peggy Holcomb, whom he often referred to as “his Rib.”
Dow immediately launched a Mississippi tour, visiting Natchez and Washington. The Dows also traveled and toured Great Britain, North Carolina, and Virginia before coming back to Mississippi. After his return from Great Britain in 1807, Dow encountered numerous hardships including financial problems, attacks on his reputation, and declining health. The Dows consequently “retired” to the Mississippi Territory and built a cabin in “wilderness” about thirteen miles outside of Gibson Port (now Port Gibson).
From 1807 to 1820 the Dows periodically lived in the cabin while Lorenzo made frequent evangelizing tours. Peggy died on 6 January 1820, and Lorenzo married Lucy Dolbeare on 1 April 1820.
During his time in Mississippi, Dow’s independent evangelical style conflicted with established churches and organized circuits. The Baltimore Conference ruled against Dow for failing to obey “rule and order.” The Dows traveled to Natchez for supplies and proceeded eastward, crossing the Pearl River on their way to Georgia and eventually New England. Dow’s struggles in Mississippi with the Methodist hierarchy, along with new attacks on his reputation, led him to publish a powerful pamphlet, On Church Government (1816), in which he attacked Methodist Church governance.
Dow possessed a forceful political consciousness shaped by the major ideological trends of his day, republicanism and Jacksonian democracy. Historians have noted that Dow amalgamated republicanism, patriotism, and evangelicalism. Fellow evangelist Jacob Young recalled an 1807 Mississippi Territory camp meeting where a man disrupted proceedings. Dow took to the podium, told the history of the American Revolution, explained the “Divine favor” bestowed upon the United States, and quoted the Constitution along with the oaths of office for the president and justices of peace. He interpreted the Constitution as keeping “order and harmony” for the nation.
Dow’s mixing of politics and religion was even more evident in his statement that “monarchy, popery, slavery, and episcopacy” all had the same roots and threatened individual freedom. He maintained that slavery represented a “national evil” and often preached on the sins of the United States. Throughout his later years, Dow espoused fierce anti-Catholic rhetoric.
Dow believed that Andrew Jackson had rightfully been elected president in 1824 but had been “defrauded out of it.” Eight years later, Dow visited President Jackson in Washington. In this period of national division, Dow’s religious writings returned to the trademark plainness that had started his career. He implored Christians to form a “bond of union” based on love toward all men, setting aside sectarian divisions and bigotry. Dow returned to Washington, D.C., in late 1833 to renew the patent for a “family medicine” business. He died there on 2 February 1834.
Dow’s prolific writings include his journal, The History of the Cosmopolite or Exemplified Experience, and numerous religious pamphlets and treatises.
- Benjamin Griffith Brawley, Journal of Negro History (July 1916)
- Lorenzo and Peggy Dow, The Dealings of God, Man, and the Devil: As Exemplified in the Life, Experience, and Travels of Lorenzo Dow . . . Complete Works (1850)
- Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (1989)
- Charles Coleman Sellers, Lorenzo Dow: The Bearer of the Word (1928)
- Randy J. Sparks, On Jordan’s Stormy Banks: Evangelicalism in Mississippi, 1773–1876 (1994)
- Randy J. Sparks, Religion in Mississippi (2001)