The circuit ridin’ preacher used to ride across the land,
with a rifle on his saddle and a Bible in his hand:
he told the prairie people all about the promised land
as he went riding, singing down the trail!…*
*Copyright ©1954 by Manna Music Inc., Burbank, Calif.
The circuit-ridin’ preacher vanished when the West was settled. But now his flamboyant style has been resurrected by Jesse D. (J. to friends) Waddle, a 43-year-old chemical salesman and ordained Baptist minister. Waddle travels the plains and mountain trails of Colorado on horseback, performing pastoral duties and, not inadvertently, putting on quite a show.
Actually, Waddle does bow slightly to the 20th century. He hauls his two horses, Montana and Cherokee, to far-flung locations in a truck-drawn trailer. But at that moment the last 100 years melt away. In fringed jacket, Western hat and elk-hide vest (“from the first elk I ever shot”), the barrel-chested, 6’2″ Waddle rides up, leading his packhorse loaded down with the 18 props the minister employs.
Greeting congregants with “Howdy, folks,” Waddle gives a rifle and bull-whip demonstration, the latter assisted by daughter Connie, 15. She holds newspapers that her dead-eye father splits with the 14-foot whip. Finally, brandishing his leather-covered Bible, Waddle discusses the circuit rider’s role, sometimes delivers a sermon and, with a “stomach Steinway” accordion, leads a rendition of I Met My God in a mellow tenor.
Waddle got his novel act together in 1975 when he befriended a Colorado group called the Mountain Men, who recreate the folkways of the early West. “I wanted to involve the Lord in the Bicentennial, and the circuit-ridin’ preacher seemed the most factual and interesting way to do it,” he explains.
Waddle’s role struck such a responsive chord that he continues it into 1977. He is especially popular at weddings and ties the knot an average four times a month. Said one bridegroom, “His style, his ruggedness and his approach took hold immediately. It was a great high.” (Waddle presented the couple with a marriage certificate hand-carved in leather.)
While Jesse grew up in Deer Trail, Colo., his father lost his truck business in the Depression. “It was slim pickins,” Waddle recalls. Nevertheless, Jesse took classical piano lessons and sang in the church choir. After graduation in 1956 from Denver’s Baptist Bible College, he married wife Betty, mother of their four children. (The Waddles have also raised three foster children.) Disdaining large-church politics, Waddle worked as a laborer and on the side made as much as $20 a day hunting rabbits. “The rabbits were used as fox food on fur farms back East,” Waddle says. Eventually he took his job with Independent Petrochemical. Waddle also ministers to the 40-member Valley Bible Baptist Church in Arvada, where he lives.
Jerry Kern, 57, a member of Waddle’s congregation for the past seven years, says he was put off by the minister’s unpredictable ways at first. “I didn’t like him as a preacher or personally,” Kern admits, “but that guy just grows on you. He’s always there when you need someone to lean on and, most of all, he’s not one of those holier-than-thou preachers.”