Born in 1777 in Coventry, Connecticut, Lorenzo Dow decided he was a Methodist preacher, and he wouldn’t take no for an answer. The church tried multiple times to distance itself from him, but he pursued his course and would become easily one of the most recognizable men in America in the early 1800s.
Lorenzo was an asthmatic child and a gaunt, bedraggled adult. He had no taste for hygiene, his hair uncombed or washed, his beard full and bushy. He carried only the clothes on his back. Any money he received he gave away to needy people or used to but Bibles, which he also gave away.
In 1799, he received the first of a series of “provisional” appointments to join the Methodist circuit riders who travelled the Connecticut countryside preaching. Yet he repeatedly failed to find support bouncing from Connecticut, to Massachusetts, to Vermont and New Hampshire.
All the while, Lorenzo was honing his delivery. Poorly educated, his sermons were pure spectacle. He would come into a town and announce his intention to preach. A crowd would gather and he would let the fire and brimstone fly. He leaped in and out of windows, stood in trees and acted out his sermons in hypothetical arguments with himself.
Somewhat to the church’s dismay, the public loved Lorenzo and joined up to the church in droves. Lorenzo decided his opportunities lay in travelling widely rather than maintaining a circuit, and his feet carried him from Canada to Florida, from Connecticut to Kansas and to England.
In the cities he could draw crowds of thousands. And in the country, he became beloved by many. In the rapidly-settling west, couples would hold off their weddings until Lorenzo came to town and he presided at the weddings of thousands, though not as an official minister. To show their enthusiasm, the couples he married often named their children Lorenzo or even Lorenzo Dow.
His enemies, however, called him “Crazy Dow,” a name which he accepted and would even answer to. Lorenzo was largely impervious to taunting or criticism. In fact, he invited it. Lorenzo loved tearing into customs he didn’t like. He despised slavery, hated alcohol and abhorred Catholics, especially the Jesuits.
For his views, he sometimes would be pelted by food and rocks. His views on slavery were particularly unwelcome in much of the South. When white churches refused him permission to speak, Lorenzo could often find a pulpit in a black church from which to deliver his message.
When no church was willing to host, Lorenzo was happy to preach in the open air. In South Carolina he was arrested for disturbing the peace, jailed and fined $1.
In Georgia, he inspired a ghost story that lives on to this day. After preaching in a small, booze-soaked town of Jonesboro, Georgia, Lorenzo was attacked by a group of local drunks. He smashed open a whiskey barrel and was on the brink of being lynched when a local Methodist brokered an agreement. Lorenzo could stay at the house of his new-found friend, and leave in the morning. If Lorenzo refused, the mob would burn the house.
Lorenzo left town the following morning, driven along by taunts and things thrown at him. Once across the border, he turned and confronted the mob. They would be damned, he warned them, if they did not renounce their wicked ways. The town eventually sank into ruin with only the house of the man who protected Lorenzo left standing.
Over the years Lorenzo’s fame grew. In 1804, he married and his wife, Peggy, accompanied him enthusiastically on his trips. They would travel to England for a preaching tour together, though occasionally he shipped her off to stay with friends if the schedule was too busy.
Lorenzo sometimes preached more than once a day, in one year racking up 500 to 800 sermons. He was continuously haunted by dreams and visions, and almost nothing he thought or saw went unrecorded. He would eventually publish his autobiography and Peggy would publish hers. Sales rocketed, and by the end of his life Lorenzo had put aside a comfortable savings.
His final base of operations was Georgetown, in Washington D.C. He died and was buried there in 1834.
Historian John Warner Barber, in Connecticut Historical Collections, neatly summed up Lorenzo’s remarkable life: “if ever there was a man who feverishly rowed his boat through the waters of life with only one oar in the water, it was “Crazy Lorenzo” Dow.”