Rev. James Coleman, Ridgefield's Saddlebag Preacher

Although he was a pioneer in spreading Methodism in the early years of the United States, little is known or has been published about Ridgefield's "saddlebag preacher," the Rev. James Coleman.

Although he was a pioneer in spreading Methodism in the early years of the United States, little is known or has been published about Ridgefield’s “saddlebag preacher,” the Rev. James Coleman.

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Although the Rev. James Coleman was a pioneer in spreading Methodism in the early years of the United States, little is known or has been published about Ridgefield’s “saddlebag preacher.”

Coleman was born in 1766, probably in England. He lived in Stamford in 1804 when he married Martha DeForest, a local woman. Six years later, the two moved to the Scotland section of Ridgefield, and had five children.

At some point Coleman became a Methodist, a denomination whose teachings were being spread by Jesse Lee and other itinerant preachers.

In 1802, Coleman was appointed a Methodist preacher in a circuit of towns that included Norwalk, Fairfield, Stratford, Danbury, New Canaan, and Redding.

Soon, he was traveling by horseback on what was called the Courtland Circuit, a journey of at least six weeks extending through eastern New York and western New England to the Canadian border. During his life he is said to have preached Methodism through eastern Canada and most of New England — all four seasons of the year. One historian called him “one of the best-known preachers of his day in his denomination.”

Ridgefield had already established a Methodist community or “class” by 1790. But Danbury had not. Coleman got the ball rolling, rather accidentally. James Bailey describes it in his History of Danbury:

“James Beatys lived a few rods beyond the base of Sugar Hollow Mountain, near the corner of the present Starr’s Plain and Long Ridge Roads. One cold winter day Mr. Beatys was cutting wood in his door yard when Rev. James Coleman, known as ‘Uncle Jimmy,’ a Methodist preacher whose circuit extended from Ridgefield to the Canada line, passed by on horseback, on his homeward journey from Canada.

“According to the hospitable custom of the day, Mr. Beatys invited the traveler in to dinner, an invitation gratefully accepted. Finding that his guest was a minister, Mr. Beatys asked him to make an appointment to preach at his house, which he did two weeks later, giving the first Methodist sermon in Starr’s Plain at a house of a very strong Episcopalian.

“The sermon made a deep impression, and was followed by another a little later, the result of which was a number of conversions, including the children of James Beatys, whose distress was great when he saw his children turn from the church of their father to Methodism.

“The outcome of these meetings was the organization of the first Methodist class in the town of Danbury...”

Today, Danbury has two Methodist congregations, at Long Ridge that Coleman founded and in the city proper that grew from his preaching in Danbury. No doubt he inspired countless others in the Northeast.

He died in 1842 at age 75 — itself an unusual feat. Of the first 700 Methodist preachers in America, nearly half died before they reached the age of 30. —Jack Sanders