Wednesday, January 14, 2015
Who Was "Crazy" Lorenzo Dow?
From dick Eastmans newsletter
- Who Was Lorenzo Dow?
"For 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."
written by historian John Warner Barber in his Connecticut Historical
Collections, 1836, shortly after Dow's death.
If you can trace your ancestry back to the early 1800s someplace in the
United States, you can probably find someone in the family tree named
Lorenzo. In fact, that person probably had a middle name of Dow, as in
Lorenzo Dow Smith or Lorenzo Dow Jones. If you find a record that refers to
Lorenzo D." as the first name and middle initial, you can likely assume that
the middle name was "Dow." Indeed, the name Lorenzo Dow appeared all over
the country in the early to mid-1800s, especially in the Mid-Atlantic States
and the South. It is believed that more than 10,000 babies were named after
Lorenzo Dow. In the 1850 U.S. census, "Lorenzo" is one of the more popular
At one time, Lorenzo Dow was perhaps the second or third-most famous person
in the United States, behind the President and perhaps one or two other
politicians. His autobiography at one time was the second-best selling book
in the United States, exceeded only by the Bible. He also invented the term
camp meeting." Yet you almost never hear of Lorenzo Dow today. Indeed, he
earns only a tiny footnote in a very few history books. That seems strange
for a person with so many thousands of children named after him. If you have
an ancestor with the given names of Lorenzo Dow, you may be interested in
the story of his namesake.
According to his autobiography, Lorenzo Dow was born October 16, 1777 in
Coventry, Connecticut. His ancestry is well-proven and documented in many
places. He was a sickly child and was near death several times before he was
five years old. He became a deeply religious child and vowed to work for the
Lord all of his life. Dow apparently began his roving ministry while still
in his teens. He made his initial reputation as a charismatic,
hell-fire-and-brimstone orator in areas near his birthplace, where he was
one of the first evangelists. He devoted himself to the task of "saving
Lorenzo Dow was a Methodist in the extreme. His beliefs were rock solid, and
he did not understand the meaning of the words "moderation" or "negotiate."
He attended a Methodist college and applied to be a minister. However, the
elders refused to ordain him because of his unorthodox ways. Dow was unfazed
he became an evangelist, preaching the Methodist doctrine without the
official title of "Reverend." Dow was soon barred from the Methodist Church
due to his fiercely independent nature and his disregard for the authority
of the Methodist establishment. As he became famous, many people referred to
him as "Reverend" Lorenzo Dow although he reportedly never used that title
himself. I have an original copy of his autobiography on my bookshelf and
cannot find any reference to him in that book that uses the title "Reverend.
Nothing intimidated Lorenzo Dow; he continued to preach Methodist doctrine
even though the Methodist Church would have nothing to do with him. Because
the churches were closed to him, Lorenzo Dow started preaching in town halls
farmers' barns, and even in open fields. He would preach anyplace where he
could assemble a crowd. He preached to Methodists, Baptists, Quakers,
Catholics, and atheists alike. He liked to appear unexpectedly at public
events, announcing in a loud voice that exactly one year from today, Lorenzo
Dow would preach on this spot. He never disappointed his audiences; he
always appeared exactly 365 days later at the appointed place, usually met
by huge crowds.
Dow's public speaking mannerisms were like nothing ever seen before among
the typically conservative church goers of the time. He shouted, he screamed
he cried, he begged, he flattered, he insulted, he challenged people and
their beliefs. He told stories and made jokes. You can see an engraving made
by Lossing-Barrett at one of Dow's outdoor sermons at the Library of
Congress' Web site at: http://lcweb.loc.gov/exhibits/religion/vc006757.jpg
It is recorded that Lorenzo Dow often preached before open-air assemblies of
10,000 people or more and held the audiences spellbound. That must have been
some feat before the invention of public address systems! He preached
regardless of the weather: oppressive heat, violent thunderstorms, and
blizzards never stopped him. There are many stories about his speeches. Some
of the stories are probably true although proof is scarce. I am sure that
many of the stories have been embellished over time.
Lorenzo Dow was known to leave his horse saddled while he preached, often
just outside a window. At the end of his sermon, Dow would announce "That is
the Lord's word" or something similar, jump through the window, land on his
horse, and gallop away as the crowd inside stared in amazement. Sometimes,
when he had announced a year earlier that he would preach in a certain
building at a certain date and time, he would even arrive by jumping through
a window INTO the building! He would deliver his sermon and then immediately
depart by the same route.
Dow's fame spread, and so did his travels. He traveled on foot and
occasionally on horseback (when someone would donate a horse) throughout
what was then the United States. He also traveled extensively in Canada,
three times to England and Ireland, and once to the West Indies. He was
usually well-received although there were exceptions. A fierce abolitionist,
Dow's sermons were often unpopular in the southern United States, and he
frequently was threatened with personal violence. He sometimes was forcibly
ejected from towns, pelted with stones, eggs, and rotten vegetables. That
never stopped him; he simply walked to the next town and gave the same
Crazy Lorenzo Dow was personally unkempt. He apparently did not practice
personal hygiene. His long hair and beard were described as "never having
met a comb." He usually owned one set of clothes: those that were on his
back. When those clothes became so badly worn and full of holes that they
were no longer capable of covering him, some person in the audience usually
would donate a replacement. The donated clothes often were not the correct
size for his skinny body. That suited Lorenzo Dow; he cared nothing about
material possessions. When he traveled, he carried no luggage other than a
box of Bibles to be given away. Throughout most of his life, what little
money he ever collected was either given away to the poor or used to
purchase Bibles. In his later years, he did accumulate a bit of money from
the sales of his autobiography and religious writings.
One story is known as "How Lorenzo Dow Raised the Devil," went something
Once there was this crazy preacher named Lorenzo Dow who was traveling in
the northern part of Vermont, when he got caught in a terrible snowstorm. He
managed to make his way to the only light he could see. After repeated
knocking at the door of the humble log house, a woman opened it. He asked if
he could stay the night. She told Dow her husband was not home, and she
could not take in a stranger. But he pleaded with her, and she reluctantly
let him in. He immediately went to bed, without removing his clothing, in a
corner of the room separated from the main living quarters only by a rude
partition with many cracks in it.
After he had slept for just a short time, the preacher was awakened by the
sounds of giggling and whispering from the main room. Peering through a
crack in the partition, he saw that his hostess was entertaining a man who
apparently was not her husband! No sooner had he taken this in, when Dow
heard a man's drunken voice shouting and cursing outside the front door,
demanding to be let in. Before admitting her husband (for it was he,
returned unexpectedly), the wife motioned her lover to hide beside the
fireplace in the barrel of tow, a coarse flax ready for spinning. Once
inside, the suspicious husband quickly sensed that his wife had not been
alone, and demanded to know who else was in the house. When the quick-witted
wife told him about the Reverend Dow, sleeping in the corner, he was not
satisfied. After all, he was not so drunk that he would take his wife's word
for the identity of the houseguest.
"Well, now," roared the husband, "I hear tell that parson Dow can raise the
devil. I think I'd like to see him do it -- right here and now." Before the
wife could shut up her boisterous husband, he had pulled the famous preacher
from his bed, where he had pretended to be sound asleep. "Rev'rend," he
bellowed, "I want you to raise the devil. I won't take 'no' for an answer."
Seeing that he would have to perform, Lorenzo finally said, "Well, if you
insist, I will do it, but when he comes, it will be in a flaming fire. You
must open the door wide so he will have plenty of room." The husband opened
the door. Then, taking a burning coal from the fire with the tongs, Dow
dropped it into the tow cask. Instantly the oily contents burst into flame.
Howling in pain from the fire which engulfed him, the flaming figure of the
naked man hidden in the barrel leaped out onto the floor and, just as
quickly, darted out the open door, trailing ashes and smoke. He ran down the
snowy road as if pursued by demons. It is said that the sight of all this
not only sobered the drunken husband immediately, but permanently cured his
taste for booze. And that was certainly one of the Rev. Dow's major
Despite his lack of ordination, Lorenzo married couples and baptized people
into the Methodist Church. There would be some questions about the
legalities of such actions today, but apparently it was accepted at the time
I have read numerous references to young couples saying, "We'll get married
the next time that Reverend Dow comes to town." It appears that thousands of
couples honored the "Reverend" by naming a child after him.
Lorenzo Dow was married twice. His first wife, Peggy, died within a few
years after their marriage. A few years later, Lorenzo married Sally a few
minutes after inviting her to become his wife. The startled young lady said
Yes" to the proposal and Lorenzo immediately whisked her off to a wedding
ceremony at the home of a local minister. It was midnight when they arrived.
Still seated in the carriage, Lorenzo shouted to the minister, who then
threw open the upstairs window to determine the source of the commotion. The
wedding was held on the spot: the minister in his nightclothes reading the
ceremony while standing in the upstairs window, Lorenzo and Sally still
seated in the carriage below. The minister's wife, also in bedclothes,
filled out the marriage certificate listing herself as the witness, then
tossed the certificate out the upstairs window. Lorenzo retrieved the
certificate and then rode off into the night with his new bride.
Lorenzo Dow and Peggy had two children. Their son died young. Their daughter
lived to be an adult but never married. It does seem ironic that the man
with tens of thousands of namesakes has no living descendants of his own.
Lorenzo Dow died 2 February 1834 in Alexandria, Virginia.
The next time you encounter the name Lorenzo Dow someplace in your family
tree, you can safely assume that someone in the family attended one or more
sermons preached by Crazy Lorenzo Dow. One interesting twist is the very
minor connection Lorenzo Dow had with the later Mormon religion: Lorenzo Dow
Young was the brother of the early Mormon, Brigham Young. One can guess that
these two brothers heard about the Methodist teachings of Lorenzo Dow from
their parents since the parents cared enough to name a child after the
I have to believe that this man was born about 150 years too soon. Can you
imagine what kind of success he could have enjoyed as a television
evangelist? He seems to have been a P.R. genius, although he never used his
skills to enrich himself.
I am delighted to report that "Crazy" Lorenzo Dow was my second cousin six
times removed. My connection is through my grandmother, Nina (Dow) Eastman.
Of course, he is not the only "crazy" in my family tree!
Lorenzo Dow once met a man as he was riding along a solitary road to fulfill
an appointment, and said to him -- Friend, have you ever prayed? No. How
much will you take to never to pray hereafter? One dollar. Dow paid it over,
and rode on. The man put the money in his pocket, and passed on, thinking.
The more he thought, the worse he felt. There, said he, I have sold my soul
for one dollar! It must be that I have met the devil! Nobody else would
tempt me so. With all my soul I must repent, or be damned forever!
You can find a lot of information about evangelist Lorenzo Dow on the
Internet. Here are a few places to look: