P. T. Barnum Preaches in Rocky Mount, 1836

An 1897 poster for the Barnum and Bailey Circus. Image from the Library of Congress.

On November 12, 1836, Phineas Taylor “P. T.” Barnum arrived in Rocky Mount after leaving Aaron Turner’s Traveling Circus, for which he managed the sideshow acts and took tickets.  Barnum convinced some of the Turner acts to join his own traveling circus.

Their first stop was in what is now Rocky Mount. Arriving on a Saturday evening, Barnum spent the night at the Stage Coach Inn. In his autobiography, Barnum wrote that, the next morning, he accompanied the landlord to the Baptist church. Before entering the church, Barnum noticed a grove with a stand and benches. Wishing to speak to the congregation, Barnum was permitted by the preacher to speak for a half an hour after the service.

Approximately 300 people stayed to listen to Barnum preach. It was reported that the crowd was pleased the performance by Barnum, who was not yet known as the Greatest Showman on Earth.

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2 responses to “P. T. Barnum Preaches in Rocky Mount, 1836”

  1. Mike P says :

    There’s some folks in Rocky Mount that could still use some preaching.

  2. Charles Dunn says :

    From Rocky Mount’s “Evening Telegram” for 11/6/56:

    Hats off to the Rocky Mount Research Club and Mrs. J. R. Bennett for sponsoring the establishment of a state historical marker on U. S. 301 North memorializing a sermon once preached here by P. T. Barnum, the great showman. It is appropriate that the early visit to Rocky Mount of the world-famous circus leader should be remembered. Mr. Barnum’s memoirs reportedly recall his visit to Rocky Mount on a Saturday evening in November, 1836. He took a Sunday morning stroll and soon found himself before the Primitive Baptist Church at the Falls. The elder welcomed Mr. Barnum, even then well-known, and invited him to speak—but on the church grounds instead of inside since church doctrine at that time prevented an invitation being extended to an outsider to speak from the pulpit. Mr. Barnum obliged and his memoirs recall that a goodly number heard his sermon under the brightly colored foliage on that sunny November Sabbath. Some claim that this was Mr. Barnum’s only sermon. This is subject to doubt. Research by local historians indicates that Mr. Barnum was a Universalist lay minister and so must have preached more than once. Investigation into the historic background for the Barnum marker also indicates that Mr. Barnum had several personal friends in Rocky Mount, including the late Dr. John Winstead. These ties may account for the fact that the Barnum circus tours almost invariably included Rocky Mount ever afterwards even though the show achieved a fame and size which caused it to bypass most cities this small. The unveiling will take place at 11:30 o’clock tomorrow morning. Dr. Christopher Crittenden, director of the State Department of Archives and History, will lead notables in appropriate ceremonies. No doubt many citizens will want to share in this interesting and historic occasion which henceforth records for posterity a little-known but fascinating facet of our background.

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