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Sermon on the Mount

The homespun “Circuit Rider” offered late-night life lessons.

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Late-night television viewers of a certain age may not know William R. Livermon, who died 18 years ago this week. But they may remember him as “The Circuit Rider,” who rode into Central Virginia living rooms for years on WWBT-TV 12 after “Saturday Night Live” and just before sign-off.

“Justice is the name of a grand old horse. Once he paced the racetracks, but now he brings a friend for a visit,” Livermon's voice would intone at the opening of each four-minute TV “sermonette,” filmed by his wife, Thelma. “Out of the fascinating heart of nature, the circuit rider brings a simple secret in his saddlebag. Let's see what it is.”

The former railroad worker, tobacco auctioneer, roof coating salesman and “hard-drinking, poker-playing, dirty-joke teller” answered the call to the ministry in 1959 at age 42. “Lord, I accept your call,” the Plymouth, N.C., native reportedly said. “But you will need to break the news to Thelma.”

“Dad said because of his life he considered himself an expert on sin,” says his son Robert Livermon, adding that was the exact audience that “The Circuit Rider” broadcast sought on the late-night airwaves.

After appointments in Patrick County and Richmond (where he served as associate pastor at Reveille United Methodist Church), the Livermons moved to Mathews County in 1967, where he ministered numerous churches and raised three sons, William Jr., Robert and Garry, now of Midlothian, Powhatan and Gloucester, respectively.

A life-long horse enthusiast with a gift of gab, the preacher borrowed 16-year-old Justice from a friend around 1968 and enjoyed riding the horse so much he “knew he had to do something worthwhile” with him. Direct Justice (his full name) really did pace the racetrack, winning one race at Harrington, N.J., as a standard bred harness racer before he retired after an injury. “Most anybody will stop and look at a good horse,” Livermon said in 1979.

Going home-to-home by way of television was not unlike the routes traveled by early circuit ministers like his grandfather, Joshua Leigh Garrett. Livermon decided to create his own filmed sermons, called “Justice and the Circuit Rider,” to be shown on local TV stations. He converted an old bread truck into a camper and in 1971 searched the East Coast for an affordable cinematographer. The J. Walter Thompson ad agency in New York City disagreed, telling him that he should keep his rough-hewn format “as is”; that a professional would “edit the corn out” of his homespun wisdom.

Frustrated also by the $50-per-hour fee charged by a Virginia professional, Thelma assumed the multiple roles of camera person, editor and director of the sermonettes, saying she “did a lot of praying” about her now-permanent roles. Ronnie Broadus, organist at Mathews Chapel, recorded the “glory, glory hallelujah” organ chorus of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” for the intro.

The first “Circuit Rider” segments in 1971 were sponsored by Ukrop's and Poquoson Motors (now Pomoco Nissan) of Hampton, and appeared at 8:55 a.m. on Hampton's WVEC-TV 13. Soon after that WSLS-TV 10 in Roanoke offered Livermon free air time early Sunday morning to fulfill a Federal Communications Commission public service quota. Livermon preferred the early morning time slot, knowing that was when the “drunks, dope addicts and college students” were probably watching.

Spurred by his success in Roanoke, Livermon carried the filmed segments directly to other station managers in his bread truck, asking if they had four minutes to spare a country preacher in the early Sunday morning. The marketing worked — by 1978 the Circuit Rider was on 12 stations across Virginia and the Carolinas and more than 50 cable outlets.

These televised messages were down-to-earth and matter of fact, using objects from nature taken from Livermon's saddlebag. As his popularity surged it became a Saturday night game in college dorms to guess what the Circuit Rider would take out to tell his life lesson, including a bumblebee (tied to the saddlebag with black sewing thread), a ladybug and a “gee-haw wimmy-diddle,” an old children's toy.

Livermon did not appeal for money. He also didn't identify his denomination or his own name. Yet he received hundreds of letters, some from as far away as Southern California and Seattle, from those who took comfort in the unscripted and unsophisticated messages. He answered every letter with assistance from a Mathews Chapel ministerial candidate, even those expressing anger at his sudden intrusion into their early morning dose of edgy comedy.

By the early 1980s, after about 60 filmed segments, the Circuit Rider disappeared; cable news, syndicated programming and infomercials filled the late-night hours, nudging out the homespun message of an easygoing everyman from Virginia's Middle Peninsula. But the episodes are taking on new life in a DVD the family has assembled.

After the program, Livermon continued as a pastor, serving in Powhatan and Lynchburg before retiring in 1984 to Gwynn's Island (his son Garry is a pastor in Ordinary). The Circuit Rider died of an abdominal aneurysm on May 16, 1992, and is buried in Gwynn's Island Cemetery in Mathews County. Cameraperson and director Thelma survived her husband and lives in an assisted living community in Richmond.

William Jr., Robert and Garry Livermon all agree that their father's work was a culmination of his talents, resources and life story, perfectly suited for the time period, before subtle, homemade religious messages “with corn” went out of vogue. The films themselves — sitting in cans at the Midlothian home of William Jr. — may seem like quaint relics of a bygone era, but the messages, delivered in the soothing, inimitable style of a country preacher, are still fresh and relevant. And fondly recalled.

For information on ordering a DVD that contains all of the surviving “Justice and the Circuit Rider” episodes visit circuitrider.webs.com.

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