by Joe Palmer
[ opinion - march 07 ]
Where, O Death, is thy sting? Where, O Hades, thy victory? - I Corinthians 15:55
James Few, a Baptist from Sandy Creek, refused to renounce his involvement [in the Regulators] because as he said moments before his death, he "had been sent from heaven to relieve the world from oppression." - North Carolina History Project
Religiosity in the United States is astonishing to the visitor. The first 'Jesus Saves' billboard he sees gets his attention. 'Time is passing by. Where will you spend eternity?' is intended to violate the personal space and privacy of every passer-by who thinks it no one's business but his own where he hopes to spend eternity, but he hasn't been in the Bible Belt very long, and so he has not yet got used to a continual assault to his senses by eschatological messages from fervid proselytizers.
Soon the newcomer sees that public discourse is dominated, not by concern over social welfare and foreign policy, as one might expect in a modern country, but by matters of sexual subversion and family chaos. Fundamentalists, Catholics, and Evangelical "Christers", conservatives of the far right have the political clout to elect presidents, to defeat numerous Equal Rights Amendment bills (since 1923), to oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage and abortion rights, to thwart the National Organization of Women, and to pack the Supreme Court with yes persons.
Red State voters in 2000 chose Republicans, and as Ross Douthat reminds us in The Atlantic (March, 2007), "...without evangelical Christians, there would essentially be no Republican Party anymore: Evangelicals provided more votes to the Republicans in last year's midterms than African Americans and union members combined gave to the Democrats."
Red State Americans, those of the former Confederacy and those in the middle of the continent, have lower incomes and levels of education, tend to be mostly alike, to be involved in agriculture, and have lower expectations and fewer ethnically diverse neighbors than those of the Northeast and Far West, the Blue States, those of the (Civil War era) Union and the West Coast.
The Evangelicals, predominant in the Red States, are fond of Bush's moral posing on gay rights, abortion, gun control, "conservative humanitarianism", and on Israel, that is, on foreign policy. These topical issues give the Evangelical preachers objective correlatives with which to make their versions of the Gospel vividly meaningful to their parishioners. That's good stuff to preach on, matters those folks care about and think they understand. Where, you might ask, did such a following, a choir to preach to, come from? Whence this theocratic oligopoly battling the "secular-humanist homofeminists?"
An event in western North Carolina in 1771 brought about the removal of several disputatious Protestant denominations, and the creation of even more quarreling sects, and made obvious the need for the separation of church and state. The conflicts between vigilante irregulars called the Regulators and the Royal militia commanded by Governor William Tryon resulted in the humiliation and dispersal of hundreds of Evangelical families into the wilderness of Tennessee and Kentucky and onward to the west before they became those groups called variously and disparagingly Clodhoppers, Country Bumpkins, Crackers, Hayseeds, Hicks, Rednecks, Rubes, Rustics, Sodbusters, Yahoos, and Yokels, the base of the "silent majority" that returned Nixon to office in 1972, and the Red State majority.
Preachers were soon mostly railing against other denominations and competing churches. Peter Cartwright (1785-1872), the frontier evangelist, called one of these a "trash trap." Another preacher characterized his rivals as "hirelings, caterpillars, letter-learned Pharisees, Hypocrites, varlets, Seed of the Serpent, foolish Builders whom the Devil drives into the ministry, dead dogs that cannot bark, blind men, dead men, men possessed of the Devil, Rebels and enemies of God!" This same Peter Cartwright, who was converted at the revival at Camp Ridge, Kentucky, in 1801, and so became a famous fire-and-brimstone preacher, ran against Abraham Lincoln in Illinois for the US Congress in 1846, claiming that Lincoln was a deist, an atheist in disguise. In those days the Republicans were liberals and Whigs; Lincoln won.
The Evangelicals take their authority from the Bible, from Matthew 28:19, "Go... and teach all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the son, and of the Holy Ghost." This Great Commission gives validity to evangelism and the missionary spirit among Americans who still need the religiosity that fills the air and the airwaves in the United States. A great number of Americans find their personal identity and strength in belonging to religious sects that are not associated with or controlled by old national churches. They have a tradition of trusting preachers who speak to them directly, assuring them that they need no intercessory presence, no ordained minister or priest, no king or pope, to help them find God, or to tell them how to live. They also reject Big Government with its rules and regulations, as if the modern world could go on without careful coordination.
From small moments come large movements in history. A crucial act, a battle, a murder, a martyrdom can set lasting cultural attitudes and racial memories in the minds of following generations. Even though the precise moments may not be remembered, the effects of the events may be felt in our frames of thought. One such moment was the Baptist Daniel Few preaching the Gospel through the bars of his jail cell before they hanged him.
Distrust, rejection, and even violence had often accompanied the creation of separate religious sects in what was to become the United States, ever since the Puritan, Anglican, and Presbyterian colonists had early on excluded Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Dutch Reformed and other non-British creeds. Consequently, Baptist and Methodist, working-class, Protestant sectarians from Britain, found easy pickings among the poor, uprooted settlers sent to colonize British North America. The disestablishment of the old churches in the colonies prepared the way for the American religion of the people in its many similar denominations.
The established Episcopal Church refused to license ministers of evangelistic sects whose followers were Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers, Moravians, and pietists of any origin whose faith bonded them against the authoritarian, official government. It is no wonder bright people look at organized religions as holdovers from a primitive past. They are holdovers from a socially chaotic time when membership in a congregation of believers defined one's place in a community and made people feel they belonged somewhere. Here is one brief tale about a few hundred dissenters who set the pervasive tone of religiosity one finds in the USA.
The Great Awakening
The Great Awakening, the revival of religious fervor in the middle of the 18C, saw the Puritans, Dutch Reformed, Quakers, and Methodists gaining great popularity. The established Anglican and Presbyterian Churches could not hold their memberships in places where they could not cater to the parishioners. The Presbyterians in New England split into New Lights (Evangelical) and Old Lights (conservative) factions. The frontier had so little in the way of infrastructure and communication that things fell apart, especially fealty to one's betters and to traditional religion. Schismatic sects flourished on the frontier, for one reason because Methodists, Baptists, and the other splinter sects did not require trained ministers like the established churches.
In New England, post-Enlightenment preachers like Ralph Waldo Emerson (1802-83) helped turn intellectual Puritan communities of the faithful into Congregationalists, Unitarians, and Universalists. On the other hand, the Baptist heritage is "a devotionally focused pietism that de-emphasizes the intellectual dimensions of faith." Baptists "have historically tended to remain skeptical of higher education's value for the Christian life," according to Collin Hansen in Christianity Today: 6/13/03. Like all Protestants they are caught between secularism and pietism. They are "saved" by faith alone, not by the laws of the Church, good works, or the grace of God. They hold to the doctrine Sola Scriptura: there is no authority beyond the literal Bible.
"They preached a whosoever will gospel with strong gestures and tears and altar calls during which the preachers left the platform and went through the congregation exhorting sinners to come forward to be saved. They preached the new birth... The entire congregation (there were no choirs or special songs) sang the gospel in folk tunes such as Amazing Grace was later set to. They rattled the rafters with their songs and were free to testify in church, to say "amen" or "glory," and to run or shout if they were moved by the Holy Ghost. One of the reasons the Separate Baptists kept clear of the Regular and Particular Baptists was that these other Baptists held more "orderly" or "dignified" services."(JH Sightler)
The Baptist congregations multiplied, with new preachers carrying the message farther into the hills. Sandy Creek Baptist Church in Liberty, North Carolina, founded by Shubal Stearns in 1755, was the largest, fostering numerous new preachers. They and Quakers led by Herman Husband opposed the abuse of the settlers by the provincial government, with its squandered taxes and arbitrary justice.
Wealthy landowners in the plantation country of the eastern tidewater region of Virginia and the Carolinas had little in common with the poor settlers in the Piedmont, the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Excessive taxes, dishonest sheriffs, and illegal fees had, in effect, driven the people to set up an alternative government. The scarcity of money and the lack of law and order made the settlers take control of their own lives.
By 1767, because the colonial government in the Carolinas had not imposed law and order on the hinterland, the so-called Regulators, local militias, took on the task themselves. The Piedmont held all sorts of marginal people, squatters, escaped slaves, mulattos, thieves, poachers, outlaws, anonymous men who had left debts and families behind. There was little law in the hills, no way to collect debts or get retribution, so the backwoodsmen formed the first of the vigilante groups calling themselves Regulators, and set about enforcing public morality among the land-hungry immigrants, outlaws, Indians, and the "poor white trash," who lived from hand to mouth on the squalid frontier. They chased "roving wretches" and vagrants, and they horsewhipped thieves, meting out justice as they saw fit.
This lawlessness and summary justice would not stand, and many of the injured filed suit in the courts back in the relatively civilized plantation country, but the Regulators remained vigilantes, administering frontier justice, hanging horse thieves, and flogging miscreants and shirkers. In 1771, the British governor William Tryon who occupied "Tryon's Palace" in New Bern, the grand home and capitol built at public expense with money intended for schools and the church, tried to solve the problem by using tax collectors and deputized sheriffs, and failed. Then he solved the problem by force of arms.
Tryon confronted the Regulators at the battle of Alamance on May 16, 1771. He had raised a militia among reluctant settlers. To be sure, no wealthy landowner except Tryon risked his life over the matter. His militia was obliged to confront a group similar to themselves in the Regulators, who were small farmers too. They did not like it, but chose sides in order to support the government, however unjust, the "good opinion" of the governor being as important as their civil liberties, some said, after the fact.
In the battle more than 150 men were badly wounded, with 20 Regulators and nine militiamen being killed. Tryon had six of the ringleaders hanged publicly after the battle, and then he and his men spent a week pillaging and burning the farms of the miscreants, taking their cattle and grain as payment for taxes owed.
There's a reason why Americans became Hillbillies, sod-busters, dirt farmers, Indian fighters, Ku Kluxers, and cowboys. They went west and did whatever they had to do to make a nation out of the wilderness, in the wilderness, from the wilderness. The battle of Alamance produced the dispersion of hundreds of families towards the west. Nearby Sandy Creek Baptist Church at Liberty, North Carolina, had once had 600 members. After the battle only six remained.
In 1766, the first Anglican minister sent into the backwoods of the Carolinas to attend to the spiritual wants of the settlers, the Reverend Charles Woodmason, found Scotch-Irish Presbyterians "a set of the most lowest vilest crew breathing." The settlers had been importuned by every sort of preacher and confidence man – "Baptists, New Lights, Presbyterians, Independents, and 100 other sects." These lawless people had no need of "black-gowned sons of bitches among them." They would rather listen to uneducated Baptist and Methodist preachers, people like themselves.
Many Baptist preachers were imprisoned or whipped by the officials of Virginia, where the colonial church was Episcopal [Anglican]. The Baptists refused licenses from the government to preach the Gospel. They refused to be told what to preach. In 1768 Patrick Henry, the lawyer of "Give me liberty, or give me death" fame, rode 60 miles to defend Lewis and Joseph Craig and Aaron Bledsoe, who were imprisoned for preaching without a license. He said to the court:
"From that period, when our fathers left the land of their nativity for settlement in these American wilds, for liberty, for civil and religious liberty, for liberty of conscience, to worship their Creator according to their conceptions of Heaven's revealed will, from the moment they placed foot on the American continent, and in deeply imbedded forests sought an asylum from persecution and tyranny, from that moment despotism was crushed; for fetters of darkness were broken, and Heaven decreed that man should be free - free to worship God according to the Bible. Were it not for this, in vain have been the efforts and sacrifices of the colonists; in vain were all their sufferings and bloodshed to subjugate this new world, if we, their offspring, must still be oppressed and persecuted.
But may it please your worships, permit me to inquire once more, for what are these men about to be tried? This paper says 'for preaching the Gospel of the Son of God.' Great God! For preaching the Gospel of the Savior to Adam's fallen race. What law have they violated?"
The men were set free, not because the judges and Patrick Henry were freethinkers, but because people should be "free to worship God according to the Bible." Their liberality extended just so far!
We must remember that there existed no social safety net provided by the government, no minimum anything, no dole or health insurance. Welfare was a congregational or family matter. The Protestant sects were social groups held together by mutual dependency. They raised barns and roofs, shared labor and food, and looked to each other for love and understanding, naturally coming together in economic need.
The great revival
The great revival at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in 1801 eventually produced such American religions as the Pentecostals, Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, Mormons, and Southern Baptists, and profoundly affected the mainline Protestant sects, Catholics, and the secularists who believe in the principles of a free United States. Revival camp meetings became the socializing force on the frontier. Families who had little communication with their neighbors, found good reason to get together, to fraternize and have a good time extending their social connections. There were few buildings larger than cabins, none large enough to hold hundreds, so meetings were held outdoors, with much shouting and singing, and such good times were had by all that camp meeting were still being held in the 20C.
People went to the revivals in order to have a social life. As at county fairs, people got together for matchmaking, partying, trading, meeting and visiting with their friends, old and new, and solidifying their communities.
In its political consequences today, the voting majority edge that the Republicans flaunt, the effects of the Great Revival are still felt, even though it never became a unified movement for lack of a controlling center. Today the Great Revival is an organic part of Middle-American life. And don't you forget it.