In his writings, Charles Woodmason described the religious underpinnings of the Regulator Rebellion. Above is Lord Tryon confronting disgruntled Piedmont Regulators. Image courtesy of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh, NC.
A planter and merchant from Charleston, South Carolina, who became an Anglican itinerant, Charles Woodmason, as one historian writes, spent his clerical career trying to stop the spread of evangelicalism in Piedmont North Carolina. In doing so, the Anglican recorded, he traveled approximately 6,000 miles and “wore my Self to a skeleton.” Throughout his travels across the Piedmont, Woodmason described a mid-1700s backcountry evangelicalism that contributed greatly to starting the Regulator rebellions.
Woodmason was one of the loudest critics of backcountry religion. In particular, he regretted that the New Lights had “infested” North Carolina (New Lights believed Christianity should be emotional and personal, and church government should be a form of congregationalism; denominations included Baptists, Methodists, and Moravians). Many members of these “New Sects,” as the roaming Anglican called them, migrated from Pennsylvania to North Carolina.
The informal, emotional, and unorthodox services of the frontier shocked Woodmason, who believed such practices created anarchy and doctrinal confusion. Constant movement during sermons and outside conversations distracted Woodmason; congregants routinely went outside to talk and returned while the pastor exhorted his flock. This example, the Anglican believed, was part of an evangelical chaos that splintered sects, devalued liturgy, and fostered social disorder. It did not surprise Woodmason that the “ignorant” and “illiterate” frontiersmen, allowed women to preach.
Woodmason underestimated backcountry religiosity. He believed, for example, that missing church services or shunning formal worship were irreligious acts. In many cases, the opposite was true. An evangelical independence resulted from a strong, religious commitment to experience a personal religion. The defender of Anglican order also misunderstood Protestant infighting, claiming new denominations contributed to the devolution of organized religion and the establishment of anarchy as the modus operandi of society.
Yet Woodmason astutely observed that seemingly incompatible denominations united instantly to oppose a perceived, common enemy. Woodmason noted that backcountry Tar Heels increasingly considered the landed gentry, Anglican Church, and royal government in Eastern North Carolina as their shared foe.
David Edwin Harrell, Jr., et. al, Unto A Good Land: A History of the American People (Grand Rapids, 2005); Richard J. Hooker, ed., The Carolina Backcountry on the Eve of Revolution: The Journal and Other Writings of Charles Woodmason, Anglican Itinerant (Chapel Hill, 1953); Marjoleine Kars, Breaking Loose Together: The Regulator Rebellion in Pre-Revolutionary North Carolina (Chapel Hill, 2002); William S. Powell, James K. Huhta, and Thomas J. Farnham, The Regulators in North Carolina: A Documentary History, 1759-1776 (Raleigh, 1971).
By Troy L. Kickler, founding director of the North Carolina History Project
See Also:Related Categories: Religion, Colonial North Carolina, Revolution Era