A New Light “Infestation”: Charles Woodmason on Colonial Piedmont Religion

Commentary By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

North Carolinians do not think of the present-day and economically thriving Piedmont as an ignorant backcountry that undermines social order.  But in the eastern part of the Province of North Carolina during the Pre-Revolutionary Period (1750-1775) many believed it was exactly that.

A pre-Revolutionary planter and merchant from Charleston, South Carolina, who later turned Anglican itinerant, Charles Woodmason became one of the loudest critics of the backcountry. He strongly criticized New Lights and lamented that they had “infested” North Carolina (New Lights believed that Christians should exhibit an emotional and personal worship and that church government should be a form of congregationalism; example denominations included Baptists and Moravians).  Woodmason regrettably observed that “enthusiasts” (a label for those believing an indwelling Holy Spirit encouraged them to defy organized religion) occupied the hills of the Piedmont.  With a zeal equaling that of any dissenter, Woodmason traveled approximately 6,000 miles across the province of North Carolina and exhausted himself warning about the dangers of new sects and religious enthusiasm.

The informal and emotional services of the Piedmont frontier particularly shocked Woodmason, who believed unorthodox practices created social anarchy and doctrinal confusion.  As local churches increasingly dotted the landscape, historian Marjoleine Kars writes, Woodmason feared a continuous “redefinition of sacred space”: “No Pews, Font, Communion Table, or any thing resembling a Place of Worship saving this Pulpit,” the disdainful Anglican recorded, “so that it may serve either for a Conventicle, Chapel, Dancing Room, Hall of Justice, Barn, or any Thing.”  During his tour of duty throughout the heathen countryside of the Piedmont, Woodmason observed unceremonious worship: “[They cannot] sit still during Service—but they will be in and out—forward and backward the whole time (Women especially) as Bees to and fro to their Hives.”  The Anglican also wasted no opportunity to scold unrefined frontiersmen.  In one sermon, the former merchant rebuked worshippers for spitting tobacco, leaving the service during Prayer, whispering during the sermon, and not controlling unruly children.  Such rudeness might be considered acceptable worship in a private house, the Anglican pointed out, but to act in such a way in the House of God was unacceptable and something other than “Divine Worship.”

Woodmason also had difficulty understanding how conflicting and splintering denominations could unite when needed.  Protestant infighting seems to support Woodmason’s arguments that backcountry religion produced chaos.  Concerning the actions of evangelicals, he remarked: “[They] Divide and Sub divide, Split into Parties—Rail at and Excommunicate one another—Turn out of Meeting, and receive into another.”  However, the isolation of the mid-1700s Piedmont fostered ecumenical services.  Woodmason no doubt recorded what Baptist minister John Gano witnessed on the banks of the Yadkin and Uwharrie Rivers, where Dunkards, Baptists, Quakers, and Moravians met to worship.  The traveling Baptist concluded that those in the Piedmont were a “unique species of people,” of whom “appear to me like Aesop’s crow which inflated itself with other birds’ feathers.”  

A shared cultural and frontier heritage among Piedmont religious nonconformists (by and large) united them against the Anglican Church and the landed gentry and merchants of the East.  When ordinary folk believed they could discern moral truth and criticize religious authority, they were soon emboldened to protest abuses of power and demand the restoration of justice and proper government.  

The religious fervor of the Piedmont backcountry contributed greatly to the Regulator rebellions of North Carolina, when farmers protested illegal taxation and seizure of their property, and provided fertile ground for the budding language of American liberty and spirit of American independence.