An American Jeremiad by David Caldwell

Although his main aim in life was to serve the Lord as a minister of the gospel, by necessity, David Stewart Caldwell, Sr. (1725-1824) often found himself bound to serve his community in other capacities. He established a “Log College” in his home in 1767 in order to teach young people; he studied medicine and worked as a physician to attend to the medical needs of those around him where doctors were lacking; and he served (unsuccessfully) as a mediator at the 1771 Battle of Alamance between Governor Tryon and the Regulators who were resisting unjust British taxes.

Some refer to this battle as the first battle of the American War of Independence. In any case, the behavior of Tryon, who personally and impulsively executed one of the Regulators on the spot without trial, and later executed several captured prisoners, shocked and disturbed Caldwell. Also, in 1766, he had married Rachel Craighead, daughter of the first American Covenanter minister in America, Alexander Craighead, who had preached against British tyranny as early as 1743 and who had inspired the famous 1775 Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence. So when Alexander MacWhorter and Elihu Spencer came to North Carolina in 1775 seeking a someone to rouse colonial resistance to British tyranny from the pulpit, they found David Caldwell willing to rise to the occasion. Sometime in early 1776, Caldwell preached a sermon based on Proverbs 12:24 (“the slothful shall be under tribute”) titled “The Character and Doom of the Sluggard.” This sermon, known to history (perhaps regrettably) as “the Sluggard Sermon,” preached shortly before John Witherspoon’s famous “The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men,” has been called “a seven-thousand word Jeremiad detailing the sinfulness of political indifference and the wickedness of cowering before a tyrant” (Robert McCluer Calhoon, Political Moderation in America’s First Two Centuries, p. 123).

Caldwell here aimed to stir up his parishioners, many of whom had previously served as Regulators, to support the early resolutions of the Continental Congress on behalf of independence:

We have therefore come to that trying period in our history in which it is manifest that the Americans must either stoop under a load of the vilest slavery, or resist their imperious and haughty oppressors; but what will follow must be of the utmost importance to every individual of these United Colonies; and should be the hearty concern of every honest American. — What will be recorded on the following page of our history must depend very much on our conduct; for if we act like the sluggard, refuse, from the mere love of ease and self indulgence, to make the sacrifices and efforts which the circumstances require, or, from cowardice and pusillanimity, shrink from dangers and hardships, we must continue in our present state of bondage and oppression, while that bondage and oppression may be increased until life itself will become a burden; but if we stand up manfully and unitedly in defence of our rights, appalled by no dangers and shrinking from no toils or privations, we shall do valiantly. Our foes are powerful and determined on conquest; but our cause is good; and in the strength of the Lord, who is mightier than all, we shall prevail.

This sermon had the rousing effect that was intended (on April 12, 1776, the Halifax Convention authorized North Carolina’s delegates to the Continental Congress to vote for independence), and North Carolina did much to embrace and support the Patriots’ cause during the War. Caldwell and his family suffered greatly for their adherence to the cause of freedom: British General Cornwallis placed a £200 bounty on Caldwell’s head, and his house was plundered, his library and livestock destroyed, and his family was mistreated by British soldiers. Before and during the 1781 Battle of Guilford, Caldwell was forced to hide in a nearby swamp. But Caldwell and his wife Rachel outlived this war and the War of 1812.

The two of them, meanwhile, resumed their Log College labors with tremendous success. “Caldwell Academy, which Reverend Caldwell began in 1767, became the most well known and longest lasting of any of the thirty-three Presbyterian log colleges that were established before the Revolutionary War. At the time the academy closed, almost all of the Presbyterian ministers in the South were either graduates of or had taught at the college, about 135 ministers in all. Five governors, fifty U.S. senators and congressmen and numerous doctors had attended Caldwell Academy. Rachel got to know all the students at the academy, was extremely kind to them and instructed them in every way possible on their salvation. It was said that ‘David Caldwell made them scholars, but Mrs. Caldwell made them preachers’” (Richard P. Plumer, Charlotte and the American Revolution: Reverend Alexander Craighead, the Mecklenburg Declaration & the Foothills Fight for Independence, p. 67).