Freedom's Cost

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That is which sometimes known as “the Presbyterian Rebellion” — the 1776 American War of Independence — had many actors who played their parts in leading the colonies to resist the actions of King George III and Parliament along Augustinian-Calvinistic principles of interposition by lesser civil magistrates against tyranny. The roll call listing heroes of the faith includes such as:

  • Alexander Craighead was the first Presbyterian minister to advocate the necessity to take up arms against the mother country back in 1743 (the tyrant-king then was Charles II). It was his patriotic influence (even after his death) that is largely credited for the May 1775 Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence.

  • John Craig was the “spiritual guide and minister” to 5 out of the 15 freeholders who wrote the January 20, 1775 Fincastle, Virginia Resolves, which stated in part: “We assure you, Gentlemen, and all our countrymen, that we are a people whose hearts overflow with love and duty to our lawful sovereign George III. whose illustrious house, for several successive reigns, have been the guardians of civil and religious rights and liberties of his subjects, as settled at the glorious Revolution; that we are willing to risk our lives in the service of his Majesty, for the support of the Protestant religion, and the rights and liberties of his subjects, as they have been established by compact, law, and ancient charters. We are heartily grieved at the differences which now subsist between the parent state and the colonies, and most ardently wish to see harmony restored, on an equitable basis, and by the most lenient measures that can be devised by the heart of men. Many of us, and our forefathers, left our native land, considering it as a kingdom subjected to inordinate power, and greatly abridged of its liberties. We crossed the Atlantick, and explored this then uncultivated wilderness, bordering on many nations of savages, and surrounded by mountains almost inaccessible to any but those very savages, who have incessantly been committing barbarities and depredations on us since our first seating the country. These fatigues and dangers we patiently encountered, supported by the pleasing hope of enjoying those rights and liberties which have been granted to Virginians and were denied us in our native country, and of transmitting them inviolate to our posterity. But even to these remote regions the land of unlimited and unconstitutional power hath pursued us, to strip us of that liberty and property with which God, nature, and the rights of humanity, have vested us. We are ready and willing to contribute all in our power for the support of his Majesty's government, if applied to constitutionally, and when the grants are made by our own representatives; but cannot think of submitting our liberty or property to the power of a venal British parliament, or to the will of a corrupt ministry. We by no means desire to shake off our duty or allegiance to our lawful sovereign, but on the contrary shall ever glory in being the loyal subjects of a Protestant prince, descended from such illustrious progenitors, so long as we can enjoy the free exercise of our religion, as Protestants, and our liberties and properties, as British subjects. But if no pacifick measures shall be proposed or adopted by Great Britain, and our enemies will attempt to dragoon us out of those inestimable privileges which we are entitled to as subjects, and to reduce us to a state of slavery, we declare, that we are deliberately and resolutely determined never to surrender them to any power upon earth, but at the expense of our lives. These are our real, though unpolished sentiments, of liberty and loyalty, and in them we are resolved to live and die.”

  • The freeholders who wrote the February 22, 1775 Augusta County, Virginia Declaration were also influenced by John Craig, when they wrote: “Placing our ultimate trust in the Supreme Disposer of every event, without whose gracious interposition the wisest schemes may fail of success, we desire you to move the Convention that some day, which may appear to them most convenient, be set apart for imploring the blessing of Almighty God on such plans as human wisdom and integrity may think necessary to adopt for preserving America happy, virtuous, and free.”

  • James Caldwell, the fighting parson who cried, “Give ‘em Watts, boys!” lost his wife to the British before being shot by an American sentry before the war ended.

  • Jacob Green, the father of Ashbel Green, was known as “Parson Green.” He authored Observations, on the Reconciliation of Great-Britain, and the Colonies by a friend of American Liberty in early 1776, and did much to both preach the gospel and defend the cause of civil liberty in colonial America. He also declared in a 1778 sermon: “Can it be believed that a people contending for liberty should, at the same time, be promoting and supporting slavery?” He saw American slavery as completely incompatible with the principles of freedom for which the colonists were then fighting.

  • Hezekiah James Balch, a leading architect of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, died just a year after its signing.

  • Ephraim Brevard - The reputed author of the 1775 Mecklenburg Resolutions and the scribe who penned the 1775 Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence spent time in British custody as a prisoner of war at Charleston, South Carolina, where the unwholesome air and diet crushed his health. After his release, he reached the home of his friend John McKnitt Alexander, in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, only to breathe his last shortly thereafter in 1781.

  • John Witherspoon preached a sermon based on Psalm 76:10 on May 17, 1776 titled “The Dominion of God Over the Passions of Men” which is credited with helping to prepare the colonies to embrace the Declaration of Independence which he signed (making himself a marked man) later that year: “If your cause is just — you may look with confidence to the Lord and intreat him to plead it as his own. You are all my witnesses, that this is the first time of my introducing any political subject into the pulpit. At this season however, it is not only lawful but necessary, and I willingly embrace the opportunity of declaring my opinion without any hesitation, that the cause in which America is now in arms, is the cause of justice, of liberty, and of human nature.

    So far as we have hitherto proceeded, I am satisfied that the confederacy of the colonies, has not been the effect of pride, resentment, or sedition, but of a deep and general conviction, that our civil and religious liberties, and consequently in a great measure the temporal and eternal happiness of us and our posterity, depended on the issue. The knowledge of God and his truths have from the beginning of the world been chiefly, if not entirely, confined to those parts of the earth, where some degree of liberty and political justice were to be seen, and great were the difficulties with which they had to struggle from the imperfection of human society, and the unjust decisions of usurped authority.

    There is not a single instance in history in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire. If therefore we yield up our temporal property, we at the same time deliver the conscience into bondage.”

Many more names could be added to the ranks of those colonial American Presbyterians who proclaimed by word and deed their devotion to the cause of religious and civil liberty, and who were willing to sacrifice all for the sake of God and liberty. But one of the more poignant testimonies is found on the tombstone of the unknown Revolutionary War soldier at the Presbyterian church in Alexandria, Virginia. This epitaph speaks volumes about freedom’s cost.

Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier, Old Presbyterian Meeting House, Alexandria, Virginia

Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier, Old Presbyterian Meeting House, Alexandria, Virginia

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).