The Rev. Charles Woodmason, an Englishman and an Anglican clergyman, did not like the Presbyterians and other non-Church of England settlers who were flooding into the piedmont section of the North Carolina backcountry in the years circa 1750-1775 before the War for Independence. An equal opportunity dis-liker, he was also not fond of Baptists, Lutherans, Moravians, Quakers, Huguenots, Dunkards or a “hundred other sects.”
Although a gifted, educated and newly-ordained man of 46, he probably would have been forgotten had it not been for a book he wrote, “The Carolina Backcountry on the Eve of the Revolution,” describing the people living in the Waxhaws area bordering North and South Carolina. The Waxhaws, you may recall, was the birthplace of our seventh president, Andrew Jackson, in 1767.
Woodmason first came to America in 1752 and settled in South Carolina, where he became a prosperous planter and merchant. He also wrote a bit of poetry, composed some hymns and wrote some natural history of his surroundings. In one instance, he noted the smell of “barbicu” (barbecue) being cooked some six miles away. After some setbacks, he returned to England where religious inclinations led him to become a member of the Anglican clergy. He was ordained as a deacon and then a priest in April 1766.
Now as the Rev. Woodmason, he departed from England in June 1766, landed at Charles Town, S.C., in August of the same year. He left the relative comforts of “the Pearl of the South” a month later, in September 1766, to bring the word of God to the so-called heathen riffraff in the Carolina backcountry. As he wrote it, “I sett (sic) off from Charlestown to enter on my Mission.” The ragamuffins he would soon meet were the ancestors of many of us. The reverend traveled some 3,000 miles a year by foot or horseback for six years, earnestly trying to bring the word of God to a mixture of people.
In his journal, he despairs of the lack of religious uniformity of the frontier: “It is very few families whom I can bring to join in Prayer, because most of them are of various Opinions the Husband a Churchman, Wife a Dissenter, Children nothing at all.
“As to North Carolina,” he writes, “the state of Religion therein, is greatly to be lamented — If it can be said, That there is any Religion, or a Religious Person in it.”
Elsewhere he specifies the reasons for his dislikes, “Among this medley of religions — True genuine Christianity is not to be found.”
However, Woodmason sees in all this trouble a great opportunity for the established Church of England: “Here is an opening — A large Harvest for all that are sincerely dispos’d to act for the Glory of God and the Good of Souls — How many thousands who never saw, much less read, or ever heard a Chapter of the Bible! How many Ten thousands who never were baptized or heard a Sermon! And thrice Ten thousand, who never heard the name of Christ, save in curses and Execrations! Lamentable! Lamentable is the Situation of these People.”
Much of Rev. Woodmason’s religious difficulties and frustrations could be blamed on the Church of England itself, which had failed to adequately supply the backcountry with ministers.
Woodmason’s loyalty to the British throne and his open criticism of growing Revolutionary sentiments in the Carolinas eventually led the reverend to return to the Mother Country. Woodmason died at age 69 in his beloved England in 1789 and is buried in an unmarked grave in St. Andrew’s Church in Yorkshire.
Woodmason’s observations, even though highly biased, provide one of the clearest windows on our collective past to be found for this period and his journal is also an entertaining read, once you get past his old-time vocabulary, spelling and punctuation.
The Carolina Backcountry on the Eve of the Revolution” has been published by the University of North Carolina Press and paperback copies are available through eBay at $26 and at $21 from Amazon.com. Our county library has a copy that can be looked at in the James Iredell Room. Copies that can be checked out are available through the free Cardinal System.