Charles Woodmason, an itinerant Anglican minister whose travels took him across the Carolina backcountry in the years before the Revolution, saw the danger clearly. The religious radicals, he said, had poisoned “the Minds of the People—Instilling Democratical and Common Wealth Principles into their Minds…. And laying deep their fatal Republican Notions and Principals. Especially – That they are a free People –That they are to pay allegiance to King George as their Sovereign – but as to Great Britain or the Parliament, or any there, that they have no more to think off or about them than the Turk or Pope.” Woodmason was one of the first writers to articulate the connection between the religious radicalism of the Baptists and Quakers and the political radicalism that was gathering force around him.
Having hoped to bring the blessings of true religion to the unchurched backwoodsmen, he was saddened and disturbed by most of what he saw. He considered Presbyterians to be a “vile leveling Pack” and Baptists to be ignorant lunatics. “The People,” he complained, “are of all Sects and Denominations,…a Mix’d medley from all Countries and the Off Scouring of America.” At one large camp meeting he described the participants: “one on his knees in a Posture of Prayer—Others singing—some howling—these Ranting—Those Crying—Others dancing, Skipping, Laughing and rejoicing.”
He was particularly offended by the uneducated preachers, “Ignorant Wretches who cannot write… who never read ten Pages in any Book , and can hardly read the alphabet.” Women, too, were a source of distress, coming to services barefoot and in short skirts, with their shifts drawn tight around their bodies and pinned close, “to shew the roundness of their Breasts, and slender Waists (for they are generally finely shaped) and… their Petticoats [drawn] close to their Hips to shew the fineness of their Limbs.” Worst of all, no one showed him any respect as a minister, and when they harassed him and played practical jokes on him, and married people against the rules of the church, the magistrates and constables, who were also Presbyterians, let them get away with it.
How much better it would have been for them “to resort to their proper Churches to hear the Word of God solemnly read, and their Duty explained to them in a sober, sensible and judicious Manner!” But alas, the frontier settlers were no longer interested in being told their duty. Their minds had already been corrupted by the fatal notion of freedom.
In spite of his disapproval, Woodmason was a man of courage and decency. When the backwoods settlers organized to demand that the colonial Assembly provide them with protection from the bandits who terrorized their settlements, and with a voice in their own government, Woodmason acted as their spokesman. Ultimately, he criticized the Patriot elite to the point where they advised him to “consult his safety,” and he went home to England.
Pictured: a contemporary drawing of an early 19th-century camp meeting. As with the early Baptists, it is difficult or impossible to find an image that accurately represents the integrated character of the audience at these meetings.