Against the Current: The Big Cedar Lick Baptist Church

andrew jacksonBy now it is something of a cliché among historians to describe Andrew Jackson as the embodiment of the Scots-Irish culture that has, to a greater or lesser extent, defined the society of the American South.  Formed by centuries of savage warfare between the kings of England and Scotland, and between the local warlords of the Scottish border, it was a culture of fierce pride, violent passions, reckless courage, and contempt for all authority except that of the extended family.  When  Scots-Irish immigrants arrived in Philadelphia, the pious Quakers of that city were appalled by their “audacious and disorderly” behavior, and encouraged them to move quickly westward.  They brought those values with them to the Appalachian mountains, then carried them west and south, to Tennessee and beyond.

Jackson shared those qualities.  Like many of his neighbors in the Nashville area, he was fond of horse-racing and heavy drinking, given to passionate emotions, belligerent in defense of his honor, quick to take offense and slow to forgive.  Ordinary Tennesseans, many of whom served under his command, saw him as one of themselves, and because of that they honored and followed him.

Within any society, however, there are countercurrents.  Newit Drew, who arrived in Middle Tennessee ten years after Jackson, was a near neighbor of his, and connected to his family by marriage.  His wife’s uncle was Jackson’s brother-in-law, and her youngest brother, Harmon Hays, is said to have fought under Jackson at the battle of New Orleans.  Yet two or three years after their marriage, Newit, his wife Sally Hays, and his mother-in-law Rebecca Hays appear among the founding members of the Big Cedar Lick Baptist Church, whose covenant amounted to a rejection of everything that Jackson stood for.  A few years later, two more of Sally’s siblings appear on the church membership list.

Among other commitments, the members of the Big Cedar Lick Church engaged themselves:

  • “To walk circumspectly in the world; to be just in our dealings, faithful in our engagements, and exemplary in our deportment;
  • “To avoid all tattling, backbiting, and excessive anger;
  • “To abstain from the sale and use of intoxicating drinks as a beverage, and to be zealous in our efforts to advance the kingdom of our Saviour;
  • “We further engage to watch over one another in brotherly love;
  • “To be slow to take offense, but always ready for reconciliation, and mindful of the rules of our Saviour to secure it without delay.”

To be sure, these commitments were not always honored.  One member, quitting in 1811 to join the Methodists, stated that his decision was based in part on “prayerless families…neglect of keeping the Sabbath, also large drams and a great many of them, family broils, and sometimes a Ewe lamb chased too far from the fold on forbidden ground.”  But the covenant stands as evidence that, a generation after they had transformed the religious life of Virginia, some Baptist churches were still providing a counterculture, a refuge from the anarchic individualism of the southern frontier.

Further reading: Robert V. Remini’s multi-volume biography of Jackson is considered one of the best in a crowded field.   The Passions of Andrew Jackson, by Andrew Burstein, offers a less positive perspective.  Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, by Jim Webb, is an admiring portrait of the author’s Scots-Irish ancestors, capable of moving even a cynical Eastern liberal.

 

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