May 16: Presbyterians and the War of the Regulation

Precursor to the American Revolution

Some of our readers may be unfamiliar with this part of American history. The battle of the Regulators (or the Battle of Alamance), came about as a result of population shifts in North Carolina, with an influx of merchants and lawyers and a consequent shift in political power. The larger portion of the population were farmers, but when crops failed over the course of some ten years, merchants turned to lawyers to pursue the debts owed. Farms were lost and resentment among the farmers grew. With an unjust system of taxation and political power now resting in the hands of a small group of sometimes corrupt officials, three-quarters of the North Carolina population came to support the uprising known as the War of Regulation.

Here, in his classic Sketches of North Carolina (1846), William Henry Foote tells us something of how North Carolina’s Presbyterians were involved in this conflict:

At a meeting of Hanover Presbytery, held at Buffalo meeting-house, March, 1770, a petition was prepared for Synod, asking for a Presbytery for Carolina and the South. This petition was granted in May, and the Rev. Messrs. Hugh McAden, Henry Pattillo, James Criswell, David Caldwell, Joseph Alexander, Hezekiah Balch, and Hezekiah James Balch, were constituted a Presbytery by the name of Orange, to meet at the Hawfields; and the Rev. Henry Pattillo, the pastor, to open the Presbytery with a sermon. This Presbytery flourished greatly, its congregations growing numerous, and eventually there were three Presbyteries in the State of North Carolina, in the bounds occupied by this initial Presbytery, besides those in South Carolina, which, for a time, were reckoned as belonging to its boundaries.

Dr. Caldwell and Mr. Pattillo were near neighbors for a few years. Whether Mr. Pattillo taught school during the five or six years he preached at the Hawfields, is not distinctly known; that he did after his removal, and for a long time, is well known; and, also, that his circumstances required him to have a greater income than just his salary as a pastor. The probability is that he pursued a course similar to that pursued by Dr. Caldwell. The famous Regulations battle, May 16, 1771, took place in the region lying between their respective fields of labor. Both congregations were deeply and generally involved in the troubles that brought the contest, and partook fully of the spirit that prompted the resistance, and were sharers in the battle. Of the part that Mr. Pattillo took we have no account left, either in manuscript or tradition; but from his after history, which is well known, we feel at no loss to conjecture. Dr. Caldwell sympathized with his congregations in their troubles, and in their resistance. That such men as Pattillo and Caldwell were the ministers of four large congregations, which embraced the space of country in which the principal localities of the Regulation difficulties were found, entirely forbids the idea that the Regulators, as a body, were untaught and savage, or unprincipled men. The congregations of these men read their Bibles, heard no indifferent preaching on the Sabbath, and had committed the admirable formulary–the Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Assembly, which they were taught to believe, and to reduce to practice; and if they read few other books, and seldom saw a newspaper, it is evident they understood the laws of Nature and the laws of God, and were ready to defend the privileges and rights which the king’s officers trampled on then, vbut all the world concedes now.

When the governor was marching against the encampment or gathering of the Regulators, with the evident intention of giving them battle, the cool calculating mind of Caldwell clearly saw that the probability of success was entirely with the governor. With him were officers that had seen service; and some field ordinance, and men that had been disciplined; on the other side the side of his friends, was courage, a sense of oppression, confidence in the right of their cause, and a belief that the governor would not attack them, and could not beat them if he did,—but no discipline, no field ordinance, no experienced military officer, not even a commander-in-chief, or a council of commanders,—every man obeyed whom he chose, and few chose to command.

Dr. Caldwell visited both parties, for the purpose of proposing terms of accommodation, and was treated with respect by Tryon. On the morning of the battle he had an interview with both, still hoping to prevent the effusion of blood; and warned by an old Scotchman, who understood the movements in the governor’s line, he had left the ranks of the Regulators but a few moments before the firing began. There were many brave spirits from the congregations of Buffalo and Alamance, in that battle, whom no remonstrance could drive from the ranks and fortunes of their fellow Regulators. That the loss of that battle was not owing to want of courage, may be argued from the spirit displayed by the people of these congregations during the war which, in a few years, succeeded.

The battle was lost to the Regulators, and in the murderous executions that followed, there was evidence that some, at least, of the Regulators, knew how to die like men and Christians. It is by no means improbable that the proportion of such in the camp, was equally as great as in the prison. That there were unprincipled men among the Regulators is well known, and was regretted then as much as criticized now; but that the mass were men of principle and morals, true friends of their country, and lovers of liberty and law, there is less doubt now than there was then. If living in log cabins, with none of the luxuries of life, makes men vulgar, and lawless, and ignorant, then these men were all their enemies charged upon them, and merited neither success nor sympathy. But if devotion to principles and country makes men patriots, then the graves of the Regulators are the bed of the “Sons of Liberty.”

Words to Live By:
These are not easy matters to sift and discover. While some among the Regulators were executed, the majority were made to swear out an oath of allegiance. As Foote notes,

“these men had knowledge, and they had a conscience; they dreaded the judgment of Him who has said that liars shall not have a portion in the heavenly inheritance. When the Declaration of Independence was made, and the war of the Revolution was begun, . . . the contest in many a brave man’s mind between his love of liberty and his sense of obligation. By his oath he had saved his property, and perhaps his life; by his condition his heart was with his countrymen. Must he serve his king or join with his countrymen? Here the patriotism and cool calculation of Dr. Caldwell manifested itself. He argued with his people that allegiance and protection were inseparable; that as the king had not protected them from the rapacity which had driven them to rebellion on a former occasion, and was not able to assert his authority over the country now, their oath of allegiance, which had been exacted by force, was no longer binding. The independent State of North Carolina demanded their services, and the Congress of the United Colonies called for their aid; to fight for the king would be to resist the established government. With some the argument was satisfactory; they took up arms and served through the war; others remained neutral; and some few took arms for the king. The active tories were from another race of people in Orange.

 Scripture bears clear instruction when it says

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; — Romans 13:1-3.

But the American Revolutionary War must be understood in the context of Great Britain’s history over the previous 100-150 years. So, when Samuel Rutherford, who knew Romans 13 quite well, wrote his classic Lex Rex, he offered the following reasoning to support a measured resistance to authority (and here we see evidence that Dr. Caldwell was familiar with Lex Rex):

For the lawfulness of resistance in the matter of the king’s unjust invasion of life and religion, we offer these arguments.

Arg. 1: That power which is obliged to command and rule justly and religiously for the good of the subjects, and is only set over the people on these conditions, and not absolutely, cannot tie the people to subjection without resistance, when the power is abused to the destruction of laws, religion, and the subjects. But all power of the law is thus obliged, (Rom. xiii. 4 ; Deut. xvii. 18-20 ; 2 Chron. xix. 6 ; Ps. cxxxii. 11, 12 ; lxxxix. 30, 31; 2 Sam. vii. 12 ; Jer. xvii. 24, 25,) and hath, and may be, abused by kings, to the destruction of laws, religion, and subjects. The proposition is clear.
1. For the powers that tie us to subjection only are of God.
2. Because to resist them, is to resist the ordinance of God.
3. Because they are not a terror to good works, but to evil.
4. Because they are God’s ministers for our good, but abused powers are not of God, but of men, or not ordinances of God ; they are a terror to good works, not to evil ; they are not God’s ministers for our good.

Arg. 2: That power which is contrary to law, and is evil and tyrannical, can tie none to subjection, but is a mere tyrannical power and unlawful; and if it tie not to subjection, it may lawfully be resisted. But the power of the king, abused to the destruction of laws, religion, and subjects, is a power contrary to law, evil, and tyrannical, and tyeth no man to subjection : wickedness by no imaginable reason can oblige any man. Obligation to suffer of wicked men falleth under no commandment of God, except in our Saviour. A passion, as such, is not formally commanded, I mean a physical passion, such as to be killed. God hath not said to me in any moral law, Be thou killed, tortured, beheaded ; but only, Be thou patient, if God deliver thee to wicked men’s hands, to suffer these things.

As I said, these are not easy matters to decipher, but our point here is to relate the history, that we might learn from it.


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