Historians have largely forgotten the Rev. Charles Cummings (1733-1812), the feisty Presbyterian minister of southwestern Virginia. For historians living in the 19th century, however, he illustrated how the pious and freedom-loving folk of the frontier exemplified the American spirit of independence.
Why are leaders like Charles Cummings forgotten today? There are two reasons for this shift in historical memory. First, 19th century historians tended to emphasize the significance of the frontier. And second, they were more inclined to see the religious roots of American independence. In an age such as ours, one that is hostile to Christianity, religious leaders of the past are marginalized, and are rarely held up as role models.
19th Century Historians and the American Revolution
No historian of the 19th century had greater influence in America than George Bancroft. Sometimes called "the father of American history," Bancroft authored a magisterial multi-volume History of the United States that emphasized the theme of freedom. Bancroft described the coming of the American Revolution, with the opening of the House of Lords in England on January 20, 1775:
It is not probable that even one of the peers [in the House of Lords] had heard of the settlements beyond the Alleghenies, where the Watauga and the forks of the Holston flow to the Tennessee. Yet on the same day, the lords of that region, most of them Presbyterians of Scottish-Irish descent, met in council near Abingdon. Their united congregations, having suffered from Sabbaths too much profaned, or wasted in melancholy silence at home, had called Charles Cummings to the pastoral charge of their precious and immortal souls. The men never went to public worship without being armed, or without their families. Their minister, on Sabbath morning, would ride to the service with shot and pouch and rifle.... The news from Congress reached them slowly [Ed., the Continental Congress began Sept. 5, 1774]; but, on receiving an account of what had been done, they assembled in convention, and the spirit of freedom swept through their minds as naturally as the forest winds sways the firs on the sides of Black Mountain. They adhered unanimously to the association of Congress, and named as their committee Charles Cummings [and others]. Adopting the delegates of Virginia as their representatives, they addressed them as men whose conduct would immortalize them in its annals.1
Bancroft continues by quoting from Fincastle Resolves, a remarkable document from Fincastle County, which at the time covered all of southwest Virginia:
We explored our uncultivated wilderness ... but even to those these remote regions the hand of 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 deliberately and resolutely determined never to surrender any of our inestimable privileges to any power on 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.2
This is worthy of note. On January 20, 1775, frontier leaders resolved to fight to the death against tyranny. It is the first time that any colonist took that step.
In 1894, future President Theodore Roosevelt offered a similar perspective on the freedom loving pioneers of the region in The Winning of the West. The "enterprising and intelligent" settlers were a sturdy and "God-fearing race, as was natural in those who sprang from the loins of the Irish Calvinists. Their preachers, all Presbyterians, followed close behind the first settlers, and shared their toil and dangers." These yeoman saints of southern Appalachia would unite to defeat British loyalists at Kings Mountain, in 1780, at the turning point of the war in the south. For both Bancroft and Roosevelt, these fearless Presbyterian frontiersmen were perfect examples of the indomitable spirit of American independence.3
Recent Historical Literature on Religion and Freedom in America
Over the last fifteen years there has been a renewed interest in the religious roots of American freedom. Some have emphasized the role of Christianity in the founding of the United States. Defending the Declaration, by Gary Amos, is an analysis of the Declaration of Independence and a refutation of those who claim that it is a deist document. "Created equal" and "self-evident truths," for instance, were terms frequently used in a Christian context. Christianity and the Constitution, written by Christian attorney and Constitutional scholar John Eidsmoe, offers biographical notes on the framers of the Constitution and an assessment of the religious milieu.4
Others have emphasized the political implications of the Reformed doctrine of the covenant. Fountainhead of Federalism, by Charles McCoy and J. Wayne Baker, deals with the covenant theology of Heinrich Bullinger and how covenantal ideas gave rise to modern Republicanism. Keith Griffin's Revolution and Religion, a study of the Reformed clergy in the middle colonies, shows how political ideas such as the consent of the governed and legitimate resistance were "the extension of the theological heritage of Reformed Protestantism."5
The best work on Reformed and Calvinistic political thought is The Emergence of Liberty in the Modern World by Douglas Kelly, a former Chalcedon staff-member. Kelly describes the political legacy of Reformed Christianity in Geneva, France, England, Scotland, and America. This is an excellent book, and is a must read for all who want a historical framework for a Biblical political covenantalism.6
The Theme is Freedom, a recent popular book by M. Stanton Evans, takes religion and its impact on American history seriously. Evans concludes the work by saying, "In every sense, the spiritual and intellectual vision must be foremost. Recovery of our religious faith and its teachings must be our first and main concern. Without it, nothing much by way of practical improvement can be accomplished. With it, all the rest might be added."7
Both Kelly and Evans are eager to show the importance of Philippe du Plessis-Mornay's Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants). Written by a courageous Huguenot during the 16th century French wars of religion, it presents a thoroughly Calvinistic and covenantal political theory.
Years ago, Rushdoony noted the significance of Vindiciae and its influence on America, but pointed out that the seminal work was often overlooked. Why was it neglected? Because the author was a Calvinist. "More than most of us realize," Rushdoony argues, "the current belief in historical studies of the 'irrelevance' of Christian faith has been written into interpretations of American history."8
Reintroducing Charles Cummings
If we are to take religion and American Independence seriously, perhaps it is time to revisit Charles Cummings. Born in northern Ireland, Cummings prepared for the Presbyterian ministry in Virginia and accepted a call to the southwest frontier in the early 1770s. (His old cabin still stands, and can be seen at the Sinking Springs Presbyterian cemetery in Abingdon, Virginia.) Throughout his life, this frisky Presbyterian preacher left the legacy of a fighter.
First, Cummings was an Indian fighter. The ever-present threat of an Indian attack was why Cummings always carried a gun — even to church. According to legend, Cummings even saved the town by a providential self-scalping. As the story goes, Indians attacked while Cummings was riding in a wagon, and as he jumped to safety his wig caught in the brush. Indians were so surprised to see a "scalp" hanging there that they hesitated in their attack, giving Cummings the chance to tumble to safety and rally a defense.9
Second, Cummings fought the British. He was the probable author of the Fincastle Resolves, a document that warned of the imminent loss of both religious and civil liberties. The settlers didn't intend to shake off their allegiance to their lawful sovereign, the Resolves state, "so long as we can enjoy the free exercise of our religion as Protestants, and our liberties and properties as British Subjects."10 But the settlers were willing to die to protect them. Cummings would also serve as chairman of a Committee of Safety and as a chaplain for patriot troops.
Third, Cummings fought the Anglicans. Virginia Presbyterians and other evangelical dissenter groups vigorously opposed the established and frequently tyrannical Anglican Church. The Memorial of Hanover Presbytery (October 24, 1776), supported by Cummings, advocated religious freedom and the removal of "every species of religious, as well as civil bondage."
Fourth, Cummings fought the state of Virginia. Southwestern Virginians long felt overlooked by the state establishment and in the 1780s a secessionist movement flourished in the region. Cummings and others hoped to withdraw from Virginia and join with east Tennesseans to create a "Greater State of Franklin." Governor Patrick Henry was horrified to learn of the movement, quickly suppressed it, and launched an investigation. (The Virginia Calendar of State Papers includes fascinating information about Cummings' involvement and the secessionist meetings at the church.) Cummings was willing to fight injustice anywhere — even in Henry's Virginia.11
Finally, Cummings fought other Presbyterians. The first documented church split in southwest Virginia came when the Green Spring Presbyterian Church broke away from Cummings' main congregation. The division was partly over distance, as the new congregation served an outlying community. And partly over personality, as dissidents complained that Cummings "has treated us in an unfriendly manner." But the division was mainly over worship practices. Cummings had introduced Watts' hymnbook, and the secessionist Green Spring Church believed in exclusive psalmody.
Charles Cummings is worth remembering. Called to serve in a "wilderness," he faithfully served his congregations in some of the most dangerous and exciting times in American history. He was committed to freedom, and the Fincastle Resolves is his greatest legacy. When a bygone generation of historians wanted to illustrate the passionate frontier commitment to freedom, they looked to Rev. Cummings and the Presbyterian pioneers of southwest Virginia. "These are our real though unpolished sentiments of liberty and loyalty," they declared in early 1775, "and in them we are resolved to live and die."
1. Bancroft, History of the United States, III: IV: 100f.
2. The text of the Fincastle Resolves and the pastoral call to Cummings can be found in Lewis Preston Summers, Annals of Southwest Virginia, 1769-1800 (Reprint edition; Baltimore: Genealogical Press, 1970), 673-675, 1354-55.
3. Theodore Roosevelt, The Winning of the West (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1894), 198-199.
4. Gary Amos, Defending the Declaration: How the Bible and Christianity Influenced the Writing of the Declaration of Independence (Brentwood, Tennessee: Wolgemuth and Hyatt, 1989) and John Eidsmoe, Christianity and the Constitution (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987).
5. Charles McCoy and Baker, Fountainhead of Federalism (Westminster/John Knox, 1991) and Keith Griffin, Revolution and Religion: The American Revolutionary War and the Reformed Clergy (N.Y.: Paragon House, 1994), 1. For a different assessment of the McCoy/Baker thesis, see Ruben Alvarado, "Fountainhead of Liberalism" and T.M. Wilder, "The Covenantal Tradition in Political Theory," both in Contra Mundum 10 (Winter, 1994), available on-line at http://www.visi.com/~contra_m/.
6. Douglas Kelly, The Emergence of Liberty in the Modern World (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R, 1992).
7. M. Stanton Evans, The Theme is Freedom: Religion, Politics and the American Tradition (Washington: Regnery, 1994), 323.
8. Rousas Rushdoony, The Biblical Philosophy of History(Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R, 1979), 130. Rushdoony attributes authorship to Hugh Languet who may have collaborated on the work.
9. Douglas Summers Brown, "Charles Cummings: The Fighting Parson of Southwest Virginia," Virginia Cavalcade (Winter 1979), 142.
10. Summers, Annals, 675.
11. Recent studies of the Franklin movement in Virginia include Hartwell Quinn, Arthur Campbell (London, McFarland, 1990) and Peter Kastor, "Equitable Rights and Privileges," The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 105:2 (Spring, 1997).