Independence Day a special reminder of freedom for minister, battlefield actor

CHESNEE, S.C. (BP) — The Battle of Cowpens is considered a hinge moment in the American Revolution. A string of British victories at Savannah, Charleston and Camden had swung momentum. Continue the winning streak, the thinking went, and more Loyalists would join the cause. A Redcoat wave would proceed northward and ultimately snuff out the rebellion.

But things changed on a bitterly-cold South Carolina field about 500 yards long and just as wide on January 12, 1871.

“Cowpens” referred to the pastureland for cattle. The battle including the word would be fought primarily by those living in the backcountry and was later dramatized in the film “The Patriot.” Continental General Daniel Morgan served as one of the figures comprising the fictional Benjamin Martin, portrayed by Mel Gibson. Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, represented in the movie by the vicious but also fictional William Tavington, led the British forces.

Much of The Patriot, including its portrayal of Tarleton, has experienced strong scrutiny. The scenes at the Battle of Cowpens is not one of them. Continental forces actually did feign a retreat to lure in the Redcoats for a bayonet charge. It was the beginning of the end of the Crown’s footprint in the Colonies.

And it is something Bruce Jennings has spent the last 30 years re-enacting with a couple of hundred others as thousands watch.

“I was part of the militia for 15 years, but since then have been in the role of a parson,” said Jennings, minister of youth and families at Arrowwood Baptist Church in Chesnee. “I get to share the gospel, encourage the troops and pray over the re-enactments.”

Jennings was introduced to reenactments through his father-in-law, who was a park ranger at Cowpens National Battlefield, and brother-in-law.

“It’s a good group with a lot of Christians involved,” he said on getting to know other actors. “I was ordained in the ministry so ended up being a parson. I’ve made some great relationships through it.”

Jennings worked in sales for a concrete business before answering a call to the ministry during a mission trip to New York when he was 42. He went on to ministry training at Fruitland Baptist Bible College and The College at Southeastern.

During reenactments, Jennings, 62, is to represent several denominations as a parson. His background and research, however, naturally represents Baptists.

“Dr. Nathan Finn was one of my professors at Southeastern and was a huge influence on me to dig into Baptist history in this area,” said Jennings.

He gives messages not only for other actors, but visitors to the reenactments.

“I try to do introductions from the 1700s, but generally preach a message that is relevant to both time periods,” he said.

Changing dress from the militia to a parson wasn’t as drastic as you may think. He typically wears all black, with a hat he purchased from a fellow actor for $15. He spent several hundred dollars over the next few years, including $130 on a hand-sewn vest, to complete the look. Jennings uses a replica of a 1733 Bible that normally would sell for approximately $1,100, he said.

In addition to the January reenactment of the Battle of Cowpens, he takes part in smaller events in September and at Christmas in Spartanburg.

Independence Day reminds him of the freedom to share the gospel. Those opportunities to make the connection at the reenactments is not lost on him.

“My focus is to try and get the gospel across,” he said. “I don’t work on trying to sound like I’m from that time frame or use different words. Second Corinthians says we’ve been given the ministry of reconciliation, and the Great Commission is how we do that. I have a brief moment with the people watching, and my goal is to bring them to Jesus.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Scott Barkley is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press.)

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