As the sun rose over Thicketty Mountain on the morning of January 17, the outlook for the American cause was worse than grim. The previous May, the main southern army of over 5,000 men had surrendered at Charleston in the worst American defeat of the war. In the months that followed American forces in the South had suffered an almost unbroken string of defeats. In the North the British had Washington’s army pinned down at New York. Another powerful British force under Cornwallis was poised to sweep through the Carolinas into Virginia and complete the conquest of the Southern states. The only American force capable of challenging him was being chased by the dreaded Banastre (“Bloody”) Tarleton, and his British Legion.
Unfortunately for Tarleton, the man he was chasing was General Dan Morgan, a shrewd and tough frontiersman. Plagued by relentless problems and substantially outnumbered, Morgan chose to face Tarleton at Cowpens, South Carolina. He led a brilliant victory in which three-fourths of Tarleton’s men were killed, wounded or captured. The British never recovered those losses.
One of the remarkable facts about the battle is that to the men who fought it, Cowpens did not appear at the time to be decisive or important. After the initial elation of victory, conditions seemed as bleak as ever. As historian Thomas J. Fleming has written, “Only years later, with a full perspective of the war, did the importance of Cowpens become clear.” Morgan and his men played a key role that led to Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown, but they did not realize that until much later, if at all.
The Cowpens experience holds lessons for today. As we look at the current conditions in our country, it is tempting to assume that the Church, like American culture, is in decline. It would be easy to become disheartened and even think that our personal efforts don’t matter either.
We do not know enough to make sweeping conclusions about who is winning at the moment. We do know the following:
Victories in Christ’s Kingdom are not measured by normal human standards.
Satan and his servants are experts at making the Church’s victories seem like defeats.
As John Piper has said, “God wants us to know that when we follow Him our lives always mean more than we think they do….Everything we do in obedience to God, no matter how small, is significant.”
Faithfulness counts more toward victory than human achievement, because our efforts are guaranteed by “the Power that works in us.” (Ephesians 3:20)