The Black Robed Regiment: The Role of American Clergy in the American Revolution

“It was Sunday morning early in the year 1776.  In the church where Pastor Muhlenberg preached, it was a regular service for his congregation, but a quite different affair for Muhlenberg himself.  Muhlenberg’s text for the day was Ecclesiastes 3 where it explains, ‘To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven; a time to be born, and a time to die, a time to plant, and a time to pluck what is planted…'”

“Coming to the end of his sermon, Peter Muhlenberg turned to his congregation and said, ‘In the language of the holy writ, there was a time for all things, a time to preach and a time to pray, but those times have passed away.’  As those assembled looked on, Pastor Muhlenberg declared, ‘There is a time to fight, and that time is now coming!’ Muhlenberg then proceeded to remove his robes revealing, to the shock of his congregation, a military uniform.”

“Marching to the back of the church he declared, ‘Who among you is with me?’ On that day 300 men from his church stood up and joined Peter Muhlenberg. They eventually became the 8th Virginia Brigade fighting for liberty.”[1]

Johann-Peter-Muhlenberg.jpg

Muhlenberg was no “Lone Ranger” when it came to being a clergy who supported and championed the cause of the American Revolution. As England began to try and figure out who was rallying the most support for this “revolt” they quickly came to the realization that it was the pulpits of the American Colonies that served as the greatest instruments in championing the colonists desire for “freedom and liberty.” The Black Robed Regiment was meant to be an ad-hominem that the British placed on these patriotic American clergy (a backhanded reference to the black robes they wore).[2]

These preachers were the heart that pumped the ideals of the “rights” and “liberty” and “justice for all” throughout veins of the colonies. One historian writes, “There is not a right asserted in the Declaration of Independence which had not been discussed by the New England clergy before 1763. [3] It is strange to today’s generation to think that the rights listed in the Declaration of Independence were nothing more than a listing of sermon topics that had been preached from the pulpit in the two decades leading up to the American Revolution, but such was the case. It was not just the British leaders who saw American clergy as the lifeblood of revolutionary ideals, John Adams declared, ““the pulpits have thundered”and specifically identified several ministers as being among the “characters the most conspicuous, the most ardent, and influential” in the “awakening and a revival of American principles and feelings.”[4]

B.F. Morris a 19th century historian wrote of the American Clergy during the Revolution, “The ministers of the Revolution were, like their Puritan predecessors, bold and fearless in the cause of their country. No class of men contributed more to carry forward the Revolution and to achieve our independence than did the ministers. . . . [B]y their prayers, patriotic sermons, and services [they] rendered the highest assistance to the civil government, the army, and the country. [5]

The American clergy were faithful exponents of the fullness of God’s Word, applying its principles to every aspect of life, thus shaping America’s institutes and culture. They were also at the forefront of proclaiming liberty, resisting tyranny, and opposing any encroachments on God-given rights and freedoms. But the ministers during the Revolutionary period were not necessarily unique; they were simply continuing what ministers had been doing to shape American government and culture in the century and a half preceding the Revolution. For instance, Reverend Thomas Hooker, a founder of Connecticut, in a 1638 sermon based on Deuteronomy 1:13 and Exodus 18:21, explained the three Biblical principles that had guided the plan of government in Connecticut:

I. The choice of public magistrates belongs unto the people by God’s own allowance.

II. The privilege of election . . . belongs to the people . . .

III. They who have power to appoint officers and magistrates [i.e., the people], it is in their power also to set the bounds and limitations of the power and place. [6]

There are many additional examples of which clergymen were vital in establishing the foundational principles that would be stamped onto the hearts of the American Colonists. As Founding Father Noah Webster affirmed, “The learned clergy . . . had great influence in founding the first genuine republican governments ever formed and which, with all the faults and defects of the men and their laws, were the best republican governments on earth. At this moment, the people of this country are indebted chiefly to their institutions for the rights and privileges which are enjoyed.”[7]

Because Christian ministers established in America freedoms and opportunities not generally available even in the mother country of Great Britain, they were also at the forefront of resisting encroachments on the civil and religious liberties that they had helped secure. It is important to remember that many of these ministers came out of separatists groups who were not allowed the freedom to worship in England. And because American preachers consistently opposed encroachments on civil and religious liberties, when the British imposed on Americans the 1765 Stamp Act (an early harbinger of the rupture between the two nations soon to follow), at the vanguard of the opposition to that act were the Revs. Andrew Eliot, Charles Chauncey, Samuel Cooper, Jonathan Mayhew, and George Whitefield. Whitefield even accompanied Benjamin Franklin to Parliament to protest the Act and assert colonial rights. [8]

Five years later in 1770 when the British opened fire on their own citizens in the famous “Boston Massacre,” ministers again stepped to the forefront, boldly denouncing that abuse of power. A number of sermons were preached on the subject, including by the Revs. John Lathrop, Charles Chauncey, and Samuel Cooke; the Massachusetts House of Representatives even ordered that Rev. Cooke’s sermon be printed and distributed.[9]

However, Christian ministers did not just teach the principles that led to independence, they also participated on the battlefield to secure that independence. One of the numerous examples is the Rev. Jonas Clark. When Paul Revere set off on his famous ride, it was to the home of the Rev. Clark in Lexington that he rode. Patriot leaders John Hancock and Samuel Adams were lodging (as they often did) with the Rev. Clark. After learning of the approaching British forces, Hancock and Adams turned to Pastor Clark and inquired of him whether the people were ready to fight. Clark unhesitatingly replied, “I have trained them for this very hour!”[10] One historian gives us a powerful picture of the scene that night, “There they found their pastor the [Rev. Clark] who had arrived before them. The roll was called and a hundred and fifty answered to their names . . . . The church, the pastor, and his congregation thus standing together in the dim light [awaiting the Redcoats], while the stars looked tranquilly down from the sky above them.”[11]

This pattern was common through the Revolution – as when the Rev. Thomas Reed marched to the defense of Philadelphia against British General Howe; the Rev. John Steele led American forces in attacking the British; the Rev. Isaac Lewis helped lead the resistance to the British landing at Norwalk, Connecticut;  the Rev. Joseph Willard raised two full companies and then marched with them to battle;  the Rev. James Latta, when many of his parishioners were drafted, joined with them as a common soldier; and the Rev. William Graham joined the military as a rifleman in order to encourage others in his parish to do the same. [12]

The British abused, killed, or imprisoned many other clergymen,  who often suffered harsher treatment and more severe penalties than did ordinary imprisoned soldiers. But the British targeted not just ministers but also their churches. As a result, of the nineteen church buildings in New York City, ten were destroyed by the British,  and most of the churches in Virginia suffered the same fate. [13]  This pattern was repeated throughout many other parts of the country.

Truly, Christian ministers provided courageous leadership throughout the Revolution, and as briefly noted earlier, they had also been largely responsible for laying its intellectual foundation. To understand more of their influence, consider the Rev. John Wise. As early as 1687, the Rev. Wise was already teaching that “taxation without representation is tyranny,” the “consent of the governed” was the foundation of government, and that “every man must be acknowledged equal to every man.”[14]  In 1772 with the Revolution on the horizon, two of Wise’s works were reprinted by leading patriots and the Sons of Liberty to refresh America’s understanding of the core Biblical principles of government.[15]  The first printing sold so fast that a quick second reprint was quickly issued.  Significantly, many of the specific points made by Wise in that work subsequently appeared four years later in the very language of the Declaration of Independence.

So many other examples could be cited of the role of American Clergy in the push for the Revolution and the establishment of the founding principles of the nation, but such would be too massive an endeavor for this venue. In short, history demonstrates that America’s elective governments, her educational system, and many other positive aspects of American life and culture were the product of Biblical-thinking Christian clergy and leaders. This was the Black Robed Regiment.

Footnotes

[1] http://www.heritageofthefoundingfathers.com/article11.html

[2] Boston Gazette, December 7, 1772, article by “Israelite,” and Boston Weekly Newsletter, January 11, 1776, article by Peter Oliver, British official.

[3] Alice M. Baldwin, The New England Clergy and the American Revolution (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1958), p. 170.

[4] John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Charles Francis Adams, editor (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1851), Vol. III, p. 476, “The Earl of Clarendon to William Pym,” January 20, 1766.

[5] Benjamin Franklin Morris, Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States (Philadelphia: George W. Childs, 1864), pp. 334-335.

[6] Clinton Rossiter, Seedtime of the Republic (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1953), p. 171

[7] Noah Webster, Letters of Noah Webster, Harry R. Warfel, editor (New York: Library Publishers, 1953, p. 455, letter to David McClure, October 25, 1836.

[8] Stephen Mansfield, Forgotten Founding Father: The Heroic Legacy of George Whitefield (Cumberland House, 2001), p. 112.

[9] John Wingate Thornton, Pulpit of the American Revolution (Boston: Gould and Lincoln, 1860), pp. 147-148.See also Claude H. Van Tyne, The Causes of the War of Independence (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1922), p. 362.

[10] Franklin Cole, They Preached Liberty (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1941), p. 34.

[11] Ibid.

[12] J. T. Headley, The Chaplains and Clergy of the Revolution (New York: Charles Scribner, 1864), p. 68-72.

[13] Daniel Dorchester, Christianity in the United States from the First Settlement Down to the Present Time (New York: Phillips & Hunt, 1888), p. 266.

[14] “Top Ipswich Patriots by Thomas Franklin Waters & Mrs. Eunice Whitney Farley Felten,” Lord Family Album, 1927. http://www.bwlord.com/Ipswich/Waters/TwoPatriots/JohnWise.htm).

[15] Claude H. Van Tyne, The Causes of the War of Independence (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1922), Vol. I, p. 357.

 

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