“There is a time to fight, and that time has now come,” declared Lutheran pastor John Peter Muhlenberg. Then he removed his black clerical robe to reveal a military uniform underneath.
He looked out across his congregation and challenged the men: “Who among you is with me?”
Quite a dramatic climax for his January 1776 Sunday sermon based on Ecclesiastes 3:1 “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. …”
The congregants and other pastors who soon followed Muhlenberg’s example were the first soldiers of what would become the 8th Virginia Regiment of the Continental Army.
Muhlenberg’s inspiring demonstration of what it means to be both pastor and patriot is evidenced by both his pastoral calling and his military career, in which he rose to the rank of major general and fought in numerous battles of the Revolution.
Methodist Bishop Charles Galloway characterized Muhlenberg and his fellow soldiers this way: “Mighty men they were, of iron nerve and strong hand and unblanched cheek and heart of flame. God needed not reeds shaken by the wind, nor men clothed in soft raiment but heroes of hardihood and lofty courage” (Reference Matthew 11:7-8).
They were not an elite, trained special forces unit that crept in under the cover of darkness to perform tactical missions with surgical skill. They did not have precision-guided munitions, state of the art communications, or satellite imagery to use in their task. In fact, many of them had no formal military training at all.
What they had though – a voice, a pulpit, and a listening congregation – proved to be monumental as a fledgling new nation sought to overthrow its oppressors.
The title of “black robed regiment” was used by the British during the American War of Independence according to historian and constitution expert David Barton. Founder of WallBuilders, Barton told AFA Journal, “The British looked at them and said, ‘It’s not just the military we’re going to have to contend with, it’s that black regiment.’”
The descriptive term was coined by colonist Peter Oliver, a staunch British sympathizer, who intended it to disparage the brave and patriotic American clergy who joined the colonial militia.
“All ministers back then wore black clothes,” said Barton. “Whether you were Catholic, Protestant, black, or white, it didn’t matter, you wore a clerical robe.”
In the days of the Revolution, the relationship between Congress and ministers was quite different than it is today. According to Barton, “When the Continental Congress had messages that needed to be delivered to the people, they sent the messages to the pastors and asked them to tell all the people. That was the biggest news channel. The biggest distribution source was pastors.”
Ministers of the Revolution did not earn Galloway’s compliment as “mighty men” of flaming hearts and iron nerves with their silence. They were not afraid to speak to the issues of the day.
“When you look at the sermons of those days, whatever was in the headlines of the news is what they preached about,” Barton said. “They showed people that the Word of God applied to everything that went on. Whether it was the Stamp Act, the Battle of Lexington, issues of marriage, issues of science … there were sermons on the eclipses, planets, snow, and vapor. Every single topic you can think of, they talked about it.”
Barton fears today’s ministers are not tackling the tough topics; thus, their congregations lack biblical depth on current issues. He referenced a recent survey that seems to confirm his fears: “The number out three weeks ago is that only 6% of Americans today have a biblical worldview. (See story here.) So, we’re living in a time where we don’t really know how the Bible applies to life. That was not an issue back in those days.”
Barton contends that colonial pastors were not merely affecting only their congregations, but that their sermons literally shaped the framing of our founding documents.
“People wrongly look at the Declaration of Independence as only a political statement, which it is, but what they don’t understand is it is also a spiritual statement,” Barton explained.
“Every single right set forth in the Declaration of Independence had been preached from the American pulpit by 1763, 13 years before the Revolution. So really what the Declaration was, was a listing of the sermon topics the people had been listening to for the past two decades. Very few people today understand that document is a reflection of what the pulpit was teaching.”
If modern-day ministers could grasp the significance of their calling and their influence on those they lead, fear to address today’s cultural issues might abate. Then the pulpiteers could lead this nation into a desperately needed spiritual awakening.
Charles G. Finney, often called the father of modern revivalism and a leader in the Second Great Awakening (the 1900s), knew full well the impact he and fellow ministers could have on society:
Brethren, our preaching will bear its legitimate fruits. If immorality prevails in the land, the fault is ours in a great degree. If there is a decay of conscience, the pulpit is responsible for it. If the public press lacks moral discrimination, the pulpit is responsible for it. If the church is degenerate and worldly, the pulpit is responsible for it. If the world loses its interest in religion, the pulpit is responsible for it. If Satan rules in our halls of legislation, the pulpit is responsible for it. If our politics become so corrupt that the very foundations of our government are ready to fall away, the pulpit is responsible for it. Let us not ignore this fact, my dear brethren; but let us lay it to heart, and be thoroughly awake to our responsibility in respect to the morals of this nation.
Ministers then did more than just preach from the pulpit though; they got involved.
“You find that not only did the pastors deliver the news, not only did they shape the thinking, they were often the military leaders,” Barton said, citing the first three battles of the Revolution as examples.
“During the first battle of the American Revolution, the Battle of Lexington, Reverend Jonas Clark took 70 guys in his church and went out to face 700 British. When asked if the people of Lexington would fight, Clark replied ‘I have trained them for this very hour.’
“The second battle of the Revolution was the Battle of Concord where the British were met by Reverend William Emerson and 300 men from Concord. As you look to the third battle of the Revolution, as the British retreated to Boston, many preachers brought their churches out to fight the British all along the way.”
May America’s ministers today remove their proverbial robes and enlist in the army fighting to restore this nation to its godly heritage.
(Editor's Note: This article was first published in the July 2020 edition of the AFAJournal and was posted online HERE)