Barber Passes on Muhlenberg Myth

Barber Passes on Muhlenberg Myth April 9, 2013

Matt Barber of Liberty Counsel’s latest Worldnutdaily column is based around a myth that was debunked many years ago, the legendary story of Rev. Peter Muhlenberg, a Lutheran pastor who, the story goes, tore off his robe during a sermon to reveal a military uniform and joined the revolutionary war and started a whole regiment from his own church. Here’s Barber’s version:

I just had breakfast with the Rev. John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg. Well, not the real Peter Muhlenberg, but a preacher friend of mine named Travis Witt. Travis does a powerful impersonation of the Revolutionary War-time pastor-patriot at churches and other venues around the country.

One early Sunday morning in January 1776, Rev. Muhlenberg was preaching what seemed his normal weekly sermon. His Scripture for the day focused on Ecclesiastics 3, which observes, in part, “To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven.” Muhlenberg continued: “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.”

With his voice reaching a dramatic crescendo and his congregation now captivated, a fiery Pastor Muhlenberg then declared: “There is a time to fight, and that time has now come!” He then tore away his clerical robes, revealing, underneath, the crisply pressed uniform of a Colonial Army officer.

His congregation gasped.

Pastor Muhlenberg then marched to the rear of the church building, turned and shook the walls, declaring, “Who among you is with me?” That very day, 300 brave men from his relatively small church stood with Peter Muhlenberg to become the 8th Virginia Regiment.

How very dramatic — and very wrong. PBS’ History Detectives did a show on this years ago and declared it a myth. Even the Lutheran Church has admitted as much. Chris Rodda wrote about this in her book Liars for Jesus.

Muhlenberg is also the subject of a very popular myth that appears not only in religious right American history books, but a number of other books about the Revolutionary War. The story is that, on January 21, 1776, Muhlenberg preached his last sermon, at the end of which he dramatically ripped off his clerical robes, revealing an army uniform underneath, and issued a call to arms. Not a single contemporary source supports this story. It was created by Muhlenberg’s grandnephew, Henry Augustus Muhlenberg, in his 1849 book The Life of Major-General Peter Muhlenberg of the Revolutionary Army, and is based on nothing more than a figurative statement in Samuel Kercheval’s 1833 book A History of the Valley of Virginia, which said that Muhlenberg “laid off his gown and took up the sword.” In spite of the fact that the story isn’t true, there is a statue of Muhlenberg in the United States Capitol building, donated by the State of Pennsylvania in 1889, that depicts him taking off his clerical robes to reveal his uniform.

It’s hardly surprising that Barber would repeat a well-worn myth, of course; his entire religion is based upon one.

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  • slc1

    This myth is repeated on the Wikipedia page for Peter Muhlenberg.

    Another indication of why Wiki must be used with caution.

  • raven

    What is the point of this myth?

    That xian ministers are supposed to take off their robes, grab guns, and wave them around.

    For any ministers read this, don’t try it at a mall or a school. These days, it makes people really nervous. Some of those people are legally designated protectors who also carry guns.

    You will probably be shot in self defence.

  • jnorris

    Ministers, when doing this at your next protest at a women’s health clinic or gay pride parade, make sure you wear your Christian Revolutionary War uniform, not the secular uniform worn by the soldiers that actually fought and died in that war.

  • I’m a little surprised there were many Lutherans at all in North America way back then. Pennsylvania Germans/Dutch I guess. Certainly Lutherans didn’t become common until the big German and Scanahoovian immigrations to the midwest much later.

  • busterggi

    The story would be a lot more impressive had the pastor ripped off his robes and pulled on a cowl and said, “I’m the goddamned Batman”.

  • In 200 years there will be a legend of a great American president who, after landing on an aircraft carrier, ripped off his business attire to reveal underneath a flight suit and codpiece. He then declared victory and there was much rejoicing, even though thousands more would die and many more would come home with permanent brain injuries, missing limbs and PTSD. The president later would risk life and limb to serve a plastic turkey to GIs in

    Iraq on Thanksgiving Day.

  • Stacy


    This myth is repeated on the Wikipedia page for Peter Muhlenberg.

    Another indication of why Wiki must be used with caution

    Um. The Wiki indeed repeats the legend; it also sources it to the great-nephew’s biography, and states:

    Though it is accepted that Muhlenberg helped form and lead the 8th, historians doubt the account of the sermon, as there are no reports prior to Muhlenberg’s great-nephew’s biography

  • paul

    Did the continental army even have uniforms? I thought the equipping was kind of piecemeal and improvised, with the members of the militia supplying a lot of their own stuff.

  • “Travis does a powerful impersonation of the Revolutionary War-time pastor-patriot at churches and other venues around the country.”







    “Time Pastor”.

  • Nentuaby


    Sort of. In 1776, there were some official uniform guidelines (think “military dress code”). Basically, “wear a brown coat.” That was unpopular, and a lot of the officers wore blue instead. By later in the war Washington established an actual official uniform (with blue coat), though the officers still supplied their own clothing with concomitant variation within the rules’ basic definitions.

    At any rate, whether you’d actually call that a uniform per se, you could definitely tell somebody was dressed up in American military attire.

  • birgerjohansson

    Why not black uniforms? People with a Lutheran or Catholic background seem enamoured of black uniforms. And skull & crossbones symbols.

  • birgerjohansson

    Time pastor. “EXTERMINATE!!!”

  • sugarfrosted

    @4: Just a little historical note: Pennsylvania was a predominantly German settled colony, so it’s not really too farfetched that Lutherans would live there.