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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