Among the heroes of the American Revolution, which we celebrate on this fourth of July, was a Lutheran pastor, Peter Muhlenberg. An article in The Federalist tells his story. And there was more to his career than his famous disvesting in the pulpit.
He became George Washington’s aide, was a military hero, and after independence became a statesman in the new republic. Read about him, and then I have some questions.
In January 1776, a small church in rural Virginia burst at the seams with parishioners eagerly awaiting the arrival of their pastor. Members of the congregation, who had even spilled out into the cemetery, were alive with excitement.
Over the last few months, with tensions between the colonies and England ever increasing, the members of the Lutheran church had heard from their pastor that a revolution was imminent. He told them the time to take up arms in defense of their nation was now.
This particular Sunday was to be the pastor’s last sermon, and the large gathering represented far more citizens than those who inhabited the small town of Woodstock where the church stood.
Rev. Peter Muhlenberg entered the church dressed in his robe, with a sense of purpose that appeared to make him stand taller than usual. He ascended to the pulpit and delivered his sermon, acutely aware of the importance of what he would say.
As the sermon began its conclusion, Muhlenberg referenced Ecclesiastes chapter three: “In the language of Holy writ, there was a time for all things, a time to preach and time to pray, but those times had passed away.” He faced his congregation for the last time, and in words that he knew meant the end of life in the once- peaceful Virginia countryside, he continued, “There was a time to fight, and that time has now come!”Muhlenberg removed his robe, revealing his colonel’s uniform, and descended from the pulpit to the sounds of drummers by the church door, drumming for recruits. Three hundred recruits signed that day at the church, and Muhlenberg’s was the first of the Virginia regiments ready for combat service just two months later.
So what are we Lutherans to make of Rev. Muhlenberg? Was he violating the Two Kingdoms in preaching the American revolution from the pulpit? Was he violating his vocation as a pastor, or just moving to a new calling as a soldier? At any rate, does he not deserve our nation’s honor, along with Washington, Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and the others who brought our nation into being?
There was a whole family of Muhlenbergs who were important in the early days of American Lutheranism. The key figure is Henry Melchoir Muhlenberg, known as “the father of American Lutheranism,” who was Peter’s father.
Can anyone tell us more about the Muhlenbergs and their legacy in both the church and the state?
Illustration: Portrait of Peter Muhlenberg, Public Domain, via Wikipedia