The Black Robed Regiment: Preachers who fought

By Dan Fisher

 

On Sunday morning, Jan 21, 1776, pastor John Muhlenberg climbed into his pulpit in Woodstock, VA to preach.  In his black clerical robe, the traditional dress of 18th century preachers, Muhlenberg preached from the third chapter of Ecclesiastes.  He read how there is a time for all things.  There’s a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to harvest.  Then his voice began to rise as he said: “There’s a time of war, and a time of peace. There is a time for all things, a time to preach and a time to pray.  But there is also a time to fight, and that time has now come!”

Then he did something his congregation did not expect.  He removed his clerical robe revealing a colonial officer’s uniform beneath.  Muhlenberg then stepped down from his pulpit and challenged the men of his congregation to join him in the fight for liberty.

Just a few days before, he had been commissioned by General George Washington to raise a regiment from the Woodstock area.  As Muhlenberg walked down the aisle and out the door of his church, a drum began to roll outside.  One by one, the men of Muhlenberg’s congregation filed out of the auditorium and volunteered to follow their courageous pastor.

Bidding farewell to their families, some three hundred men rode away from Woodstock, VA with Col. John Muhlenberg in the lead to form the 8th Virginia regiment.  Muhlenberg led those men throughout the War of Independence, fighting at the battles of Morristown, Brandywine, and Monmouth Courthouse.  By the war’s end, Muhlenberg had been promoted to Major General and had become one of Washington’s most valued commanders.  Muhlenberg was front and center at the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown.

James Caldwell was pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Elizabethtown, New Jersey.  Because of his strong stand for liberty and his sermons encouraging the colonists to fight, he had made himself numerous enemies.  So he would step into his pulpit each Sunday wearing two pistols, place them on the pulpit, and then proceed to preach powerful sermons about the need for Christians to stand for truth. When the war began, Caldwell became a chaplain in the colonial army.  He was so hated by the British they called him the “Rebel Priest.”

When the war finally came to Elizabethtown, during the fighting, the British killed Caldwell’s wife.  By the time he had completed her funeral, the fighting had moved to Springfield, New Jersey so Caldwell rode there to join his men.  During the fighting, the colonists were running out of wadding for their muskets.  Caldwell jumped on his horse and rode to the First Presbyterian Church of Springfield and gathered up two armloads of hymnals written by Isaac Watts, a popular hymn writer of the era.  He hurried back to his troops, threw the hymnals at their feet, and commanded them to tear out the pages and use them for wadding.  As he did so, he yelled, “Give’m Watts boys, give’m Watts!”  This is origin of the famous phrase, “Give’m watt for!”

On the night of April 18, 1775, as Paul Revere was making his famous ride through the Lexington, Massachusetts countryside yelling, “The British are coming!  The British are coming!” he was headed for a particular house; the house of pastor Jonas Clark.  Jonas Clark was a pastor in Lexington and on Sunday afternoons after church, he and Deacon John Parker, a captain from the French Indian War, had been organizing the Lexington men into a citizen army to fight the British if they invaded.  On the night of April 18, Clark had two special guests staying in his home, Samuel Adams and John Hancock.  The British had heard of Adams’ and Hancock’s whereabouts and they were marching toward Lexington to capture them.

As Revere rode up to the front yard of Clark’s home, Clark, Adams, and Hancock ran out to meet him.  When they heard that the British were marching toward Lexington, Adams and Hancock asked pastor Clark if the men of Lexington would fight.  Clark responded, “I trained them for this very hour; they would fight, and, if need be, die, too, under the shadow of the house of God.”

The next morning, April 19, 1775, Pastor Jonas Clark and Deacon John Parker led the Lexington “Minutemen” out to face the invaders.  As the British approached the Minutemen, they cried out “in the name of the King of England throw down your arms.” This response rang out from the colonists, “We recognize no Sovereign but God and no King but Jesus!” Then Captain Parker said to his Minutemen, “Stand your ground, don’t fire unless fired upon.  But if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.” Then the first shot rang out, the shot heard around the world.

These are just three examples of the courage and commitment exhibited by many of the colonial pastors in the days before and during our nation’s War of Independence.  These men saw no contradiction between standing for the truths in God’s Word and the principles of liberty. In fact, they viewed the two as inseparable.  These “black robed patriot preachers” fanned the flames of liberty as they not only encouraged their congregations to fight but were also willing to actually lead their men onto the battlefield.  These preachers fought.

The British viewed these pastors such a force, they called them the “Black Robed Regiment.”  King George III blamed the war on the preachers by calling it a “Presbyterian rebellion.” Horace Walpole, the English Prime Minister, said, “There is no use crying about it. Cousin America has eloped with a Presbyterian parson.” Although Presbyterian preachers were certainly involved, preachers from practically every denomination joined in the fight.

Today, many believe that had these pastors not been involved, America may never have been born. Now contrast this with the behavior of most American preachers today.  In the face of gross abuses of our liberties by an over-reaching federal government that is moving our nation, with ever increasing speed, down the road to Socialism, most pastors are shamefully, strangely silent.  Instead of leading their people to boldly and publically stand for liberty and truth, they seem content to huddle in their churches, behind their pulpits, while the country falls apart.

We desperately need a modern generation of preachers like Muhlenberg, Caldwell, and Clark – preachers who’ll fight.  We need a new “black robed regiment” to boldly lead our citizens to defend our biblically based Constitution. Thankfully, the fight right now is not one of bullets and bombs but is one of words and wills.  But make no mistake about it; a war is raging for the heart and soul of America.

Jesus said that we must “render to God the things that are God’s and render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”  In America, Caesar is “we the people.”  America’s government is not in D.C. or in state capitols; it is in our homes and our churches.  We are the government.  We cannot obey Jesus by staying uninvolved.  We must enter the fight for liberty and truth or our freedom to speak and worship as we see fit may soon be lost forever.

Like John Muhlenberg in 1776, I believe “There is a time to preach and a time to pray.  But there is also a time to fight, and that time has now come!”  God give us patriot preachers to lead the way.

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