Sometimes even pastors must go to war

By Bill Federer

John Peter Muhlenberg, the 'fighting parson of the American Revolution'
John Peter Muhlenberg, the ‘fighting parson of the American Revolution’

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven,” preached Rev. John Peter Muhlenberg, from the book of Ecclesiastes 3:1.

He closed his message by saying: “In the language of the Holy Writ, there is a time for all things. There is a time to preach and a time to fight. And now is the time to fight.”

This was John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg, a 30-year-old member of the Virginia House of Burgesses who was also a pastor. At the end of his sermon, Jan. 21, 1776, John Peter Muhlenberg threw off his clerical robes to reveal the uniform of an officer in the Continental Army. Drums began to roll, men kissed their wives, and they walked down the aisle to enlist.

The next day, Pastor Muhlenberg led 300 men of his church and surrounding churches to join General Washington’s Continental Army as the 8th Virginia Regiment.

John Peter Muhlenberg was born Oct. 1, 1746, and he died the same day sixty-one years later, Oct. 1, 1807.

As a youth, he lived with relatives in Germany from 1763-1767: first in the city of Halle (Saale) in the southern part of the German state Saxony-Anhalt; then in the northern German port city of Lübeck in Schleswig-Holstein. John Peter Muhlenberg served briefly in the German dragoons. He returned to America to finish his schooling at the Academy of Philadelphia (University of Pennsylvania).

In 1772, John Peter Muhlenberg traveled to England where he was ordained in the Anglican Church, a necessary requirement for him to pastor the Lutheran congregation in Woodstock, Virginia, as Virginia was established an Anglican colony.

In 1774, John Peter Muhlenberg was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses. He served as a delegate to the First Virginia Convention. He heard Patrick Henry’s famous “Give me liberty or give me death” speech in 1775, and was inspired to enlist. General George Washington personally asked him to raise soldiers and serve as their Colonel.

John Peter Muhlenberg and his men endured the freezing winter of Valley Forge and saw action at Brandywine, Germantown, Monmouth and Stonypoint. He helped force British General Cornwallis to surrender at Yorktown. By the end of the war John Peter Muhlenberg was promoted to the rank of Major-General.

John Peter Muhlenburg was elected to Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council in 1784, and in 1787 he was elected vice president of Pennsylvania. In 1789, he was elected a Representative to the first U.S. Congress. In 1790, John Peter Muhlenberg was a member of the Pennsylvania’s State Constitutional Convention and in 1793, was the first founder of the Democratic-Republican Societies.

John Peter’s father, Henry Muhlenberg, was called “the Patriarch of the Lutheran Church in America” for his role in organizing Lutheran churches. He had met the German pietist church leader, Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf.

John Peter’s brother, Fredrick Augustus Muhlenberg, was pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in New York City, nicknamed “Old Swamp Church,” which had branched out of one of the oldest Lutheran Churches in America.

Frederick opposed John Peter getting involved in politics, writing: “You have become too involved in matters which, as a preacher, you have nothing whatsoever to do. …”

John Peter wrote back, accusing Frederick of being a British Tory sympathizer. Frederick wrote back stating he could not serve two masters.

Following the Battle of Brooklyn Heights, the British bombarded and invaded New York City. Fredrick Muhlenberg’s church was burned. Fredrick and his family had to flee the city. Frederick changed his mind and decided he should get involved. He joined the patriotic cause and was elected as a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1779. Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg was elected Speaker of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, 1780-1783, and presided over Pennsylvania’s Convention to Ratify the U.S. Constitution. Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg was elected to the U.S. Congress where he was chosen as the first Speaker of the House of Representatives, which met in New York City.

John and Frederick Muhlenberg, both ordained Lutheran pastors, served in the first session of the U.S. Congress which passed the First Ten Amendments, called the Bill of Rights.

Does anybody honestly think that these two pastor-congressmen would vote to outlaw themselves? On the contrary, their involvement underscores the fact that the First Amendment does not keep people of faith out of government.

The First Amendment, as well as the first Ten Amendments, were meant to be handcuffs on the federal government, as stated in the Preamble to the Bill of Rights: “… the states, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added. …”

The Bill of Rights limited the federal government’s power. If the subject of religion came before Congress, Supreme Court and president, their response was to be “hands off!”

The federal government was limited from “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion, as well as limited from taking away the freedom of speech, press, right to peaceably to assemble, or petition the government for a redress of grievances.

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Supreme Court Justice Joseph wrote in “A Familiar Exposition of the Constitution of the United States,” 1840: “The real object of the First Amendment was not to countenance, much less to advance Mohammedanism, or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity, but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects and to prevent any national ecclesiastical establishment which should give to a hierarchy the exclusive patronage of the national government.”

Justice Samuel Chase wrote in Maryland Supreme Court case of Runkel v. Winemiller, 1799: “By our form of government, the Christian religion is the established religion; and all sects and denominations of Christians are placed upon the same equal footing, and are equally entitled to protection in their religious liberty.”

John Peter Muhlenberg was elected a U.S. Senator in 1801. He served as a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania, which honored him with a statue. His statue is in front of the Shenendoah County Courthouse.

In Washington, D.C., at the corner of Connecticut Ave. and Ellicott St., there is a bronze memorial to John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg, with the inscription:

John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg
His church
His country
His state
…the “Fighting Parson of the American Revolution”

In 1889, the state of Pennsylvania placed a statue of John Peter Muhlenberg in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall.

John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg was memorialized in a poem by Thomas Buchanan Read, titled “The Rising,” published in William Holmes McGuffey’s Fifth Eclectic Reader (Cincinnati & New York: Van Antwerp, Bragg & Co., revised ed., 1879, Lesson LXV, pp. 200-204):

… Within its shade of elm and oak
The church of Berkley Manor stood:
There Sunday found the rural folk,
And some esteemed of gentle blood.

In vain their feet with loitering tread
Passed ‘mid the graves where rank is naught:
All could not read the lesson taught
In that republic of the dead.

The pastor rose: the prayer was strong;
The psalm was warrior David’s song;
The text, a few short words of might,–
‘The Lord of Hosts shall arm the right!’

He spoke of wrongs too long endured,
Of sacred rights to be secured;
Then from his patriot tongue of flame
The startling words for Freedom came.

The stirring sentences he spake
Compelled the heart to glow or quake,

And, rising on his theme’s broad wing,
And grasping in his nervous hand
The imaginary battle-brand,
In face of death he dared to fling
Defiance to a tyrant king.

Even as he spoke, his frame renewed
In eloquence of attitude,

Rose, as it seemed, a shoulder higher;
Then swept his kindling glance of fire
From startled pew to breathless choir;

When suddenly his mantle wide
His hands impatient flung aside,
And, lo! He met their wondering eyes
Complete in all a warrior’s guise.
A moment there was awful pause,–

When Berkley cried, ‘Cease, traitor! Cease!
God’s temple is the house of peace!’

The other shouted, ‘Nay, not so,
When God is with our righteous cause:
His holiest places then are ours,
His temples are our forts and towers
That frown upon the tyrant foe:
In this the dawn of Freedom’s day
There is a time to fight and pray!’

And now before the open door –
The warrior priest had ordered so –
The enlisting trumpet’s sudden soar
Rang through the chapel, o’er and o’er,
Its long reverberating blow,

So loud and clear, it seemed the ear
Of dusty death must wake and hear.
And there the startling drum and fife
Fired the living with fiercer life;

While overhead with wild increase,
Forgetting its ancient toll of peace,
The great bell swung as ne’er before:
It seemed as it would never cease;

And every word its ardor flung
From off its jubilant iron tongue
Was, ‘War! War! War!’

“Who dares” – this was the patriot’s cry,
As striding from the desk he came –
“Come out with me, in Freedom’s name,
For her to live, for her to die?”

A hundred hands flung up reply,
A hundred voices answered “I!”

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