The Black Robe Regiment: The Pastor-Patriots of the Revolution

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We need more Boanerges or sons of thunder in
the pulpit. … If Satan rules in our halls of legislation,
the pulpit is responsible for it. If our politics become
so corrupt that the very foundations of government
are ready to fall away, the pulpit is responsible for it.
Charles G. Finney (1792-1875)
The Decay of Conscience

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), in a letter to William Stevens Smith dated November 13, 1787, wrote, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots.” A true patriot is not one who flees from the foes that would enslave his fellow citizens, but one who is willing to stand, fight, and die to secure freedom for all. At times of crisis, true patriots step forward. They always have; they always will. Thomas Paine (1737-1809) wrote the following memorable words in 1776: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheaply, we esteem too lightly; ’tis dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed, if so celestial an article as Freedom should not be highly rated.”

As Paine pointed out, there are “sunshine patriots” who talk a good talk, but then slither away when the storm comes. True patriotism is much different. Perhaps Adlai Stevenson (1900-1965) stated it best in a speech in New York City on August 27, 1952: “What do we mean by patriotism in the context of our times? … A patriotism that puts country ahead of self; a patriotism which is not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.” Among such patriots, and Jefferson, Paine and Stevenson most assuredly had these in mind, were the godly men within the early American colonies known as The Black Robe Regiment (aka: The Black Regiment), who truly epitomized and personified the meaning of self-sacrificial love for God and country.

These men, and there were a great many of them, were not just patriots, they were pastors. They were the leaders of their congregations, the moral motivators of the people, the spiritual shepherds of the flock of God in this new land. They were also a vital part of, indeed the voice and soul of, the movement to secure liberty from British tyranny. Thus, many of the government leaders were also leaders in the churches. The same was true of those who later took up arms to defend the colonies. Pastors would often go from pulpit to battlefield, leading the men of the congregation into war with the British troops. Their sermons were filled with a call to liberty. As the American Revolution approached, it was the pastors who called their members to take up arms, who would lead them in military drills following the Sunday services, and who would lead them into battle. These church members, who could be “ready in a minute” to confront the enemy, and who were recruited and trained largely by their pastors, were known as the “Minutemen.” Historians are quick to point out that had it not been for the influence of the early American pastors, both in their sermons from the pulpit promoting liberty, as well as their leadership on the field of battle, the history of our nation might very well have been written differently. One historian, Tom Barrett, observed, “I do not consider it a stretch at all to say that were it not for the pastors and churches of colonial America, our land would be a British colony today” [The Forgotten Holiday].

The British were only too aware of the power of the pastors in the shaping of public resolve against tyranny and in the people’s thirst for freedom. Indeed, when the British troops landed in America, it was the pastors, whom they had disparagingly named “The Black Robe Regiment” (because of the black robes they typically wore in the pulpit), that they went after first. Dr. David C. Gibbs, president of the Christian Law Association, observed, “The colonial pulpit was a major source of strength and inspiration both before and during the Revolutionary War for Independence. In particular, the ministers of New England played a pivotal role in calling for independence and for godly resistance to British tyranny. … The pulpits of New England were especially important in helping to bring about independence. Long before the general population understood the threat to American liberty, some colonial ministers saw what was coming and boldly spoke out about it from their pulpits” [One Nation Under God: 10 Things Every Christian Should Know About The Founding Of America]. These men saw themselves as the “watchmen on the wall” for God and country (Ezekiel 3:17-21), and they took their calling seriously.

There are some who believe that pastors should never inject secular concerns into their preaching and teaching, that their pronouncements from the pulpit should only be expositions of Scripture pertaining to spirituality. We are citizens of Heaven, they argue, and thus should have no concern for what happens in some earthly nation. I believe such thinking is dead wrong, and so did the members of The Black Robe Regiment. Jonathan Mayhew (1720-1766), a member of this group, and one of its most profound thinkers (a graduate of Harvard and the pastor for West Church in Boston), clearly opposed such thinking. Robert Treat Paine, who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and also an Attorney General of the United States, called Mayhew “the Father of Civil and Religious Liberty in Massachusetts and America.” On January 30, 1750, Jonathan Mayhew preached a sermon on Romans 13:1-7, pointing out that he firmly believed there was a divine imperative for pastors to speak from the pulpit about the ills of society, and about tyranny and oppression. He declared, “It is hoped that but few will think the subject of it an improper one to be discoursed on in the pulpit, under a notion that this is preaching politics, instead of Christ. However, to remove all prejudices of this sort, I beg it may be remembered that ‘all Scripture is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.’ Why, then, should not those parts of Scripture which relate to civil government be examined and explained from the pulpit, as well as others?” The Scriptures speak of kings and governments, and the obligations of both rulers and those ruled. Thus, Mayhew reasoned, “politics” was just as appropriate a topic to be addressed from the pulpit as any other. An historian and pastor named Wayne C. Sedlak rightly observes, “The pulpits of that era were anything but neutral. And they certainly did not subscribe to that error of reasoning so dominant in the churches today which says that the only proper subject of concern for the pulpit pertains to individual salvation and one’s personal preparation for heaven.”

In the early days of our country, the pastors powerfully proclaimed liberty from their pulpits. The Black Robe Regiment stood boldly before the people and called them to throw off tyranny and embrace freedom. John Adams (1735-1826), our 2nd President, rejoiced that “the pulpits thunder and lightning every Sabbath against King George’s despotism,” and praised these pastors as being among “the most conspicuous, the most ardent, and the most influential” men of that day in the “awakening and revival of American principles and feelings” that led to our ultimate independence [The Works of John Adams, Charles Adams, editor]. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) said, “Pulpit oratory ran like a shock of electricity through the whole colony.” In 1864, the historian B.F. Morris wrote, “The ministers of the Revolution, like their Puritan predecessors, were bold and fearless in the cause of their country. No class of men contributed more to carry forward the Revolution and to achieve our independence than did the ministers” [Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States]. In 1898, historian Charles Galloway stated, “Mighty men they were, of iron nerve and strong hand and unblanched cheek and heart of flame. God needed not reeds shaken by the wind, not men clothed in soft raiment, but heroes of hardihood and lofty courage, and such were the sons of the Mighty who responded to the divine call” [Christianity and the American Commonwealth]. Yes, had it not been for these powerful pastors and their preaching, our history might have been written differently. In many ways, they were both the soul and the voice of the American Revolution.

Again, the British were not unaware of the significant role the pastors and the churches were playing in the coming Revolution. In fact, in the British Parliament the War of Independence was often referred to as “the Presbyterian Revolt.” The Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches were the leaders in this “sedition and treason.” Thus, as already noted, when the British troops arrived on our soil they wasted no time seeking out the pastors for special punishment. Many were rounded up and killed, and a great many of the church buildings were burned to the ground. This was because the church buildings were serving as meeting places for the Minutemen, who were made up of the church members, and the church grounds were used as training fields for these fighting forces, which were being led and trained by the pastors and deacons of the churches. In fact, the pastors generally led their members into battle. It is stated that at the time of the British surrender at Yorktown on October 19, 1781, all except one of the Colonels serving in the Colonial Army were elders in the Presbyterian Church. The spiritual leaders of the churches were also the military leaders during our war for independence!

The American Revolutionary War began on April 19, 1775 with the battles of Lexington and Concord, which were in Massachusetts. The pastor for the church in Lexington was Jonas Clark. His sermons calling for liberty had been powerful, and he had been urging his members to prepare for war. Indeed, when the smoke of battle cleared that day in Lexington, the American dead were all from his congregation. Thus, the first blood had been shed in the cause of liberty, a cause promoted from his pulpit. “The teaching of the pulpit of Lexington caused the first blow to be struck for American Independence” [J.T. Headley, The Chaplains and Clergy of the Revolution]. James L. Adams observed, “The patriotic preaching of the Reverend Jonas Clark primed the guns” of the Battle of Lexington [Yankee Doodle Went to Church: The Righteous Revolution of 1776]. When Paul Revere made his famous ride, he rode to the home of Jonas Clark. Samuel Adams and John Hancock happened to be with Clark at the time, and when it was learned that “the British are coming,” they asked the pastor if the people of Lexington were ready to fight for their independence. Clark replied, “I have trained them for this very hour!” Indeed, when the first shots were fired, Jonas Clark was there with the Minutemen of his congregation taking the battle to the British invaders. One year later, to the day, Jonas Clark would declare in his sermon, “From this day will be dated the liberty of the world.”

General John Peter Muhlenberg, who was also a Lutheran pastor in Virginia, preached a sermon one Sunday on Ecclesiastes 3, saying, “In the language of Holy Writ, there is a time for all things, a time to preach and a time to pray, but those times have passed away. There is a time to fight, and that time has now come!” At that point in the sermon he removed his black robe. Underneath he was wearing the uniform of a Colonel (he would later be promoted to the rank of General) in the Continental Army. He said he was leaving the pulpit to defend the cause of freedom, at which point many in his congregation chose to do the same (they would become the famed 8th Virginia Regiment). That moment in history, by the way, is to this day commemorated in a statue of Muhlenberg that stands in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. The General/Pastor would later lead his brigade against Gen. Cornwallis at the Battle of Brandywine. Even the wording of our great Declaration of Independence is almost verbatim from the teachings of a pastor with the Black Robe Regiment named John Wise. For many years he had been preaching and writing about the very issues that would find their way into that document. In 1864, historian Benjamin Morris stated that “some of the most glittering sentences in the immortal Declaration of Independence are almost literal quotations from this essay of John Wise,” which was “used as a political textbook in the great struggle for freedom.” President Calvin Coolidge, in a speech he delivered in Philadelphia in 1926 (at the 150th anniversary celebration of the Declaration of Independence), affirmed the same: “The thoughts in the Declaration can very largely be traced back to what John Wise was writing in 1710.” Thus, this pastor, and others like him from the Black Robe Regiment, through their many sermons and writings, “laid the intellectual basis for American Independence.”

One of the accounts that shows the spirit of these noble men is of James Caldwell (1734-1781), who was known as “The Fighting Chaplain,” and also “The Fighting Parson of the Revolution.” He was the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Elizabethtown, New Jersey. His wife was shot and killed during one of the battles. His real fame, however, comes from his actions during the Battle of Springfield in June, 1780. As supplies were running low, Caldwell and his American forces, who were greatly outnumbered, needed wadding for their weapons. Caldwell grabbed some of the hymn books from a nearby church, ripped the pages out of these hymnals, and passed the pages to the troops for wadding, which prompted James Caldwell to cry out, “Give ’em Watts, boys! Give ’em Watts!” (the hymn book was filled with the hymns of Isaac Watts, often characterized as “The Dissident Hymnist”). Inspired by this action, the Minutemen pushed back the British, winning the battle that day.

The reality is, and many Americans today are sadly unaware of this fact, “ministers were intimately involved in every aspect of introducing, defining, and securing America’s civil and religious liberties” [David Barton, Wall Builders]. Many books and articles have been written about these men (the now famous Black Robe Regiment), and a search of the Internet will produce a wealth of knowledge about this group. For those who might be interested, I would highly recommend the two volume set by Dr. Ellis Sandoz titled “Political Sermons of the American Founding Era: 1730-1805.” Yet another excellent work describing the sermons of the Black Robe Regiment is “The New England Soul” by Dr. Harry Stout of Yale University. On May 9, 1789, in an article titled “The Importance of the Protestant Religion Politically Considered,” which appeared in the Washington, D.C. newspaper Gazette of the United States, we find this glowing endorsement of these brave pastors: “Our truly patriotic clergy boldly and zealously stepped forth and bravely stood our distinguished sentinels to watch and warn us against approaching danger; they wisely saw that our religious and civil liberties were inseparably connected and therefore warmly excited and animated the people resolutely to oppose and repel every hostile invader. May the virtue, zeal, and patriotism of our clergy be ever particularly remembered.” Maybe John Wingate Thornton (1818-1878), an attorney and historian, summed it up most succinctly in the following statement from his book “The Pulpit of the American Revolution” – “To the pulpit, the Puritan pulpit, we owe the moral force which won our independence.” We enjoy the freedoms we enjoy today due, in large part, to the pastors who motivated our forefathers to rise up and break free from their bondage to British tyranny, and who then willingly laid their lives on the line by taking up arms and leading their congregations in fighting for that freedom. May God raise up a Black Robe Regiment today with the same courage of conviction to stand boldly in their pulpits and call the people to freedom in Christ and freedom from tyranny, both religious and secular. A nation is lost when its pastors fail the people from the pulpits!

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