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Plymouth Rock Foundation’s E-News – February, 2011
by Dr. Paul Jehle, Executive Director
On Sunday morning, January 21, 1776, in the village of Woodstock, Virginia, Pastor Muhlenberg carefully put on his Anglican pastoral robes as he did every Sunday. This time, however, there was an added expectation. War had come to the Colonies several months prior at Lexington and Concord in April, and then Bunker Hill in June. Known as a patriot pastor for his leadership on the Committee of Safety and the local Committee of Correspondence, he had also been elected to the House of Burgesses in 1774. As a delegate to the First Virginia Convention, he had contact with George Washington.
Washington wanted him to be a Colonel in the newly forming Continental Army. After all, the clergy were the most significant group to which Washington had turned in his hour of need to defend the country from the unconstitutional and unprovoked attacks of a British ministry and military gone mad with the “prerogative”, or the idea that the Crown was personally in control of everything regardless of their written Constitutions.
Pastor John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg knew that this was the Sunday he must preach a message brewing in his heart for weeks. Why had he waited this long? What had caused him to ponder and ponder the move of joining the ranks that fought alongside Washington? Well, to be sure, the cost was great – especially to his wife and children. But the cost was also great to his congregation. Who would lead them? Was it right for a clergyman whose job it was to preach the gospel of peace to become a leader in war? He thought of the last communication he had with his brother Frederick who was also a minister in New York City. Frederick had been clear, no minister had any business mixing the gospel with politics and especially war and thus he had no business considering Washington’s request.
His mind turned to Ecclesiastes 3, the text from which he would preach. His mind had hardly been tuned to the psalm singing that just concluded. He was now mounting the steps of his pulpit, and about to address his congregation. He knew them all well, farmers, wives, merchants and recent immigrants. Close to the Blue Ridge Mountains, many thought they could avoid the decision to fight since they had such natural protection and so little communication. But this pastor had decided to bring the decision to his congregation and not wait until circumstances would bring it to them. He knew what he had to do, he had the support of his wife Anna of six years.
After speaking for some time on the context and meaning of the passage at hand, “a time to be born, and a time to die… a time to weep, and a time to laugh” he brought his message to the main point. “A time for war, and a time for peace.” He then declared:
It is a time for war! And not only in New England. War has come to Virginia! The British have marched on our own city of Williamsburg, seizing our supply of gunpowder and munitions. Soldiers are entering private homes, homes just like ours. It is time for war! We are only farmers, you may say. Patrick Henry has rallied five thousand men – farmers just like you – to fight back and drive the British out. It is time to act! Many of us came to this country to practice our religious freedoms. It is time to fight for those freedoms that we hold so dear, it is time for war!
With that, he closed in prayer. But then, to the astonishment of the congregation, after he had prayed, he began to take off his clerical attire. “I am a clergyman, it is true. But I am also a patriot – and my liberty is as dear to me as to any man. Shall I hide behind my robes, sitting still at home, while others spill their blood to protect my freedom? Heaven forbid it! I am called by my country to its defense. The cause is just and noble. I am convinced it is my duty to obey that call, a duty I owe to my God and to my country.” Then, he threw off the last robe, revealing the full uniform of an officer in the Continental Militia!
Marching to the back of the church – he declared “if you do not choose to be involved, if you do not fight to protect your liberties, there will soon be no liberties to protect!” Just outside the church on the training green drums began to beat, calling for recruits. Some three hundred men and boys joined their pastor that day to fight for liberty. Muhlenberg led the 8th Virginia Regiment, went to Valley Forge, and fought in the battles of Brandywine, Germantown and Monmouth. At the final battle of Yorktown, he commanded the first brigade of Lafayette’s Light Division, and was thus present when the war ended.
Peter then served in the Executive department of Pennsylvania until he was elected to the House of Representatives in the first Congress. His brother was Speaker of the House! Yes, the brother that opposed his joining of the army. He had changed his mind when the British burned down his church in New York. He had waited until the battle had been brought to him, but joined his brother in the same cause for liberty. May we learn key lessons today from this January story, and may those who lead the church that bears the name of Christ today wake up and lead their people today!