PBS Show Gets it Right with the Story of Peter Muhlenberg's Robe
The myth is the story of Peter Muhlenberg, the Lutheran minister who, since the mid 1800s, is said to have stood before his congregation in January 1776, and, after delivering a stirring, patriotic farewell sermon, removed his clerical robe to reveal the uniform of a Revolutionary Army officer, enlisting three hundred soldiers for his "German Regiment" on the spot.
The Muhlenberg myth has been around for a long time, but, as seemingly harmless myths like this one often do when politically useful, it has recently become even more popular, being a dramatic example of an historical justification for exempting churches from the modern day 501(c)3 regulations prohibiting the preaching of politics from the pulpit.
For those unfamiliar with PBS's History Detectives, the program's team investigates stories sent in by viewers, usually in possession of some interesting or mysterious historical artifact. In this case, the artifact was a Revolutionary era clerical robe, donated by the Henkel family to the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and said to be the robe removed by Muhlenberg in 1776 to reveal his uniform. The result of History Detective Elyse Luray's investigation? The robe in question did belong to Muhlenberg, but the legendary disrobing is almost certainly just a myth. A transcript of the entire segment can be downloaded here.
Occasionally, as in this case, I already know the answer to the mystery the History Detectives are trying to solve, so I wasn't surprised when the Muhlenberg expert visited by Elyse Luray, Gregg Roeber of Penn State University, dated the disrobing legend to 1849, attributing the story to Muhlenberg's grandnephew, Henry Augustus Muhlenberg.
Although Peter Muhlenberg appears in my book primarily because of a completely unrelated lie, I did include a brief mention of the disrobing myth. I didn't go much further than the story's 1849 origin, however, because I plan to write more about this one in my eventual third volume, much of which will focus on how and why so many of the myths and lies, still in use by today's religious right, were invented during the nineteenth century. But, after watching the History Detectives segment, my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to dig out my notes on this one and look into it a bit more.
To begin with, here's the story as it first appeared in Henry Augustus Muhlenberg's 1849 book The Life of Major-General Peter Muhlenberg of the Revolutionary Army.
He [Peter Muhlenberg] was immediately commissioned, and proceeded to Dunmore to raise the regiment committed to his charge. Upon this occasion a well-authenticated anecdote is told of him, which gives us a deep insight into the character of the man, and the feelings which induced him to abandon the altar for the sword. It shows of what sterling metal the patriots of olden time were formed.
Here's the paragraph about this from my book:
Muhlenberg is also the subject of a very popular myth that appears not only in religious right American history books, but a number of other books about the Revolutionary War. The story is that, on January 21, 1776, Muhlenberg preached his last sermon, at the end of which he dramatically ripped off his clerical robes, revealing an army uniform underneath, and issued a call to arms. Not a single contemporary source supports this story. It was created by Muhlenberg's grandnephew, Henry Augustus Muhlenberg, in his 1849 book The Life of Major-General Peter Muhlenberg of the Revolutionary Army, and is based on nothing more than a figurative statement in Samuel Kercheval's 1833 book A History of the Valley of Virginia, which said that Muhlenberg "laid off his gown and took up the sword." In spite of the fact that the story isn't true, there is a statue of Muhlenberg in the United States Capitol building, donated by the State of Pennsylvania in 1889, that depicts him taking off his clerical robes to reveal his uniform.
Henry Augustus Muhlenberg actually listed five sources in his notes for this story. The only one I included in the excerpt above, however, was Samuel Kercheval's 1833 book A History of the Valley of Virginia, mainly because Kercheval's book is the only one of H.A. Muhlenberg's five sources to even mention Peter Muhlenberg's clerical attire, albeit in a figurative manner.
This is the entire passage from Kercheval's book:
The reverend Mr. Peter Muhlenberg, a clergyman of the Lutheran profession, in the county of Shenandoah, laid off his gown and took up the sword. He was appointed a colonel, and, soon raised a regiment, called the 8th, consisting chiefly of young men of German extraction. Abraham Bowman was appointed to a majoralty in it, as was also Peter Helphinstine, of Winchester. It was frequently called the "German regiment." Muhlenberg was ordered to the south in 1776, and the unhealthiness of the climate proved fatal to many of his men.(2)
Before getting to H.A. Muhlenberg's other four sources, it needs to be explained why Samuel Kercheval is probably the most important of the five, and why the absence in Kercheval's book of anything indicating that an event as dramatic as that described by H.A. Muhlenberg took place is the best evidence that it didn't.
Samuel Kercheval was born in 1767 and grew up in Stone Bridge, Virginia, less than thirty miles from Woodstock, the site of the alleged disrobing. General John Smith, to whom Kercheval dedicated his book, settled in 1773 in Winchester, Virginia, also less than thirty miles from Woodstock. Kercheval wrote in his dedication that he had known General Smith for fifty years, and that it was Smith who provided him with much of the information for his book, something that is evident from the many notes throughout the book attributing various anecdotes to Smith. In addition to Kercheval's and Smith's close proximity to Woodstock at the time, Smith received his commission as a colonel on January 8, 1776, less than two weeks before Muhlenberg is said to have given his farewell sermon, and remained at Winchester as, among other things, a recruiting officer under, according to his pension records, Generals Morgan and Muhlenberg.
So, what are the chances that both Kercheval and Smith would have forgotten an event as memorable as Muhlenberg's dramatic sermon and disrobing? ...that Colonel Smith, a nearby army officer in this sparsely populated area, wouldn't have remembered that three hundred soldiers were recruited in a single day? ...that Samuel Kercheval would have omitted such a striking local story of patriotism in a book full of far less significant anecdotes?
The following are H.A. Muhlenberg's sources from the notes in his 1849 Life of Major-General Peter Muhlenberg. The list, of course, included Kercheval's book, despite the fact that it clearly does not support the story.
The facts stated in this account of General Muhlenberg's farewell sermon are abundantly established by all contemporaneous accounts. See particularly Thatcher's Military Journal, p. 184; Howe's Historical Collections of Virginia, p. 468; Kercheval's History of Valley of Virginia, p. 188; Rogers's Remembrancer of American Heroes, Statesmen, and Sages, p. 366; and Baird's Religion in America, p. 113.(3)
So, what about the other four sources?
Thacher's Military Journal, while written in 1778 by an army officer who did know Peter Muhlenberg, is not a good primary source for this story. All it shows is that Muhlenberg, by this time a brigadier general, seemed to be becoming a bit of a legend in his own time. James Thacher was a young army surgeon from Massachusetts, who, moving south as the war moved south, attached himself to the 1st Virginia Regiment until a Massachusetts regiment moved into the area. The following is the journal entry containing Thacher's second hand account of the story, heard two years after it allegedly occurred.
November 3d.-Having made a visit to Fishkill, I returned in company with Dr. Treat, our physician-general, and found a large number of gentlemen collecting to partake of an entertainment, by invitation of Brigadier-General Muhlenburg, who occupies a room in our hospital. The guests consisted of forty-one respectable officers, and our tables were furnished with fourteen different dishes, arranged in fashionable style. After dinner, Major-General Putnam was requested to preside, and he displayed no less urbanity at the head of the table than bravery at the head of his division. A number of toasts were pronounced, accompanied with humorous and merry songs. In the evening we were cheered with military music and dancing, which continued till a late hour in the night. General Muhlenburg was a minister of a parish in Virginia, but participating in the spirit of the times, exchanged his clerical profession for that of a soldier. Having In his pulpit inculcated the principles of liberty, and the cause of his country, he found no difficulty in enlisting a regiment of soldiers, and he was appointed their commander. He entered his pulpit with his sword and cockade, preached his farewell sermon, and the next day marched at the head of his regiment to join the army, and he does honor to the military profession.(4)
Even this account from Thacher differs significantly from H.A. Muhlenberg's 1849 story. There is no dramatic disrobing, and no mention at all of the content of Peter Muhlenberg's sermon. According to Thacher, Peter Muhlenberg entered the church in his uniform. Thacher also writes that Muhlenberg marched off with a regiment the very next day, while, even according to H.A. Muhlenberg's story, it was several months before the regiment was filled and began to march. In reality, neither H.A. Muhlenberg's nor Thacher's accounts are supported by the dates of each company's formation or the enlistment dates of the soldiers.
There are no surviving records of the Eighth Virginia Regiment from before 1777. Fortunately, however, most of the surviving 1777 muster rolls show the enlistment dates of the original soldiers who enlisted in the spring of 1776, including those who were killed or no longer with the company for other reasons. So, it is possible, using the rolls of these companies and a few other sources, such as statements from the pension applications of individual soldiers from the rest of the companies, to piece together enough information about the formation of this regiment to be certain that H.A. Muhlenberg's claim that 300 men enlisted on the day of Peter Muhlenberg's farewell sermon is impossible.
Not counting commissioned officers, the surviving muster rolls, for six out of the regiment's ten companies, show 424 men who enlisted in the spring of 1776. Not a single one of these men enlisted on the day that Peter Muhlenberg is said to have given his farewell sermon. While there were some men who did enlist in the last week of January, the majority were recruited, in their individual counties, in February and March. A full Virginia regiment at this time consisted of about 680 men, so even if every single man in the other four companies was at Peter Muhlenberg's sermon and enlisted on the spot, it couldn't have amounted to the 300 claimed by H.A. Muhlenberg. Add to this that only one of these four remaining companies was raised in a county near enough to Woodstock for it to be realistic to think that the men might have attended Muhlenberg's church, and another didn't even begin forming until April, and there is just no way that H.A. Muhlenberg's story could be true.
Another problem with H.A. Muhlenberg's account is his placing the date of the sermon in the middle of January. Similar variations of the story, most of which date it to January 21, also have this problem. The problem is that Peter Muhlenberg wouldn't have been in Woodstock in the middle of January, or even on January 21. Although receiving his commission on January 12, which under other circumstances would make January 21 the likely date, he received it at the Virginia Convention in Williamsburg, at which he was also a delegate. The convention didn't adjourn until Saturday, January 20, and the records indicate that Muhlenberg stayed to the end. Obviously, he could not have reached Woodstock by the next day.
H.A. Muhlenberg's next two sources, "Howe's Historical Collections of Virginia" and "Rogers's Remembrancer of American Heroes, Statesmen, and Sages," simply copy verbatim from the last two sentences of the two years after the fact, second hand account in James Thacher's journal entry, so neither can be considered an independent source.
From Henry Howe's Historical Collections of Virginia:
Gen. Peter Muhlenburg was a native of Pennsylvania, and by profession a clergyman of the Lutheran order. At the breaking out of the revolution, he was a young man about thirty years of age, and pastor of a Lutheran church at Woodstock. In 1776, he received the commission of colonel, and was requested to raise a regiment among the Germans of the valley. Having in his pulpit inculcated the principles of liberty, he found no difficulty in enlisting a regiment. He entered his pulpit with his sword and cockade, preached his farewell sermon, and the next day marched at the head of his regiment to join the army.(5)
From Thomas Jones Rogers's A New American Biographical Dictionary: Or, Rememberancer of the Departed Heroes, Sages, and Statesmen of America:
MUHLENBERG, PETER, a brave and distinguished officer during the revolutionary war, was a native of Pennsylvania. In early life he yielded to the wishes of his venerable father, the patriarch of the German Lutheran church in Pennsylvania, by becoming a minister of the Episcopal church, and participating in the spirit of the times, exchanged his clerical profession for that of a soldier. Having in his pulpit inculcated the principles of liberty, and the cause of his country, he found no difficulty in enlisting a regiment of soldiers, and he was appointed their commander. He entered his pulpit with his sword and cockade, preached his farewell sermon, and the next day marched at the head of his regiment to join the army.(6)
H.A. Muhlenberg's last source, "Baird's Religion in America," is no better. Baird didn't copy Thacher word for word like Howe and Rogers, but cited Thacher's Military Journal in the following footnote.
In one instance, an Episcopal Clergyman of Virginia, the Rev. Mr. Muhlenburg, relinquished his charge, accepted a commission as colonel in the American army, raised a regiment among his own parishioners, served through the whole war, and retired from the service at its close with the rank of a brigadier-general. The last sermon that he ever preached to his people before he left for the camp, was delivered in military dress. -- Thatcher's "Military Journal," p. 152.(7)
So, why has this story remained so popular for so many years? Well, in part it's because of a poem. The poem, first published in 1862, was part of Thomas Buchanan Read's The Wagoner of the Alleghanies. A Poem of the Days of Seventy-six. While Read's story is set on the banks of the Skuylkill in Pennsylvania, and includes many references to the actual historical events that took place in that area, it also has some parts that are loosely based on stories from elsewhere. One of these is the Peter Muhlenberg story.
In Read's original poem, as it appeared in The Wagoner of the Alleghanies, the church was at Berkley Manor, the Pennsylvania setting of the rest of the story, and the minister was a man with "snowy locks," not a young man of thirty like Muhlenburg. The story appears in a section of Read's poem titled"The Brave at Home," about the women preparing to say goodbye to the men -- mothers to sons, wives to husbands, and girlfriends to boyfriends. In fact, part of Read's description of the scene inside the church focused on Esther and Edgar, a young couple who would be separated when Edgar went off to war.
The pastor came; his snowy locks
"The Brave at Home" and "The Rising," the section immediately preceding it in The Wagoner of the Alleghanies, were popularized in the 1860s by the actor James Edward Murdoch, who did poetry readings to raise money to care for the wounded soldiers during the Civil War.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Thomas Buchanan Read's poetry became very popular in elocution and reading books. Among the most often seen Read selections in these books were excerpts from the"The Rising" and "The Brave at Home," combined in various ways into one poem which began to appear under titles such as "The Rising in 1776" or "The Revolutionary Rising." In these condensed versions, sections like the one above were removed, which conveniently got rid of the description of the pastor having "snowy locks." Interestingly, every single one of the books I can find that contains a note that this was about the Muhlenberg disrobing story also just happens to use a version of the poem in which the "snowy locks" verse is omitted.
Typical of this are William Holmes McGuffey's readers, which included a few stanzas from "The Rising" about Lexington and Concord, and then jumped to the following, from "The Brave at Home," omitting the section containing the stanza above, which falls after the first verse.
5. Within its shade of elm and oak
The following is from McGuffey's note on the sixth verse:
6. The pastor. This was John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg, who was at this time a minister at Woodstock, in Virginia. He was a leading spirit among those opposed to Great Britain, and in 1775 he was elected colonel of a Virginia regiment. The above poem describes his farewell sermon. At its close he threw off his ministerial gown, and appeared in full regimental dress. Almost every man in the congregation enlisted under him at the church door. ...(10)
As mentioned at the beginning of this post, the History Detectives did find the robe itself to be authentic. It was, in fact, owned by Peter Muhlenberg and given to Paul Henkel, a Lutheran minister in New Market, a town near Woodstock. According to one source, Muhlenberg was not well received in his former home upon his return from the war. The reason for this less than enthusiastic welcome is not clear, so I still have some more work to do on this story, but this does appear to be when Muhlenberg gave the robe to Henkel.
PBS Show Gets it Right with the Story of Peter Muhlenberg's Robe | 5 comments (5 topical, 0 hidden)
PBS Show Gets it Right with the Story of Peter Muhlenberg's Robe | 5 comments (5 topical, 0 hidden)