"Debunk U" Study Guide - Lesson 1
Beck U's first hour long class might have only actually lasted thirty-five minutes, but, as anyone familiar with the fast-talking David Barton knows, this guy can pack a hell of a lot of pseudo-historical bull into thirty-five minutes.
Because there was only enough time to debunk a fraction of Barton's nonsense in the few minutes I had on Countdown, I've been seeing comments on the blogs frequented by my fellow history geeks asking me why I didn't get in this point or that point, or address this lie or that lie, and my answer is that there just wasn't enough time to get to all of them, so I had to pick the couple that I could debunk in a few sentences. The others would have required way too long of an explanation. But, since quite a few people seem to want a more detailed debunking of Beck U's first class, I'm happy to oblige.
I do want to get into more about pseudo-Professor Barton's thing about the twenty-seven grievances listed in the Declaration of Independence being "nothing more than a listing of all the sermons" that had been preached by American ministers, but I really want to read the book by Alice Baldwin that he claimed as his source first. I did manage to hunt down and order a copy of this obscure book from a used bookseller, but it hasn't arrived yet, so that one will have to wait a bit. But, no worries. Since Barton's next class -- Faith 102 -- isn't until July 28, we have plenty of time to get that one and everything else.
For this lesson, I'd like to tell the real story of the Rev. Peter Muhlenberg, the Lutheran minister turned Revolutionary Army officer who, in a 19th century "urban legend," was said to have stood before his congregation and thrown off his minister's robe to reveal an Revolutionary Army uniform, recruiting hundreds of soldiers on the spot. In his Beck U class, Barton, in support of his claim that the Revolutionary War wouldn't even have happened if it wasn't for the clergy, embellishes the already fictitious story of Rev. Muhlenberg with a plethora of new details never before seen in any previous version of the story, and even manages to work a plug for the Second Amendment into it.
First, let's watch a short video clip of what Barton taught his eager Beck U students about Rev. Muhlenberg.
So, for those who want a detailed debunking of Professor Barton, I'll give you details out the wazoo on this one! Details showing exactly why Barton's little Beck U story about Peter Muhlenberg is a bunch of bunk -- tracing this myth back to its origin in the mid-1800s, and showing how the muster rolls for Muhlenberg's regiment prove that the story cannot possibly be true.
Back in 2007, an episode of PBS's History Detectives included a segment disproving an extremely popular religious right American history myth -- a myth that not only adorns the cover of one of David Barton's books and appears on a mousepad sold by his WallBuilders organization, but is depicted in stone in the U.S. Capitol Building.
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 to use as part of an historical justification for exempting churches from the modern day I.R.S. regulations prohibiting the preaching of politics from the pulpit.
For those unfamiliar with PBS's History Detectives, the program's team of detectives 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 just a myth. (A transcript of the entire History Detectives segment can be found here.)
Occasionally, as in this case, I already knew the answer to the mystery the History Detectives were 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 other lie about him, 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 story in a future volume. But, after watching the History Detectives segment, my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to dig out my notes 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.
Here's the paragraph about this from my book:
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 include a mention Peter Muhlenberg's clerical attire, and even that was merely in a figurative manner.
This is the entire passage from Kercheval's book:
Before getting to H.A. Muhlenberg's other four sources, it needs to be further explained why Samuel Kercheval is 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 recruiting 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 about local patriots?
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 Kercheval's account clearly does not support anything like the story told by H.A. Muhlenberg.
So, what about H.A. Muhlenberg's 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. It was a second hand account of the story, heard by someone who wasn't who wasn't actually there, two years after it allegedly occurred. 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, and that the seeds of the myth that would eventually become the disrobing story had already been planted. The author of the journal was James Thacher, 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 was his journal entry about Muhlenberg:
This account from Thacher, while alluding to Peter Muhlenberg entering the church in his uniform, 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. 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, according to the muster rolls for the "German Regiment," neither H.A. Muhlenberg's nor James Thacher's accounts are supported by actual 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 1777 muster rolls, which do still exist, show the enlistment dates of the original soldiers who enlisted in the spring of 1776, including those who were killed, or were no longer with the company for other reasons. So, using the muster 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, it is possible to piece together enough information about the formation of this regiment to prove beyond any doubt 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. And, while there were some who did enlist in the last week of January -- the week after Muhlenberg's is said to have delivered his sermon -- the majority weren't recruited until February and March, and they enlisted in their own individual counties, not in the county where Peter Muhlenberg's church was.
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. And other variations of the story, which date the sermon to January 21, also have this problem. The problem is that it doesn't appear that Peter Muhlenberg could have been in Woodstock in the middle of January, or even on January 21. Although being appointed to command the 8th regiment on January 12, which would seem to make January 21 a likely date for him to deliver a farewell sermon, the appointment of the military officers for the new regiments was done at the Convention of Delegates in Williamsburg, at which Muhlenberg was also a delegate. The convention didn't adjourn until Saturday, January 20, and the records indicate that Muhlenberg stayed right up until that last day. If he had left before that, it would have been noted in the records of the convention. The very first thing the convention did on the morning after the officers were chosen was to order that "That no member absent himself from the service of this Convention without leave."(5) Every delegate who was granted leave from the convention was named in the convention's records, and there is no record of Muhlenberg being granted leave. Obviously, there is no way he could have left the Williamsburg on January 20 and gotten all the way across the state of Virginia to Woodstock by the next day.
And this brings us to one of the most bizarre parts of Barton's Beck U lesson. You may have noticed that in the video above that I omitted part of the middle of Barton's Muhlenberg story. The reason I did that is because this part is so completely off the wall -- even for Barton -- that I wanted to address it separately, and not have it get lost in the rest of the story.
So, here's the clip, in which Barton is giving his account of when and why Muhlenberg left the convention in Williamsburg:
What's wrong with Barton's story? Well, first of all, the incident he's talking about -- which was when Virginia's royal governor, Lord Dunmore, ordered British troops to seize the gunpowder from the magazine at Williamsburg -- happened nine months earlier, in April 1775, not in January 1776 when Muhlenberg was at the Convention of Delegates. And all of Barton's stuff about Patrick Henry? Five-thousand farmers listening to Henry give a sermon from Exodus and then attacking the British troops? Well, Henry did march the Hanover militia towards Williamsburg -- about two weeks later -- and then peacefully negotiated with the small group of British soldiers and got them to pay for the gunpowder they had taken. That's all that really happened. But Barton needs to create an urgent reason for Peter Muhlenberg to have rushed home to deliver a sermon, so he just takes an incident that happened nine months earlier, and then exaggerates the hell out of it to boot.
Now, getting back to H.A. Muhlenberg's sources for his 1849 version of the story, his next two sources are Howe's Historical Collections of Virginia and Rogers's Remembrancer of American Heroes, Statesmen, and Sages, both of which merely copy verbatim from the last two sentences of James Thacher's journal entry, so neither can be considered an independent source.
From Henry Howe's Historical Collections of Virginia:
From Thomas Jones Rogers's A New American Biographical Dictionary: Or, Rememberancer of the Departed Heroes, Sages, and Statesmen of America:
H.A. Muhlenberg's final source, an 1844 book titled 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:
So now, in 1844, citing no source but Thatcher's second hand account, we have an author saying that Peter Muhlenberg delivered the actual sermon in his uniform -- yet another account that doesn't even match the H.A. Muhlenberg version.
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 other parts of the country, including the Peter Muhlenberg story.
In Read's original poem, 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 Muhlenberg. 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, with part of Read's description of the scene inside the church focusing on Esther and Edgar, a young couple who would be separated when Edgar went off to war.
"The pastor came; his snowy locks Hallowed his brow of thought and care; And, calmly as shepherds lead their flocks, He led into the house of prayer. Forgive the student Edgar there If his enchanted eyes would roam, And if his thoughts soared not beyond, And if his heart glowed warmly fond Beneath his hopes' terrestrial dome. To him the maiden seemed to stand, Veiled in the glory of the morn, At the bar of the heavenly bourne, A guide to the golden holy land. When came the service' low response, Hers seemed an angel's answering tongue; When with the singing choir she sung, O'er all the rest her sweet notes rung, As if a silver bell were swung Mid bells of iron and of bronze.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Read's poetry became very popular in reading textbooks, and among the most often seen Read selections in these books were excerpts from two sections of the The Wagoner of the Alleghanies, "The Brave at Home" and "The Rising," 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, the section above about poor Edgar and Esther was removed, which conveniently got rid of the description of the pastor having "snowy locks," allowing these books to contain notes saying that the pastor in Read's poem was Peter Muhlenberg, with no questions as to why Read's pastor was an old man, while Muhlenberg was a young man.
Typical of these textbooks was the 1907 McGuffey reader, which included a few stanzas about Lexington and Concord from "The Rising," and then jumped to the following, from "The Brave at Home," where we can really see the story shaping up into the version used today by people like David Barton.
"5. 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 following is from McGuffey's note on the sixth verse:
As mentioned at the beginning of this post, the History Detectives, in their investigation of this story, did find the robe at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia 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 investigating of my own to do on this story, but this does appear to be when Muhlenberg gave the robe to Rev. Henkel.
So, the question remains: why didn't Peter Muhlenberg return to the ministry after the war? And the answer might be very simple. Judging by how he ended up becoming a minister in the first place, it certainly doesn't appear that this was by his choice or because he had any kind of true calling. As a teenager, Muhlenberg had been sent to Germany by his prominent minister father to study for the ministry, but, after an incident during which he hit one of his teachers, he ran away from the seminary and joined the Royal Dragoons, gaining himself the nickname "Devil Pete." When he returned to America in 1766, his influential father got a friend to pull some strings to get him released from the British army. He then continued his theological studies with his father, was ordained in 1768, served for a few years as a minister in New Jersey, and was then sent to be the minister for the church in Virginia. But as soon as the Revolutionary War began, Muhlenberg once again became a soldier. And, of course, after the war, he didn't return to the ministry. He moved back to Pennsylvania and went on to hold a number of political offices, including three terms as a U.S. Representative from Pennsylvania.
1. Henry A. Muhlenberg, The Life of Major-General Peter Muhlenberg of the Revolutionary Army, (Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1849), 50-54.
"Debunk U" Study Guide - Lesson 1 | 2 comments (2 topical, 0 hidden)
"Debunk U" Study Guide - Lesson 1 | 2 comments (2 topical, 0 hidden)