American Revolutionary John Peter Muhlenberg

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

Although you may not have heard of him, clergyman John Peter Muhlenberg was a very influential person during the American Revolution who played a variety of roles. Learn about the life and accomplishments of this American Patriot.

Clergy as Leaders

Whether you attend a church or not, you probably understand the kind of influence a pastor has. Because of their position as spiritual leaders, clergy have tremendous social and political power. Their opinions are typically valued, and usually they are regarded highly. Think about some of the famous clergymen throughout history: Billy Graham, Martin Luther King, Jr., Billy Sunday, Jonathan Edwards, and John Witherspoon. These men had tremendous influence. For example, Billy Sunday played an important role in gathering support for Prohibition in the early 20th century, while John Witherspoon was not only a pastor, but a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

During the time of the American Revolution, clergy had even more influence than they typically do now. Religion was a central part of society, and religion and politics were more closely tied than they are today. So a pastor-turned-soldier was someone who was inspiring to all around him. This kind of figure was the epitome of a leader. Such was the case with John Peter Muhlenberg (1746-1807), a pastor who went on to serve as a soldier in the Continental Army, and eventually a congressman. Let's learn more about this interesting Patriot.

A portrait of John Peter Muhlenberg, who bore a striking resemblance to George Washington

Background and Early Life

John Peter Muhlenberg was born into a Pennsylvania Dutch family in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania in 1746. He received his education at the Academy of Philadelphia, which is now the University of Pennsylvania. In the late 1760s he was ordained as a Lutheran minister. For a short time, he ministered to a congregation in New Jersey before moving to Woodstock, Virginia in 1772. Because the official religion of the Virginia Colony was the Church of England (or Anglicanism), Muhlenberg was required to be ordained from the Church of England in order to preach in Virginia. He traveled to London to be ordained, and thereafter remained in Virginia until the pivotal year of 1775.

Military Career and Role in the American Revolution

In the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, Muhlenberg increasingly found himself falling in line with the Revolutionary cause. Obliged to obey the words of Scripture, clergy were in a unique position during the American Revolution. Many considered the revolution a sinful rebellion, and insisted Scripture commanded Christians to obey government authority. Those who were loyal to the Crown and did not seek separation from Great Britain were called Loyalists, or 'Tories.' Other clergy, however, insisted they had a God-given duty to take up arms and fight against British 'tyranny.' These clergy often drew from Old Testament passages to back up their claim.

In Virginia, Muhlenberg became a follower of Patrick Henry and was involved in the struggle for American independence by serving in the House of Burgesses, which was Virgina's colonial legislature. By 1776 he was convinced enough of the Patriot cause to leave his congregation and take up arms. Story has it that Rev. Muhlenberg stood before his congregation one Sunday morning, and in dramatic fashion, tore off his clerical robe to reveal a soldier's uniform. Preaching from Ecclesiastes 3, he gave a stirring sermon, declaring 'There is a time to pray and a time to fight, and that time has now come!'

While scholars dispute how much of this story is a myth, the reality is that Muhlenberg did, in fact, trade in a robe for a uniform. He served in the Continental Army first as a colonel, and eventually as a major general. He participated in fighting at Charleston, Brandywine, Stony Point, and Yorktown.

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