Fighting Words

THOUGH PETER MUHLENBERG had preached regularly for the cause of the American colonists, he decided that, in his last sermon, he would have to do something unusual to drive home his point.

Muhlenberg (1746–1807) was familiar with the unusual. He was born in Pennsylvania to Lutheran missionaries (his father, Henry, was the founder of the Lutheran Church in America). His father sent him back to Germany for schooling, but his German teachers felt he wasn’t good educational material, so they apprenticed him to a grocer for six years. Muhlenberg had other ideas and escaped to join the army before returning to Philadelphia in 1767 to study for the ministry under his father.

In 1771, the Lutheran-trained Peter went to Virginia to work with a settlement of German Lutherans; at the same time, he was ordained in the Anglican Church (so he could perform marriages, baptisms, and collect tithes in Anglican Virginia). Muhlenberg was beloved by his congregation and quickly became a leader in the community.

He was elected to the Virginia Legislature in 1774 and became an outspoken advocate for colonial rights. Though an Anglican minister, he never confused the “invoking of divine blessing on the king with wearing a parliamentary yoke.”

He was present at St. John’s Church in Richmond when Patrick Henry gave his immortal cry, “Give me liberty or give me death!” Peter was so moved, he enlisted under George Washington and returned to his congregation to give his final sermon.

After reading from Ecclesiastes 3:1, he said, “There is a time to preach and a time to pray, but there is also a time to fight, and that time has now come.” Muhlenberg threw off his robes to reveal the uniform of a militia colonel.

He then recruited the men of his congregation, who became known as the “German Regiment,” which Muhlenberg commanded throughout the war. He eventually rose to the rank of major general, and after the war, returned to Philadelphia a hero. He spent the remainder of his life in local and national politics. CH

By Mark Couvillon

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #50 in 1996]

Mark Couvillon Mark Couvillon is historical interpreter and researcher at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. He is co-author of Patrick Henry Essays (1994).
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