These patriot-preachers were staunchly patriotic, seriously independent, and steadfastly courageous. They were found in almost all of the various Protestant denominations at the time: Baptist, Presbyterian, Congregational, Anglican, Lutheran, German Reformed, etc. Their Sunday sermons — more than Patrick Henry’s oratory, Sam Adams’ and James Warren’s “Committees of Correspondence,” or Thomas Paine’s “Summer Soldiers and Sunshine Patriots” — inspired, educated, and motivated the colonists to resist the tyranny of the British Crown, and fight for their freedom and independence. Without the Black Regiment, there is absolutely no doubt that we would still be a Crown colony, with no Declaration of Independence, no U.S. Constitution, no Bill of Rights, and little liberty.
The exploits of the Black Regiment are legendary. When General George Washington asked Lutheran pastor John Peter Muhlenberg to raise a regiment of volunteers, Muhlenberg gladly agreed. Before marching off to join Washington’s army, he delivered a powerful sermon from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 that concluded with these words: “The Bible tells us there is a time for all things and there is a time to preach and a time to pray, but the time for me to preach has passed away, and there is a time to fight, and that time has come now. Now is the time to fight! Call for recruits! Sound the drums!”
Then Muhlenberg took off his clerical robe to reveal the uniform of a Virginia colonel. Grabbing his musket from behind the pulpit, he donned his colonel’s hat and marched off to war. And as he did, more than 300 of his male congregants followed him.
Muhlenberg’s brother quotes John Peter as saying, “You may say that as a clergyman nothing can excuse my conduct. I am a clergyman, it is true, but I am a member of society as well as the poorest layman, and my liberty is as dear to me as any man. I am called by my country to its defense. The cause is just and noble. Were I a Bishop … I should obey without hesitation; and as far am I from thinking that I am wrong, I am convinced it is my duty so to do — a duty I owe to my God and my Country.”
Remember, too, it was Pastor Jonas Clark and his congregants at the Church of Lexington who comprised that initial body of brave colonists called Minutemen. These were the men, you will recall, who withstood British troops advancing on Concord to confiscate the colonists’ firearms and arrest Sam Adams and John Hancock, and fired “the shot heard round the world.”
The “Supreme Knight” and great martyr of Presbyterianism was Pastor James Caldwell of the Presbyterian church of Elizabethtown (present-day Elizabeth), New Jersey. He was called the “Rebel High Priest” and the “Fighting Chaplain.” He is most famous for the story “Give ’em Watts!” It is said that at the Springfield engagement, when the militia ran out of wadding for their muskets, Parson Caldwell galloped to the Presbyterian church and returned with an armload of hymnbooks, threw them to the ground, and exclaimed, “Now, boys, give ’em Watts! Give ’em Watts!” — a reference to the famous hymn writer, Isaac Watts.
Not an easy path: Presbyterian minister James Caldwell, who gained fame during the battle of Springfield, New Jersey, when he gathered Watts hymnals from a church for use as rifle wadding and shouted to the troops as he handed them out, “put Watts into them,” was killed in the war, as was his wife.
Then there was the Baptist, Joab Houghton, of New Jersey. Houghton was in the Hopewell Baptist Meeting-house at worship when he received the first information of Concord and Lexington, and of the retreat of the British to Boston with heavy losses. His great-grandson gave the following eloquent description of the way he treated the tidings:
Stilling the breathless messenger, he sat quietly through the services, and when they were ended, he passed out, and mounting the great stone block in front of the meeting-house, he beckoned to the people to stop. Men and women paused to hear, curious to know what so unusual a sequel to the service of the day could mean. At the first words a silence, stern as death, fell over all. The Sabbath quiet of the hour and of the place was deepened into a terrible solemnity. He told them all the story of the cowardly murder at Lexington by the royal troops; the heroic vengeance following hard upon it; the retreat of Percy; the gathering of the children of the Pilgrims round the beleaguered hills of Boston. Then pausing, and looking over the silent throng, he said slowly: “Men of New Jersey, the red coats are murdering our brethren of New England! Who follows me to Boston?” And every man of that audience stepped out into line, and answered, “I!” There was not a coward nor a traitor in old Hopewell Baptist Meeting-house that day. [Source: Cathcart, The Baptists and the American Revolution, 1876]
Consider, too, Pastor M’Clanahan, of Culpepper County, Virginia, who raised a military company of Baptists and served in the field, both as a captain and chaplain. Reverend David Barrow “shouldered his musket and showed how fields were won.” Another Baptist, General Scriven, when ordered by a British officer to give up Sunbury, near Savannah, sent back the answer, “Come and get it.” Deacon Mills, of the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia, “commanded skillfully” 1,000 riflemen at the Battle of Long Island, and for his valor was made a brigadier general. Deacon Loxley of the same church commanded the artillery at the Battle of Germantown with the rank of colonel. (Source: McDaniel, The People Called Baptists, 1925)
A list drawn up by Judge Curwen, an ardent Tory, contained 926 names of British sympathizers living in America — colonial law had already exiled a larger number — but there was “not the name of one Baptist on the list.” Maybe this is why President George Washington, in his letter to the Baptists, paid the following tribute: “I recollect with satisfaction that the religious society of which you are members has been, throughout America, uniformly and almost unanimously, the firm friend to civil liberty, and the persevering promoters of our glorious Revolution.” Maybe it explains why Thomas Jefferson could write to a Baptist church, saying, “We have acted together from the origin to the end of a memorable Revolution.”