Saturday, September 24, 2005

Peter Muhlenberg: From the Pulpit to the Battlefield
by David Beale

Over the objections of his family, this clergyman abandoned his ministry to fight in the Revolutionary War.

The spring of 1763 found the Muhlenberg household busily preparing for Peter and his two brothers to leave Philadelphia, where they had attended the Latin Academy, and sail to Europe. Their father Henry (the Patriarch of American Lutheranism) had decided they were to receive ministerial training at the University of Halle, the center of XVIII-century German Pietism. At 16, Peter knew that God had a different kind of service for him, but he was not sure what it was, and he dared not argue with his father about it now. Perhaps in Germany he could more clearly find his life's work.

On April 27, John Peter Gabriel, the eldest of the 11 Muhlenberg children, and his brothers embarked on the packet ship Captain Budden. After a seven-week voyage they reached England. They then sailed for Holland and journeyed to Halle, where Peter became an apprentice to a local merchant. The work was to get him through school.
Soon, however, the adventure-seeking teenager joined himself to a regiment of dragoons and became secretary to a British colonel who was a friend of his father. So Peter returned to America in 1766 without ministerial training, although the military experience later proved invaluable to his own country.

Upon his return home, Peter's family finally persuaded him to study seriously for the ministry--this time under the eminent Carl Magnus von Wrangel, provost of the Swedish churches along the Delaware. Early in 1768 Muhlenberg received ordination as a minister of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and soon he became pastor of several small churches in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. In 1770 he married Anna Barbara Meyer, who was to bear him four sons and two daughters.

In 1771 Muhlenberg accepted a call to the struggling Lutheran congregations at Woodstock, in Dunmore (now Shenandoah) County, Virginia. In this colony, however, the Anglican Church was the "Established Church," so in order to secure the full privileges of a clergyman, Muhlenberg went to England in 1772 and received ordination as a priest of the Church of England.

Returning to Woodstock, the young pastor soon became actively involved in civil affairs, even winning the life-long friendship of George Washington. Dunmore County appointed Muhlenberg chairman of the Committee on Public Safety, and in 1774 they elected him to the Virginia House of Burgesses.

Finally, at General Washington's request, Muhlenberg accepted an appointment as colonel and a commission to raise and command the eighth (later called the "German") Virginia Regiment, composed largely of Germans from the Shenandoah Valley. The Battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill had done much to kindle patriotism throughout the colonies, and there was growing talk of independence.

In January of 1776, Muhlenberg sent word for his congregation to gather for his farewell sermon. Ascending his familiar pulpit, he preached from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. The sermon glowed throughout with devoted patriotism as the man of God told his people of his own resolve to fight and, if need be, to die for his country. He closed his message with these words: "In the language of holy writ, there is a time for all things, a time to preach and a time to pray, but the time for me to preach has passed away."

Then in a voice that re-echoed through the church like a trumpet blast, he exclaimed, "And there is also a time to fight, and that time has now come."

After pronouncing the benediction, Muhlenberg threw off his clerical gown and stood before his people in full military uniform. Stepping down the aisle, he ordered the drums at the door to beat for new recruits. The whole village gathered at the church to learn what strange event had turned a quiet church meeting into a scene of bustle and excitement.

Before the day's end, nearly 300 men had joined Muhlenberg's standard. He immediately marched south and assisted in the relief of Charleston, South Carolina.

In June 1776 he demonstrated his abilities at the Battle of Sullivan's Island, and the following year he was commissioned to the rank of brigadier-general. He was stationed at Valley Forge with General Washington during the horrendous winter of 1777-1778.

The next year, General Anthony Wayne selected him to take part in the recapture of Stony Point, New York. Muhlenberg was second-in-command in Major-General Friedrick Wilhelm von Steuben's campaign against the traitor Benedict Arnold.

Finally, when Lord Cornwallis was bottled up in Yorktown in 1781, Muhlenberg was in charge of the troops on the south bank of the James River. Here, on October 14, he commanded the American brigade that stormed one of the two British strongholds; Alexander Hamilton, as senior colonel of this brigade, led the advance force.

At the close of the war, Muhlenberg was brevetted major-general. His health was permanently impaired, but he had proved himself a courageous, level-headed officer, strict in discipline, but vigilant for his men's welfare and comfort. Among the Pennsylvania Germans, Muhlenberg was a hero second only to General Washington himself.

The following story was passed along for generations by Muhlenberg's family and admirers. It seems that when the Battle of Brandywine had reached the close-up stage, Muhlenberg noticed that his opposition included a group of former ruffians whom he had known during his adventurous teenage years in the German dragoon. (German enlistment was for life.) These mercenaries were astonished to see their old comrade now mounted on a white horse at the head of his own troops. Throughout their bewildered ranks, the German cry ran along, "Hier kommt Teufel Piet" ("Here comes Devil Pete"). In later years, Muhlenberg delighted to relate the incident to his grandchildren.

In 1783 Muhlenberg was elected to the Supreme Executive Council of the State of Pennsylvania. He served under Benjamin Franklin as vice president of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania from 1785-1788. After the adoption of the federal constitution, Muhlenberg was elected a Republican representative to the first, third, and sixth congresses. In 1801 he was elected United States senator, but resigned the following year. President Jefferson then appointed him Supervisor of the Revenue of the District of Pennsylvania. In 1803 Muhlenberg became collector of customs for Philadelphia, an office he held until his death on October 1, 1807.

What had been the motivating force behind this remarkable man who had abandoned a pulpit ministry for the battlefield? During his early years at Woodstock, Muhlenberg had penned these words to one of his brothers who had criticized him for becoming increasingly involved in military affairs:

“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 to any man. Shall I then sit still, and enjoy myself at home, when the best blood of the continent is spilling? Heaven forbid it! . . . I am called by my country to its defence. The cause is just and noble. Were I a bishop, even a Lutheran one, I should obey without hesitation, and so 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 to my country.”

This servant of God is buried beside his father, close by the Augustus Lutheran Church at Trappe, Pennsylvania. A statue of General Muhlenberg, by Blanche Nevin, stands in Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. Another statue was placed in City Hall Plaza in Philadelphia.

John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg was a man who found success by finding the will of God for his life and doing it, even over the opposition of a well-meaning family.

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