At last month’s Jericho March on Washington, the head of a group called America’s Black Robe Regiment recounted stories about clergy who trained their men to fight in the Revolution and likened their situation to efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

“Where are our pastors today in this battle?” asked Bill Cook, a Virginia minister who was introduced at the event by Eric Metaxas.

Other ministers—including Greg Locke, who prayed at a January 5 rally in Washington—have recently evoked the black robe regiment term and history when calling on pastors to take bolder stances in defense of liberty. A quick Google search reveals several smaller organizations that have also taken up the mantle.

It’s become a rallying cry among a small subset of Christians, some of whom have even used it as a defense for storming the Capitol and some of whom anticipate a literal call to arms during the current unrest.

The main sources for initially popularizing the term seem to be the media personalities Glenn Beck and David Barton. Both have connected their political appeals back to the American founding. In a 2010 rally, Beck called on ministers to form a new “black robe regiment” to proclaim American principles from the pulpits.

Beck appears to have gotten the phrase from Barton, whose WallBuilders Ministry emphasizes the Christian foundation beneath “America’s forgotten history and heroes.” In this approach, patriotism should shape sermons’ content.

A Time for War and a Time for Peace

Many readers may have never heard of the black robe regiment, whether current or historical. Metaxas admitted he wasn’t very familiar with the phrase when he handed the mic over to Cook at last month’s rally, and few raised their hands when he surveyed the pro-Trump crowd for their familiarity.

As a historian of the American Revolution, I want to pause and review how these recent claims line up with what we know about the past. Now, it is true that there was much ministerial support for the American Revolution. Such support mattered quite a bit, given the publicly religious character of the colonies, especially New England, and ministers helped shape how their congregants interpreted events.

In New Jersey, Princeton College’s devout president, John Witherspoon, openly advocated for independence. He preached from his Presbyterian pulpit that the Revolution was a just cause in God’s sight. And he’s remembered as the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence.

Some ministers preached sermons clearly supporting the Revolution, finding support for independence in all sorts of biblical passages. Others like William Emerson, Philip Vickers Fithian, and Timothy Dwight became army chaplains, slogging with the Patriot forces, preaching to them, and working to keep up both their religious and their political zeal.

During the Revolution itself, two incidents captured this strong support.

In early 1776, with the Revolutionary War ramping up, Peter Muhlenberg was serving as an Anglican minister in Virginia. One Sunday morning, he announced his text from Ecclesiastes 3, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.” When he completed his homily, he announced, “This is the time of war.” He threw off his black minister’s robes to reveal a military uniform underneath. He strode out of the sanctuary and called for a recruitment table to be set up outside the church. He soon marched off with the regiment that was raised.

In 1780, Presbyterian James Caldwell was serving as both a chaplain and a quartermaster with the army in New Jersey. During a battle at Springfield, the soldiers were running low on the paper necessary to seat their musket balls on their black powder. Caldwell rode off to a local church and grabbed the hymnals, which featured the songs of Isaac Watts (such as “Joy to the World” and “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”). He galloped back to the troops and began tearing out pages for the soldiers to use. “Give ’em Watts, boys!” he supposedly instructed. Here, even worship was being weaponized!

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So far, it seems there is a lot of backing for political preaching in support of American principles. However, since historians have to tell the whole story, a deeper look at some of the dynamics involved can provide a clearer perspective.

The first thing I notice is that despite these influences, no one at the time spoke of a black robe regiment. As historian J. L. Bell has demonstrated, the phrase is a modification of an insult used by the Loyalist Peter Oliver years after the Revolution. Oliver, who had lost home and position, denigrated New England ministers opposed to royal authority as a “black regiment.” The very usage of the term black robe regiment is itself a misquotation.

Pastoral Responsibility and Reflection

Digging deeper, we find the stories of ministers at the time are even more complex.

Witherspoon, for instance, advocated for independence but was no rabble-rouser. His most famous endorsement of independence came in a sermon, “The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men.” The first half is nothing but an explication of the doctrine of Providence. Only when he had established that did he seek to interpret current events as grounded within a larger theological system. He admitted that his address was unusual—he had never before introduced politics at all into a sermon. Even then, he gave a carefully reasoned argument for independence. Further, he informed his congregants that the entire Revolution could go astray and fail; it was not inherently good or virtuous.

Other ministers, however, didn’t always follow Witherspoon’s lead. As historians have studied their sermons, quite a few reveal shockingly bad exegesis of the Scriptures. The connections are tortured, the passages are proof-texted, and other impulses take precedence over the clear meaning of the Scriptures being preached—not a legacy to leave behind!

Even Muhlenberg was separating his military service from his religious leadership. He actively took off his clerical robes to assume a military role. That is, he was less a fighting minister than a minister who was subsequently a soldier, without combining the roles.

Finally, we should remember that there were several other cadres of black-robed ministers. Some eschewed politics altogether and sought to care for their flocks. Moravian missionaries, for instance, worked to shelter the Native Americans in their communities from depredations of both sides.

Meanwhile, Loyalist clergy actively opposed the American Revolution. These articulate ministers—people like Jonathan Boucher, Charles Inglis, Samuel Seabury, and John Joachim Zubly—worked to convince Americans that the safest path for their liberties was in submission to the British crown. They insisted that Christian duty lay in following the monarch. Although marginalized and often muzzled, these ministers still preached their political Loyalism out of a sense of conviction. Theirs, too, was a Scripture-informed interpretation of the American Revolution.

All these factors suggest to me that although many American ministers supported American liberty, the way they did so fell on a spectrum of responsibility and reflection. Further, we have to grapple with the fact that other ministers themselves felt deeply convicted to preach against American independence. These warnings remind us to be careful of how we think of our black-robed brigades today.

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Christian Freedom

As an American historian, I’m glad when people value the study of history and seek to find connections between the past and the present. Doing so, however, requires some hard work of investigating and understanding the past on its own terms. Our appreciation of faithful Christians in the past should be tempered by recognizing their limitations and even faults.

Because the American Revolution looms so large in our national mythology, we need to take special care not to rely on stories that merely confirm our prior assumptions. Recognizing these historic complexities might help pastors think about how they direct their political efforts today.

First, I hope they recognize that their greatest calling lies in preaching the gospel, not political punditry. The Good News of the kingdom is of eternal import and so relativizes all our seemingly pressing immediate concerns.

Second, the interpretation and application of biblical truths to political matters works best when handled from within a larger system. Here, Witherspoon’s approach to lead with fundamental principles is a good example. Individual issues (or the policy flavor of the month) shouldn’t predominate. Instead, application has to occur against the backdrop of larger theological thinking about human nature and human systems. A more holistic approach can lead to better and wiser public engagement.

Third, approaching political subjects should bring the recognition that other faithful believers might disagree with our position. In a polarized 2021, just as in a divided 1776, we need to recognize that in any given gathering, people may have come to other political convictions. Careful listening will be required to perceive what principles underlie that opposing belief.

Finally, faithful preaching can point people to the appropriate understandings of freedom. When the apostle Paul wrote in Galatians 5:1, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free,” he was primarily speaking of Christian liberty or soul liberty—the liberty that comes from being freed from sin. He wasn’t predicting modern democracy but proclaiming something accessible under any government. To support that spiritual reality, other liberties are good and helpful. Religious liberty enables believers to practice their faith in their lives and vocations.

Further, Paul points us to the type of political liberty that we should desire—the freedom to do good. The writings of many of the founders show the appreciation that liberty is not for the individual to do what he or she wants but for the opportunity to serve others. This is a deeper and more substantive liberty that we should all desire.

Altogether, faithful attention to advancing that robust liberty of the soul will serve our communities and our nation the best.

Jonathan Den Hartog is professor of history and chair of the department at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He is the author of Patriotism and Piety: Federalist Politics and Religious Struggle in the New American Nation.