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PBS History Detectives: The Muhlenberg Robe

Elyse Luray from PBS’s History Detectives and Mary Redline

Elyse Luray from PBS’s History Detectives and Mary Redline look over Peter Muhlenberg’s robe, subject of a History Detectives investigation.

An artifact – a pastor’s robe – from the historical collection of The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP) is one of the “cases” investigated by PBS television’s History Detectives. The episode aired on Monday, July 23, 2007 at 9:00 pm PBS stations. Detectives investigator Elyse Luray and a camera crew from series co-producer Lion Television came to the LTSP campus in March to film part of the investigation and to reveal their findings.

The History Detectives team was investigating a popular story, which holds that the robe, part of the seminary’s collection since early in the 20th century, was worn by Revolutionary War figure and Lutheran pastor, Peter Muhlenberg. According to the story, General George Washington had recruited Muhlenberg as a leader in the militia before the American Revolution. On Sunday, January 21, 1776, as pastor of a congregation in the Shenandoah Valley in the colony of Virginia, Muhlenberg took his text from the third chapter of Ecclesiastes and delivered a sermon calling for volunteers for the county militia in the Continental Army. He concluded the sermon with the words, “There is a time to pray and a time to fight…” dramatically removing his clerical robe to reveal his officer’s uniform.

Mary Redline, researcher and grant writer for LTSP’s Krauth Memorial Library and the Northeast Lutheran Archives, also housed at LTSP, contacted the History Detectives and asked them to investigate: Is the legend true? Is this the robe that Peter Muhlenberg wore?

The legend is important to both the Revolutionary War and to the role the Lutheran Church played in the colonies and the United States. Peter Muhlenberg’s father, Henry Melchior

Muhlenberg, is considered the father of American Lutheranism, and founded many congregations that exist to this day. While the legend may or may not be true, Peter Muhlenberg did go on to become a general in the colonial army, and after the Revolution, returned to church life as a lay person and served the new country in Congress and other positions.

What were the findings? The robe is likely to have been Peter Muhlenberg’s – and was certainly from the time of the Revolution – but the story connected to the robe is probably more myth than fact. As Elyse Luray notes, the robe is in a deteriorated condition, and the experts from Colonial Williamsburg recommended that it be restored before again being placed on display

Elyse Luray from PBS’s History Detectives and Mary Redline

Elyse Luray from PBS’s History Detectives and Mary Redline look over Peter Muhlenberg’s robe, subject of a History Detectives investigation.

Public Television’s History Detectives on location

Public Television’s History Detectives on location in the LTSP Exhibition Room in The Brossman Center.

History Detective Elyse Luray doing research in the Krauth Memorial Library

History Detective Elyse Luray doing research in the Krauth Memorial Library at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.

History Detectives’ Elyse Luray about to reveal her research results

History Detectives’ Elyse Luray is about to reveal her research results to LTSP’s Mary Redline.

 

Visit the History Detectives page on the Muhlenberg Robe investigation. The History Detectives show which includes the story is online here – advance to the 38:30 point to watch the Muhlenberg Robe segment.

In response to the original blog post of this story in July 2007, Katherine Flynn, a certified genealogist, left these comments:

AnonymousKatherine Flynn said…

Farewell Sermon Story is Older than We Think!

I was very intrigued by the program on the robe and the story of Brig. General Muhlenberg. The PBS transcript confirms my recollection that the scholars said the earliest mention of the pulpit sermon is the biography by the nephew in 1849. Also one scholar doubted he would even enter the pulpit in uniform at all. The conclusion was the story was fanciful mythology concocted later in time to claim a German connection to the founding of the country in order to counter anti-immigration sentiment in the mid-1800’s.

I did a little research myself and I have found an 1824 published account that cites the farewell sermon with the uniform but it does not include the robe. The source is “A New American Biographical Dictionary; or, Remembrancer of the Departed Heroes, Sages, and Statesmen, of America. Confined exclusively to those who have signalized themselves in either capacity, in the Revolutionary War which obtained the Independence of their Country.” – 3rd. edition by Thomas J. Rogers. Published 1824 in Easton, Penn. This edition is available on-line as a scanned image in the subscription area of Ancestry.com website.

Now this does sound like a very grandiose and sentimental work but the contents are often detailed and thorough in describing events and places and dates.

The pertinent quote for the entry “Muhlenberg, Peter” on pages 366-7 is as follows:
“Having in his pulpit inculcated the principles of liberty, and the cause of his country, he found no difficulty in enlisting a regiment of soldiers, and he was appointed their commander. He entered the pulpit with his sword and cockade, preached his farewell sermon, and the next day marched at the head of his regiment to join the army.”

At the end of this entry it lists Muhlenberg’s date of death as “1st day of October, 1807”.

This work had a second edition in 1823 which I do not have ready access to. I have not yet determined when the first edition published. The earlier editions may also contain an entry on Muhlenberg.

I realize this is not a first-person account but at a minimum this pushes the provenance of the pulpit sermon story back another quarter century and out of the time period of anti-immigration fervor.

I am continuing in my research.

Katherine Flynn, CG

[CG and Certified Genealogist are Service Marks of the Board for Certification of Genealogists used under license after periodic evaluations by the Board. http:www.BCGcertification.org]

Anonymous Katherine Flynn said…

MORE!

The biography published by the nephew in 1849 [“The Life of Major-General Peter Muhlenberg, of the Revolutionary Army” by Henry Augustus Muhlenberg] can be read in its entirety on-line at:

http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=DvWzEFMYEi8C&oi=fnd&pg=PA13&dq=muhlenberg+AND+peter&ots=FOSVDWf1Uk&sig=wl-7PP6P5TSz8x0VEOSlwwPjeTs

This book is very detailed and it is footnoted! The author consulted the family records and letters.

The episode of the farewell sermon is on pp. 49-54 and there are REFERENCES: 6,7,8, & 9. The key references to this incident are 8 and 9 and they are on pp. 337-8.

Reference 8 has the data on the Virginia regiments which matches exactly those published at the time in the “Virginia Gazette” – scans of original copies can be seen at the Colonial Williamsburg website under the Research section.

Reference 9 is a listing of five sources that he cites as backing up the farewell sermon story. One is the Rogers publication of 1824 I cited in my previous posting. Three others are published too late (1833, 1843, and 1845) and fail the contemporary record test.

But the fifth cited source in reference 9 is an absolute gem. It is to James Thacher, “A Military Journal during the American Revolutionary War, from 1775 to 1783, Describing Interesting Events and Transactions of This Period, with Numerous Historical Facts and Anecdotes, from the Original Manuscript” (Boston, 1823). While published in 1823 it is a published version of the author’s actual diary from 1775 to 1783. This source is viewed as a very accurate and reliable source for this period by historians. I could find no one having any concerns about it not being a true and contemporary record. The author was a medical student/surgeon/physician for the Continental Army. In the diary he personally meets Lafayette, Putnam, Washington and others.

Please see: http://www.famousamericans.net/jamesthacher/

Thacher in 1778 was at a hospital set-up at “High Lands” on the Hudson River near Sugar Loaf Mountain. He first mentions Muhlenberg on 8 September 1778 as staying at the hospital.

The key entry for this question is on page 184 with the date of 3 November 1778.

The whole book can be seen on-line at:

http://www.archive.org/details/jamesthachermil00revorich

Here is the full entry:

“November 3d.-Having made a visit to Fishkill, I returned in company with Dr. Treat, our Physician General, and found a large number of gentlemen collecting to partake of an entertainment, by invitation of Brigadier General Muhlenburg [sic], who occupies a room in our hospital. The guests consisted of forty-one respectable officers, and our tables were furnished with fourteen different dishes, arranged in fashionable style. After dinner, Major General Putnam was requested to preside, and he displayed no less urbanity at the head of the table, than bravery at the head of his division. A number of toasts were pronounced, accompanied with humorous and merry songs. In the evening we were cheered with military music and dancing, which continued till a late hour in the night. General Muhlenburg [sic] was a minister of a parish in Virginia, but participating in the spirit of the times, exchanged his clerical profession for that of a soldier. Having in his pulpit inculcated the principles of liberty, and the cause of his country, he found no difficulty in enlisting a regiment of soldiers, and he was appointed their commander. He entered his pulpit with his sword and cockade, preached his farewell sermon, and the next day marched at the head of his regiment to join the army, and he does honor to the military profession.”

Note that the last sentence is obviously the source Rogers used verbatim!

After this first dinner of 3 November 1778 he dines with Muhlenberg on 25 Nov 1778, 30 December 1778, 1 Jan 1779 and 16 April 1779.

In summary, this is a contemporary account from a reliable person who had at least five fairly lengthy meetings with Muhlenberg starting at about three years after the event. Although it does not describe a detailed disrobing it does at least state that he entered the church in his military uniform to give a farewell sermon. Personally, I can believe that he had the robe at least on in some fashion because the robe signified his role as a clergyman as he gave the sermon.

The rest of the research in the PBS program gave a reasonable belief that the provenance of the robe does lead to Peter Muhlenberg and all records state that he did not return to the clergy after the War so at the very least this robe is probably the one he was using when he enlisted in 1776.

Katherine Flynn, CG

[CG and Certified Genealogist are Service Marks of the Board for Certification of Genealogists used under license after periodic evaluations by the Board. http:www.BCGcertification.org]

 

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