The Legend of Peter Muhlenberg: History Detectives

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An artifact – a pastor’s robe – from the historical collection of The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP) was one of the “cases” investigated by PBS television’s History Detectives. The episode first aired Monday, July 23, 2007 on many PBS stations. Detectives investigator Elyse Luray and a camera crew from series co-producer Lion Television came to the LTSP campus in March 2007 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 and son of Henry Melchior 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. So, is the legend true, and was the robe Peter Muhlenberg’s?

The show's Web site has more background and a transcript, and links to your PBS station's schedule where you can look for repeat showings and future show dates. The site is pbs.org/historydetectives. You'll find details on the specific episode here.

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. While the robe may be safely in storage, other items from the seminary collection are on display in a special exhibition room, which is open by appointment. 

Investigating the Legend of Peter Muhlenberg’s robe is one of LTSP’s planned activities to celebrate the 300th Anniversary of the birth of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg in 2011. Henry Melchior Muhlenberg is considered the father of American Lutheranism, and his work was important to the life and faith of the colonists, and to the development of what became the United States of America.

 


History Detectives' Elyse Luray is about to reveal her research results to LTSP’s 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 in the LTSP Exhibition Room in The Brossman Center.

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

You can read our blog entries on History Detectives and the Muhlenberg robe, including interesting comments, here and here.

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