The Fighting Parson’s Farewell Sermon

An eighteenth-century rural church still used today, as seen from the pulpit. (Library of Congress)

The history of the American Revolution is rife with heroic tales and amazing myths of patriotic American heroes that offer inspiring and entertaining stories. Sadly however, many of these stories have little basis in fact or documentation to support their occurrence. Some are completely fabricated while others are the result of misreported or misunderstood accounts. Thankfully, there are also plenty of inspiring accounts and stories that, although perhaps exaggerated or embellished over generations, have a significant degree of historical truth to them. One such account is that of the Farewell Sermon of the Fighting Parson of Shenandoah Valley, Peter Muhlenberg.

The traditional version of Peter Muhlenberg’s farewell sermon, first shared by Muhlenberg’s great nephew, Henry A. Muhlenberg in his 1849 biography of the general, goes as follows. In mid-January 1776, Muhlenberg, who was a delegate in the Fourth Virginia Convention in Williamsburg, was appointed by the Convention to command the 8th Virginia Regiment. Muhlenberg rushed home to Dunmore County in northwest Virginia to tend to his affairs and begin to raise his regiment, and upon his return word spread quickly among his parish that he was to give a farewell sermon on the next Sabbath. Muhlenberg’s parishioners packed the church in Woodstock on the appointed day, January 21, with many standing outside in the cold to hear their beloved minister. When Muhlenberg arrived and ascended the pulpit, he wore his black minister’s robe. He began his sermon by recounting the many wrongs inflicted upon the colonists by Great Britain and reminded his parishioners of the worthiness of the cause for which they all struggled in 1776 and for which he was about to surrender his alter. He then declared, “that, in the language of holy writ, there was a time for all things, a time to preach and a time to pray, but those times had passed away . . . that there was a time to fight, and that time had now come!”1

Muhlenberg then removed his robe and stood before the congregation in his military uniform, an inspiration to all. Nearly 300 men enlisted in Muhlenberg’s regiment as a result of his sermon, according to this version, and a legend was born.2

Henry Muhlenberg, the author of this account, assured his readers in 1849 that “numerous traditional accounts” of what transpired that day still existed throughout the Woodstock community, although he confessed that “of the matter of the sermon, various accounts remain.” He insisted, however, that all concurred “in attributing to [the sermon] great potency in arousing the military ardour of the people, and unite in describing its conclusion.”3

Although this version of events remains by far the most popular and most believed account of what happened at Peter Muhlenberg’s farewell sermon, it was not the first account in print. In 1823, Dr. James Thacher, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, published his extensive journal of the war and included a different version of Muhlenberg’s farewell sermon. He wrote:

General Muhlenberg 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.4

Thacher’s journal entry is dated November 3, 1778, in Fishkill, New York. Thacher recorded that on that day he chanced upon an entertainment of forty some officers hosted by Muhlenberg. It is impossible to say from whom Thacher learned the details of Muhlenberg’s sermon; perhaps the general himself shared the story, or perhaps he heard it second hand from another officer, but the fact that he recorded the details in 1778, just two years after they reportedly occurred and nearly seventy-five years before Henry Muhlenberg’s much more popular account, gives Thacher’s version some credibility.

Thacher’s account is certainly not definitive, however. He suggests that Muhlenberg’s appointment to command the 8th Virginia Regiment was the result of his having “no difficulty in enlisting a regiment of soldiers,” which is factually inaccurate.5 Muhlenberg’s appointment occurred on January 12, 1776, weeks before anyone in the Shenandoah Valley was even aware that the 8th Virginia Regiment was recruiting.6 Thacher possibly did not intend to imply that Muhlenberg’s commission was the result of his recruiting success, but his journal entry suggests that it was.

Both Muhlenberg’s account of the sermon seventy five years after the fact and Thacher’s account two years after the event agree that Muhlenberg wore a uniform in the pulpit on the day in question, although only Henry Muhlenberg noted the uniform was initially covered by Muhlenberg’s church robe. Just what that uniform looked like has never been definitively established. It has traditionally been portrayed in images of the affair as a continental officer’s blue regimental coat with red or buff facings because that is the uniform most often associated with American officers of the American Revolution. While there is no doubt that Peter Muhlenberg wore such a uniform coat during most of his seven years of military service and that he even may have procured one such coat prior to the sermon, it is much more likely that the uniform he wore in early 1776 for his final sermon was a fringed linen hunting shirt with a sash and sword.7This was the prescribed uniform of Virginia’s regular troops of 1775 and 1776.8

As for the sermon itself, both accounts acknowledge that Muhlenberg fiercely defended the American cause. Thacher offers no specifics as to what Muhlenberg actually said, while Henry Muhlenberg offers very eloquent words which have been passed down in various forms for nearly two centuries.

Where the two accounts differ significantly is the date on which the sermon was delivered and the impact it had on Muhlenberg’s parishioners. Thacher’s observation that Muhlenberg marched to join the army the day after his farewell sermon means he likely delivered it in mid-March 1776 (probably Sunday, March 17), for Muhlenberg departed Woodstock on March 21 and was in Williamsburg on April 3 to receive his colonel’s commission from the Virginia Committee of Safety.9 The probability that Muhlenberg’s farewell sermon occurred in March is supported by the fact that the Beckford Parish register records that Peter Muhlenberg continued to baptize and marry parishioners up until his departure from the Shenandoah Valley in March.10 It is not a stretch to assume that if he continued in those activities, he likely continued delivering sermons until his departure as well. This would thus align more with Thacher’s account that he led the troops eastward after his sermon.

Another point that supports Thacher’s account is that Muhlenberg’s regiment consisted of ten companies from eight different counties spanning hundreds of miles and that the company commanders (captains) and their lieutenants were primarily responsible for recruiting the 68 men for each company, not the regimental field officers. When one considers that all of Dunmore County contributed at most 140 troops for two companies to the 8th Virginia, it is hard to imagine nearly 300 troops enlisted on the same day in Woodstock after Muhlenberg’s sermon in late January (as Henry Muhlenberg contends), especially as it appears that the bulk of troops for the regiment were recruited in February and March 1776.11 What is more likely is that hundreds of troops from several companies of the 8th Virginia assembled in Woodstock in March in preparation for their march east and they were thus there when Peter Muhlenberg delivered his farewell sermon.

We will likely never know with certainty what occurred or even what was said on the day that Peter Muhlenberg delivered his farewell sermon to his congregation in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. What we do know is that the former minister of Beckford Parish in Dunmore County became colonel of the 8th Virginia Regiment in early 1776 and, over the course of seven years of service for his country, rose to the rank of major general in the Continental army. From such service undoubtedly comes plenty of grist for other inspiring accounts of the American Revolution.

 

1Henry A. Muhlenberg,The Life of Major-General Peter Muhlenberg of the Revolutionary Army (Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1849), 50-54.

2Ibid., 53-54.

3Ibid., 52.

4James Thacher, M.D., Military Journal of the American Revolution, 1775-1783 (Gansevoort, NY, Corner House Historical Publications,1998), 154.

5Ibid.

6Robert L. Scribner and Brent Tarter, eds., “Proceedings of the 4th Virginia Convention, January 12, 1776,” Revolutionary Virginia: The Road to Independence, Vol. 5 (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1979), 391.

7Charles Campbell, ed., “General Orders, April 3, 1776,” The Orderly Book of that Portion of the American Army stationed at or near Williamsburg (Richmond, VA: 1860), 13. The order reads: When the Regiment are under Arms, the Officers to appear in their Hunting Shirts.

8William W. Henings, The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of all the Laws of Virginia,Vol. 9 (Richmond, 1821), 82; Campbell, ed., “General Orders, April 3, 1776.”

9Robert L. Scribner and Brent Tarter, eds. “Proceedings of the Committee of Safety, April 3, 1776,” Revolutionary Virginia: The Road to Independence, Vol. 6 (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1981), 318.

10George M. Smith, The Reverend Peter Muhlenberg: A Symbiotic Adventure I Virginia, 1772-1783,”Unpublished Report,” 62-63.

11E.M. Sanchez-Savvedra, A Guide to Virginia Military Organizations in the American Revolution, 1774-1787, (Westminster, MD: Willow Bend Books, 1978), 55. According to Sanchez-Savvedra, only two companies of the 8th Virginia were completely recruited by late January, Capt. Jonathan Clark’s from Dunmore County and Capt. George Slaughter’s of Culpeper. Seven other companies were completed from mid-February through early April and the tenth company was actually raised as an independent company in December 1775 and attached to the 8th Virginia. Gabe Neville’s outstanding website on the 8th Virginia Regiment, http://8thvirginia.com, notes that the first company (excluding the independent one formed in December 1775) to fill its ranks did so on February 9, 1776. Two other companies were complete by February 19, 1776 and the remainder were completed in March and April. This fact, as well as the vast distance the recruiting area of the 8th Virginia covered, suggests it is highly unlikely that Peter Muhlenberg’s sermon inspired 300 men to enlist on a single day in late January.

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4 Comments

  • Great explanation. Reminds me of Liberty Valance: “When legend becomes fact, print the legend!” So many of our Revolutionary War tales began in legend and someone printed them as fact.

  • I’m cautious about using Dr. James Thacher’s published journal as an exact transcription of a diary he kept by hand during the war. I don’t think any manuscript survives to confirm it. I recall one entry about grave-robbing during the siege of Boston which the published version puts records in a different month from when Gen. Washington’s daily orders mention the incident. At another point Thacher inserts an anecdote about the signing of the Declaration of Independence which he, as a military surgeon, wouldn’t have been privy to in 1776 but probably heard later. Therefore, I suspect it’s possible that Thacher, in preparing his diary entry about meeting Muhlenberg for the press in the 1820s, added an anecdote he’d heard later. Perhaps he heard that story during the war, perhaps decades afterward. It’s still a significant data point, and a version of the story that precedes the most dramatic, just not as anchored in time as we’d like.

  • For what it’s worth, my ancestor, who lived in Woodstock, enlisted in Jonathan Clark’s Company on February 5, 1776, suggesting a late-January sermon.

  • This is an excellent analysis and I agree with all of the main points. Thanks to J.L. Bell for the word of caution on the Thatcher journal. The fact that Thatcher tells the story at all, I think, is significant insofar as it proves that it wasn’t purely invented by Henry A. Muhlenberg as some have suggested. My own theory is that Muhlenberg wore his cloak in the pulpit over his uniform as a matter of propriety. It certainly was not to conceal his uniform. I’m also grateful to see the correction on the uniform, which is not a small point.

    Readers might want to know that a blockbuster “inspired by actual events” poem by Thomas Buchanan Read (1822 – 1872) figures here importantly as well. “The Wagoner of the Alleghenies” was not a biography of Muhlenberg, but a scene in it was inspired by the actual event and was so popular that it eventually overtook the actual history. Read was a leading figure in the poetry world of the 1860s. The actor James E. Murdoch recited “Sheridan’s Ride,” “The Wagoner of the Alleghenies,” and other patriotic Read poems during nationwide tours. Just as Mel Gibson’s film “The Patriot” and the History Channel’s “Sons of Liberty have planted exaggerated and unhistorical images in people’s minds about the war, Read’s poem strongly colored people’s understanding of the Muhlenberg sermon. Murdoch’s recitals and the relevant excerpt’s inclusion in McGuffey’s Reader firmly planted a romanticized version of the Muhlenberg sermon in people’s minds. Your analysis here is an important corrective that does not make the mistake some secularists have made of claiming no such event happened at all.

    With regard to attendance at the farewell sermon, it would make sense that some of the companies from the lower (northern) Shenandoah Valley might have congregated at Woodstock to travel together to the rendezvous at Suffolk, Va. The usual route from Woodstock was north to Winchester and then through Ashby’s Gap to the Tidewater. Dunmore County (now Shenandoah County) raised two companies that were assigned to Muhlenberg’s regiment. They might have been joined by Hampshire County (one company), Augusta County (one company), or Frederick County (one company). With officers, any four of these gets you almost to 300 men (and Jonathan Clark’s Dunmore County German company was over-enlisted).

    The number 300 may also refer to the rough number of Germans who signed up. Consider the unique role Muhlenberg had in the colony at the time. As rector of Beckford Parish and the son of the head of the Lutheran Church in America, he was the leader of Virginia’s German population. The vast majority of Virginia’s Germans lived in the lower Shenandoah Valley. They had migrated there from Pennsylvania and were still in many ways more “Pennsylvania Dutch” than they were Virginian. Muhlenberg and Clark were delegates to the Convention in late 1775 when the 3rd through 9th regiments were authorized. The 8th was conceived as a “German Regiment,” and is still referred to that way from time to time. Muhlenberg’s appointment as colonel was certainly intended to inspire the Valley’s Germans to join the cause. It might even have been Muhlenberg’s idea. Likewise his lieutenant colonel (Abraham Bowman) and his major (Peter Helphenstine) were both German from Strasburg and Winchester. Uniquely among Virginia’s colonels, then, there was a specific expectation placed on Muhlenberg that he could get a somewhat marginal constituency to join men from the Virginia Tidewater and Piedmont in fighting the British. Virginia’s leaders must have watched closely to see how successful Muhlenberg would be with the project. The resulting regiment was not uniformly–perhaps not even mostly–German. The largely German counties of the lower Shenandoah did fill their quotas, though, and they did it faster than some of the outlying Scotch-Irish counties (West Augusta and Fincastle). Gen. Charles Lee referred to the 8th Virginia as the most complete and best equipped in the entire Virginia Line and cited that as the reason he chose it to go with him South to defend Charleston.

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