Pastors must rediscover their historical, nation-shaping role
During the American Revolution, the British dubbed the courageous clergy “The Black Regiment”—a backhanded reference to the black robes they wore. The British blamed the clergy for America’s independence, and rightfully so as modern historians have documented that “there is not a right asserted in the Declaration of Independence, which had not been discussed by the New England clergy before 1763.”
The rights listed in the Declaration of Independence were nothing more than a listing of sermon topics that had been preached from the pulpit in the preceding decades. Early clergy literally believed 2 Tim. 3:16-17—that all Scripture is God-inspired, and that God’s Word is to prepare us for every work.
Their sermons presented a biblical perspective on pressing public issues, including what type of taxes were and were not scriptural, how education should be conducted, the biblical role of the military, the difference between offensive and defensive wars, and the importance of having written constitutions of governance and electing godly leaders. The sermons touched on scores of other biblical topics, which the pulpit is largely silent on today.
A Biblical Perspective on Issues
By faithfully expounding the
fullness of God’s Word and applying its principles to every aspect of life, those clergy helped shape the culture and its institutions—continuing what their predecessors had done for a century and a half before.
For example, the early settlers who arrived in Virginia included ministers such as Robert Hunt, Richard Burke, William Mease, Alexander Whitaker and William Wickham. In 1619, they helped form America’s first representative, elective government. That legislature met in the Jamestown church, and was opened with prayer by the Rev. Burke. The elected legislators sat in the church choir loft to conduct legislative business.
In 1620, the Pilgrims’ pastor, John Robinson, charged them to elect civil leaders who would not only seek the “common good,” but who would also eliminate special privileges and status between governors and the governed. The Pilgrims eagerly took that message to heart, organizing a representative government and holding annual elections. By 1636, they had also enacted a citizens’ Bill of Rights—America’s first.
The Puritans arrived in 1630. Under the leadership of their ministers, they established representative government with annual elections. By 1641, they also had established a Bill of Rights (the “Body of Liberties”)—a document of individual rights drafted by the Rev. Nathaniel Ward.
In 1636, the Rev. Thomas Hooker—along with fellow ministers Samuel Stone, John Davenport and Theophilus Eaton—founded Connecticut. They not only established an elective form of government, but in a 1638 sermon based on Deut. 1:13 and Ex.18:21, set forth the three biblical principles that guided the plan of government for Connecticut. From that sermon sprang the “Fundamental Orders of Connecticut”—America’s first written constitution.
Ministers On the Battlefield
There are numerous additional examples. Ministers did not just teach biblical principles, but they also entered the battlefield to secure them.
For example, when Paul Revere set off on his famous ride, it was to the home of the Rev. Jonas Clark in Lexington, Mass. John Hancock and Samuel Adams were lodging, as they often did, with Clark. After learning of the approaching British forces, they turned to Clark and inquired whether his people were ready to fight. The minister unhesitatingly replied, “I have trained them for this very hour!” The next day when the sound of the battle subsided, some 18 Americans—both black and white—died, including seven from Clark’s church.
When the British troops left Lexington, they next fired on Americans at Concord Bridge and then headed back to Boston, encountering increasing resistance along the way. Significantly, many who awaited them along the road were local pastors—including Phillips Payson and Benjamin Balch—who had heard of the unprovoked British attack on the Americans, taken up their own arms and then rallied their congregations to meet the returning British.
This pattern was common, and not surprisingly, ministers paid dearly for their bold leadership. The British abused, killed or imprisoned many clergymen, who often suffered harsher treatment and more severe penalties than did ordinary prisoners. The British targeted not just ministers, but also their churches. Of the 19 church buildings in New York City, 10 were destroyed, and most of the churches in Virginia suffered the same fate.
The clergy were also leaders in the national legislative councils. For example, the Rev. John Witherspoon—a signer of the Declaration of Independence—was a member of the Continental Congress and served on more than 100 congressional committees. Other ministers who served in the Continental Congress included Joseph Montgomery, Hugh Williamson and John Zubly.
Other ministers served in state legislatures, including the Rev. Jacob Green of New Jersey, who helped set aside the British government and was appointed chairman of the committee that drafted the state’s original constitution in 1776. The Rev. Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg helped draft Pennsylvania’s 1776 constitution. The Rev. Samuel Stillman helped draft Massachusetts’ 1780 constitution.
Pastors also led the movement for a federal constitution. For example, Jeremy Belknap, Samuel Stanhope Smith, John Witherspoon and James Manning initially pointed out the defects of the Articles of Confederation. When the Constitution was finally complete and submitted to the states for ratification, nearly four dozen clergymen were elected as ratifying delegates, many of whom played key roles in securing its adoption in their respective states.
When the first federal Congress convened under the new Constitution, several of its members were ministers, including John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg, Abiel Foster, Benjamin Contee, Abraham Baldwin, Paine Wingate and Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg—the first speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
The clergy were also largely responsible for education in America. Harvard University was founded through the direction of Puritan minister John Harvard; Yale University via 10 congregational ministers; Princeton University by Presbyterian ministers Jonathan Dickinson, John Pierson and Ebenezer Pemberton; the College of William and Mary by Episcopal minister James Blair; and Dartmouth College by Congregational minister Eleazar Wheelock. In fact, of the 246 colleges founded by the end of 1860, only 17 were not affiliated with some denomination. »
Abdicating the Church’s Responsibilities
History demonstrates that America’s most cherished institutions and many positive aspects of American life and culture were the product of biblically thinking clergy. But the modern church has largely abdicated these responsibilities, too often embracing what Rom. 12:2 warned against: “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its mold” (J.B. Phillips Translation).
For the past few decades, the church has frequently allowed the secular world to define its role—even stipulating the arenas in which it should and should not be seen, as well as the issues it can and cannot address. Pastors have slowly allowed themselves to become irrelevant—confining themselves to a 2-square-feet area behind the pulpit, no longer exerting any significant impact on the culture or direction to the community.
For some inexplicable reason, the church has turned Jesus’ Great Commission solely into an evangelism mandate. Evangelism is indispensible to Christian living, but Jesus’ command in that passage was to “go and make disciples ... teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20, NIV).
The Great Commission is a mandate for discipleship, not just evangelism. It is a direct command from Him to “teach everything I have commanded you,” which is especially relevant for ministers. This would include addressing His teachings from Matthew 19 on no-fault divorce; Matthew 25 on economic policies that reward productive workers but not nonproductive ones; and Matthew 20 on the inviolability of wage contracts between employers and employees, and the right of employees to sell their skills in a free market to the highest bidder.
Significantly, the Black Robed Regiment was also noted for its mutual cooperation. Doctrinal disputes among denominations were frequent and vigorous, but those disagreements did not dissuade clergy from a joint collaboration on the larger issues of the culture and the country.
The Black Robed Regiment was a diverse group, which included black, white, Hispanic, Catholic, Protestant, evangelical, mainline and Jewish clergy, who stood by each other despite their wide theological differences. They could be vicious in their various doctrinal quarrels, but they could also be extremely loyal in their united efforts to preserve the country and its core biblical values and beliefs.
A Modern Black Robed Regiment
America needs its leaders—its ministers—to once again impact the culture. It is time for today’s clergy to re-embrace the full scope of the Rev. Charles Finney’s admonition to ministers:
“Brethren, our preaching will bear its legitimate fruits. If immorality prevails in the land, the fault is ours in a great degree. If there is a decay of conscience, the pulpit is responsible for it. If the public press lacks moral discrimination, the pulpit is responsible for it. If the church is degenerate and worldly, the pulpit is responsible for it. If the world loses its interest in religion, the pulpit is responsible for it.
“If Satan rules in our halls of legislation, the pulpit is responsible for it. If our politics become so corrupt that the very foundations of our government are ready to fall away, the pulpit is responsible for it. Let us not ignore this fact, my dear brethren; but let us lay it to heart, and be thoroughly awake to our responsibility in respect to the morals of this nation.”
America is in dire need of a modern Black Robed Regiment.
David Barton is the founder and president of WallBuilders, a pro-family organization that presents America’s history and heroes—with an emphasis on its moral, religious and constitutional heritage. A graduate of Oral Roberts University, David is the author of numerous books, including Original Intent; Separation of Church & State; Setting the Record Straight; and his latest, The Jefferson Lies—co-written by Glenn Beck and releasing in April. For more information on WallBuilders, visit wallbuilders.com. To see many of the sermons by “The Black Regiment,” visit blackroberegiment.wallbuilders.com.