“I know you,” the spry little lady taunted me. “You’re that preacher that doesn’t believe in the separation of church and state!” I simply smiled and asked, “You don’t think I gave up my rights as a citizen just because I’m a pastor, do you?”
This beautiful phrase gained is fame in Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, assuring the clergy that the federal government would not infringe upon their religious freedom. Just two days after penning the words, “separation of church and state,” Jefferson attended church services with the Reverend John Leland in the Capitol Building. Though Jefferson and Leland diverged on doctrines of faith they were united in their love for liberty. Leland is responsible for influencing Madison to advocate for a bill or rights and Jefferson relied heavily on the outspoken support of Reverend Leland for many years.
Like some of our modern antagonists, King George III was well-aware of the role the clergy played and hated them for it. British generals like Gage, despised the colonial clergy and assigned them the epithet, “the Black Robed Regiment.” Nathan Hale was one such young man whose trajectory was on track for the ministry until he dawned the uniform of the revolution and uttered those most noble words, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
However, no one better exemplifies the nobility of the Black Robed Regiment than the Muhlenberg brothers. Nearly every day, school children tour the Capitol Building and pass by a mysterious statue from Pennsylvania with little explanation. After preaching a passionate message from Ecclesiastes 3, Reverend John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg declared that there was a time for everything and this was a time to fight. His statue memorializes the pastor peeling off his black clerical robe, revealing his military uniform beneath. The Reverend then marched to the back of the church and called out, “Who is with me?” Three hundred men joined Reverend Muhlenberg and formed the 8th Virginia Brigade.
His brother and fellow clergyman, Frederick, thought Peter’s actions were unbecoming of a pastor and told him so. Peter replied, “I am a Clergyman it is true, but I am a member of the Society as well as the poorest Layman, and my Liberty is as dear to me as any man, shall I then sit still and enjoy myself at Home when the best Blood of the Continent is spilling?…so far am I from thinking that I act wrong, I am convinced it is my duty to do so and duty I owe to God and my country.”
Frederick was persuaded. He, too, became passionate for the cause of his country, entered politics, and soon served alongside his brother in the First Congress. Not only did Reverend Frederick Muhlenberg serve as the very first Speaker of the House, but he also played a pivotal role in the religious freedom we enjoy. Were you to take the Bill of Rights in your hands and allow your eyes to wander down towards the signatures, you would discover his just above John Adams. Speaker (Pastor) Muhlenberg was the first signer of the Bill of Rights, with the first article dedicated to the protection of religious liberty.
The American clergy played such a vital role in America’s founding that George Washington was compelled to deliver a stirring rebuke to those like Paine who would castigate them. In his farewell address, Washington declared, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.”
While the British slurred the American clergy with the epithet “the Black Robed Regiment,” it has become a moniker of honor and continues to stand as a symbol of freedom today. Every sensible pastor believes in the separation of church and state in the spirit of Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist Association. But the moment our churches separate themselves from society and pastors grow politically silent, it will be a dark day for freedom in America. Like the Muhlenberg brothers, I not only believe that participation is my right, I recognize that it is my duty and I am honored to fully participate in the politics of these great United States of America! In the time-honored tradition of the Black Robed Regiment, I encourage pastors and faith leaders to honor God and country not only from the pulpit but also through active engagement.