Saturday, May 22, 2010


No, we’re not talking about Colonel Christopher Greene's 1st Rhode Island Regiment which had a large contingent of Free Blacks and slaves and became known as The Black Regiment (1778). This unit has the distinction of being regarded as the first African-American military regiment in the United States, albeit with the misconception that its ranks were exclusively African-American. While this unit is worthy of more attention and a post from this erstwhile Rhode Islander, today we pay homage to another Black Regiment – the patriotic Protestant preachers and clergy who rallied to the cause of American independence from the English.

It was former Massachusetts Tory Judge Peter Oliver in his 1785 Origin and Progress of the American Rebellion: A Tory View who angrily blamed the New England clergy (who he derisively characterized as The Black Regiment) for fomenting the American Revolution. Ironically, a very rigid and devout King George III created the problem by provoking many of these men by demanding that they agree to licensing by the crown. Some even speculate that none other than King George III may have also appropriately embraced this label because of the Clergy’s long flowing black robes and their patent refusal to submit to the crown. Wonder what he thought of them when he was in one of his conjectured porphyria attacks? History records that George’s sanity was stretched to the limits following the English defeat at the hands of the Americans and we know now, ultimately broken.

There is no doubt that the Patriot Clergy of seemingly every Protestant persuasion from every part of colonial America ostensibly motivated in part by the legacy of the Great Awakening were a significant, perhaps even the major factor, in the success of the War of American Independence. Indeed, they were the bane of the British for providing the moral authority to pursue freedom from tyranny. Since the Protestant Church was a fundamental, strategic aspect and mainstay of American culture, their influence was considerable. It’s reasonable to understand, then, the frustration of one Crown-appointed British governor to write to England complaining that, ''If you ask an American who is his master, he’ll tell you he has none. And he has no governor but Jesus Christ.''

The Reverend Oliver, the Patriot Preacher played by René Auberjonois in the 2000 epic Revolutionary War film The Patriot starring Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger, was the pastor turned from nonviolence to using a firelock in the cause of freedom. Oliver was motivated like most other American Rev War ministers: he harbored a deeply-religious idealist though sometimes naive view of the war. He volunteers to fight with the colonial militia all the while admirably providing spiritual guidance to his fellow soldiers many of whom came from his church. Oliver willingly went to war as, “A shepherd must tend to his flock and at times fight off the wolves.” The real Patriot Preachers also recognized tyranny and embraced a confrontational “Don’t Tread on Me” rationale.

Preeminent among The Black Regiment were several Patriot Preachers to especially include Congregationalist Jonathan Mayhew (“No taxation without representation”) whose sermons at Old West Church in Boston as early as 1750 espoused American rights, the cause of liberty and the right and duty to resist tyranny. He may not have pointed a musket at the English but his words probably had an even greater effect. So, the English had been put on notice early on.

Another Congregationalist, the Rev. Charles Chauncy, was a firm believer in the colonial cause and inspired the patriot cause from his pulpit at First Church in Boston during that same period.

The Rev. Samuel West, Congregationalist minister of Dartmouth, Mass, was an ardent and influential Patriot Preacher of the founding era. West was a member of the convention that drew up the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 and was invited to serve as a Massachusetts delegate to the national convention in 1788. West was so motivated he joined the Continental Army where he served as a Chaplain.

Many of West’s sermons and words survive including,

"In order, therefore, that we may form a right judgment of the duty enjoined to our text, I shall consider the nature and design of civil government, and shall show that the same principles which oblige us to submit to government do equally oblige us to resist tyranny; or that tyranny and magistracy are so opposed to each other that where the one begins, the other ends."

Bottom line – “The Deity has also invested us with moral powers and faculties, by which we are enabled to discern the difference between right and wrong, truth and falsehood, good and evil…" "To save our country from the hands of our oppressors ought to be dearer to us even than our own lives…” Sounds like some influence from the Declaration of Arbroath, eh?

Then there was the Rev. Jonas Clark the revolutionary pastor of the Congregationalist Church at Lexington, Massachusetts for fifty + years who was an essential and critical element in the American revolutionary process.

“Earnestly, yet not without passion, he discussed from the pulpit the great questions at issue, and that powerful voice thundered fourth the principles of personal, civil, and religious liberty, and the right of resistance, in tones as earnest and effective as it had the doctrines of salvation by the cross.”

And as fate would have it, the English first confronted the Patriots from Clark’s congregation at Lexington and while contradiction and confusion still remain – it is where the successful American Revolution started all under the watch of one Jonas Clark. Clark had been earlier visited that same day by Patriot Leaders John Hancock and Samuel Adams who were being earnestly sought by the English and one of the primary reasons for their march to Lexington. By the way, contrary to other accounts I have seen, Clark died in 1805, in the seventy-fifth year of his age and in the fifty-first of his continuous ministry at Lexington. He was not bayoneted by the English while lying on the commons at Lexington. His post war counsel was critical to many issues including the disposition of forfeited Loyalist lands…

Enter now the Presbyterians in the War of Independence. Their numbers were so numerous many in England called the American conflict, The Presbyterian Insurrection/Rebellion. Horace Walpole, distinguished historian and Member of the British Parliament commented, "Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson!" Walpole is noted for also commenting, “It was easier to conquer it than to know what to do with it.” Wise words that the English have just figured out - about two hundred and thirty-nine years too late.

The Presbyterian contingent included Reverend James Caldwell who was of Ulster-Scots descent. He was a son of Virginia, an ardent patriot, minister at the First Presbyterian Church in Elizabethtown, NJ and one of the Clergy Heroes of the American Revolution. Though a Chaplain in the NJ Brigade he was known variously as the “Soldier Parson”, "the Rebel High Priest" "the Fighting Chaplain" and active to the degree that his house and church were burned by Loyalists (Tories) in 1780.

A favorite Caldwell story was his now well known cry of, "Now boys, give 'em Watts!", after bringing the Watts Hymnals from a church to the battlefield to be used as paper wadding for the only artillery piece the Americans had and perhaps even their smoothbore muskets (history is unclear) at the Battle of Springfield (the forgotten victory). The British martyred Caldwell by murdering both he and his wife, Hannah.

One of the most distinguished Presbyterian ministers of the day was Dr. John Witherspoon who became a member of the Continental Congress and the only ordained minister to sign the Declaration of Independence. Witherspoon emigrated from Edinburgh in 1768 to become the first president of the College of New Jersey, now known as Princeton University. Curiously, he had not supported the Jacobite Revolution in Scotland though in 1776 he preached in support of the rebel cause writing and publishing, The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men. In the eyes of the English he was now a rebel and traitor “to his country” though as a Scot he probably found some amusement in that label – not unlike William Wallace. Though not wholly preaching from the pulpit his writings, great political acumen, boundless energy and keen administrative skills influenced many in the classroom to include many of America’s future leaders.

Rev. Naphtali Daggett had been pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Smithtown, Long Island and in 1755 became the Livingstonian Professor of Divinity at Yale University. He went on to become President pro tempore of Yale for eleven years. He remained Rector at Yale until his death. When the English attacked New Haven, Connecticut in 1779, the Rev. Daggett took up arms in defense – related to be an ancient and ineffective fowling piece though many suspect otherwise. Nevertheless, Daggett was gallant and defiant to the end, was taken prisoner, forced to serve as a guide and in an ultimate show of false bravado by the English was beaten and bayoneted by his captors. While Daggett was apparently no Irving-inspired Ichabod Crane, we wonder about his treatment and whether history has accurately recorded this episode.
God bless you Daggett.

Not to be outdone the Anglicans via of the Lutherans had their own “Fighting Parson” in the person of Peter Muhlenberg who was the pastor of the Anglican Church in Woodstock, Virginia. Shortly after the Battle of Bunker Hill Muhlenberg was approached by General George Washington who asked him to raise what would become the 8th Virginia Regiment of the Continental Army and serve as its Colonel. We can note that Muhlenberg’s brother who was a Lutheran minister protested his joining but did so himself after the British burned his church.

In grand Anglican theater Muhlenberg was preaching one Sunday taking his text from the third chapter of Ecclesiastes, which starts with "To every thing there is a season..." After reading the eighth verse, "a time of war, and a time of peace." Muhelnberg then exhorted his congregation,

“The Bible tells us there is a time for all things and there is a time to preach and a time to pray but the time for me to preach has passed away, and there is a time to fight, and that time has come now. Now is the time to fight! Call for recruits! Sound the drums!”

Muhlenberg then threw off his vestments revealing his Continental Army Colonel’s uniform. The next day he led 300 men from that part of Virginia which formed the nucleus of the exemplary and distinguished Eighth Virginia (aka The German Regiment). In February, 1777, Peter Muhlenberg was elevated to Brigadier-General while later in September 1783, he was promoted to Brevet Major-General in the Continental Army after a distinguished military career. Significant or not, he is buried at the Augustus Lutheran Church in Trappe, Pennsylvania perhaps part of the ultimate reaction to the mostly Loyalist Anglicans?

The aforementioned are but a few of The Black Regiment though they represented the whole admirably. There were other ramifications of the Anglican Clergy of the Revolutionary War – repercussions that rippled throughout all of the Colonies and the new United States of America.

Immediately before and during the Revolutionary War, the Anglican Church lost a considerable amount of influence among the Americans, members or not. Many of its clergy and leading members were Loyalists and openly argued for continued fealty to the English Crown. This writer is assured that all this was to the delight of the Baptists, Congregationalists and Lutherans (and to a lesser degree the Quakers and Methodists) who were aggressively competing for American souls. At the end of the war the Anglicans predictably had a very difficult time even surviving in what was then a very hostile environment. The very survival of The Church of England in America was in grave doubt. Those remaining adopted their new name as the Episcopal Church in order to distance itself from England.

During the war many Anglican clergy in America simply closed the doors of their churches rather than break their ordination vows by altering the Book of Common Prayer (ie to remove the Prayers for the King). Some Anglican clergy fled to Canada or returned to England. Some were arrested by the Patriots and imprisoned. Some were even tortured and murdered. Some abandoned their ordination vows, crossed out the offensive bits of the Book of Common Prayer and became "rebellious" Patriots.

Anglican Minister William White (yes, a member of The Black Regiment) was a Patriot and Rector of St. Peter's and then of Christ Church, both of Philadelphia for 57 years also serving as Chaplain of the Continental Congress from 1777 to 1789 and subsequently as Chaplain of the Senate. Interestingly, White was the only Anglican cleric in Pennsylvania and only one of a few in all the Colonies who sided with the American revolutionary cause.

Given the absence of an Anglican bishop in the new United States of America a well-intentioned William White suggested the possibility of Presbyterial ordination for American Anglicans though that option was summarily rejected. In response the Episcopalians courageously and without any precedence or authorization save their own conscience/faith and sense of order and destiny, elected a Bishop. That man was Samuel Seabury, one of my august ancestors. We Buxtons and Littlefields revere that branch of our Family witness two close Family members of that name, one Uncle Seabury and Brother David Seabury.

Seabury was no Patriot. He was a staunch and devoted Loyalist to the core and as a Chaplain in the British Army, it was surprising that he lived through the Revolution. Indeed, he was a signatory to The White Plains Protest and author of the loyalist Farmer’s Letters that were answered and refuted by none other than a young Alexander Hamilton. Seabury was arrested in 1775 by Patriots and imprisoned for six weeks. For a while he was prevented from carrying out his ministry though he made his way to New York City where he was appointed Chaplain to the King's American Regiment.

His poor choice of politics aside, Seabury’s allegiance to The Church, his eloquent communications, strong people/leadership skills and sincerity allowed for his recovery. Following the English defeat Seabury moved back to Connecticut and pledged loyalty to the United States opening up his election in 1783 as the first Episcopal bishop in the new United States of America. As testament to his persuasive abilities Seabury even received a pension from the British government for his military service.

Now during the colonial era, as we have noted, there were no Anglican bishops in the New World and persons seeking to be ordained as clergy had to travel to England for that purpose. Seabury had to be consecrated by three other Anglican bishops before the Episcopal Church in America could proceed. They had to have their own bishops so Seabury trotted off to a less than hospitable London, England to seek his consecration.

The English bishops including John Moore, Archbishop of Canterbury and Robert Lowth, Bishop of London were cordial but unyielding and insensitive to Seabury’s mission. They thought themselves literally between Heaven and Hell and opted for inaction. After spending over a year in England and almost out of resources, Seabury sought the consult and refuge of the Episcopal Church of Scotland (Eaglais Easbaigeach na h-Alba). Though they were unencumbered and free to consecrate Seabury it would appear that they first sought discreet permissions from London. No objections were forthcoming.

On November 14, 1784 Samuel Seabury was consecrated to the Episcopate by the Bishop and the Bishop Coadjutor of Aberdeen and the Bishop of Ross and Caithness at Marischal College (now the University of Aberdeen). The fourth, Bishop Rose of Dunblane, who was unable to be present because of ill-health, recorded his consent. With Seabury’s consecration the long desired Episcopate was obtained by the fledging American Church. For history’s sake we can note that Marischal College was founded by another great ancestor, George Keith, 5th Earl Marischal of Scotland. Aye, I’m a Keith. Goes around, comes around

The following year Seabury returned to America as Rector of St. James Church, New London, Conn., and Bishop of Connecticut, the first Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the new United States of America. Thus the Episcopal Church of the United States owes a huge debt of gratitude to the Scottish Church, one that we celebrate each year.

And so we also thank the members of the clergy, The Black Regiment, for their significant contributions to the founding of the United States and to at least one Grey Volunteer whose persistence and determination allowed for the birth of the Episcopal Church of the United States.

Even though I flee from fire and brimstone, I quite loathe the banal and mostly boring sermons I see nowadays. I wonder if we can resurrect a new energized and contemporary Black Regiment, not afraid to guide, consult and remind us of our responsibilities to our Fellow Man. We need no more politically correct, gushing platitudes (no kittens, puppies or fawns), rather a stern road map that from educated perspectives guide and allow us to be the best we can be.


Ned Buxton

This post is dedicated to John Armstrong Buxton who suggested that The Might of Right pursue any relationship that Bishop Samuel Seabury may have had with The Black Regiment. Alas, Bishop Seabury’s leadership aside he elicited nothing but admirable contempt from many including George Washington. Forgiveness may have been ultimately though grudgingly been offered though not from those of the Low Anglican Tradition.


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