American Character: John Peter Muhlenberg

John Peter Muhlenberg was pastor of a church in Woodstock, Virginia, prior to the American Revolution. His interest in government was evident—he was elected to the House of Burgesses in 1774 and was known as a follower of Patrick Henry.

As events unfolded into 1775, a year that saw the battles of Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill initiate colonial resistance to British policies, Muhlenberg sensed that as a pastor he had a responsibility to challenge his flock to put their faith into action.

He concluded a sermon in1775 with these words:

There is a time for all things—a time to preach and a time to pray. There is a time to fight, and that time has now come.

He then took off his clerical gown and revealed his militia uniform underneath. Three hundred men joined him as he rode off to join a Virginia regiment. From 1776 to 1783, he served in the Continental Army, making him one of the select few who were part of the army for nearly the entire war. He saw action at Charleston, Brandywine, Stony Point, and at the final battle of Yorktown. He was with Washington during the brutal winter at Valley Forge in 1777-1778.

When his brother complained that he had abandoned the church for the army, Muhlenberg replied,

I am a clergyman, it is true, but I am a member of society as well as the poorest layman, and my liberty is as dear to me as to any man. Shall I then sit still and enjoy myself at home when the best blood of the continent is spilling? . . . Do you think if America should be conquered I should be safe?

Clergymen are citizens as much as anyone else. They have the same rights and liberties, and when those are in danger, God may lead them to take action. That was Muhlenberg’s belief.

After the war, he served as vice president of the Pennsylvania government, then was elected to the first House of Representatives under the nation’s new Constitution, where he held his seat from 1789-1795, and again from 1799-1801. Although elected to the Senate in 1801, he opted instead to take the position as supervisor of U.S. Customs in Pennsylvania. He never went back to the pulpit, but continued to be an active Lutheran layman until his death in 1807.

The statue of Muhlenberg posted above can be found in the United States Capitol. It shows Muhlenberg taking off his clerical robe to reveal his uniform. Each state could choose two individuals to represent the state in the Capitol building. Considering how many influential men from Virginia impacted the foundation of the country, it’s instructive and  fascinating that Virginians chose Muhlenberg to be one of their two representatives. Apparently his inspiring call to service and his dedication to the war for independence made quite an impression.