By Dan Shine
“Washington’s Black Regiment”
Can you imagine Congregational ministers fanning the fires of war? It couldn’t be possible, could it? And yet, the English authorities termed the colonial ministers of 1775 “Washington’s Black Regiment,” referring to their black robes and their stance in the coming rebellion.
Eighteenth-century America was a deeply religious culture that lived self-consciously under the eye of heaven. Events were generally perceived by the colonists, not from their own viewpoint, but from God’s perspective. The colonists didn’t see themselves as a ragtag settlement of religious exiles, but as God’s special people.
Lacking all of today’s media, they turned instead to the church sermon; it was generally an hour and a half long, and was part prophet, newspaper, video, internet, community college and social therapist all rolled into one. By the time a colonist turned 70, he would have listened to some 7000 sermons, totaling 10,000 hours; this is about the amount of lecture time a college student would need today to earn ten different undergraduate degrees, without ever repeating the same course! The colonists therefore, habitually turned to their ministers for news, information and guidance.
In 1775, English royal supremacy was being taught to the colonists at the point of a bayonet. King George III had issued a declaration asserting English sovereignty in “all cases whatsoever” in the colonies. This was an outrage to the colonists, who up until this point had considered themselves loyal Englishmen; they saw in this new declaration a British plot to deprive them of their fundamental English rights and God-ordained liberties.
The American Revolutionary era is known as the “Golden Age of Oratory.” We have all heard the famous words of Patrick Henry, Benjamin Franklin and the like. Yet, it is not well known that patriotic oratory from the pulpit played a key role in the Revolutionary movement.
The American Revolution was first and foremost a religious event. The ministers saw in the English actions, tyranny and idolatry, and considered these actions blasphemous. The preachers, quoting Romans 13, admonished their flocks to “be subject to higher powers” than the English. They firmly believed that it would be sinful not to resist English blasphemy, even by force of arms.
Before the battles of Lexington and Concord—“the shot heard ‘round the world”—the Rev. William Emerson (grandfather of Ralph Waldo Emerson) preached to the colonial militia, and propelled them into what he termed “the greatest event taking place in the present age.” Quoting Chronicles 13, he said, “And behold, God himself is with us for our captain. …O children of Israel, fight ye not against the Lord God of your fathers, for ye shall not prosper.”
And so it was that Congregational ministers took to the forefront of the rebellion against England—and helped bring about the birth of our nation.