Comment: Pastors in ‘Blacked-Robed Regiment’ get history wrong

Trying to emulate Revolutionary War clergy, the conservative ministers dishonor the Founders’ ideals.

By Thomas Lecaque and J L Tomlin / Special To The Washington Post

Pastor Dan Fisher, a self-proclaimed leader of the modern-day Black-Robed Regiment, dresses like a Revolutionary War officer, pretending to be Peter Muhlenberg. He argues that pastors should preach patriotism from the pulpit and — like Muhlenberg — take up arms and lead their congregations to war to defend those ideals.

Fisher not only preaches but also served two terms in the Oklahoma House of Representatives, where the Republican attempted to ban Advanced Placement history classes in Oklahoma public schools for “not being patriotic enough,” and ran for governor in 2018. He was a featured speaker — alongside former Donald Trump adviser Stephen Bannon and Patriot Prayer founder Joey Gibson — at the Rod of Iron Ministries’ Freedom Festival.

And Fisher is not alone in this sort of religious theater. Chuck Baldwin, a Florida pastor, launched his own version of the Black-Robed Regiment in 2007, promising a right-wing return to a mythologized 18th-century world, calling for members of the clergy to stand against the federal government to protect the Constitution and pushing for political candidates to be male heads of households that are run in patriarchal lines, saying, “No henpecked men here.” Glenn Beck’s version in 2010 was a tea party infusion of religious fundamentalism that gained more traction; he was quickly joined by Fisher, evangelist David Barton, former GOP vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, former House speaker Newt Gingrich and others.

This “Black-Robed Regiment” routine — dressing in the garb of the Revolutionary era and specifically evoking the image of American ministers waging that war — is not passive historical cosplay. It is advocacy for insurrection. By referencing the history of the Black-Robed Regiment, which they intentionally misinterpret, these “Patriot” pastors seem to be deliberately manipulating ideas about patriotism and the past to promote religious violence. But the actual history shows that pro-revolutionary clergy members in the 18th century — who rejected the label — believed deeply in personal autonomy and a more egalitarian social order, not violence to defend the status quo.

The phrase “Black-Robed Regiment” began as an epithet coined during the American Revolution by British pamphleteers. They hoped to disparage Americans as religious fanatics whipped into a seditious frenzy by a conspiracy of militant, politicized religious leaders. It was propaganda, designed to brand the rebellion in British America as irrational, corrupt and chaotic, and to unite the British public behind the growing effort to suppress it.

The idea even seemed to hold some truth: Ministers’ privileged social role in British America made them invaluable resources in the Revolutionary movement. They were the main class looked to by an incredibly religious society to decipher and interpret rapidly unfolding events. They presided over most communities’ key infrastructure: administering militia documents, organizing military musters, disseminating news when other avenues of information were censored or shuttered and explaining the conflict in providential or apocalyptic terms their communities could understand.

Many ministers were integral in advocating resistance to Britain before the colonies’ violent opposition to imperial policy began, and some, such as Muhlenberg, even served in the conflict once fighting erupted. Yet, those religious leaders of the 18th century who positioned themselves as pro-patriot were also profoundly liberal by the politics of their day, advocating for social, political and economic changes that appalled conservatives and even many moderates. Far from embracing or espousing a return to a nostalgic past, their support for the revolution was rooted in the idea that the standing order should be radically upended, with new groups of citizens empowered. They were not interested in preserving the eroding power of old groups.

The British label of “Black-Robed Regiment” also implied many things that were never true. Far from a monolithic group, American members of the clergy were extremely divided going into the American Revolution. Most Protestant Christian sects were still reeling from the divisive waves of schism and intense public disagreement set in motion by the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s.

These revivals divided American Christians into openly warring factions of “old lights,” hostile to the Awakening and its empowerment of the uneducated and lower classes, and “new lights” spreading a message of radically liberal views on personal autonomy, egalitarianism, anti-elitism and social pluralism. American Christian members of the clergy therefore had no shared approach or sustained organization leading into the conflict with Britain. Many religious conservatives, such as Joseph Galloway, publicly argued against the revolution; even after its successful conclusion.

Far from a calculating cabal, American ministers distrusted one another as competitors for power and influence. American opposition to British plans to install Anglican bishops in the American colonies, what is known as the “episcopacy controversy,” of the mid-1760s inspired almost universal opposition and suspicion. John Adams remembered it as the key event that ignited American resistance to Britain. Even here, though, American clergy’s planned “Christian Union” to organize religious resistance never got off the ground, because of squabbling over who would lead the effort and jealousy over which groups stood to benefit the most.

In reality, American ministers spent more time jockeying for position in interdenominational doctrinal debates than articulating or executing a shared political policy goal.

In fact, the British implication that they were overt or even passive political actors — serving as a “Black-Robed Regiment” — deeply offended American ministers at the time. Even some pro-revolutionary ministers, such as Jonathan Mayhew, resented the implication that their actions represented anything other than sincere theological interpretations and went to great pains to separate themselves from the political factions forming in Colonial America. Seeing their religious interpretations appropriated by political actors, many worried that the growing political and social upheaval in British America was divine punishment, not the beginnings of a process of deliverance.

It is profoundly ironic, then, that modern conservative Christians in the United States have claimed the mantle of this imagined, reactionary label for themselves. By invoking the term, they hope to assert an identity as the true heirs of American revolutionary fervor and to make their political agenda synonymous with the revolution itself. They have been doing so for over a decade.

Eighteenth-century patriot religious leaders would have found this crass, opportunistic and at least marginally blasphemous. Ultimately, those Colonial American ministers who supported the revolution embraced the power of individuals to decide for themselves. They believed in a kind of personal autonomy and spiritual faith that defied category, group loyalty and the political purism viewed as indispensable to today’s would-be inheritors of the tradition.

That history is lost in the current incarnation, which is not concerned with personal autonomy. Instead, it is mustering Christian violence in service of the preexisting crisis in American evangelical Christianity. According to a Public Religion Research Institute survey in March, some 61 percent of white evangelical Protestants believe the 2020 election was stolen, and that specific sectarian identity and conspiratorial lens have actually swollen the ranks of evangelical Christians, with a 4 percent increase between 2016 and 2020, specifically boosted by Trump supporters. This new age “Black-Robed Regiment,” then, is not just a bastardization of Revolutionary history but a dangerous movement to provide religious fervor and militarism to a group already champing at the bit for violent revolution.

Thomas Lecaque is an associate professor of history at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa.

J L Tomlin is a lecturer of early American history at the University of North Texas.

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