Thursday, December 15, 2011

David Barton and the "Black Robe Regiment"

It has been a while since I have posted anything on American Creation (my apologies). I've had some computer problems as of late and, as always, life gets busy. I am planning on getting back into the American Creation swing of things big time in 2012.

A few weeks back, fellow blogger Jon Rowe took note of a post by AC friend, Chris Rodda on David Barton and the Black Robe Regiment. I may be mistaken but I never saw any followup material from Ms. Rodda on this subject. As a result, I decided to do my own brief inquiry into this topic.

Back in 2010, during his "Restoring Honor" rally, radio talk show personality, Glenn Beck proposed the "restoration" of "The Black Robe Regiment." According to Beck and Barton, the Black Robe Regiment were:

the preachers [of the Revolution], because they wore black robes. Black preachers, white preachers — they all wore black probes. And the British specifically blamed the preachers for the American Revolution. That's where the title "Black Regiment" came from. One of the British officials talked about that. It's interesting that the British so hated the preachers — they claim if it hadn't been for the preachers, America would still be a happy British colony. So they blamed it on the preachers. When they come to America, they start to decimating churches. They went to New York City. Nineteen churches — they burned 10 to the ground. They went across Virginia burning churches. They went across New Jersey burning churches. Because they blamed these preachers.
First off, Barton's claim that the British "specifically blamed the preachers for the American Revolution" is not entirely accurate. Sure, some British leaders blamed preachers but this was simply one in a huge host of scapegoats for the British. In reality, Barton's claim is based more on the current culture wars than on actual history. Barton and Beck, like their fellow Christian nationalists, need to "prove" that the American Revolution was a religious -- particularly Christian -- war/event, and to do so they make some questionable conclusions based on very weak evidence.

On his website for the Black Robe Regiment, Barton provides a singular citation as "proof" that the British feared this "Black Robe Regiment." The citation comes from a Peter Oliver, who was a British official living in Boston. Oliver essentially labels the American clergy, who were sympathetic to revolution, as "Black Robes." But what Barton neglects to mention is the fact that Oliver labels them as such due to his belief that they had "replaced God at the pulpit with politics", a practice that both Barton and Beck are quite familiar with. Somehow, Barton is able to take the words of a single British official living in Boston and apply it to the entire British nation. In other words, if this Peter Oliver said it, all of Great Britain must have felt the same.

Second, Barton's claim that the British "decimated churches" is completely misleading. While it is true that the British (and more so their Hessian mercenaries) were responsible for the ransacking of a few American churches, it is NOT true that these churches were specifically targeted for their teachings. They were usually ransacked for goods and supplies or made into shelters or hospitals for soldiers; a common practice used by almost every army of the time. Heck, the Union Army would do the same during the Civil War yet nobody ever assumed religious persecution as the reason like Barton has with the British. Barton is simply implying that since the existing churches, located in battle ground areas of the war were damaged, this must therefore mean that the British disliked their teachings/religion.

Not so.

Reality is that just as many (if not more) churches were destroyed by rebel patriots who were either upset at the loyalist leanings of the clergy/parishioners or didn't want the church to fall into the hands of the British. When Barton mentions the "Nineteen churches" in New York that were burned to the ground, he neglects to tell his audience that many were burned as a result of the "Great Fire of 1776", which was most certainly started by rebel patriots (even George Washington blamed patriots for having caused the fire). For example, Trinity Church in New York (yes, the same Trinity Church made famous in the movie National Treasure as the location of the buried treasure) was burned to the ground in 1776 as a result of the Great Fire. Reverend Charles Inglis, assistant minister of Trinity Church, noted that the church's teachings of "passive obedience and no resistance" and "to watch and refute all publications disrespectful to the Government tending to a breach" were met with severe scorn by those who wanted revolution. In fact, the teachings of Trinity Church and other loyalist churches throughout New York (much of New York remained loyal to the King) were met with such severe scorn from patriots that Reverend Inglis and other clergy voted unanimously to shut the churches down. As Reverend Inglis stated:

By omitting the prayers for the king, give that mark of disaffection to their sovereign. To have prayed for him had been rash to the last degree—the inevitable consequence had been a demolition of the churches, and the destruction of all who frequented them...I shut up the churches. Even this was attended with great hazard; for it was declaring, the strongest manner, our disapprobation of independency, and that under the eye of Washington and his army.
In addition, Barton's source for "proof" that the British "decimated" churches comes primarily from the writings of Daniel Dorchester and Benjamin Franklin Morris: two 19th-century Christian advocates who, like Barton, were obsessed with "proving" that America was a Christian Nation. But what Barton neglects to note in his narrative is the fact that BOTH of these men ALSO noted that many of these churches, which were supposedly "decimated" by the British, were actually destroyed by American patriots:

The church at Crumpound was burned to save it from being occupied by the enemy. That of Mount Holly was burned by accident or design. The one at Princeton was taken possession of by the Hessian soldiers and stripped of its pew and gallery for fuel.
Apparently Barton would prefer that we believe in this version of the American Revolution than in reality:

When Glenn Beck and David Barton discussed the formation of the Black Robe Regiment, they did so not out of a desire to reveal the truth of American history, but instead to push forward a political/religious agenda:

Apparently, the idea began with Beck's favorite historian, David Barton. When Beck told Barton he wanted to "get religious leaders together," Barton suggested forming a Black Robe Regiment -- named after what Barton had said was a group of preachers who supported the American Revolution from their pulpits. Beck decided that was "exactly" what he was looking for because it was a movement supposedly like his that was "not about politics."
In short, Beck and Barton did what they have always done: hijack history and twist the truth in order to add legitimacy to their claims, and this piece of propaganda is the result:

As for the "rights in the Declaration of Independence" coming from the clergy, Barton needs to go back to History, 101. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the DOI, cited Locke, Cicero, Montesquieu and other figures as "inspiration" for what he put into the DOI, but AT NO TIME did Jefferson give any kind of credit to the Bible or any other specific Christian teaching. And, perhaps more importantly, of the twenty-seven reasons for declaring Independence that are mentioned in the DOI, not a single one has anything to do with religion. Why? Because the American Revolution was NOT a religious war like so many involved in the culture wars want us to believe. It was a war over representation, taxation, ultimate sovereignty and a host of other reasons. But religion was NOT the cause of the Revolution. Yes, it may have been used to justify rebellion to the motherland but that was the extent of its usage.

In the video piece, Barton also states that Ministers were at the "forefront of everything that happened" during the Revolution. Uh, no. Of the 55 signers to the DOI, only one (John Witherspoon) was an actual minister (as opposed to Barton's claim that 27 were ministers). But for the record, just as many (if not more) ministers preached AGAINST revolution as those who were in favor.

In conclusion, I know that Barton and Beck probably mean well in their efforts to "restore" America's "forgotten heritage" and I don't necessarily disagree with their motives. With that said, the fact remains that their misuse of history does not help them in their quest. Twisting facts, misusing quotes, and fabricating events doesn't "restore" a damn thing. I share in Beck and Barton's belief that religion is the most awesome and influential power on earth and that it was EXTREMELY important to those of early America. However, our Founding Fathers were smart enough to recognize the FACT that religion should have no place in government.

Ok, Ms. Rodda and TVD, where did I go wrong? I trust you will help me sort out the bugs. =)


jimmiraybob said...

And the British specifically blamed the....

Good to see you back. Great post.

One thing that usually gets glossed over is the assumption that the conclusion of the revolution is retroactive to the DOI (or earlier). If we’d lost the war the colonies would still have been the colonies with the consequences of a suppressed rebellion on their hands.

At the time that Barton refers to, all colonists were still technically "the British." And, by the criteria usually presented by the Christian nationalists, Britain was as much a Christian nation/empire as its colonies were Christian colonies, so that the American Revolution can't be framed as a Christian vs. “other” conflict.

Then there are the loyalists - colonialists not willing to give up British citizenship - who appear to have had the same religious habits as their more rebellious brethren. Some of the “Black Robes” were clearly loyalist and apparently preached that from the pulpits.

Then there is the case of the black robes that weren’t sufficiently in favor of independence that had to be “encouraged” by the mob…uh, I mean their congregations.1

In essence, the “Black Robes” were all over the place as far as their loyalties and enthusiasm.

1) From: Breen, T.H., 2010. American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People. Hill and Wang, New York. pp. 337. (pp 143-146):

“The reverend John Smalley of New Britain (jrb – First Church of Christ, New Britain, Connecticutt) complained bitterly to anyone who would listen that he resented the disruption of his normal Sunday sermon. People kept popping in and out of the church, talking about the crisis at Boston and urging all able-bodied men to appear that afternoon for a general muster. Smalley suspected that the story would soon be exposed for what it was, a product of exaggeration and fear. As he explained in a Connecticut newspaper, ‘As to what was said on occasion of the muster [day], considering the extreme incredibility of the news we had in itself – considering how it came – and that it was so long altogether unconfirmed – considering also, what a handful of regular troops were then in Boston, I verily thought there was not a call for us to muster on the Sabbath, and rush down from this distance. I spoke my mind. But it would have been better, I apprehended, if I had not.’28

“Smalley misread community opinion. No sooner had he appealed for calm during a public emergency than his parishioners suggested that he was actually scheming to undermine the American cause. They recounted sermons that he had delivered in recent months that smacked of a pernicious political doctrine known as passive obedience or nonresistance.

“When Andrus (jrb - congregant in later testimony) countered with the observation that it seemed to him that everyone was obliged to help the victims of British aggression in Boston, Smalley exclaimed, ‘What! Will you fight against your king? Lemuel Hotchkiss provided an even more damning statement. The interruption of the church service had deeply offended Smalley, and in an unguarded moment the minister had said ‘he thought it very strange that people should think of fighting in this cause, for that he thought they had not a call or right to do it – that they could not go by any authority, but must be considered as a mob, which Mr. Smalley repeated several times.’ One after another the people of New Britain came forward to denounce their own minister.29“

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, thx for asking, Brad. I don't like reducing this to the Rodda vs. Barton war-by-factoid.

The larger answer is that without considering the English civil wars of the 1600s and Presbyterian/Calvinism's role in them, none of this has any context, which is why we've spent so much time around here not on factoid arguments but 100+ years of "Calvinist resistance theory."

By the time of the American Revolution, the Calvinist arguments are so interwoven with political theory that they're pretty much inextricable. ["Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God."]

This is helpful

as well as the source thesis text by Richard Gardinier of Marquette University

which sorts out some of the Barton factoids.

On one hand

Did King George say this ["Presbyterian Revolution"]? Here is how Dr. Gardiner summarizes his research on whether King George III would have said this -

The answer to the overarching question, then, is a nuanced affirmative. Did King George III call the American Revolution a Presbyterian Rebellion? Maybe, or even probably, but primary source documentation is lacking. Did King George III consider the American Revolution a Presbyterian Rebellion? Definitely. ...[H]e gave every impression that it was a sentiment he held. Nothing suggests that George III disagreed with the opinion of his advisor, William Jones, who said that the American Revolution was a Presbyterian war from the beginning [Gardiner, p. 275-276].

But on the other,

Of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence 34 were Episcopalians while only 6 were Presbyterians. In that light, it seems that the king would have had more warrant to call the revolution an "Episcopal Rebellion" than a "Presbyterian Rebellion."

Does Barton overstate his case? More by omission of other factors. Is there truth in it? Yes.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Ray Soller & I have interesting histories with Dr. Gardiner.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Just read through the whole post very carefully. Great job Brad.

J. L. Bell said...

I don't think it helps David Barton and his followers to claim to be historically accurate while referring to a "Black Robe(d) Regiment." Loyalist judge Peter Oliver wrote about a "black regiment" of anti-Crown clergymen.

Anonymous said...

For Barton, it is unhelpful and rather unsophisticated to try and "prove" that the American Revolution was a "Christian" struggle by teasing out specific actions of the British army during the Revolutionary War. Without context, it is impossible to understand the significance of church burnings, etc. What is the significance of 19 churches in New York compared to the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of other buildings burned down at the same time?

However, it would be equally incorrect to dismiss Burton's point out of hand . . . perhaps there is a component of the American Revolution here that deserves to be appreciated and better understood outside of the reality of competing political agendas.

Anonymous said...


Tom Van Dyke said...

I like this Zinn Slayer guy, heh heh.

He recently posted on Gilberson & Stephens' "The Anointed," a polemic against the evangelical religious right, etc. Since I'm going to pop these lengthy [epic!] colloquies I had with Dr. Stephens [over at John Fea's place] at the Zinn is Dead blog, I'll drop the links here too.

Enjoy, or in the case of Brother JimmyRayBob, don't.

Brian Tubbs said...

The subject of ministers in the American Revolution is of great interest to me. I enjoyed reading this article, Brad. Thanks for writing it.

Of course, I disagree with a few of your conclusions, but I'm sure you expected that. :-)

The one point of disagreement I would like to comment on here is your assertion: "...our Founding Fathers were smart enough to recognize the FACT that religion should have no place in government." That's just no true. I'll comment on that more in a blog post.

Val said...

Thank you for the article. Appreciate your thoughts on this. I actually work with a big christian ministry, where David Barton is very popular and appeared in several tv shows as a guest speaker. I also find his reasoning and selective usage of facts rather questionable. Unfortunally most modern christians don't use discretion and are ready to consume anything if it's wrapped in sevaral seemingly appropriate bible verses and "feel good" theology.