Sunday, November 26, 2017

Peter Muhlenberg, Pastor, Soldier, Statesman

General Peter Muhlenberg
Last month I posted on Henry Muhlenberg, who’s considered to be the patriarch of the Lutheran Church in the United States. This month we’re taking look at his oldest son, John Peter Gabriel. A clergyman, soldier, and statesman, who, like his father, made notable contributions to the history of Pennsylvania and America.

Peter was born in Trappe, Pennsylvania, on October 1, 1746, the oldest of 4 sons and 2 daughters of Henry and Anna Maria (Weiser) Muhlenberg. Peter was a quiet boy who loved to hunt, fish, and explore. He also loved to read, and studied for a classical education at the Academy of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania), but he was not a good student. So in 1763 his father sent Peter, along with two of his brothers, to the University at Halle in Germany, where he had worked as a young man before emigrating to America.

It soon became evident to his teachers at the university that Peter was not a scholar. They concluded that he would profit more from learning a trade, so they sent him to Lubeck to work at the shop of a man named Niemeyer, who promised to teach him about medicine and how to run a business. Niemeyer didn’t keep his promises, however, and although Peter worked hard for him, all he learned was how to work in a shop. Needless to say, he was frustrated and unhappy. Early one morning he slipped out of Niemeyer’s house and signed up to join the Royal American Regiment of Foot in the British army. By the time Niemeyer found out, it was too late. Peter sailed to America with the regiment as a secretary to one of the officers. When he arrived home his father gladly paid for his trip, and Peter received an honorable discharge.

Finally he turned his attention to the study of theology and soon won praise as a preacher in Swedish and German Lutheran congregations near Philadelphia. After he was ordained as a Lutheran minister in 1768, he at first assisted his father with congregations in New Jersey, serving as assistant rector for the congregations of Zion and St. Paul’s Churches. In 1769 he became the pastor at Bedminster. He spent time hunting and fishing and gained knowledge of the countryside that would turn out to be useful later in his life. In 1770 he met and married Anna Barbara “Hannah” Meyer, a potter’s daughter. The marriage was a happy one, and resulted in six children, one of whom, Francis Swaine Muhlenberg, eventually served in Congress as a representative from Ohio. The same year Peter was called to a church in Woodstock, in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, settled mostly by Pennsylvania Lutherans. He accepted the position, but since the Anglican Church was the official state church in Virginia, he had to be ordained in that denomination in order to perform baptisms and weddings. So he traveled to England, was ordained by Anglican leaders there, and returned to America to take over leadership of the Woodstock church.

Skirmish at Lexington
While ministering at Woodstock, Peter became head of Dunmore County’s committee of safety and correspondence and in 1774 was elected to the House of Burgesses. Subsequently he served as a delegate to the First Virginia Convention during a time when revolutionary sentiment was rapidly spreading throughout England’s American colonies. American patriots and British soldiers clashed at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, and later that year George Washington personally asked Peter to accept a commission to raise and command the 8th Virginia (German) Regiment of Continentals, with the rank of colonel. Peter’s brother Fredrick Augustus, also a minister by now, vehemently opposed his serving in the military. Peter responded in a letter to him, “I am a Clergyman it is true, but I am a member of the Society as well as the poorest Layman, and my Liberty is as dear to me as any man, shall I then sit still and enjoy myself at Home when the best Blood of the Continent is spilling? . . . so far am I from thinking that I act wrong, I am convinced it is my duty to do so and duty I owe to God and my country.” Later, when the British burned down Frederick’s own church right in front of him, he not only changed his mind, but joined the army too!

"And now is the time to fight!"
According to a biography written by Peter’s great nephew in the mid 1800s, on January 21, 1776, at the Lutheran church in Woodstock, Peter read from Ecclesiastes 3, “To every thing there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven.” When he came to verse 8, “a time of war, and a time of peace,” he looked up and declared, “In the language of the Holy Writ, there is a time for all things. There is a time to preach and a time to fight. And now is the time to fight!” Sweeping off the clerical robe he was wearing, he revealed his colonel’s uniform beneath. With drums beating outside the church door, men kissed their wives goodbye and walked down the aisle to enroll in the army. Within a half hour, 162 men had joined, and by the following day 300 men from the county formed the nucleus of the 8th Virginia Regiment. There are no reports of this incident prior to this biography, and historians tend to doubt it, but it sure makes a wonderful story!

Peter’s unit first saw combat on June 28, 1776 during the British attack on Sullivan’s Island off Charleston, South Carolina, along with Col. William Thompson troops, who defended the northern part of the island from British infantry. Charles Lee, the American commander, mentioned in his report that the Virginia troops were “brave to the last degree,” and in another report said, “I know not which corps I have the greatest reason to be pleased with Muhlenberg’s Virginians, or the North Carolina troops—they are both equally alert, zealous, and spirited.”

In early 1777 Peter’s regiment was sent north to join Washington’s main army. Peter was promoted to brigadier general of the Virginia Line, commanding that Brigade in Nathanael Greene’s division at Valley Forge and serving in the battles of Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth. The greater part of the Virginia Line was then sent to the far South, while Peter was assigned to head up the defense of Virginia at the head of mainly militia units. He later commanded the first brigade in Lafayette’s Light Division during the Battle of Yorktown. This brigade was part of the Corps of Light Infantry, which included the light infantry companies of the line regiments of Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and New Jersey. Holding the American right flank, they manned two trenches dug to move American cannons closer to Cornwallis’ defenses, and the famous bayonet attack issued from them on the night of October 14, 1781, to storm Redoubt No. 10. 

Statue in U.S. Capitol
After Peter was brevetted to major general at the war’s end in 1783, he and his family settled in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. He was a founding member of the Pennsylvania’s chapter of the Society of the Cincinnati and in 1784 was elected to Pennsylvania’s supreme executive council, serving as vice president under Benjamin Franklin from 1785 to 1788. He won election to the First Congress (1789–1791), the Third Congress (1793–1795), and the Sixth Congress (1799–1801). He was considered a key figure in the Democrat-Republican party of Pennsylvania, managing Thomas McKean’s successful campaign for governor and helping to elect Thomas Jefferson President.

In 1801 Peter was elected to the U.S. Senate, but before taking his seat, he resigned to accept the lucrative position of supervisor of U.S. customs in the Pennsylvania district. In 1803 he became collector of customs of the Port of Philadelphia. He remained active as a Lutheran layman until his death on his 61st birthday, October 1, 1807, at his suburban home at Gray's Ferry on the Schuylkill River. He’s buried at the Augustus Lutheran Church in Trappe, Pennsylvania, where both his parents are interred. 

Henry Muhlenberg founded a dynasty that made impressive contributions in society, business, the military, and politics. What other great historical figures do you know of who founded American dynasties that did great good for our country? What fields were they engaged in, and what do you find attractive about them and their descendents?
J. M. Hochstetler is the daughter of Mennonite farmers and a lifelong student of history. She is also an author, editor, and publisher. Her American Patriot Series is the only comprehensive historical fiction series on the American Revolution. Northkill, Book 1 of the Northkill Amish Series coauthored with Bob Hostetler, won Foreword Magazine’s 2014 INDY Book of the Year Bronze Award for historical fiction. Book 2, The Return, released April 1, 2017. One Holy Night, a contemporary retelling of the Christmas story, was the Christian Small Publishers 2009 Book of the Year.


  1. Boy, was he very a busy man for not being b= very scholarly! What a legacy he left! I k now of one ancestor that fought at Brandywine!

    1. He really was, Bev. lol! Love it that you had an ancestor who fought at Brandywine!

  2. Sounds like a fascinating man! It's amazing the influence one man can have on his domain, and on society.

  3. It really is amazing, Connie. And I suspect that all of us have more influence on the people around us than we realize. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. I agree that he was one amazing man! Thanks for sharing.