Muhlenberg’s Robe

Last night, the PBS series, History Detectives, looked at the legend of Peter Muhlenberg’s robe. The story goes that Lutheran pastor John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg, son of American German Lutheran patriarch Heinrich Melchior Mühlenberg, stood in his pulpit one day at the beginning of the American Revolution and said, “There is a time to talk and a time to fight–now is the time to fight!”–dramatically opening his robe’s to reveal underneath a military uniform. There are many paintings of the scene–one hangs in the library at my alma mater, the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg.

A robe owned by the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia is said to be the robe he wore that day, said to have been donated by the Henkel family. Well, there is documentation that Muhlenberg gave his robe to a Henkel. But, alas, the legend first appears in print 70 years later, and was probably written in a time of hostility to immigrants to show that German immigrants had a long, patriotic history.