J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Roots of the “Black Robed Regiment” in 2010

Yesterday’s look at Oklahoma legislator and minister Dan Fisher showed how he’s active in the “Black Robed Regiment,” a movement among some Christian pastors to be more militantly involved in politics.

I’m sure the “Black Robe(d) Regiment” phenomenon is worthy of deeper study. The short version, as summarized at Media Matters and at Wikipedia, is that it arose from a conversation between author David Barton and broadcaster Glenn Beck (shown here) in 2010 and was quickly picked up by like-minded ministers eager to become more involved in political affairs.

Barton’s Wallbuilders site includes an page promoting the movement while the National Black Robe Regiment website includes an article by Barton it titles “The Original Black Robe Regiment.” This being the internet, there are other domains using the “Black Robe” trope and no way to tell if some are more “official” than others.

Barton has become notorious for distorting historical evidence to support his Christianist view of the American Revolution and early republic. Given the place of religion in eighteenth-century society, especially in New England, it should be hard to overstate its importance, but Barton has done so habitually. He’s also ventured into topics unrelated to Christianity but embedded in modern right-wing politics, such as gun ownership, and proved equally unreliable.

Barton’s article on the “Original Black Robe Regiment” appears to be typical of his approach. It proffers an impressive number of footnotes—101 in all. On closer examination, however, those citations don’t add up to so much.

Footnote 66, for example, is simply a repetition of footnote 1 when Barton returns to the phrase “black regiment.” But that set of sources doesn’t actually offer evidence for the essay’s first sentence:
The Black Robed Regiment was the name that the British placed on the courageous and patriotic American clergy during the Founding Era (a backhanded reference to the black robes they wore). [1]
In fact, Google Books can’t find the phrase “black robed regiment” from any source prior to this century. It appears that Barton made it up, inadvertently or on purpose, based on the actual period phrase “Black Regiment,” which I’ll discuss tomorrow.

My favorite footnote in the article is attached to this passage:
When Paul Revere set off on his famous ride, it was to the home of the Rev. [Jonas] Clark in Lexington that he rode. Patriot leaders John Hancock and Samuel Adams were lodging (as they often did) with the Rev. Clark. After learning of the approaching British forces, Hancock and Adams turned to Pastor Clark and inquired of him whether the people were ready to fight. Clark unhesitatingly replied, “I have trained them for this very hour!” [47]
The note:
[47] Franklin Cole, They Preached Liberty (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1941), p. 34. Only source we can locate is Cole’s.
I doubt that second sentence was meant to be left for us to see. It indicates that Barton and his research team had enough questions about whether “Pastor Clark” really said those words to look for a better source than a book published by a Christian evangelical press 166 years after the event. But they failed to find any other source to support Cole’s quotation, despite the many accounts and histories of the Lexington alarm—which should have made them skeptical about that book. Instead, Barton cited it in this essay seven more times.

In those hundred footnotes I count seven primary sources from the eighteenth century: Peter Oliver’s account of the Revolution from shortly after the war, two citations of 1770s Boston newspapers taken from a note in the 1961 edition of Oliver, letters of John Adams and Benjamin Rush, a 1789 newspaper report, and a collection of sermons.

Some other contemporaneous writing no doubt appears in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century books that provide the bulk of the citations and quotations, but those books also contain unsupported traditions and fables like the one quoted above. That’s why I think it’s important to go back to the earliest documents, consider them fully and skeptically, and not just quote what I like uncritically because I can’t find anything more solid.

It’s easy to find primary sources on eighteenth-century American religion. The problem is that those sources present a much more complex, multi-faceted, and unfamiliar picture of religious life and thought than the Black Robe(d) Regiment would apparently like.

COMING UP: What Peter Oliver really wrote.


John L. Smith said...

BUSTED. Big time. Thanks again J.L. for exposing bogus quotes. Ick.

Jimmy Dick said...

David Barton is a liar. I really hope he reads that line and threatens to sue me because I would love to go to court on this issue. It will never happen because Barton knows his lies will be exposed on record. He is not a historian just like I am not a preacher.

Barton creates a history to support his ideology and religious beliefs. In doing so he mangles history and rips it out of context. For him it is about creating a history he can present to people that places him in a positive light. The reality is that he is outright lying to people.

The majority of the Founders would despise David Barton. The Black Robe Regiment stands for some of the very things the Founders fought against. I find it hilarious that this group wants to say they support the Constitution when they clearly ignore many of its principles such as the First Amendment's Freedom of Religion.

J. L. Bell said...

It's well known outside David Barton's fan base that his statements can't be trusted. Even many evangelical and conservative Christians who might support the same policies have moved away from him.

What I found interesting about that essay was how Barton works: using biased secondary sources uncritically, ignoring doubts when they arose, loading up footnotes to appear more impressive. And all to bolster a premise that's off on the wrong foot to begin with: the British did not use the term "Black Robe(d) Regiment" at all, and used the term "Black Regiment" in very limited fashion.

Jeremy Greene said...

You could do a whole series on David Barton. That might take you into the next century...

J. L. Bell said...

Other folks already have done and continue to do extensive work on Barton’s claims, so I don’t feel a need to undertake anything so systematic. Thank the gods.

not Bridget said...

I would like to refer anyone interested in David Barton's "historical" career to the Texas Freedom Network website. One of the TFN's causes is monitoring the State Board of Education, which added Barton to the "Expert" panel reviewing the social studies curricula back in 2009. The standards & textbooks eventually adopted were not optimum but could have been far worse. The magic of Google will let you see the detailed dossier on Barton compiled by TFN, should you wish to do so.

I'll gladly follow this site for more Real History!