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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Friday, April 18, 2014

The “No King But Jesus” Myth

Here’s a myth about the fighting at Lexington in April 1775 that’s become popular on the American far right over the last thirty years.

What might be the earliest telling comes from Charles A. Jennings, a Christian Identity speaker who operated the ironically named “Truth in History” website and wrote:
On April 18, 1775 John Adams and John Hancock were at the home of Rev. Jonas Clarke, a Lexington pastor and militia leader. That same night Paul Revere arrived to warn them of the approaching Redcoats. The next morning British Major Pitcairn shouted to an assembled regiment of Minutemen; “Disperse, ye villains, lay down your arms in the name of George the Sovereign King of England.” The immediate response of Rev. Jonas Clarke or one of his company was: “We recognize no Sovereign but God and no King but Jesus.”
Fake History tackled this myth in 2010, pointing out the myriad problems:
  • Samuel Adams had been in Lexington earlier that morning, not John.
  • Jonas Clarke was town minister and thus by law not a “militia leader.”
  • Clarke wasn’t on the common during the confrontation with the British.
  • Most important, there’s no evidence for this exchange.
We have dozens of first-hand descriptions of the confrontation on Lexington common from 1775 and afterwards, coming from men on both sides of the conflict. Not one includes the words “No king but Jesus.”

“No king but Jesus” was actually the title of a pamphlet that the English republican Henry Haggar published in 1652. Some historians have called it a slogan of the Levellers, a radical faction in the English Civil War. But British society had repudiated that idea, installing kings again.

That meant those words weren’t really a respectable motto, even in eighteenth-century New England. The one contemporaneous report of Americans adopting the slogan during the Revolutionary period came from an angry British appointee trying to discredit the anti-Stamp movement in Pennsylvania in 1765. Reviving that call in 1775 would have undercut the provincials’ cause because they were proclaiming their loyalty to King George III and the British constitution.


G. Lovely said...

The 'Christian Identity' link send you to on-line Casino information.

J. L. Bell said...

Whoa! I fixed that now. Thanks for the alert.

I drafted this posting months back, and at the time that link went to the website of someone who tracked cults. I guess he's out of that business.

John Johnson said...

Was it just against Massachusetts Law for a minister to be an officer in the militia? I'm just thinking of examples from elsewhere in the colonies (particularly the South) where ministers did lead members of their congregation into battle.

J. L. Bell said...

Massachusetts law specifically exempted ministers, as well as a bunch of other types of elite men, from having to do militia service. The whole point of military hierarchy was to define leadership by rank, and I know of no example of a Massachusetts minister becoming a militia officer, much less a commanding officer. The man in charge of the Lexington militia was clearly Capt. John Parker.

There are some examples of ministers turning out with militia. The Rev. William Emerson of Concord did so on 19 Apr 1775. He did so as an ordinary man in the ranks, not an officer. It's likely he had more influence than the average private, but the commander was Col. James Barrett and his subaltern officers were already designated.

I don't know of evidence whether Emerson had drilled with his town militia companies before April 1775. For some towns there's a state record of who turned out on 19 April and needed to be paid for service, but I don't think there's a document for Concord, and thus no way of knowing how Emerson was accounted for.

Charles Bahne said...

The pamphlet "Muster Rolls of the Participating Companies...", sold at Minute Man National Historical Park, includes lists of men in two of the four companies of the Concord militia in 1775, and notes that there are no records for the other two companies. William Emerson does not appear in the two companies listed, those of Capt. David Brown and Capt. Charles Miles.

This document was compiled by Frank Warren Coburn in 1912. It is based largely on records in the Massachusetts Archives, plus supplemental information for the towns -- including Concord -- which did not submit claims for services rendered to the Provincial Congress.

Anonymous said...

This article is way off the mark in regards to ministers not being allowed to serve in the military. Rev. John Peter Muhlenberg became a Major General in the Continental Army and commander of the 8th Virginia Regiment during the Revolution.

The day he enlisted to lead he preached from Ecclesiastes 5 about a time for all things under heaven, and as he reached the fateful verse about a “time for war and a time for peace” he removed his priestly frock, walked to the back of the church house, and asked who was joining him. A statute depicting this very act rests in the Capitol in Washington D.C. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

It’s very important when one sets out to correct the mistakes of others that he takes the time to study the subject himself. Ministers could serve in the military, did so, and some of them commanded troops.

J. L. Bell said...

The comment from Unknown is way off the mark in how it characterizes this article and the comments above. At no point does the posting discuss "ministers not being allowed to serve in the military." Instead, it notes that ministers were specifically exempted from militia training and not on militia rolls, while also noting that the Rev. William Emerson appears to have turned out with other Concord men on the first day of the war.

The Unknown commenter describes a "statute" (actually a statue) of Peter Muhlenberg. A statue is not evidence of an event, only of how the people who created that statue wished to remember that event. The story of Muhlenberg literally throwing off his ministerial robes in church developed in the mid-1800s, decades after the Revolutionary War. It was probably inspired by a literal reading of an early statement that he switched his ecclesiastical robes for a military uniform.

Furthermore, the point of that story is not that Peter Muhlenberg served as a soldier while also being a minister. Rather, he gave up the pulpit to become a military officer and then went into politics, never returning to an ecclesiastical career. As this biography from U. of Penn. says, “Muhlenberg did not feel he could return to being a parson after having been a soldier.”