The Historical Fiction of Glenn Beck

Honestly, I couldn't get through the whole thing (there is a shorter video over at Crooks and Liars). I did make it to the point where I caught Glenn Beck saying that more preachers died during the American Revolution than any other group and that "England hated the preachers" going on to say that "in fact, if you were a preacher you were most likely to be killed during the American Revolution" presumably by the British.

Well, there were 4,435 combat deaths on the American side during the Revolutionary War. All told, there were some 10,000 total deaths from disease and malnutrition among American forces in the various army camps. Of these I'm sure more than a few were preachers but I only know of one, Rev. Ebenezer Baldwin, A.M., the pastor of the First Congregationalist Church in Danbury, Connecticut who died of a fever unrelated to combat in October 1776. His death is well-known because he was one of the first chaplains in General Washington's army.

The suggestion that the British went around massacring civilians, much less clergymen, is simply a despicable lie. Yes, the London papers described the colonial revolt as a "Presbyterian Uprising" and yes, Congregationalist ministers in New England played a pivotal role in fomenting the American revolt especially in the critical years of 1774-1776. I have a two volume set in my library entitled Political Sermons of the Founding Era, 1730-1805 that points to the important contributions made to American political thought by American clergymen before, during and after the Revolution just as the clergy played a critical role in the English Revolution of the mid-seventeenth century.

As Dr. Ellis Sandoz, a political scientist formerly at Louisiana State University, writes in the preface, "the early political culture of the American republic was deeply influenced by the religious consciousness of the New England preachers."  He adds, "indeed, it was often through the political sermon—the 'pulpit of the American Revolution'—that the political rhetoric of the period was formed, refined, and transmitted."

Jonathan Mayhew, D.D., the Congregationalist preacher at the Old West Church in Boston from 1747 until his death in 1766 is credited for the phrase "no taxation without representation" during his vigorous opposition to the Stamp Act of 1765. His fifty-five page sermon in 1750 commemorating the centennial of the execution of Charles I entitled A discourse concerning the unlimited submission and non-resistance to the high powers  (pdf) is one of the most influential political essays on the nature of civil liberties in American history and considered by historians as the key political treatise written in colonial America. In the sermon, Mayhew explored the idea that Christians were obliged to suffer under an oppressive ruler, as some Anglicans argued. Mayhew asserted that resistance to a tyrant was a "glorious" Christian duty. In offering moral sanction for political and military resistance, Mayhew anticipated the position that many ministers took during the conflict with Britain. But Mayhew's key point rested on the ancient freedoms of the pagan pre-Christian Britons.

The English constitution is originally and essentially free. The character which J. Caesar and Tacitus both give of the ancient Britons so long ago, is, That they were extremely jealous of their liberties, as well as a people of a martial spirit. Nor have there been wanting frequent instances and proofs of the same glorious spirit (in both respects) remaining in their posterity ever since,--in the struggles they have made for liberty, both against foreign and domestic tyrants.--Their kings hold their title to the throne solely by grant of parliament; i.e. in other words, by the voluntary consent of the people.

No historian is going to dispute the view that clergymen played a role in the Independence movement but Glenn Beck is suggesting that the clergy were the driving force. Nothing could be further from the historical record. John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian, was the only active clergyman among the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence. It's true that Presbyterian and Congregationalist ministers, and hence their congregations, were largely for independence. However, it also true that many Quakers, who don't have ministers but rather believe that anyone may be called to pastoral ministry, and most Anglicans remained loyal to the Crown. Ministers of the Church of England were bound by oath to support the King and the Quakers were pacifists. It bears reminding that only a third of colonials were for independence, a third opposed and a third indifferent or neutral. Regionally at the start of the war, New England was the one area most for independence and the South the most loyal to the Crown.

During the course of the war, the British occupied at various points Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Charleston and while the British did burn houses and a few churches, there isn't any record of any people being burned alive in any structure. The British did not persecute, much less slaughter, anyone for their religious beliefs during the Revolutionary War. The British viewed the situation as a law and order one. They were the law and they were going to impose order. What the British failed to comprehend is what Brown University historian Gordon Wood describes as the radicalization of American society that had taken place during the 1760s and 1770s as the Enlightenment, a largely secular event, took hold in America.

In The Radicalism of the American Revolution, Gordon Wood challenges a generation of scholarship by consensus historians who have interpreted the American Revolution as a conservative rebellion in defense of the status quo. Extending the Revolutionary era backward to the 1760’s and forward to the early nineteenth century, Wood argues that the country experienced a genuine social transformation. One class did not overthrow another, but social relationships—the connecting links between people—were permanently changed.

Wood develops this thesis by examining the country’s transition from monarchy to republic to democracy. Monarchical society linked people to those above and below them in a hierarchy of rank. The small depended on the great and such personal relationships constituted the ligaments that held society together. The republicanism that the colonists embraced during the Revolution dissolved the old monarchical connections of hierarchy, patronage, and dependency; in this sense it was as radical for the eighteenth century as Marxism would be for the nineteenth.

The patriot leaders envisioned the new American republic as a nation of freeholders governed by gentlemen of disinterested virtue whose leisure and independence from petty commercial concerns elevated them above the corruptions of self interest. Instead, artisans and mechanics took to heart the rhetoric of equality and elected men of the middling ranks who promised to champion local interests. As a result, America became the first modern society to bring ordinary people into government as rulers as well as voters—a bloodless transition to democracy that the Founding Fathers had neither anticipated nor desired.

Beginning with the Stamp Act disturbances and the formation of the Sons of Liberty in several colonial port cities in 1765, ordinary people — chiefly mechanics and artisans from various crafts (Roger Sherman for instance was a humble cobbler from Connecticut) came together to call for the boycotting of British goods in response to taxes levied by the British Crown. In 1772, the mechanics of Philadelphia, who compromised half the male population of the largest city in the colonies, formed the Patriotic Society, the first organized non-religious public society in Pennsylvania. It had to be non-religious because colonial Pennsylvania was the most religiously diverse spot on the globe with the possible exception of Holland. By 1775, mechanics and artisans had formed societies up and down the seaboard ports and began to take a more direct interest in establishing local boards of government.

In 1774, the Philadelphia Committee of Nineteen, by then the principal organization opposed to the colonial government of John Penn, invited six persons from each religious grouping in the city to take part in its deliberations. By June of that year, that Committee further added seven mechanics and six Germans to their leadership ranks. It is a seminal moment for it marks the birth of a consciously pluralistic, ethnic, religiously diverse, secular, ethnic, interest-based politics. 

Another group that took the lead in fomenting the Revolution were the Freemasons. Masonry first appeared in the colonies around 1730. Its membership grew rapidly after 1750. Many of the Revolution's heros were members: George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Richard Henry Lee, James Otis were all members. Wood writes:

Freemasonry was a surrogate religion for an Enlightenment suspicious of traditional Christianity. It offered ritual, mystery, and congregativeness without the enthusiasm and sectarian bigotry of organized religion. But Masonry was not only an enlightened institution; it was a republican one as well. It repudiated the monarchical hierarchy of family and favoritism and created a new hierarchical order that rested on 'real Worth and personal Merit' and 'brotherly affection and sincerity.'

Of course to Glenn Beck, the idea of the birth of the country was a secular event is an anathema so he is now referencing the role that the "black robe regiment" played during the Revolution as if there were some caste of warrior priests. Beck is embellishing the role of John Peter Gabriel Mühlenburg, an Anglican minister but the son of Henry Melchior Mühlenberg, the patriarch of the German Lutheran Church in colonial Pennsylvania. The younger Mühlenburg by the start of the war had moved to Virginia. The synopsis from Wikipedia:

Toward the end of 1775, Muhlenberg was authorized to raise and command as its Colonel the 8th Virginia Regiment of the Continental Army. After George Washington personally asked him to accept this task, he agreed. However, his brother Fredrick Augustus Mulenberg, who was also a minister, did not approve of him going into the army until the British burned down his own church in front of him. Then he joined the military himself.

According to a biography written by his great nephew in the mid 1800's, on January 21, 1776 in the Anglican church in Woodstock, Virginia, Reverend Muhlenberg took his sermon text from the third chapter Ecclesiastes, which starts with "To every thing there is a season..."; after reading the eighth verse, "a time of war, and a time of peace," he declared, "And this is the time of war," removing his clerical robe to reveal his Colonel's uniform. Outside the church door the drums began to roll as men turned to kiss their wives and then walked down the aisle to enlist, within half an hour 162 men were enrolled.

Over the course of the war, the British detained some 30,000 civilians out of a population of 2 million for various reasons but mostly for the very specific crime of privateering and the more general one of rebellion. Here's what Dr. Jesse Lemisch, Professor Emeritus of History at John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York, has to say on the British detentions during the Revolution:

When privateersmen were captured, they were not recognized as prisoners of war, since they were civilians, and civilians of rebellious colonies to boot. They were held indefinitely in special camps, in particular the notorious prison ship Jersey, in the Wallabout Bay off Brooklyn, and in Mill and Forton Prisons in England. These were places of bad food, overcrowding, bad health, brutal guards and harsh punishment. (A British Peer, friendly to the American prisoners, responded to the statement that Mill was run by a "dirty fellow": "Government keeps dirty fellows, to do their dirty Work.")

During the Revolution, these three complexes held upwards of ten thousand and perhaps as many as twenty or thirty thousand captured American seamen. The Americans were not granted the recognition of prisoner-of-war status, but were rather deemed rebels, pirates, murderers, candidates for hanging, detained under a suspension of habeas corpus and ineligible for exchange during most of the war. Prisoners taken into Mill were told that they were committed "for rebellion, piracy, and high treason on his Britannic Majesty's high seas, there to remain during his Majesty's pleasure, until he sees fit to pardon or otherwise dispose of you." Americans used what the British defined as illegitimate means in their quest for legitimacy and independence.

Of the 30,000 held in captivity, approximately 8,500 did not survive the war. Most died of disease or natural causes. The British generally only hung spies. Nathan Hale comes to mind but he was a schoolmaster, not a clergyman, who was convicted for spying. I know of no historical work, you know written by actual historians with PhDs from accredited universities, that claims that the British massacred civilians during the Revolutionary War. Glenn Beck isn't just distorting historical truth, he's outright fabricating to fit his own political agenda. This is calumny, pure and simple.

So where does Beck get this idea? Well, the only thing I can think of is that he must think that 2000 Mel Gibson Hollywood blockbuster The Patriot is historical fact when it is entirely fiction. 

The latest Revolutionary war epic, The Patriot, starring action hero Mel Gibson, illustrates the difficulties Hollywood faces in bringing the Revolution to life. One challenge Hollywood confronts is finding a story line that will engage a modern audience. The creators of The Patriot draw upon a number of Hollywood formulas that some would consider time-tested and others would call hackneyed.

One formula, which might be called "Little House on the Prairie in Flames," depicts a family caught up in wartime upheavals. Drawing on devices that date back to 19th century melodrama, The Patriot focuses on the trials and tribulations of a motherless family of seven. The youngest of the family's children, desperate for her father's love and traumatized by her mother's death, is mute for much of the movie. The fiancé of the eldest son is murdered by the villainous British. The love object of the film turns out to be widower's sister-in-law, allowing the family to be reunited in the end.

A second formula, which might be summed up by the phrase "Braveheart in a Three-Cornered Hat," transports an action hero into the Revolutionary era. According to the conventions of the Hollywood action film, the action hero is a reluctant warrior who is eager to avoid involvement in a conflict. Not until he suffers a deep personal loss does he seek revenge. The Patriot depicts Benjamin Martin (the character played by Gibson) as a hero of the French and Indian War and a widower who feels profound guilt over the violence he committed in that conflict and devotes himself to raising his children. Only when a Colonel named Tavington kills one of his sons does Martin take up arms against the British. In Hollywood action films, the hero, who is motivated less by principle than by a desire for vengeance, triumphs over incredible odds. The Patriot's plot is built around these these clichés.

A third formula grows out of the conventions of the Hollywood war movie. Three wars have profoundly shaped Hollywood's depiction of warfare. In World War II films, the enemies are portrayed as viciously sadistic brutes, utterly lacking in moral scruples. The Patriot nazifies its villains, who are preposterously evil. They burn plantation houses, impress slaves, murder civilians, including children, and burn down a colonial church. Nothing like that last event occurred during the Revolution-though a similar incident occurred during the Second World War.

Among conservatives confusing Hollywood fiction for historical fact is nothing new. During a campaign stop in Racine, Wisconsin in 1980, Ronald Reagan told a large crowd about a B-17 bomber pilot in World War II whose plane was hit over France. The tail gunner was wounded and trapped in his gun turret. When the tail gunner inform his captain that he could not move because he was badly wounded, the pilot replied, "Never mind son, we'll ride it down together." It was a story that Reagan would repeat from time to time. When he told the story to a meeting of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society he added a new embellishment that the pilot was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. In fact, no medal was ever awarded for such an incident and the story came, almost word for word, from the script of a movie starring Dana Andrews called "Wing and a Prayer."

I have to admit that staying up until six in the morning to debunk Glenn Beck is not my idea of fun but I will be damned that this fiction gets passed on as historical fact. Moreover, isn't it atrocious that me, an atheist, has to point out to a religious zealot like Glenn Beck that Moses didn't live 5,000 years ago, but if he lived at all, the events of the Book of Exodus are circa 1855-1600 BCE. Being off 1200 years isn't exactly accurate. You would think with the millions that this ignoramus earns he could afford a fact-checker.

Tags: Glenn Beck, Right-Wing Extremism, US History, Religion in America (all tags)

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