Was there ever a “black-robed regiment”?

Recently evangelical writer and radio host Eric Metaxas interviewed Rev. Bill Cook, the “CEO” of the Virginia branch of the “black-robe regiment.”


Some comments:

There was no such thing as the “black robe regiment” in revolutionary America. Historian and blogger J.L. Bell debunked this idea in a series of posts at “Boston 1775.” In this post, Bell shows that the “black robe regiment” was the creation of pseudo-historians David Barton and Glenn Beck in 2010.

It is true, however, that Massachusetts loyalist Peter Oliver, in his book Origins & Progress of the American Rebellion, referred to a “black regiment” of “dissenting clergy” who fomented rebellion against the British Crown. Oliver accused Boston lawyer James Otis Jr. of rallying these clergy to the patriot cause. Here is Oliver’s discussion of the Stamp Act riots of August 1765:

Such was the Reign of Anarchy in Boston, & such the very awkward Situation in which every Friend to Government stood. Mr. Otis & his myrmidons, the Smugglers & the black Regiment, had instilled into the Canaille, that Mr. [Thomas] Hutchinson had promoted the Stamp Act; whereas, on the Contrary, he not only had drawn up the decent Memorial of the Massachusetts Assembly, but, previous to it, he had repeatedly wrote to his Friends in England to ward it off, by shewing the inexpedience of it; & the Disadvantages that would accrue from it to the english Nation, but it was in vain to struggle against the Law of Otis, & the Gospel of his black Regiment. That worthy Man must be a Victim; Mr. Otis said so, & it was done.

If Bill Cook and the present members of the so-called “Black Robe Regiment” of patriotic clergy want to claim the 1765 “Black Regiment” as their own they will need to address the violence these clergy fomented in Boston. I addressed this issue in June when many evangelicals were lamenting the racial unrest and violence in U.S. cities.

Oliver mentioned the “black regiment” several other times in Origins and Progress of the American Revolution. Bells discusses them here and here.

Did the phrase “Black Regiment” refer to the robes the clergy wore? Perhaps. Or, as Bell notes, it could have meant something else. British religious authors, for example, used the term “black regiment” to describe devils or sins. (Remember, the word was used by Peter Oliver, a Loyalist). Bell adds: “Seventeenth-century British authors also used that imagery to make an easy link between hellish demons and the wrong sort of priests….” In other words, they may have used the term “black regiment” to refer to the clergy fomenting rebellion as “evil.”

In the end, this entire interview is one big historical mess. But why should Eric Metaxas worry about historical accuracy and interpretation when the things Cook is saying feed his political agenda?

At about 2:30 minute mark, Metaxas sloppily connects “the ideas of the Gospel” to the coming of the American Revolution. This is one of the essential arguments Metaxas makes in his book If You Can Keep It. Please see my multi-part critique of this book (I address this particular problem here). Cook goes as far to say that the American Revolution would not have been possible without “the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

One thing Cook says is correct. Evangelical ministers have been preaching politics from their pulpit for a long, long time. As I argued in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation, borrowing from the extensive work of Mark Noll in books like America’s God and others, these ministers often subordinated their interpretation of scripture to political ideals. Just because these ministers preached patriotism from their pulpits does not mean that their sermons were theologically sound.

Notice that almost all of Cook’s “historical examples” of patriotic clergy come from 19th-century sources that he takes at face value. Like Mason Locke Weems’s story of George Washington cutting-down the cherry tree, most of these accounts of patriotic clergy are not supported by primary source evidence.

At around the 17:30 mark, Cook says that everything he has learned about the history of the so-called “black robe regiment” comes from David Barton. (See Bell’s post on Barton and the “black robe regiment” here). As many of you know, we have spent more than a decade at this blog challenging Barton’s false claims and misleading interpretations of American history. Metaxas says, “[Barton] has been viciously attacked by some people who really don’t understand this stuff, it’s fascinating to me that he’s battling uphill…because there’s so many people who fundamentally misunderstand these things and that’s why we are in the situation that we’re in today.” I wonder who Metaxas is referring to here?

Today, Cook believes, patriotic ministers must rise-up to fight Muslims, socialists, and other assorted “Marxists in order to preserve American liberty. Metaxas agrees.