Sybil Ludington and Replacement Mythology


I posted recently about a popular myth concerning eighteenth century preacher Samuel Davies. In the story, Davies beards the King of England in his own palace. The story helped nineteenth century evangelicals overlook the pro-British attitudes that the real Davies had espoused, attitudes that were very unpopular after the American Revolution. Myth making always serves a greater political or cultural purpose. We can advance our agenda by burnishing the memory of us and ours (and vilifying them and theirs). So it’s no surprise that nineteenth century evangelical republicans smoothed the rough edges off Samuel Davies.

The same can be said for the valorization of the “Founding Fathers.” There’s an entire cottage industry today that exists to uncritically reproduce early nineteenth century myths about the founders. Given the surprising rise of evangelical theology in the decades following the Revolution, these myths tended to write evangelical sentiments back into the memory of the founders. There’s a detailed historiographical debate over exactly what the religious beliefs of men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were, but suffice it to say they were not evangelicals. (If you’re interested in the topic, I’d recommend starting with either Gregg Frazer or John Fea.)

But it’s worth mentioning that evangelicals aren’t the only ones guilty of spinning myths about the American founding. Given that today’s the Fourth of July, I’ve seen a number of friends post on social media about Sybil Ludington’s ride. In 1777 Sybil–the sixteen year old daughter of a Revolutionary militia colonel–rode forty miles (twice the distance ridden by Paul Revere!) to raise the militia in time to respond to a British thrust into New York. Because of her bravery, that militia unit aided the Revolutionary forces in driving the British back to Long Island. George Washington himself thanked the young girl for her service.

The story, however, is very poorly sourced. It was first written down in 1907, fully a hundred and thirty years after the event, by one of Sybil’s descendants. Both of those facts should raise red flags. There’s a complete lack of primary source documentation for the story; there’s not even any record of the Ludington’s militia being involved in that military action. Of course, it’s all but impossible to prove a negative, but while Sybil’s story might be true in whole or part, it’s best classified as myth rather than history.

The story was first published in 1907 with money provided by the Ludington family. What family wouldn’t want to highlight their ties to the American Revolutionaries? In 1961 the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution commissioned a statue of Sybil. What civic organization wouldn’t want to highlight their town’s ties to the American Revolutionaries? It was a useful myth.

Recently, the story has become even more popular. She is the heroine in children’s books, graphic novels, and she even got her own segment on the PBS show “Liberty’s Kids.” I think the “Liberty’s Kids” episode description suggests why there is a sudden revival of interest in Sybil Ludington:

James learns that all kinds of people can be heroes and that especially includes strong-minded courageous young ladies. Meanwhile Sarah sees Benedict Arnold battle for respect with the same passion he uses to battle the British. She becomes concerned that Arnold’s passions might do what the British cannot – defeat him.


Sixteen-year-old Sybil Ludington defies the standard view of what is proper for a young lady and makes her own courageous “midnight ride” in Westchester County, New York to help the rebels cause (4/26/77)….


Limitations that others place on us cannot stop one from achieving greatness if one’s mind is set on it.

Although reports of the death of evangelicalism in the United States have been greatly exaggerated, we do live in an increasingly post-Christian cultural milieu. Burnishing the credentials of evangelical heroes via myth-making is sooo last century. Instead, we use a new group of myths to advance progressive causes and ideals, like an egalitarian appreciation of the role of women in American history. Throw in a dash of self-esteem psychology, and boom, you have all the ingredients of Sybil Ludington’s ride.

Samuel Davies lectures King George II: A (Mostly) Forgotten Evangelical Myth


Samuel Davies played a significant role promoting the First Great Awakening among American Presbyterians in the 18th century. He fought for religious toleration in Virginia, preached a series of sermons in support of the British during the French and Indian War, and served as the fourth president of Princeton University. For extra details, here’s a link to my ARDA entry for Davies.

His reputation as a powerful preacher continued after his death into the 19th century and reprints of his sermons circulated widely. He was the “prince of preachers” long before Charles Spurgeon was born. Davies gave one of his final sermons to the students at Princeton on New Years Day 1761. The text was Jeremiah 28:16, “This year thou shalt die.” While exhorting the students to not waste what time in this life remained to them, Davies stated, “Perhaps I may die this year.” A month later, Davies was dead. They don’t make sermon illustrations quite like they used to!

Yet Davies’s most famous sermon was delivered while he was on a fundraising tour of Britain. As the story goes, Davies was called to preach in the royal chapel for King George II. When the king started whispering to others in attendance, Davies stopped talking, fixed his gaze on the King, and said, “When the lion roars the beasts of the forest all tremble; when King Jesus speaks, the princes of the earth should keep silence.” The chastened monarch later held a private audience with the bold minister, apologized, and donated some money which helped Princeton erect its first major building, Nassau Hall.

It’s a grand story and it’s easy to see why it was so often retold. What ardent republican in the early 19th century could resist a story about a native-born American bearding King George II in his own palace? It certainly would have gone down smoother after the American Revolution than, say, Davies’s eulogy to King George II–“George, the mighty, the just, the gentle, and the wise!”–upon the monarch’s death in 1761. After all, they had just fought a war with his ostensibly tyrannical, unjust, and foolish grandson, King George III.

However, the story of Davies and the King–coming to an Off Broadway show near you!–is a complete fabrication by an infamous 19th century booster of the Second Great Awakening, “Parson” Mason Locke Weems. He was an ordained Episcopalian minister until financial difficulties forced him out of the ministry. As an author and traveling book seller, Weems had a practical interest in compelling stories and didn’t let little things like evidence keep him from spinning tall tales. He specialized in well-selling biographies of prominent men like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and General Francis Marion. The heroes of the founding and the Revolution were starting to die off, first Benjamin Franklin (1790), then Francis Marion (1795), George Washington (1799), and many others.

Americans wanted to memorialize their departed national heroes, but they also wanted to see themselves in them. Weems’s tailored biographies were a particularly smart sales tactic in the 1800s and 1810s as the revivals associated with the Second Great Awakening broke out. America was rather suddenly more evangelical than ever before. Weems was happy to supply that demand by “evangelicalizing” the Founding Fathers. His versions of the historical figures prayed more often, acted piously at all times, and were conspicuously loyal to the idea of America as a nation specially chosen by God.

Weems is famously responsible for the fable of George Washington and the cherry tree. (Here’s a delightful painting by Grant Wood winking at the story by featuring Weems in the foreground pulling back the curtain on a surprisingly adult looking George Washington.) He also invented the story of George Washington praying at Valley Forge. Those are both famous examples, but Weems is likely also the author of the Samuel Davies sermon anecdote. Editions of Sermons on Important Subjects, by the late Reverend and Pious Samuel Davies, A.M. were routinely ordered by quite a multitude of booksellers in the 1790s and 1800s. In 1816 an edition was printed in Baltimore for “Mason L. Weems.” Prior editions did not include the anecdote, but Weems did and later editors imitated him. Despite attempts at debunking the story, the fiction was better than the truth.


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Weems’s anecdote has declined along with the memory of Samuel Davies. Myths about the Founding Fathers continue to circulate despite the efforts of historians to stamp them out–that’s a constant!– but few evangelicals today have ever heard of Davies and the political and religious milieu is no longer served by fanciful stories about his showdown with the King of England. Still, the episode is a reminder of the natural human inclination to invent and believe histories that are convenient to those causes which we hold dear.