Rosicrucian Writings Online

The Day Washington Cried

By Dr. John Palo, B. S., D. C., F. R. C.
[From The Rosicrucian Digest August 1962]
The commander in chief of the Continental Army pardons a
court-martialed traitor on the strength of Peter Miller's plea for his life.
THE Reverend Peter Miller was a friend of General George Washington and respected for his many outstanding services to the new republic being born.  For one thing, he had translated the Declaration of Independence into several foreign languages so that the Imperial Courts of Europe would be cognizant of the intentions of the new American government.  For another, as leader of the community of mystics at the Ephrata Cloisters, Miller had arranged to print on the Community's own press and free of charge the first American money.
When Washington's men were starving at Valley Forge, food donated by these mystics helped prevent a military collapse.  Again, it was Miller who saw to it that the wounded were cared for.  The buildings of the Ephrata Cloisters were converted into a hospital.
The brothers and sisters of the community put aside many of their usual spiritual pursuits and ministered to the soldiers incapacitated by the war.  A typhus epidemic almost wiped out what may be considered America's first Red Cross effort.  Many soldiers and their kindly helpers perished.  Two buildings had to be burned.
Thus Peter Miller, scholar, humanitarian, and Rosicrucian mystic, was no stranger to General George Washington that day when he appealed to the General to spare the life of an acknowledged traitor.  Neither was he a stranger to Michael Widman, himself, perhaps the greatest traitor to the American Cause next to Benedict Arnold.
For some slight reason, which the records do not elaborate, Michael Widman attempted to betray his country to the British Army.  To the credit of the British General Howe, the offer was refused.  He even said that anyone who had enjoyed the confidence of his countrymen to the extent that Widman had, and who could still prove treacherous--on "such a cowardly, contemptible pretext"--could never be trusted in the Royal Cause.  Thus dismissed, Widman, on approaching the first outposts of the American lines, was arrested.  A court-martial was summoned, and Michael Widman was sentenced to be hanged.
Peter Miller Interceded
Only one person did not denounce him upon hearing of his traitorous act.  That was Peter Miller, who promptly set out for Valley Forge to intercede for Widman at the coming court-martial.  Why?  The answer describes the man.
Miller had once been a minister in the German Reformed Church of which Widman was one of the Vorstehers (Superintendents).  When Miller embraced the principles of the Seventh Day Baptists and of the mystics at Ephrata, Widman became his public persecutor.  He treated him with contempt and habitually spat in the old man's face every time they met.
It was, therefore, Widman's hatred of him that made the aging Miller hurry on foot to the camp of General Washington.  He arrived and met the commander in chief just after he had approved and dispatched by courier the finding of the court-martial.
As the Pennsylvania historian, Julius F. Sachse, Litt. D., related, "Washington requested him to be seated but Miller replied that his business with him would not admit of a moment's delay--that it required immediate despatch, and instantly proceeded to plead for mercy towards Widman, most forcibly, most eloquently.
"It was a majestic tableau to look upon, the commander in chief ... several other staff officers, and Peter Miller, in his monastic robe, standing in front, forming a most imposing group.  Peter Miller was a tall man, of much grace, clad in a long gray tunic, or toga, secured by a single belt around his waist, while the cowl thrown back exposed his exuberant snowy hair and long white beard in front, while his expressive face, strongly marked with intelligence and benignity, was animated by the warmest benevolence, as he sued for the life of a fellow-being.  All were absorbed in listening to the burning words falling from the Prior's lips, which subdued the military idea of retaliation almost entirely in every breast."
All thought the commander in chief would succumb to Miller's entreaties, and exercise his prerogative of mercy.  Deeply moved, yet mindful of his responsibilities, Washington replied: "Friend Miller, there is scarcely anything in this world that I would deny you, but such is the state of public affairs that it would be fatal to our cause not to be stringent, inexorable in such matters, and make examples of renegades to the cause of Liberty.  Otherwise I should most cheerfully release your friend."
"Friend!" exclaimed Miller, interrupting the commander in chief and throwing up his hands.  "He is my worst enemy--my incessant reviler.  For a friend I might not importune you; but Widman being, and having been for years, my worst foe, my malignant, persecuting enemy, my religion teaches me 'To pray for those who despitefully use me.' "
Washington Cried
As he gazed on Miller, Washington cried.  The tears coursing down his cheeks, he took the old man by the hand and said, "My dear friend, I thank you for this lesson of Christian charity.  I cannot resist such a manifestation of our divine religion; the pardon shall be granted on one condition ... that you be the bearer of it yourself, and hand it to the commanding officer at Turk's Head in Widman's presence."
Anticlimactic as what followed may be, it furnishes a unique chapter in the human side of American history.
With the quickly prepared pardon, Miller set out immediately for Turk's Head.  It was eighteen or twenty miles away, and thus it was late at night when the old mystic arrived on foot.  After a sleepless night, he rose early and headed for the blockhouse.
There, in a hollow square formed by the soldiers, was a gallows.  Standing on its steps, with a rope adjusted round his neck, was Michael Widman.  In his last moments, Widman was dramatically addressing those present.  He acknowledged his treachery, acquiesced in the decision of the court-martial, and admonished his audience to be faithful to the cause of liberty.
Miller had made his way to the commanding officer and had handed him the packet from the commander in chief.  As the post commander perused the document, Widman caught sight of Miller.
In full humility, he called to him from the gallows:  "Peter Miller, whatever has prompted your presence at this place at this time, I avail myself of the occasion to acknowledge my great and multiplied abuse and persecution with which I have followed you for years past, and esteem it the kindest providence that I have the opportunity to retract my numerous vilifications and outrages upon you and crave your forgiveness of such wanton maltreatment, yet I trust that I may find pardon above..."
The commanding officer interrupted to announce the commander in chief's pardon.  Turning towards Peter Miller, he said to Widman, "Here is your deliverer."
Time's Perspective
(Peter Miller died in 1796, at 86, just five years before the close of the first active cycle of American Rosicrucian work.  In 1801, the Order entered its relatively silent period of 108 years.  The membership at Ephrata slowly dispersed, leaving but a few of the secular congregation of the Seventh Day Baptists.)
Peter Miller, a graduate of the University of Heidelberg, was considered one of America's leading theologians.  Among his friends were Benjamin Franklin, for whom he translated some of Conrad Beissels Mystical Proverbs; the Honorable Thomas and Lady Juliana Penn, as well as General George Washington; and numerous other learned personalities both in America and abroad.
Time places persons and events in proper perspective.  So the passing years will no doubt bring the name of Peter Miller into more prominence in the history books as patriot, scholar, and Rosicrucian mystic.

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