Today the church honors the person considered to be the founder of the Lutheran Church in America, Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, Missionary to United States.
Born in the early 18th Century, Henry was the seventh of nine children raised in Hannover, Germany. He started his professional life as a school master after graduating from studying at Gottingen and Halle, but soon felt a different stirring.
The Lutheran presence in America was scattered and disorganized. Three disparate congregations in Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, New Hanover, and New Providence) sent a joint delegation to London and Halle in search of a pastor who would unite the Lutherans together in the colonies.
Muhlenberg was chosen and sent in 1742. On his way he spent some time in London to learn about America, and while there adopted a new clerical garment that would be used by Lutherans in the colonies.
Henry arrived in Fall of 1742 and gained the trust of both the German-speaking and Swedish-speaking clergy…no small feat! Muhlenberg struggled mightily to unite the many churches that were so ethnic-specific. He traveled incessantly, wrote constantly, preached in German, Dutch, in English, and became known for his powerful voice.
He established the first Lutheran synod in America, the Ministerium of Pennsylvania, in August of 1748. The delegates met together and ratified a modern liturgy that remained the only authorized American Lutheran liturgy for forty years, and is still sometimes revived for use to this day and can be found in all the Lutheran hymnals up through the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978). Muhlenberg had a dream of “one church, one book,” and he didn’t mean the Bible…that was already done…he meant a liturgy book.
Lutherans in this frontier land struggled with authority issues as it moved from a state-supported church in Europe to congregational-led communities in the colonies. Muhlenberg worked mightily with churches on both stewardship and education, two practices that could use a little reviving today. He even wrote a model congregational constitution, never needed in Europe, that helped to organize the disorganized faithful.
Muhlenberg was in favor of a distinct church in America, noting that local practices must hold hands with local customs. Despite this belief, he was quite pietistic, and had a low tolerance for chicanery or shenanigans from clergy or laity.
Muhlenberg and his children were leaders in American public life as well. His son John Peter dramatically left the parish to serve in the Revolution, becoming a brigadier general under George Washington. Another son, Frederick (also a pastor), became a member of the Continental Congress and the first Speaker of the House of Representatives…much to his father’s disappointment. Muhlenberg believed he would have made a much better pastor and should have remained in the parish.
Another son, Henry Ernst was both a pastor and the president of Franklin College where he excelled as an administrator and a botanist 9where did he find the time?
And Muhlenberg’s great grandson? He became an Episcopal priest who is honored on April 8th. Maybe that’s why Lutherans and Episcopalians in America love one another so much…
Henry Melchior Muhlenberg died in Pennsylvania on October 7th, 1787. You’ll find his remains under a monument where, inscribed in Latin, is this simple phrase, “Who and what he was future ages will know without a stone.”
Muhlenberg is a reminder for me, and for the church, that sometimes you can get a different calling in life (he and all of his children and a couple of vocations under the belts), and that listening carefully to that still, small voice can enable one to do much for the world.
-historical pieces from Pfatteicher’s _New Book of Festivals & Commemorations