Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Henry Melchior Muhlenberg

Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, the patriarch of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, was born in Germany three centuries ago today. A fervently religious man, he kept meticulous diaries - documenting his pastoral acts, social interactions, and administrative duties - which are considered a ‘treasure trove for the genealogists’.

Muhlenberg was born on 6 September 1711 in Einbeck, Lower Saxony, Germany, and studied theology in Göttingen and Halle. He worked at various times with charity schools and orphanages. In 1739, he was ordained at Leipzig. In 1741, an application from congregations in Pennsylvania reached Halle requesting a pastor to take charge, and Hermann Francke, a Lutheran leader, chose Muhlenberg to go.

After a sojourn in London, Muhlenberg arrived in America in 1742, reaching Charleston on 23 September. In 1745 he married Anna Maria Weiser, the daughter of a colonial leader, Conrad Weiser, and the couple had eleven children, seven of whom reached adulthood.

Muhlenberg took charge of the congregation at Providence, in what is now Trappe, Pennsylvania, but also served congregations from Maryland to New York, working to manage less qualified pastors and launching new congregations among the settlers of the region. In 1748, he called together the first permanent Lutheran synod in America, and helped prepare a uniform liturgy. He was also instrumental in writing an ecclesiastical constitution, which most of the churches adopted in 1761.

Poor health forced him into limited activity and retirement, and he died at his home in Trappe, in 1787. More biographical information is available at Holy Trinity (New Rochelle), Christianity.com, Evangelical Lutheran Conference and Ministerium, and the American Philosophical Society.

An English version of Muhlenberg’s journals, translated by T G Tappert and J W Doberstein, was first published in three volumes by the Evangelical Lutheran Ministerium in the 1940s. However, more recently, in 1993, they were reprinted by Picton Press (and cost over $200). Picton says: ‘[The] journals are an incredible treasure trove for the genealogist, as [Muhlenberg] carefully recorded his pastoral acts, financial transactions, correspondence, etc, for his personal record (thus he includes subjective opinions, not recorded elsewhere, on people). Marriages, baptisms, funerals, and interactions with neighbors, friends and foes, Lutherans and non-Lutherans alike, are all described in great detail. There is a tremendous amount of data here. The diary is so fascinating you may find yourself reading it cover-to-cover before beginning your serious research!’

There has also been a one-volume version - The Notebook of a Colonial Clergyman: Condensed From the Journals of Henry Melchoir Muhlenberg - published initially by The Muhlenberg Press in 1959, and reprinted as recently as 2009.

There appear to be no substantial extracts of Muhlenberg’s journals freely available online, but a few quotes can be found in different books. Diary extracts are quoted, for example, in The Pennsylvania Weather Book, which can be read at Googlebooks. Slightly more interesting extracts can be found in Memoir of The Life and Times of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg Patriarch of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, written by M L Stoever and published in 1856 by Lindsay & Blakiston, Philadelphia, which is available at Internet Archive.

According to Stoever: ‘[Muhlenberg] commenced his journey in the spring of 1742, passing through Holland on his way to England. In London, he met with a cordial reception from Rev. Dr Ziegenhagen, Chaplain to King George II, who greatly encouraged him to his mission and materially aided him in his object. With this excellent and faithful man he remained nine weeks, diligently improving his time in seeking additional instruction and counsel with regard to his future duties. How much he enjoyed the season may be inferred from the following memorandum in his journal: ‘The time was entirely too short for me, and the questions too numerous, upon which I would gladly have conversed with him; so numerous were they indeed, that I was often in doubt which should be taken first. The consideration of these subjects caused me greater joy, and was far more pleasing to me than the possession of jewels or many pieces of gold.’ ’

On the ship from England to Georgia, Muhlenberg tried to convert his fellow passengers, and ‘the humblest of the sea-men he did not neglect’. The memoir says: ‘he labored to reclaim all, to instruct them in the plan of salvation, and to bring them to a saving acquaintance with Him who is ‘the way and the truth and the life.’ In one place in his journal, he remarks: ‘I conversed to-day with some of the crew, and tried to explain to them how sad their condition was, so long as they were estranged from God by wicked works;’ and in another place he says: ‘I urged upon the English passengers the necessity of a radical change in their life by the exercise of faith in the crucified Redeemer. They all listened,’ he tells us, ‘with attention, admitted the truth of my statements, and thanked me for my instructions. But how difficult it is to produce upon the minds of men a permanent impression of the doctrine of regeneration. The many prejudices which darken the understanding - the strong influence of sinful habits, together with riches, worldly prospects, and the cares of life, are powerful hinderances in the way.’ ’

During the American War of Independence, Muhlenberg’s home in Trappe was full of fugitives; he wrote in his journal: ‘The name of Muhlenberg is greatly disliked and abused by the British and Hessian officers in Philadelphia, and they threaten prison, tortures, and death, so soon as they can lay hands upon me.’

In 1989, the Historical Society of Trappe purchased the Henry Muhlenberg House, and restored it to the period of 1776 - using detail from the journals.

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