Muhlenberg 300: September 6 Celebration

What a birthday! Tribute to Patriarch Henry Muhlenberg recalls a proud legacy that launched the Lutheran Church in colonial times

Keynoter Martin Marty urged listeners to be inspired by Muhlenberg’s organizing and gathering ideas as a means to think about how to creatively renew and energize today’s church

| Story of the day | Video of the Sermon | Video of the Keynote |

If only the Rev. Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, father of the Lutheran church in North America, could have been there to see the celebration of his 300th birthday party at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP) today. (Was he there in spirit?) Had he been present, he certainly would have been familiar with the drenching, windswept rains he regularly described in his journals that accompanied his travels through the colonies and beyond to found some 115 congregations located from Savannah, GA, to Lunenberg, Nova Scotia. But the inclement weather hardly provided a damper for the day.

The highlights?

  • Two sets of remarks were delivered by internationally regarded scholar, the Rev. Dr. Martin Marty, the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the University of Chicago Divinity School, who in his keynote explored the topic, “Henry Melchior Muhlenberg and the Current American Churchscape.” What was a key idea useful for today? “Henry Melchior Muhlenberg was a good example of ‘exemplum,’ one who defines, lights and invites cultivation,” Marty said. In his diaries are found stories of “unimaginable travails, difficulties, physical pain and illness, occasions for disappointment,” Marty noted. But overall, Marty said, Muhlenberg was less into whining about his circumstances than he was passionate about being a minister of the Gospel and an organizer of the church. Marty suggested today’s believers can study and practice the Muhlenberg example as inspiration to “gather and organize” in our time. Marty was introduced by one of his former students, the Rev. Dr. Jon Pahl of the seminary faculty.
  • A stirring opening worship sermon from Bishop Roy E. Riley of the New Jersey Synod described the work of three pioneers through time to explain what he called “…the spirit’s reach of grace and peace that extends beyond even our best imagination.” In November 1891, James Augustin Scherer came to St. John’s Lutheran Church in Charleston, SC determined to serve as a missionary. In 1892 he became the first Lutheran missionary to Japan, “planting” the Japan Evangelical Lutheran Church. St. John’s, Riley explained, traces its beginnings to 150 years earlier when Muhlenberg arrived in North America and  “planted” St. John’s in 1742. Three weeks later against all advice and determined to carry out his call from Halle in Germany to serve three struggling Pennsylvania churches, Muhlenberg boarded an ill-equipped sloop in November for a dangerous, storm-tossed journey to Philadelphia. Riley cited many Muhlenberg journal entries about the trip. Here’s one: “During the past night the wind was so violent we sailed more under the water than on it. The crew lay all over us. Oh, how long the minutes and quarter hours were for me! Around me I had the soaked sailors and dreadful blasphemers, from above the rain fell on me, from below and from the sides the seawater came into my bed. In my stomach the fear of vomiting tormented; in my blood the fever raged, on my body preyed the vermin which were an accumulation of my own and those of the crew. Only one thing comforted and sustained me in patience, and that was the thought that if the ship cracked, it would go down and carry my wretched, sinful body down into the depths and let my soul come to my Redeemer…” “Those of you now serving the church and preparing for it are not likely in your worst days to experience ones like these,” Riley said. His sermonic advice included recalling in Scripture the three times denial before Caiaphas by Peter of knowing Jesus. “This denial was the polar opposite of the missionary zeal” exhibited by Muhlenberg, Riley said. “But in the Gospel we learn that even one who has turned away will be received again by the Lord…The experience of grace and forgiveness is related to the  mission of ‘feeding my lambs’,” the mission offered Peter by Jesus, Riley preached.  This past July, Riley described sitting in a pew during worship some 110 miles to the north of Charleston in Lexington, SC, with his 88-year-old mother to hear the stories of the Rev. Yasunori Tajima of today’s Japan Evangelical Lutheran Church. Tajima described his experience earlier this year of having been invited by Buddhist and Shinto priests to preside at ceremonies of cremation of hundreds of unidentified remains being shipped to Tokyo in the aftermath of the catastrophic tsunami. “We stood side by side for hours saying prayers I knew were being heard by Jesus,” Tajima told the congregation. “It was incredible to feel the mercy of God there in the midst of such suffering and grief.” Riley’s conclusion? With what was achieved then and now through the lives of Muhlenberg, Scherer and Tajima, “who can imagine what else God can accomplish?”
  • Four captivating workshops by three LTSP faculty members and a Temple University doctoral student best known for his archeological work at the Henry Melchior Muhlenberg House in Trappe, PA. Krauth Memorial Library Director Karl Krueger discussed “From Halle to Philadelphia: Have Call Will Travel.” The Rev. Dr. Jon Pahl, professor of the History of Christianity in North America, explored “The Muhlenberg Matrix: Muhlenberg’s Ministry with Women and Their Influences on Him.” The Rev. Dr. Timothy Wengert talked about “Henry Melchior Muhlenberg: America’s First Pastor-Bishop.” Wengert is the Ministerium of Pennsylvania Professor of Reformation History and editor/translator of two volumes of Muhlenberg’s Correspondence. “Discovering the Domestic Sphere in the Muhlenberg Summer Kitchen” was described by the Temple archeologist, Louis Farrell. A few sample snippets from two of the workshops: Krueger talked about the risks inherent in the 14-weeks Atlantic crossing Muhlenberg made aboard a packet sailing ship where one-third of the passengers and crew could expect to die when provisions and water would run out. Contrary winds extended the trip greatly, but Krueger described how passionately determined Muhlenberg was to pursue the ministry in America he had been called to, initially serving congregations in Trappe, Germantown and New Hanover in Pennsylvania in a mission of faith that grew to so much more. Krueger said Muhlenberg brought to the young American church a constitution in 1762, a hymnal and liturgy so that the church might grow and survive. “Muhlenberg did not have an ‘edifice complex (preoccupation with buildings), Krueger said. Wengert described pastor and bishop Muhlenberg as one who “lived among the people” in his organizational ministry. “He was someone trained in the best traditions of his time” in Germany despite having hailed from a family of simple means. In America, Muhlenberg “was never simply a parish pastor, but he was also a missionary and Evangelical Bishop focused on the zip code of the day. He trained believers to be pastors. He lived and worked with the people around him.” Muhlenberg wrote the first constitution of the young Ministerium of Pennsylvania, an organizational structure of the church he was gathering into place. And he preached that church people are interconnected and interdependent upon each other and that having an aggregate of congregations was crucial to survival of the young church. Wengert said that as passionate as Muhlenberg was for his ministry he was not without his “warts.” Muhlenberg frequently wrote to his benefactors in Germany that his ministry was woefully underfunded – that his congregants were more poor than their Mennonite and Moravian counterparts and thus his colonial churches rested on shaky foundations. Despite is comments about other “competing” churches, Muhlenberg maintained an ecumenical spirit, Wengert said. He added that Muhlenberg suffered from depression at times. “He  had a heart for people but constantly worried about finances,” Wengert noted. “The challenges and difficulties Muhlenberg faced were absolutely no different from what our churches face today,” he concluded.
  • Proclamations celebrating Muhlenberg’s legacy were brought to the seminary from Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, represented by Barbara Frankel, director of the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission, and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. Corbett’s proclamation noted that a Muhlenberg son, Peter, once served as lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania and that Muhlenberg’s pioneering efforts to found an organized church in North America was part of a freedom of religion legacy “we continue to cherish” in Pennsylvania.” Frankel announced the approval of a Pennsylvania grant of $1.25 million to fund a connector between the Brossman Learning Center, and its archives and the Krauth Memorial Library. Nutter’s personally delivered proclamation celebrated the educational traditions of Muhlenberg College and LTSP, co-planners of the day along with local Muhlenberg-founded churches, and he paid tribute to the seminary for the central role it plays as a Mt. Airy landmark. Nutter especially highlighted Muhlenberg’s concern that young people of his day have a chance for the kind of education he was able to obtain as a young person. He referenced the Muhlenberg Statue at the LTSP driveway entrance, taking note that Philadelphia’s leaders in 1917 rejected locating the statue on city grounds because of hard feelings toward Germans due to World War I. Nutter drew a rousing, standing ovation from 190 banquet attendees when, as part of the proclamation, he said that he was “hereby rescinding” the 1917 rejection of the statue by the City of Philadelphia and the “great intolerance” represented by the rejection.
  • Attending the festivities was a direct descendant of Muhlenberg – Daniel Muhlenberg, a self-described rock band drummer who belongs to Advent Lutheran Church in New York City and who works as a sexton in two congregations to help support his musical endeavors. Clearly moved by the birthday spectacle, Daniel Muhlenberg told an interviewer, “I am surprised to learn about what a man of the people Henry Muhlenberg was. I always thought he was kind of an aristocrat. It’s truly inspiring to me to learn about what he went through and what he accomplished. I’m so glad I could be part of this.” Daniel described himself as a sixth or seventh generation descendant of Henry’s and as most closely related to Gotthilf Henry Ernest Muhlenberg, a botanist who Daniel said was Henry’s youngest son. Muhlenberg and his wife, Anna Maria (Weiser) had 11 children, seven of whom survived to adulthood.
  • Bringing greetings during the evening banquet from Muhlenberg’s birthplace in Einbeck, Germany was Dr. Uwe-Jens Saltzer, who devotes his energies toward historical preservation in Muhlenberg’s birthplace. Saltzer explained that Muhlenberg’s parents were baptized in St. Mary’s Parish in the old town, relating closely to a parish structure that has not survived. “We send you kindest regards from the town that had such a creative son. We are proud of what stemmed from inside our walls, that we laid a strong cornerstone that led to a strong Lutheran Church in America.”
  • The day was co-sponsored by Thrivent Financial for Lutherans and Reinhard Schwartz, MD, and his wife Helga, of Morristown, NJ.
  • A giving opportunity, the Henry Melchior Muhlenberg Legacy Scholarship, was introduced during the banquet by the Rev. Dr. Philip D. W. Krey, seminary president, and the Rev. John V. Puotinen, vice president of the LTSP Office for Philanthropy. The scholarship will be offered each year to a student who embodies the characteristics that defined Muhlenberg. Preference will be accorded graduates of Muhlenberg College or members of congregations Muhlenberg founded. In brief remarks appealing for gifts, Puotinen explained to the dinner attendees that it costs a seminarian about $31,000 annually to attend seminary with about 40 percent of that figure in grants providing significant relief, thanks to donor gifts. Anyone desiring to make a gift to underwrite the scholarship can donate online by going to www.LTSP.edu/muhlenberglegacy, or by calling the Office for Philanthropy at 215/248-6316.
  • On display during the day was an exhibition entitled “Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, Patriarch of American Lutheranism,” a presentation detailing Muhlenberg’s life and legacy. Developed by the The Francke Foundations of Halle, Germany, the exhibit includes 20 colorful banners and is traveling the country. Qualified institutions interested in staging the exhibit, on permanent loan to the seminary, may obtain use of it for the cost of shipping by contacting Carrie Schwab at cschwab@Ltsp.edu.
  • A dinner presenter was Playwright Steve Seyfried who briefly described his stage play based on Muhlenberg’s journal entries. Seyfried read moving excerpts from Muhlenberg writings that are featured in the play, entitled “Providence.” The play, free and open to the public, will be performed in seven congregational settings in the near future.
  • The dinner and day concluded with the singing of a powerful hymn, “Now Rest Beneath Night’s Shadow,” composed by Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676). The hymn was sung by Muhlenberg and his wife, Anna Maria, as their son, Samuel, lay dying of pneumonia in their arms. Karl Krueger emceed the dinner.
  • Featured at the reception at the bookstore table of LTSP Books and Gifts was a figurine of Muhlenberg developed through a partnership with Byers Choice Ltd. In recognition of the Tercentenary. The figurines may be purchased through the store for $60. To order a figurine, call the store at 215/967.1112.
  • Planning for the Muhlenberg Tercentenary took many months. During the dinner Krueger paid tribute to them. The planners included from the seminary family Krueger, Natalie Hand, Tim Wengert, Jon Pahl, John Kahler, Carrie Schwab and Ellen Anderson. Planning input from regional Muhlenberg congregations came from Herb Michel, Richard Buckmaster, Jean Godsall-Myers, James Knisely, Martha Kriebel, Carl Shankweiler, Karl-John Stone, John Van Haneghan and Lee Wesner, who served as volunteer photographer for the event. Key volunteers from Muhlenberg College contributing to the planning were President Randy Helm and Chaplain Peter Bredlau.
  • Special guests for the day included Bishop Claire Burkat of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod, who presided at the opening worship; Bishop Samuel Zeiser of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Synod, who gave the dinner invocation, and the Honorable Connie Peck, mayor of the Borough of Trappe, where Muhlenberg resided during his colonial ministry.
  • The opening worship also served as the occasion for launching the seminary’s academic year. During his opening remarks as the service began President Krey paid brief tribute to Muhlenberg and referenced the Muhlenberg Statue, dedicated nearly 100 years before the celebration. Assisting ministers during worship in the Schaeffer-Ashmead Chapel were Leslie Scanlon and Timothy Hearn, who serve as sacristans. Music during worship was led by Michael Krentz, the seminary’s director of music. The Rev. Dr. Jayakiran Sebastian is the seminary chaplain.

Sermon from the Opening Worship
The Rev. E. Roy Riley, Jr
Bishop, New Jersey Synod, ELCA

"Henry Melchior Muhlenberg and the Current American Churchscape"
The Rev. Dr. Martin Marty
Fairfax M Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity in the Divinity School, University of Chicago

Reporting on the day's events by seminary writer Mark Staples, photography by media consultant John Kahler and Muhlenberg 300 committee member Lee Wesner, video production and streaming by John Kahler.