The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, along with Muhlenberg College, are marking the tercentenary of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg’s birth in 2011 as an opportunity to celebrate the importance of his legacy to the American colonies and his place as patriarch and pillar of Lutheranism in North America. He is widely recognized as the most influential German-American cultural figure in 18th century America, spending 43 years in a vigorous engagement with life in colonial America, actively participating in community affairs throughout the colonies, closely observing all aspects of the world around him, and recording his daily activities in precise detail in journals and correspondence to friends in the colonies and Europe. He officially served as pastor to congregations in Pennsylvania and New York, but even more importantly worked as an advisor to hundreds of small Lutheran settlements scattered across the colonial landscape. He traveled frequently, journeying by horseback, wooden sailboat, and canoe to meet with settlers in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Delaware, Maryland, South Carolina, and Georgia. His descriptions of his travels and his work at these locations offer an unparalleled glimpse into the urban and rural landscapes, as well as the concerns of German settlers in 18th century colonial America. (at right: detail of the Henry Melchior Muhlenberg statue on the LTSP campus)
While historians of the church and colonial America know the story, many of us who are the living legacy of this important historical figure do not. For most of us have come to understand the colonial experience and the formation of the American republic primarily through the lens of its English-speaking leaders. During the academic year 2011-2012, we hope to take a look at this time in history from Muhlenberg’s perspective.
It is the story of the churches organized by Muhlenberg that served as both insulators and incubators, allowing a substantial non-English-speaking constituency to wrestle with issues of rights, freedom, and liberty to ultimately participate in the making of the American republic. Within their walls an important transition occurred – the settlers went from being subjects to being parishioners, from being subjects to being citizens. It’s a story in which colonial politics, native-Christian relations, medicine, gender, and urban and rural landscapes of colonial America come to life, broadening the well-known stories of English colonial leaders like Benjamin Franklin and Pennsylvania Chief Justice William Allen.
It’s a story of an immigrant father, a German, who with his wife Anna Maria Weiser Muhlenberg, raised 11 children, three of whom followed their father and led very public lives that shaped the early American Republic: John Peter Muhlenberg, a friend of George Washington, who legend has it abandoned the pulpit to become a colonel in the American Revolutionary army, eventually rising to the position of General. Frederick Augustus Conrad Muhlenberg served as a member of the Continental Congress and was elected First Speaker of the First Congress. Henry E. Muhlenberg became an internationally acclaimed botanist and served as the first president of Franklin and Marshall College.
It’s an engaging story that was documented thoroughly in the 28 diaries and 15,000 pieces of Muhlenberg’s correspondence. A glimpse into the depth of these writings is demonstrated by the running page titles of an abridged version of the diary that was published in 1998: (1742) Will Sail in a Tiny Sloop, Storm and Seasickness, First Day in Philadelphia, Racketeer Preachers, (1743) Land is expensive in the City,(1747) Vandals in the Frontier, Midnight Journey into Maryland, Indian Attitudes Towards Whites, (1748) Pacifists vs. Nonpacifists, (1750) French Alliance with the Indians, (1753) Immigrants are Disillusioned, (1762) Formula for Black Ink, (1763)Summoned to Supreme Court, (1763) Indian Massacre near Shippensburg, Difficulties of Indentured Germans, Report from French and Indian War, Colonists massacred at Wyoming, (1764) Quakers take Arms to Defend City, Juvenile Delinquency in Philadelphia, (1765) Germans have Political Rights, Stamp Act goes into Effect, (1770) Negroes Baptized, Married, (1775) Analyzing the Revolutionary Fervor, (1776) Petition submitted to Benjamin Franklin, Hessian Prisoners Explain,(1777) Fourth of July is Celebrated, George Washington Marches By, (1778)Cannon Fire Heard in the Distance, Attack Near Trappe is Diverted, (1783)Germans are Gaining in Social Status, (1784) Not Impressed by Flying Machines.
It is, in the end, our story. For we are Muhlenberg’s legacy. We invite you to join us by sharing your own church’s Muhlenberg story, by participating in the programs as they are announced, and by taking the time and interest to learn the history of our faith and our denomination in the North American context.