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The challenges of restoring Peter Muhlenberg’s 240-year old robe

Once she restored the Masonic apron belonging to George Washington and the Masonic sash owned by Benjamin Franklin. Textile conservator Nancy Love also recently fashioned an African American History Museum exhibit featuring about 40 costumes worn by the 1950s and 1960s rock singing sensations the Supremes.

Nancy Love and Tom Henderson

Nancy Love and Tom Henderson with the Muhlenberg Robe

For the past two years, she has been thinking about and working on the restoration of an estimated 240-year-old preaching robe worn by Peter Muhlenberg, the son of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, often referred to as the patriarch of the Lutheran Church in North America.

In her apartment workroom, located an easy walk from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Love details the challenges of the restoration of the robe, made of wool and silk.

“It is a truly unique object in that so many people care about it. It is very fragile,” she explained. Some early attempts, from an unknown time, to mend the robe have actually shattered some of the original fabric. So she has delicately tried to undo some of the repairs and overlaid a very fine netting to hold it together in places. A lining once introduced to hold together the fabric of the robe has done much to preserve the garment, but Love says simply, “It is a miracle that it is here. I have decided that in some ways doing less may be the right approach to preserving it.”

Love has spent about 40 hours so far on the robe preservation project. Once she has completed her work, the garment will be sent to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, as part of a display giving tribute to early American German immigrants. The display is set for 2016.

Peter Muhlenberg was challenged by then General George Washington to recruit and lead a German regiment of Revolutionary soldiers. Muhlenberg complied. According to legend, from the pulpit of his congregation in Woodstock, Virginia, Muhlenberg preached a sermon on Ecclesiastes and uttered the words, “There is a time for war and a time for peace…This is a time for war…” With that, he is said to have removed his preaching robe to reveal the uniform of a Revolutionary War General.

The robe as displayed at LTSP

The robe as displayed at LTSP

Muhlenberg never preached again. The robe was given to a family named Henkel and passed down through generations until the early 1900s, when the robe was given to The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP) by the Henkels of that time. (A pastor by the name of Henkel, a contemporary of Muhlenberg’s, served a congregation in New Market, not far from Woodstock.) The robe was placed in a display case in the Krauth Memorial Library, and later moved to the museum room in The Brossman Learning Center. Peter’s stance on the Revolution was far different from his father’s. Henry felt the colonies should remain loyal to the British crown and George III, the Christian appointed as king.

Discussing the robe for PBS History Detectives

Discussing the robe for PBS History Detectives

Eight years ago, researchers for the PBS program History Detectives came to the seminary to develop an episode about the robe, and to see how the garment was faring. Their findings? After analysis at Colonial Williamsburg, the robe is authentic for the time and likely belonged to Muhlenberg. The legend of his pulpit shedding of the robe could not be authenticated. The detectives also expressed concern that a strategy needed to be put in place to better preserve the robe, as it was badly deteriorated.

When Tom Henderson arrived on campus more than three years ago, he became interested in the preservation strategy. Henderson, a graduate of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary and now Director of Church Relations for LTSP, had first learned about Peter Muhlenberg when he served a seminary internship at Muhlenberg Lutheran Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

“I saw a stained glass image of Muhlenberg removing his robe in the church, and I said to someone, ‘Who is that guy?’” Henderson explained that to this day Peter Muhlenberg is truly a hero to many Virginians.

“After I arrived at LTSP and learned the robe was actually here, I learned about a Muhlenberg celebration that was scheduled in Woodstock,” Henderson related. “I said to myself and others, wouldn’t it be great if I could take the robe to the celebration and show it to folks there as part of the celebration?”

The robe undergoing conservation

The robe undergoing conservation

Henderson not only took the robe to Virginia, but he also collected enough funds to get started on the preservation of the garment.

Henderson subsequently learned about the work of Nancy Love, once a fashion designer turned conservator, who operates the Philadelphia Textile and Object Conservation Co. from her apartment. And once the funds for the robe restoration became available, Nancy Love went to work.

An example of another project afoot with Love? She’s working to restore a doll belonging to the Mutter Museum of Philadelphia. The doll was used by early teachers of medicine in the region to demonstrate medical procedures of the day.

Read more about the visit of the History Detectives to LTSP, and watch the episode on the Muhlenberg robe here.

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