Henry Melchior Mühlenberg (1711 - 1787)

Patriarch of the North American Lutheran Church

Halle Pietism played a highly influential role in North American religious history. One of the most influential German-speaking families in American history connected with the Francke Foundations in Halle are the Mühlenbergs. 

Mühlenberg’s Activities in the Francke Foundations

Heinrich Melchior Mühlenberg  When Mühlenberg arrived in Halle in 1738, he had hoped to be sent to work in either the Jewish mission in Eastern Europe or the mission in South India, where theologians from Francke’s institutions had been working since 1706. But on the contrary, Gotthilf August Francke selected him as a teacher in the charity school in the Foundations, where boys and girls were taught without charge in the subjects of religion, reading, writing and even singing. In the upper grades, the children learned about physics, church history and geography, and the boys even received instruction in Latin. Later on, Mühlenberg was appointed as supervisor for the orphanage and the infirmary. Mühlenberg’s time in Halle furthered his development in many ways. His practical experience in teaching strengthened his pedagogical capabilities and factual knowledge. His acquaintance with Halle’s physicians and pharmacists helped him become familiar with the healing arts, which he later put to great use in North America. Finally, he discovered in Ludwig Johann Cellarius (d. 1754), the financial director of the institutions, a patron who imparted to him valuable insights into the management of their complex, worldwide operations.

Mühlenberg’s Public Letter and His Call to Pennsylvania

Early in 1741, Mühlenberg realized that his position in Großhennersdorf was in danger because of lack of funds, and decided to claim his parental inheritance in Einbeck. Instead of going directly to Einbeck, however, he first traveled to Halle for a meeting with the director Gotthilf August Francke. Francke had been in contact with Lutheran congregations of German emigrants in the colony of Pennsylvania, specifically Philadelphia, New Hanover and New Providence (today Trappe), who had asked him to send a pastor. The settlers, however, refused to accept a pastor sight unseen or to guarantee contributing to his salary. They reserved for themselves the right to decide about any candidate only after he had presented himself to them. Despite this, Mühlenberg agreed to go to America when Francke offered him the appointment and pledged his financial support.

During his farewell trip through Germany, Mühlenberg barely escaped being arrested in Einbeck, after defending the reform ideas of pietism in an open letter. People accused him of having held forbidden pietistic meetings – a serious charge in a world that allowed no freedom of assembly. Mühlenberg managed to rebut the charges and left Germany on 8 April 1742, never to return. Nine days later he arrived in London, where he was to stay for two months before sailing for America.

Mühlenberg in London and His Departure for the “New World”

King George I (1660-1727), a German from the princely house of Hanover, had ruled in London as regent over the expanding British Empire since 1714. In 1722 George appointed Friedrich Michael Ziegenhagen as his Lutheran court preacher. Ziegenhagen had studied theology in Halle and was on friendly terms with August Hermann Francke. As an adherent of Halle Pietism, he became advocate for the causes of the Francke Foundations at the English court. He campaigned for Halle’s mission to India and in 1734 supported settling the Salzburg Lutherans in Georgia, where they were to be furnished with pastors from Halle.
Ziegenhagen prepared Mühlenberg for his future responsibilities in North America. Moreover, Mühlenberg had an opportunity during his stay in London to improve his knowledge of the English language. On 13 June 1742 he sailed to North America and arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, after an (often harrowing) fourteen-week sea voyage. From there he traveled to the Salzburg Lutherans in Ebenezer, Georgia, where his colleagues from Halle welcomed him with open arms. From Charleston, he then traveled by ship to Philadelphia, arriving on 25 November 1742.

Mühlenberg’s Significance for Lutheranism in the United States

Muhlenberg Philadelphia  The first German Lutheran pastor was sent to the colony of New Amsterdam [today New York City] in 1657. Nevertheless, it was Mühlenberg, the skillful church diplomat and efficient organizer, who a hundred years later uniquely shaped early American Lutheranism. From the beginning, he realized the necessity of structuring the Lutheran church in a completely different way from European models, namely, totally independent of the state, so that it could survive in the North American context. This meant organizing congregations as voluntary organizations, so that in the end they could develop into independent bodies that then could survive under the requirements of American jurisprudence. Whether liturgy or church order, synods or consistories, seminaries or primary schools, these milestones on the road to developing a Lutheran church in America were not Mühlenberg’s work alone. But no one else possessed the vision and strength of purpose for establishing these things that he did. In the American situation, he was served especially well by the pietist grounding he had received in Halle, since it furnished him with courage for innovation and the necessary faith and drive to realise his ideas However, his uncompromising attitude toward non-pietist pastors ultimately prevented him from representing Lutheran interests in eighteenth century American society as effectively as he might have done.

Mühlenberg’s Political Influence

In contrast to Germany, Mühlenberg had no special status as a cleric under the laws of Pennsylvania. Among the colonists, however, he very quickly achieved a fine reputation, in part because of his “edifying” sermons, which also went back to his formative pietist years. In 1745 Mühlenberg married the German American Anna Maria Weiser (1727-1802). She was the daughter of Conrad Weiser, one of the chief negotiators for the Pennsylvania government with Pennsylvania’s native Americans. Marriage into the Weiser family opened doors for Mühlenberg to the most influential political and social circles in the colony, from which he hoped to receive support in the work of establishing his church. In return Mühlenberg supported during the 1750s British plans to assimilate the children of German immigrants into free schools, where they could learn English. In the elections of 1764 and 1765 he backed the “Proprietary Group” against the “sectarian” Quakers, which Pennsylvania’s governor rewarded with the privilege of organizing Mühlenberg´s congregation in Philadelphia independently. In 1775, Mühlenberg followed the request of the Continental Congress and encouraged undecided German settlers to support the independence of the colonies from Great Britain.

Mühlenberg’s Sons and Their Significance for the Founding of the United States

Mühelenberg Schülermatrikel  Entry in the students' register at the Francke Foundations recording the admission og Muhlenberg's sons at the Latin School. Among his eleven children, Mühlenberg had particularly high expectations of his three sons: John Peter Gabriel, Frederick August Conrad and Gotthilf Henry Ernest. Naturally, he hoped that his sons would study theology. In order to ensure that they would receive the best possible education, he sent them in 1763 to Halle, to the Latin school in the Francke Foundations. While the younger brothers finished their schooling satisfactorily and went on to study theology at the University of Halle, John Peter Gabriel decided in 1763 to train as a merchant and departed for Lübeck. Disappointed and plagued by homesickness, he left his position in 1766 before finishing his training and enlisted in a British regiment. After his discharge and return to North America, he studied theology in Philadelphia, was ordained as a Lutheran pastor in 1769 and in 1772 became a pastor of the Anglican Church. Shortly after their return to Pennsylvania in 1770, his younger brothers, Frederick and Gotthilf, were ordained to the pastorate at the tender ages of twenty and seventeen.

Although Mühlenberg’s sons initially followed their father into the ordained ministry, they made their marks in their American homeland above all in the military, in politics and in the natural sciences. While still a pastor, John Peter Mühlenberg began his political career in Virginia in 1774, which eventually led him to become Vice -President of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and a member of the U. S. House of Representatives and later even a U. S. senator. During the Revolutionary War, he fought as a general alongside George Washington.
During the War, Frederick August also gave up his pastoral office for the sake of politics. Initially, he was a member of the Pennsylvania delegation to the House of Representatives, where he even served as Speaker of the House. As President of Pennsylvania’s constitutional convention in 1787, he helped bring about the ratification of the highly contested federal constitution. As the first Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in the history of the United States, where he served until 1797, he demonstrated great political skill. He was also the first signatory of the Bill of Rights.
Gotthilf Henry remained faithful to his calling as pastor but still found time for scientific research. He was considered to be the most important American botanist of his day and furthered the scholarly reputation of the fledgling country.

Söhne Mühlenberg_Bill of rights  Frederick Augustus Mühlenberg went down in history as the first Speaker of the House of Representatives and the initial signatory of the Bill of Rights. His brother, John Peter Gabriel was a general under George Washington.

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