Muhlenberg, Henry Melchior, Dd
Muhlenberg, Henry Melchior, D.D.
the patriarch of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, was born September 6, 1711, at Einbeck, in Hanover then a free city of Germany. He was the son of Nicolas Melchior and Anna Maria Kleinschmidt, originally Saxon, but who, like many of the earlier followers of the great Reformer, having suffered severely during the Thirty-years' War, which for a time threatened the extermination of the Protestant religion in Europe, removed to Einbeck. His father was well known in the community, and highly esteemed. He was a member of the city council, and also held a judicial appointment, from which he derived the necessary means for the support of his family. His mother was the daughter of a retired officer, and is represented as a woman of sterling good-sense, great energy, and devoted piety. Henry was early dedicated to God in Christian baptism, and was carefully instructed by his parents in the principles and duties of the Christian religion. These influences were never effaced from his mind. In his youth he laid the foundation of that character which proved so valuable in his future life. In consequence of the death of his father his studies were interrupted, and he was thrown upon his own resources for a support; but his leisure hours were faithfully devoted to the acquisition of knowledge. Nothing could repress his love of study. His early life was years of privation and toil, yet without this preparatory discipline he would probably never have acquired those habits of self-reliance and systematic effort, that strength of purpose and heroic determination, which so prominently marked his subsequent career, and contributed so much to his usefulness in this Western World. From his twelfth till his twenty-first year young Muhlenberg toiled incessantly in his efforts to assist in the maintenance of the family, yet during the intervals of repose he improved every opportunity afforded him for mental culture. On reaching his manhood he secured the position of tutor in the school of Raphelius at Zellerfeld, and the time not officially employed he devoted to study. In the spring of 1735 he entered the University of Gittingen, where he remained for three years, triumphing over all the difficulties he encountered, and winning the confidence of his instructors. The pious teachings of Dr. Oporin, who had kindly received him into his family and employed him as an amanuensis, exerted over him a most favorable influence, awakening -in him a deeper insight into his own character, and a clearer apprehension of the plan of salvation. "By his lectures," he says, "on the total depravity of our nature I was much moved, and so convinced of my sinfulness that I loathed myself on account of my folly. I was convinced by the Word of God that till this period my understanding in spiritual things was dark; that my will was disinclined to that new life which proceeds from God; that my memory had been employed only in collecting carnal things, my imagination in discovering sinful objects for the gratification of my perverted affections, and my members by habitual use had become weapons of unrighteousness. But as I learned to recognise sin as sin, then followed sorrow, repentance, and hatred of it — shame and humiliation on account of hunger and thirst for the righteousness of Jesus Christ. In this state of mind I was directed to the crucified Saviour; the merits of his death gave me life; my thirst was quenched by him, the Living Spring." From this period he became a most earnest Christian. He burned with an ardent desire to do good. On his graduation at Gottingen he repaired to Halle. There he continued his studies, and taught in the Orphan House. He lived on the most intimate terms with Franke, Cellarius, and Fabricius. By their advice he was led to prepare himself for the missionary work, and Bengal was the point selected as the field of his operations. While arrangements were making to send him to India, and just after he had been solemnly set apart to the work of the ministry, a most importunate application from congregations in Pennsylvania reached Germany fir some one to supply the great spiritual destitution that existed. The attention of the faculty was immediately directed to Muhlenberg, then in his thirty-first year, as a most suitable person for the position. Cheerfully yielding to the call, and with unshaken confidence in God, he was ready to abandon the comforts of home and the society of friends, as well as the prospects of future distinction to which a mind so highly gifted might have aspired, and to settle in this remote and, at that time, wild and inhospitable region as a humble instrument for the advancement of Christ's kingdom. He reached this country in 1742. His arrival was an occasion of great joy and inexpressible gratitude to his German brethren. The Church he found in a most wretched condition; in his own language, it was not plantata, but plantanda. There had been numerous settlements in different parts of the country, and some of them had been furnished with able and faithful ministers, but as a general thing the Lutheran population had been sadly neglected. Muhlenberg's advent therefore marks a new aera in the history of the Lutheran Church in this country. Its character soon changed; its condition gradually improved; its position was at once strengthened, and permanence given to its operations. Frequent accessions were made to the ranks of the ministry — men educated at Halle, imbued with the spirit of their Master, and wholly devoted to their work, upon whose labors the blessing of Heaven signally rested. Entering upon the discharge of his duties, Muhlenberg assumed the pastoral care of the associated churches of Philadelphia, New Hanover, and Providence, which had united in a call for a minister. These three congregations continued to form the more prominent scenes of his ministerial labors, although there was probably not an organized Lutheran church in his day in which he did not preach; and when a difficulty occurred in any congregation, his aid was always invoked, and seldom did he fail in reconciling differences and restoring confidence. His duties, in many respects, resembled those of an itinerant bishop whose diocese extended over a large territory. Often he undertook distant and irksome journeys for the purpose of gathering together the scattered flock, preaching the Word and administering the sacraments, introducing salutary discipline for the government of the churches, and performing other kind services, in his desire to repair the waste places of Zion and promote the cause of genuine piety. The care of the churches rested upon him. He had the confidence of the people; his presence everywhere inspired hope. His opinions were valued; his influence was boundless and unprecedented. The first three years of his ministry in this country, Dr. Muhlenberg resided in Philadelphia; the next sixteen at Providence. In 1761 he returned to Philadelphia, and remained fifteen years, the condition of things in the congregation there requiring his presence. In 1776 he resumed his charge in the country. During the War of the American Revolution, because of his devotion to the principles involved in the struggle, he excited against him the most violent opposition, and his life was often exposed to imminent peril. He was warned and entreated to remove farther into the interior from the scene of hostilities, but he always refused. He was extensively known, and his relations to the Revolution were well understood. Many took advantage of his position, and persons of all classes resorted to his house. "His home," says a contemporary "was constantly filled with fugitives, acquaintances and strangers, with the poor and hungry, noble and common beggars. The hungry never went away unsatisfied, nor the suffering uncomforted." The last few years of his life Dr. Muhlenberg's health gradually declined. His mind, in prospect of death, was calm, sustained by a humble yet firm reliance upon the Saviour of sinners. When the summons came, with entire composure, and in confident expectation of a blissful immortality, he yielded up his spirit, and rested in the bosom of his God. His active and useful career terminated October 7, 1787. His death was the occasion of wide-spread and unaffected sorrow. The people grieved that they should no longer see his face and listen to his paternal counsels. He was the friend and father of all, and all regarded it as their duty and privilege to mourn "their father, friend, example, guide removed." In many places the bells were tolled; the churches enshrouded in mourning, and funeral sermons delivered, in grateful remembrance of the departed, and as testimonials of the respect his worth everywhere inspired. The honored remains of the patriarch peacefully rest near the church which was so long the scene of his earnest labors, and in which he so often dispensed the symbols of the Saviour's love among the people of God, and animated them in their Christian pilgrimage by the hopes and consolations of the Gospel. The history of Dr. Muhlenberg's life is the history of one of the noblest minds, consecrating its learning, its affections, its influence, its energies, to all the interests of the Church and of humanity, to the glory and service of that Saviour who redeemed him with his own precious blood. He possessed a combination of qualities which peculiarly fitted him for' the duties he was called to perform. Gifted by nature with the highest powers, which had been brought under the influence of the best culture; endowed with a noble heart, which had been sanctified by divine grace and disciplined in the school of affliction; and in the possession of a physical constitution which in early life had been inured to labor; with an ardent, active piety, an earnest and enthusiastic devotion to the work, nothing seemed wanting for the successful accomplishment of his mission. He was the man kindly raised up by Providence for the particular emergency required at the time in this western hemisphere. The most sanguine expectations of his success were entertained by those who selected him for the mission. These expectations were more than realized. His praise is deservedly in all the churches. He has left a name fragrant with the richest honor attainable in this life — that of a good man, sincere in his professions and upright in his conduct, widely esteemed and greatly beloved. His society was sought and his influence courted by the learned men of the day. By the special invitation of the faculty he attended the Commencement exercises of Princeton College, and from the University of Pennsylvania he received the doctorate in divinity, a distinction in those days rarely conferred, and only upon those whose claims to the honor were unquestionable. See Helmuth; Denkmal der Liebe u. Achtung, etc. (Phila. 1788); Stoever, Life of H.M. Muhlenberg (Phila. 1856) ; Evang. Qu. Rev. (Luth.) 1:390, 590. (M.L.S.)