Mühlenberg, Henry Melchior

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Mühlenberg, Henry Melchior

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September 11, 1711

Hanover (a former state of Germany)

October 7, 1787

Trappe, Pennsylvania

Founder of the American Lutheran Church

"Let the Church be Planted."

Henry Melchior Mühlenberg.

Henry Melchior Mühlenberg is known as the "father of the American Lutheran Church." (The Lutheran Church is a Christian religious organization founded by Martin Luther in opposition to the Roman Catholic Church.) He is credited with almost single-handedly uniting the scattered and directionless Lutheran churches in the American colonies. He was later instrumental in organizing the Pennsylvania Ministerium, a central church organization that served the massive numbers of German immigrants (people who move from one country and settle in another) who arrived during the latter part of the eighteenth century.

Trains for ministry

Henry Melchior Mühlenberg was born on September 6, 1711, in Hanover (then a state in Germany). His father was a shoemaker who was active in the local Lutheran church. Mühlenberg attended a classical school (a school devoted to the study of ancient languages and history) and received extensive instruction in Latin. After his father died, a local minister taught him to play the organ, which inspired a lifelong love of music. Well-connected family friends, recognizing his talents, sent him to the University of Göttingen and then to Halle, the great center for the study of religion. At Halle, Mühlenberg continued his studies in languages and music, helped found an orphanage (a home for children without parents), and worked as a teacher. He was ordained (officially appointed by the church) as a minister in the Lutheran Church in 1735. (The Lutheran Church was the first Protestant denomination; see box.) Mühlenberg's future was altered when his former instructors at Halle convinced him to go to America. At that time large numbers of German immigrants were moving to the American colonies. Three Lutheran congregations in Pennsylvania, which had neither church buildings nor pastors, had appealed to church officials in Halle for assistance. Mühlenberg was to be the solution to their problem.

Finds total chaos

In 1742 Mühlenberg sailed to Charleston, South Carolina, surviving one Atlantic storm after another. Upon finally reaching Charleston he visited the Salsburger Lutherans before going on to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In Philadelphia a different storm awaited him when he found that his congregation had been split. Some members were following a recently arrived minister, Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf, a Lutheran who also advocated Moravian beliefs. (The Moravian Church, sometimes known as United Brethren or Herrnhuters, is based on forgiveness of sins through personal faith, strict interpretation of the Bible, and the importance of preaching the word of Christ instead of relying on church rituals.) Meanwhile several others had joined a congregation at Providence, which had actually been assigned to Mühlenberg. This group was being led by the Valentine Kraft, a minister who had emigrated from Germany. Mühlenberg's third congregation was headed by an alcoholic pastor known only as "Schmed."

Rather than confront Zinzendorf, Kraft, and Schmed directly, Mühlenberg relied on the fact that he had been sent to Pennsylvania by King George III of England (who also ruled Hanover). Mühlenberg met with followers of Kraft and Schmed, then he took control of their congregations. But Zinzendorf was a more difficult adversary because he had led a virtuous life. Mühlenberg persisted because Zinzendorf wanted to unite Christians of all denominations under Moravianism, and Mühlenberg considered this a violation of the doctrines of the Lutheran Church. Eventually Zinzendorf had to back down because Mühlenberg had been officially licensed to lead the Philadelphia congregation.


Lutheranism was the first Protestant Christian denomination. The Lutheran Church was founded in 1520 by German theologian Martin Luther, who initiated the Protestant Reformation, a revolution within the Roman Catholic Church. (The Roman Catholic Church is a Christian faith based in Rome, Italy, and headed by a pope who is considered infallible and who oversees bishops, priests, and other clergy. The Catholic worship service is called a Mass, and priests are empowered to forgive Catholics of their sins.) Luther protested, among other things, the corruption and misuse of power among the Catholic clergy—priests, bishops, and popes—who had become wealthy through their association with the church. For instance, they required church members to pay money for forgiveness of sins. Disgusted by such greed and abuse of power, Luther advocated a radical departure from traditional Catholic practices and doctrine (church laws). According to Luther, the Scriptures (the Bible, the holy book of the Christian faith) are the only source of truth, and it is the right of the individual to interpret the Scriptures without the aid of priests. In addition, forgiveness of sins comes directly from God and not through the clergy. Almost from the beginning, the Lutherans themselves disagreed over interpretation of the Bible and the proper form of the worship service. Many wanted no association with Catholics or Calvinists (Protestants who believe in strict adherence to the Scriptures), while others wanted to associate with other Christian groups. Today there is no single religious philosophy governing the various branches of the Lutheran Church in Germany, Scandinavia, and North America. Nevertheless most place great emphasis on preaching and congregational singing

Revitalizes American Lutheranism

Mühlenberg soon became a powerful religious leader. As he traveled throughout the American colonies he founded new churches and brought old congregations together. To get rid of fraudulent (deceitful) ministers, he kept up a steady correspondence with church officials at Halle. By focusing attention on the colonies, Mühlenberg attracted well-trained and devoted Lutheran ministers. His message was accessible to early settlers because he preached widely and constantly in German, English, Dutch, and even Latin—whatever language was required by circumstances. Mühlenberg also adapted the content and style of his sermons to the preferences of his audiences. He avoided public controversies that might drive away church members. He attracted converts and rallied congregations to erect or enlarge church buildings for regular worship. In 1745 he married the daughter of Conrad Weiser, the commissioner of Indian affairs for Pennsylvania. The Mühlenbergs eventually had eleven children, all of whom survived to occupy prominent positions.

Unites congregations

Throughout his career Mühlenberg abided by the motto: "Let the Church be Planted." His goal was realized in 1748 when six Swedish and German pastors met with twenty-four American church delegates (representatives) in Pennsylvania. They formed the Pennsylvania Ministerium, a central organization, and unified the Lutheran congregations. Mühlenberg was appointed head of the Ministerium. The pastors also compiled a book of common prayer (a text used in all worship services) that remained in use until the nineteenth century. Whenever conflicts arose, Mühlenberg successfully acted as peacemaker. In 1760 he joined Swedish church leader Karl Wrangel in reorganizing the Ministerium. Mühlenberg and Wrangel issued written constitutions and laid the foundation for continuing cooperation among the congregations throughout the country.

Mühlenberg remained a loyal subject of King George III until the signing of the Declaration of Independence. (Adopted July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was a document that declared the independence of the thirteen American colonies from British rule and established them as the United States.) Mühlenberg died on October 7, 1787. That same year the Lutheran and German Reformed Churches joined forces to found Franklin College in Pennsylvania. Mühlenberg's son, Henry Ernest, was named the first president.

For further research

The Journals of Henry Melchior Mühlenberg. Translated by Theodore G. Tappart and John W. Doberstein. Rockport, Maine: Picton Press, 1993.

Riforgiato, Leonard R. Missionary of Moderation: Henry Melchior Mühlenberg and the Lutheran Church in English America. Lewisburg, Penn.: Bucknell University Press, 1980.

Wallace, Paul A. W. The Mühlenbergs of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1950.

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