Muhlenberg, Henry Melchior (1711-1787)

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Henry Melchior Muhlenberg (1711-1787)

Father of the american lutheran church


Impact. The motto of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, Ecclesia Plantanda (Let the Church be Planted), sums up the goal of the man and his achievements. Almost single-handedly he joined the scattered and directionless Lutheran churches and forged them into an American denomination that could effectively serve the flood of German immigrants in the latter part of the eighteenth century. Most agree that the history of the Lutheran Church in America from his landing in 1742 to his death... is scarcely more than his biography.

Pietistic Beginnings. Muhlenberg was born on 6 September 1711 in Hanover into the pious family of a shoemaker who was active in the local Lutheran church. He attended a classical school and received a firm grounding in Latin. After his father died, a local minister taught him to play the organ, which began 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 citadel of German Pietism. At Halle he continued his studies in languages and music, helped found an orphanage, and taught. He was ordained in 1735 and settled into a church near the estate of Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf. His former instructors at Halle convinced him that his calling lay in America. Three forlorn Lutheran congregations in Pennsylvania, with neither church buildings nor pastors, had appealed to Halle for assistance; Muhlenberg was to be their answer.

A Stormy Arrival. The ocean voyage to Charleston in 1742, where Muhlenberg visited the Salsburger Lutherans and continued on to Philadelphia, took place amid one Atlantic storm after another. A different storm awaited him in Pennsylvania. His Philadelphia congregation had split, with some attaching themselves to the recent arrival, Count von Zinzendorf, who was a Lutheran but espoused beliefs that were also Moravian. Meanwhile some joined his other congregation at Providence, which was now led by the Reverend Valentine Kraft, who had been relieved of his church offices in Germany. The third congregation enjoyed the ministrations of an alcoholic charlatan known only as Schmed. Rather than confront these usurpers directly, Muhlenberg relied on his superior authority, for he had been sent by the king of England (ruler of Hanover as well) and was the official missionary of Halle to fill a proper request. Muhlenberg presented his credentials to the followers of Kraft and Schmed and assumed authority over these congregations, after a series of wily maneuvers that displaced their former leaders. Zinzendorf was a more difficult adversary. He was a man of social and religious stature who led a blameless life of piety and self-sacrifice and was an ordained Lutheran minister. His goal of uniting Christians of all denominations under the ecumenical Moravian umbrella, however, was anathema to Muhlenberg, whose allegiance was to the traditional Lutheran Church. Yet even the mighty Zinzendorf had to back down in deference to Muhlenbergs credentials and his official licensure to the Philadelphia congregation.

Persistent Pastor. With incredible tact, patient firmness, spiritual power, and indefatigable traveling, Muhlenberg founded new churches and brought old congregations together. To rid the church of false and scandalous ministers, he kept up a steady correspondence with his patrons and the fathers at Halle, riveting their attention on the colonies. He attracted a stream of well-trained and devoted ministers to whom congregations naturally gravitated. He preached widely and constantly, in German, English, Dutch, and Latin as the occasion dictated, and quickly adapted the content and style of his preaching to the preferences of his audiences. He avoided all public controversies which might drive some away, instead focusing on the orthodoxy which was the common denominator of all factions. He catechized the unchurched, rallying congregations to erect or enlarge church buildings for regular worship. It did not hurt his standing that, in 1745, he married the pious daughter of Conrad Weiser, the commissioner of Indians affairs for Pennsylvania. They had eleven children, all of whom survived to occupy prominent positions.

Success. Muhlenbergs motto came to fruition in 1748 when six Swedish and German pastors and twenty-four lay delegates met in Philadelphia to form the Pennsylvania Ministerium. Guided by Muhlenberg, it outlined a synodical organization and prepared a book of common prayer that lasted into the nineteenth century. There were, of course, disputes which Muhlenberg, as overseer of the united congregations, mediated with surprising success. In 1760 he joined a close friend, the Swedish provost Karl Wrangel, in reorganizing the Ministerium, composing written constitutions for churches, and laying the basis for continuing cooperation between these two national churches.

Conclusion of Service. Muhlenberg remained a loyal Hanoverian subject of King George III until the Declaration of Independence and saw his sons do battle in the American cause. He died on 7 October 1787, the same year that the Lutheran and German Reformed Churches joined forces to found Franklin College in Pennsylvania with his son the Reverend Henry Ernest Muhlenberg as president.


Henry E. Jacobs, A History of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the United States, 4 volumes (New York, 1893);

Paul A. W. Wallace, The Muhlenbergs of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1950).

Heinrich Melchior Mühlenberg

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Heinrich Melchior Mühlenberg

Heinrich Melchior Mühlenberg (1711-1787) was the German-born clergyman who organized the scattered Lutheran congregations in America into an independent sect.

Heinrich Melchior Mühlenberg was born in Einbech, Germany, on Sept. 6, 1711. He was a Pietist to whom religion was a way of life, not belief in a creed. This concept of religion was brought to America early in the 18th century by groups of German immigrants. Accustomed to a state church in the homeland, these people were at a loss in America, where there were neither ministers nor schoolmasters enough for their small settlements.

Mühlenberg, trained at the University of Halle, was sent to America in 1742 by the Pietist center to minister to the Lutherans in three Pennsylvania congregations. He was 31, energetic, dedicated to the ideals of Pietism, and possessed executive ability and a high degree of common sense. Fortunately, he could preach in three languages, English, German, and Dutch. His three congregations were widely scattered, requiring a hundred miles of traveling each week to serve them, and he even discovered a fourth group. He also discovered that two young impostors, pretending to be ministers, had laid claim to two of these congregations.

In a month's time, Mühlenberg had gotten rid of the impostors and had arranged to teach the children for a full week in each of his four parishes by turn, as there was no schoolmaster in any of these settlements. He had also collected members for a fifth congregation in New Jersey. A long and difficult visit to Georgia, another to groups along the Hudson River, and a missionary trip through Maryland filled many months. His reports back to the Pietist center in Halle brought helpers and funds, as many calls for ministers and schoolmasters continued to come in. He built churches and a schoolhouse, arbitrated church quarrels, and restored order in tangled situations.

After 6 years of energetic and imaginative labors, Mühlenberg felt the time had come to unite all the churches he served into a representative body with power to license and install their own preachers and to handle their common problems. With this in mind, he called a synod in 1748 of pastors and representative laymen from each parish. A common liturgy was adopted and reports given of each church and parochial school. Thus the Lutherans of America became a sect independent of Old World control.

Meanwhile Mühlenberg had become a permanent resident of America. He had married Anna Marie Weiser, daughter of Johann Conrad Weiser, an intermediary between colonial governors and the Indians, and had founded a distinguished American family. He died in New Providence (now Trappe), Pa., on Oct. 7, 1787.

Further Reading

Biographies of Mühlenberg include William J. Mann, Life and Times of Henry Melchior Mühlenberg (1887); Reverend William K. Frick, Henry Melchior Mühlenberg: "Patriarch of the Lutheran Church in America" (1902); and Paul A. W. Wallace, The Muhlenbergs of Pennsylvania (1950).

Additional Sources

Riforgiato, Leonard R., Missionary of moderation: Henry Melchior Muhlenberg and the Lutheran Church in English America, Lewisburg Pa.: Bucknell University Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1980. □

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