American Lutherans Prospered Under Muhlenberg’s Bold Leadership
WHEN Henry Melchior Muhlenberg arrived in Pennsylvania in the eighteenth century, its Lutheran immigrants were without leadership. “So sad, so degraded is the condition of our poor Lutheran people, that you could hardly bewail it enough with tears of blood,” he wrote. His congregation of about fifty families received him eagerly, and he held his first service on a barn floor.
Trained among Pietists, Muhlenberg believed religion must be of the heart as well as of the mind and was filled with a burning desire to save souls. His congregation grew so quickly the barn was too small and the people had to build a church and schoolhouse. As pastor and school teacher, Muhlenberg traveled constantly to care for scattered Lutherans in Philadelphia, New Hanover, and Trappe. His diary described dangerous floods and deep snows. His people were so poor they often did not pay him and he was forced to borrow money for clothes. Enemies tried to ruin his reputation by having a woman of questionable character accuse him of sexual advances. Under questioning, she confessed the plot. Despite these difficulties, he persisted in his labors.
When New Jersey Lutherans pleaded for guidance, he visited them, established schools, and even opened a part-time seminary there. In 1745 he married Anna Maria Weiser. Together they had eleven children, some of whom became notable leaders in the early days of the United States.
In 1748, just six years after arriving in the American colonies, Muhlenberg organized America’s first Lutheran synod. For this achievement, he became known as the Patriarch of the Lutheran Church in America. He refused to allow himself to be distracted by political events, saying when the expansion of the church came at a time when Philadelphians expected France and Spain to attack their city: “We said that we had been sent to preach to our people repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus, and hence we could not mix in political affairs...” However, Muhlenberg’s friendship with other denominations was warm, and he held services for Presbyterians, Reformed, Episcopalians, and Catholics. His last years were marred by broken health.
Having worn himself out in service, on this day, 7 October 1787 Henry Melchior Muhlenberg died quietly in The Trappe, Pennsylvania, where he had retired at the beginning of the Revolutionary War. He was laid to rest three days later near the Augustus church he had built forty-five years earlier when he first came to America. Many mourned his passing.
Lutherans were one among many variants of Protestantism in early America, a story documented in People of Faith; Christianity in America