Monday, December 28, 2009

Newly translated letters by Lutheran patriarch reveal the travails of religious and mid-colonial life in the 1750s

Grants to Lutheran Seminary from the National Endowment for the Humanities and The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission made the project possible

He is known as the patriarch of Lutheranism in North America, depicted by many scholars as vigorous and with indefatigable energy. During the mid 1700s, Henry Melchior Muhlenberg served as a founding and sustaining force for more than two dozen congregations in colonial New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. (at right: statue of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg on the seminary campus)

Now, a newly published volume of 48 letters translated from German to English, The Correspondence of Heinrich Melchior Muhlenberg (Volume 3, 1753-1756, Picton Press 2009, $64.50), reveals a more vulnerable picture of a family man worn out by constant far-flung travels to congregations beset by hardship, not enough money, and bickering. (Sound familiar, contemporary church leaders?) His correspondence also describes the disruption in trade imposed upon German Settlers by the travails of the French and Indian War.

Muhlenberg’s letters further offer intimate and authentic insights into the patriarch’s personality not available before in English. According to the volume’s introduction, the letters impressively illumine the roles Muhlenberg played in colonial life: as a German missionary and American pastor, as a subject of George II of Great Britain and citizen of the Pennsylvania colony, as a self-avowed non-political pastor and a backstage political manipulator, as a religious leader and ethnic spokesman, as head of a typical Lutheran parsonage and of a large family, and simply as a public figure and private individual. Beyond that, the letters, often written to Muhlenberg’s sponsors back home in Halle, Germany, paint a defining picture of colonial life and hardships from a distinctive perspective. And the letters reveal the diligence with which Muhlenberg maintained international correspondence.

The volume was made possible by a $150,000 three-year collaborative research grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP). Key publishing assistance also came from a grant to the seminary from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. The letters were painstakingly translated by Dr. Wolfgang Splitter, associated with the Martin Luther University in Halle, Germany, and the Rev. Dr. Timothy J. Wengert, Ministerium of Pennsylvania Professor of Church History at LTSP (at right), who directed the project. Others involved in the initiative were Dr. Jon Pahl, professor of the History of Religion in North America at LTSP; Mary A. Redline, researcher for LTSP’s Krauth Memorial Library and the Lutheran Archives Center at the seminary, and the Rev. Martin Lohrmann, a doctoral candidate at LTSP.

Muhlenberg’s correspondence is spiced with colorful rhetoric. In a letter describing the troubles infusing the life of the Lutheran congregation in Germantown, Muhlenberg at one point writes to his sponsors: “The laws of this country are holy and good but, in contrast to the intentions of their authors, are often misused by tricks and intrigues of unscrupulous jurists so that their magnetic needle points to where there is the most ore. The one who has the most money and like, newlanders, fiddlers and innkeepers, obtains it with little effort, can in some places claim his rights even if he is utterly wrong.” He goes on to say that “some people in leadership (of the provincial government) like to see the German immigrants divided and torn to pieces…”

In the volume’s introduction, Splitter and Wengert note Muhlenberg’s state of despondence at “friends and sponsors seemingly abandoning him to the hazards and temptations of the American wilderness.” Writing in 1756 to Samuel Theodor Albinus, a boarding school instructor in Halle and later a court preacher in the German Chapel in London, Muhlenberg described “Being pressured from within and without on all sides by the war with the cruel and inhumane savages [a reference to the French and Indian War],” by “poverty” and “other plagues…and even abandoned by our best friends and patrons is almost too hard for us.” The letter reveals how Muhlenberg was experiencing burnout and showing signs of overwork at the age of 42. The father of five was at the same time asking his superiors “to grant me for the little rest of my life to weep in secret over the innumerable sins in office and station and over my mistakes, to feed and raise my own underage children, to search in the wounds of Jesus for salvation and mercy for my poor soul, and to get prepared for a blessed end.” He had served more than four times longer than his initial three-year commitment. Yet he went on in his leadership capacity for many more years prior to his death in 1787.

In reflecting on the volume’s historic content, Wengert says, “As director of this project, I believe that it is important to indicate the significance of this work for better appreciating America’s colonial roots. Hearing an eyewitness account of the gruesome details of the French and Indian War and its impact, especially on the predominantly German settlers on the Pennsylvania frontier, provides a different perspective from which to measure the effects of events in the mid eighteenth century on the inhabitants of the middle colonies. From Muhlenberg’s direct, surprisingly honest expressions, one can also begin to grasp the great personal toll that colonial leaders bore in organizing colonial community and religious life with these immigrants. Moreover, Muhlenberg’s direct relation to religious leaders in Halle, Germany (then a part of the Kingdom of Prussia), so completely outlined in these letters, elucidates another aspect of colonial life, namely connections to the wider European community. The flow of money, medicines, people and ideas back and forth across the Atlantic provides yet another proof of the international character of colonial life.”

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