Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Need inspiration today? Ponder the witness of colonial church organizer Henry Melchior Muhlenberg


Enduring much hardship, Muhlenberg ‘planted’ more than 100 congregations from Savannah, GA, to Lunenberg, Nova Scotia in the mid to late 1700s. September 6, 2011 marks the 300th anniversary of his birth including celebrations at LTSP.

Are you experiencing financial trials or hardship? Are you frustrated by the small- or large-scale bickering that is part of today? Are you struggling to figure out how to survive or remain relevant in the current age?

These are timeless questions, and for some answers consider the life and legacy of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, a key leader in the American colonies. Despite experiencing the aforementioned challenges, Muhlenberg planted more than 100 Lutheran congregations from Savannah, GA, to Lunenberg, Nova Scotia, in the mid to late 1700s. Could you use a strong dose of inspiration to energize your life and the faith journey for Christ you are a part of? Sharing in Muhlenberg’s story can help.

Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, born in Germany on September 6, 1711, has become  known as the father of Lutheranism in colonial North America. He arrived in the Pennsylvania colony in 1742 intending to fill out a three-year term ministering to German immigrants connected to small Lutheran congregations in Philadelphia, New Hanover and Trappe. Instead, he stayed and married, built a home for his family and established an organized church that welcomed thousands of German immigrants struggling to establish new lives in the British colonies.

Muhlenberg’s persistence to serve despite terrific obstacles and hardships are well documented in the current issue of PS, the magazine of The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP).

German immigrants often lived as indentured servants in their new homeland, notes the Rev. Dr. Timothy Wengert, Ministerium of Pennsylvania Professor of Reformation History, writing in PS. In a letter cited by Wengert written by Ministerium pastors to their sponsors back in Germany, the financial hardships are dramatically defined and perhaps ring a bit familiar to leaders and worshipers in some congregations dealing today with the effects of joblessness and a faltering economy. “With regard to the external circumstances of our colleagues and the united pastors, they are resting on shaky foundations. For the most part we are poor and must live on parishioners’ voluntary mites. Our extensive official duties require extensive costs for horses, harnesses and clothing, and the majority of parishioners are poor and want more from us than they are able to give back…”

After nearly 20 years of missionary work in the colonies, Muhlenberg was charged with heresy by a younger colleague, Lukas Rauss, writes Reformation scholar the Rev. Dr. Martin Lohrmann in the magazine. Rauss accused Muhlenberg and other leaders of unorthodox doctrine and unchristian conduct, according to Lohrmann, a PhD graduate of LTSP and pastor of Christ Ascension Lutheran Church in Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill. In 1761, Muhlenberg wrote to Swedish Lutheran colleagues who were to decide the case and deftly defended himself, writing that at times like this one needed to heed the advice of Solomon: “Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.” (Prov. 26: 5). Tbe arbiters judged in Muhlenberg’s favor in the matter.

Associate Professor Richard Stewart, who teaches Communication and Parish Administration at LTSP, writes in the magazine that in his journals Muhlenberg was conscious of the social rules and laws in the colonies regarding heathen slaves. At one point, Stewart notes, Muhlenberg critiqued the visual life of Charleston, SC, observing that “one also finds here many slaves who are only half black, the offspring of those white Sodomites who commit fornication with their black slave women.” Stewart writes: “In many ways the German immigrants Muhlenberg found…were as economically suppressed as the African slaves, indentured servants and indigenous peoples. Yet the care of the soul led Muhlenberg and those he mentored.” In 1752, when the new sanctuary for St. Michael’s Lutheran Church was consecrated in Germantown, now part of Philadelphia, Muhlenberg preached and a black male, Christian Gotthilff, was baptized.

“The pluralism along the (Germantown Avenue) route (today) would amaze him (Muhlenberg),” writes the Rev. Dr. Katie Day in PS. Day, the Charles Schieren Professor of Church and Society and director of the seminary’s Metropolitan/Urban Concentration, says there are ten more mainline Lutheran churches along the avenue than in Muhlenberg’s time, and notes that immigrants have continued to plant congregations there. “Pentecostal, Black Hebrew, Hurleyite and Apostolic congregations would have been beyond his imagining, not to mention the two Muslim masjids.” Three megachurches dot the avenue, “different in theology and liturgy than what Muhlenberg was used to, but growing out of the same soil of religious tolerance and the need for city folk to find meaning in increasingly complex urban life,” she writes. Day has closely studied the evolving religious life along the avenue Muhlenberg used to ride on horseback and in carriages.

A PS article also notes how Muhlenberg’s compassion for poor immigrants is carried on today by the organizations Lutheran World Relief and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

A number of congregations Muhlenberg founded in the greater Philadelphia region are assisting the seminary to plan events in the coming year celebrating Muhlenberg’s life.

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Celebrating the Legacy of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg

Martin E. Marty
On Tuesday, September 6, the Muhlenberg 300 celebration begins at LTSP, featuring a festival worship in the morning. In the afternoon, Dr. Martin Marty, Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago, will keynote the opening convocation, speaking on “Henry Melchior Muhlenberg and the Current American Church Scape.” The program will feature afternoon workshops connecting Muhlenberg’s colonial ministry to various aspects of today’s church. A Muhlenberg exhibition will make its seminary debut, featuring artifacts from the seminary and the Lutheran Archives Center at Philadelphia as well as “Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, Patriarch of American Lutheranism,” a display created by the Francke Foundations of Halle, Germany, from where Muhlenberg’s sponsorship to North America emanated. The day’s events, on the seminary’s campus at 7301 Germantown Avenue in the Mt. Airy section of Philadelphia, are free and open to the public, reservations required. For a detailed schedule of the day and to make reservations, go to www.Ltsp.edu/September6.

Additional Muhlenberg 300 events are in the planning stages, including Congregation Day, October 15; a Fall Forum on November 7, Advent Vespers December 4, Women’s Day March 17, 2012, and Spring Convocation May 1-2, 2012. As plans unfold information will be posted at www.Ltsp.edu/Muhlenberg300

You can read and download the current issue of PS magazine online at www.Ltsp.edu/PS-Magazine.

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