Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Congregation Day celebrating life of Henry Muhlenberg: Something for everyone

(see photos from Congregation Day at the bottom of this story)
Congregation Day, celebrating the 300th anniversary of the birth of North American Lutheran church organizer Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, had a little something for everyone.

If you enjoy listening to a thought-provoking, entertaining account of larger-than life figures, then Dr. Karl Krueger’s stirring lecture on the life and sea-tossed trials of Muhlenberg was right up your alley. Krueger directs the Krauth Memorial Library on the campus of The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP), which hosted this day, part of a series of events recalling Muhlenberg’s life and work, on Saturday, October 15, 2011.

If you were part of the German Evangelical Lutheran Conference in North America, then the day was an ideal highlight to this year’s Muhlenberg celebration.

If you were a young confirmand from Faith Lutheran Church in Mt. Penn, near Reading, PA, and you think in terms of Tweets and texting, then getting to look over Muhlenberg’s 250-year-old journals featuring his scripty handwriting with a quill pen might have opened up a “new” old world for you. Plus, you got a chance to try journaling the old-fashioned way in the Lutheran Archives Center in The Brossman Learning Center at LTSP. That exercise was led by the Rev. Ellen Anderson, director of Alumni and Church Relations for LTSP’s Office for Philanthropy. Natalie Hand, director of Foundation Relations for that office, was co-host for the event.

If you appreciate an important overseas perspective, then the presentation by Dr. Thomas Muller-Bahlke, director of the Director of the Francke Foundations in Halle, Germany, was for you. Halle was the place that sponsored Muhlenberg’s missionary exploits to North America beginning in 1742. Muller-Bahlke described the history and impressive work of the Francke Foundations today, with its sponsorship of four schools, including the teaching of gardening and music, and its remarkable Library.

Finally, if you are captivated by history, then the bus trip to Trappe in Montgomery County, probably made your day. First, you got to visit the Berman Museum at Ursinus College to view an exhibit on the life of Muhlenberg and his family entitled “Pastors and Patriots.” Trappe historian Richard Buckmaster escorted the attendees through the museum gallery and talked about the exhibit highlights. Then, you got to hear the Rev. Herbert H. Michel, D.D., pastor emeritus of Augustus Lutheran Church, tell the story of how farmers, who lived in simple log cabins with dirt floors, helped Muhlenberg construct the church building in 1743. Augustus’s original church is the oldest Lutheran building in the United States still in continuous worship use today. OK, the building (no electricity, heat or air-conditioning, just as Muhlenberg would have known it) is only used for worship between Father’s Day and around Labor Day, plus for Christmas Eve worship, where candles furnish the only scant warmth. The rest of the year the congregation praises God in the “new” 1850 building next door.

Krueger’s lively presentation to about 70 persons attending the day traced Muhlenberg’s birth in Einbeck in Northwest Germany’s Hannover on Sept. 6, 1711, and his historic career in the colonies. He described Muhlenberg’s study of theology at the University of Gottingen, and his efforts with classmates to teach disadvantaged children how to read, write and learn arithmetic. In Halle in Middle Germany, Muhlenberg spent 1738 at an orphanage for 2,000 children, which featured a school and pharmacy, and continues a vital mission in education today.

During that time, Muhlenberg was influenced greatly by August Hermann Francke (1663-1727), and gained a global perspective as well as a knowledge of an important approach to education and social work. August’s son, Gotthilf August Francke, was a considerable influence as well.

Then came Muhlenberg’s call to the agricultural community of Grosshennersdorf, east of Halle, in 1739, following his ordination in Leipzig. He was the assistant pastor until the patron for the congregation died. “Henry was downsized. His salary was reduced,” Krueger explained. “And he began to reconsider his possibilities.” He thought about an assignment to East India. But in Halle, Gotthilf Francke had “received a letter in 1733 asking for a pastor to be sent to congregations in North America,” Krueger said. “And in 1739 (after nothing happened) Gotthilf received another letter that basically said, ‘Hey, remember us?’ Things moved very slowly in those days,” Krueger said. And so on Muhlenberg’s 30th birthday, he learned he was to be sponsored as pastor to a new land.

In May of 1742, he got his letter of call for three years. Of course, once in North America Muhlenberg never returned home, but first he had to get to Philadelphia (via Savannah, Georgia) from London in what Krueger described as a harrowing trip aboard a packet ship with cargo and 10 cannons. The vessel was pushed across the Atlantic in zig-zaggy directions by ornery, contrary winds, and ran out of food and water before reaching the East Coast of the colonies. “On ships like these, about a third of the passengers could be expected to die,” Krueger related.

Then came a trip from Charleston, SC, to Philadelphia aboard a storm-tossed sloop. The journey lasted two weeks and featured times when a seasick Muhlenberg was “throwing up over the side.” There was another complication once Muhlenberg announced his presence to the three congregations he had been called to serve in Philadelphia, Providence (Trappe) and New Hanover (Falckner’s Swamp, near present day Gilbertsville, PA). “No one had told them he was coming,” Krueger said. Muhlenberg then had the indelicate task of not only introducing himself and his credentials, but also of unseating his less-qualified predecessors in the three pulpits.

Then began his remarkable decades of ministry in the colonies, organizing more than 100 congregations from Savannah, GA, to Lunenberg, Nova Scotia. As both Krueger and Michel explained, Muhlenberg was really like a modern-day Bishop for the young church.

“He established a constitution for the church, a liturgy and a hymnal, and reviewed the qualifications for those seeking to be pastors,” Michel told visitors to Augustus Church. Krueger told his audience at LTSP that 280 people signed the young church’s constitution in October of 1762, “a declaration of interdependence signed 14 years before the Declaration of Independence in the colonies.” During the 1780s came the liturgy, and in 1786 came the hymnal. When Zion Lutheran Church was constructed in Philadelphia, it seated about 3,000 people and was the largest sanctuary in the colonies, hosting many events of the day. (The building no longer exists.)

Muhlenberg died in 1787, and is buried outside old Augustus Church. The gravestone is marked with the words, “Who he was future ages will know without a stone.”

“We are sitting here today because of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg’s vision,” Krueger concluded.

The opening worship for the day was led by the Rev. Martha Kriebel, pastor of Trinity Reformed Church, United Church of Christ, Collegeville, Pennsylvania. The closing worship at Augustus Church was led by the Rev. John H. Van Haneghan, pastor of St. James Lutheran Church in Phillipsburg, NJ. Dr. Philip D. W. Krey, president of the seminary, welcomed the audience with brief opening remarks.

Photos from Congregation Day

Participants in the confirmation track listen to archivist John Peterson tell about Muhlenberg's papers. 

Confirmation track participants with the Rev. Ellen Anderson

Confirmation track participants making an entry in their diaries, as Muhlenberg did in the 18th century

Confirmation track participants at Old Augustus church, Trappe

The Rev. Herb Michel telling the group at Old Augustus Church, Trappe, about Muhlenberg and the church at Trappe. 

Congregation Day group assembled in front of Old Augustus Church, Trappe.
reporting and photography by seminary writer Mark Staples
updated October 25, 2011 to include information on the Berman Museum tour

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