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Some American Churchmen

By Frederic Cook Morehouse

Milwaukee: The Young Churchman, 1892.

Chapter VIII. William Augustus Muhlenberg, The Christian Educator

NOT a Bishop, but a Priest; and perhaps the most original character in the history of the American Church. He seems to have been a disciple of nobody, and no one followed in exactly his footsteps; and yet his influence upon the Church was greater, perhaps, than that of any other man.

Dr. Muhlenberg never professed to be a theologian. Sympathizing with the Low-Churchmen of his day in theology, he yet revived the cardinal principle of worship as fully as did Pusey or DeKoven, and his practical work in the Church was the foundation and pattern of an untold amount of Church work to-day.

Born of a well-known German-Lutheran family, in 1796, in the city of Philadelphia, the young Muhlenberg early became associated with the Church, and, after receiving his education at the University of Pennsylvania, he was ordained by the venerable Bishop White, and became his assistant at the united parish of Christ, S. Peter's and S. James', Philadelphia. Mr. Kemper, afterward Missionary Bishop of the Northwest, was a senior assistant at the same time. After his advancement to the priesthood, in 1820, Mr. Muhlenberg became rector of S. James' Church, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

It was while in Lancaster, that Mr. Muhlenberg first began to obtain notice as a hymn writer. His well-known hymn, "I would not live alway," was one of his earliest and best known, though he himself, and other musical critics, pronounced it far from his best. The hymnology of the American Church at that time was most meagre, the Prayer Book containing fifty-six hymns, most of which were attempts at improvements of the Book of Psalms. Mr. Muhlenberg tried to have a hymnal commission appointed by the General Convention of 1821, but failing in this, he issued a selection of hymns under the title of "Church Poetry." The next General Convention appointed Mr. Muhlenberg one of a joint committee on Psalms and Tunes. In 1826, the new selection of hymns was adopted, and included four of Mr. Muhlenberg's.

It was in about his thirtieth year, that Mr. Muhlenberg began the first attempt in this country to found an institution of Christian learning. The "Flushing Institute," on Long Island, was established as a home school under Mr. Muhlenberg's personal care, and not only were the boys under him thoroughly instructed in grammar school accomplishments, but they were also trained up to follow the Church's idea of services and the Christian Year. Daily services were held, and attendance was obligatory. The Sunday services were unique at that time, 1826-1835. They were strictly Churchly, and the ritual included pictures and flowers, altar lights and incense. The psalms were chanted, and litanies for the seasons, taken from ancient missals, were revived and sung. Christmas and Easter were gorgeous festivals. One of Dr. Muhlenberg's "boys," the Rev. Dr. Van Bokkelen, thus describes the services for those festivals:

"Then the chapel was brilliant and fragrant. The altar wore its vestment of white and shone with lights. There was the picture of the Madonna wreathed with evergreens, surrounded by flowers exhaling fragrance as incense to the Lord. This was the beginning and the perfection of aesthetic ritualism. *****

These chapel services, as has been said, antedated that general revival of ritual which came with the teaching of Keble's 'Christian Year,' when the Flushing Institute was the only true Christian family school of our Church, when Lent was not kept with daily prayer, and when Christmas was a day of merry-making. Thus the school at Flushing was a teacher of the whole Church.

"Lent was especially observed.

"Holy Week was holy indeed, with penitential confessions and prayers; its solemn Miserere culminating in the impressive office of Good Friday, when the altar was vested with black, and over it hung the picture of the crucifixion." [See Anne Ayres' Life of Dr. Muhlenberg.]

This work expanded so that Dr. Muhlenberg obtained additional land at College Point, Long Island, and commenced the erection of a fine plant of buildings to be known as S. Paul's College. The financial panic of 1837 stopped the work, and it became necessary to erect humbler buildings for the institution. The Rev. J. B. Kerfoot, afterward Bishop of Pittsburgh, himself a graduate of the Flushing Institute, was one of the assistants. The services were still kept up to their Churchly ideals. Much attention was given to the subject of music, and Dr. Muhlenberg's well-known carol, "Carol, brothers, carol," was written at this time, as well as several others.

Fifteen years of scholastic life forced Dr. Muhlenberg to seek a rest, and accordingly he spent the summer of 1843 in England. Here, for a time, he fell under the influence of Newman and Pusey; but the secession of the former from the Anglican communion seems to have turned him backward; and as we have before remarked, Dr. Muhlenberg was no theologian. His heart was leading him to a better conception of God and the Church than his mind ever knew; and it was the direct influence of the Flushing Institute and S. Paul's College, that made Christian education to be more fully developed in other institutions, particularly at S. James' College, in Maryland, and at S. Paul's School, at Concord, New Hampshire.

The next work of Dr. Muhlenberg was in New York City, and began a new phase of Church life, which may be said to have ushered in almost the whole of the Church life of to-day.

The Church of the Holy Communion, in New York, was built by a sister of Dr. Muhlenberg, Mrs. Mary A. Rogers, as a free church where rich and poor might have equal rights as alike children of their heavenly Father in their Father's house. It was the first free church in the American Church, and was planned by Dr. Muhlenberg, who became its first rector. The corner stone was laid on the 24th of July, 1844. It was in 1846 that he removed from College Point to his new home in the great city.

It was just before this that Dr. Muhlenberg organized the first sisterhood in the American Church. It took root from a sermon which he preached in the little chapel of S. Paul's College, on the subject of Jephtha's Vow. One woman who heard him resolved to consecrate the remainder of her life to religious work for her Saviour. She was accordingly admitted as the first of the Sisters of the Holy Communion.

At the Church of the Holy Communion, Dr. Muhlenberg established the first weekly celebration of the Holy Communion in this country. He was the first also to introduce daily services, the division of the offices on Sunday into separate services, chanting the psalter, the weekly offertory, congregational singing, preaching in the surplice, the especial solemnities of Holy Week, the celebration of the Epiphany with an offering of silver and gold for Missions. He also was the first to give attention to practical work for the bodies of men, such as is now done in every parish. He organized an Employment society for women; provision for assisting the poor at Thanksgiving Day; the "Fresh Air Fund," to give the poor people of the tenement house district a breath of fresh air on Long Island; the work of the Sisterhood in the Church Dispensary, Church Infirmary and Church schools. In 1847, he lighted the first Christmas tree for poor children in a school room, gifts for them being provided by the children of wealthier parents, and at the festival, Christmas carols were sung. He also dispensed with the old-fashioned high soft hassock, designed to assist people to keep from kneeling, and substituted low kneeling-benches, teaching the congregation to kneel upon their knees. He was horrified at the idea of ownership of pews in God's house. On this subject he once scribbled off the following:

"Lines on a Pew Auction.

"If the Saviour drove out of the temple of old
Poor, ignorant Jews, who bought there and sold,
What would He to Christians, so given to pelf,
As traffic to make of the temple itself!
Woe, woe to the Church ruled by Mammon-made lords,
When He cometh again with the scourge of His cords."

He thus described the origin of the high-backed pews:

"Bishop Burnet complained that the ladies of the Princess Anne's establishment did not look at him while preaching his 'thundering long sermons,' as Queen Mary called them, but were looking at other objects. He therefore, after much remonstrance on their impropriety, prevailed on Queen Anne to order all the pews in S. James' Chapel to be raised so high that the fair delinquents could see nothing but himself when he was in the pulpit."

At another time, when some one objected to the use of a processional cross, Dr. Muhlenberg replied:

"Ah! well, then we will change the processional to:

'Onward, Christian soldiers,
Marching as to War;
With the Cross of Jesus
Stuck behind the door!'"

The first surpliced choir in America was organized by Dr. Muhlenberg at the Church of the Holy Communion. It created a great deal of opposition, but was successful nevertheless.

S. Luke's Hospital was organized in connection with the same parish. On S. Luke's Day, in 1846, without previous notice, he suggested that one-half the offertory for the day should be laid aside as the beginning of a hospital fund, and that the same thing should be done on each successive S. Luke's Day. The offerings amounted to $30.00. one-half of which was duly set aside. Cholera visited this country in 1849, and the need of such a hospital was so intense that the money was speedily raised. The hospital was incorporated in May, 1850. Dr. Muhlenberg's plans included conveniences for the sisters, who, he intended, should be in charge. The trustees unanimously declined to build in that way. When, however, the hospital was opened, the sisters were placed in charge, and rapidly won the respect and the love of the public.

The Sisterhood of the Holy Communion was regularly organized in 1852, the sisters having before that been without any regular organization. It was necessary, however, to appear frequently in print in defense of the community. Protestant antagonism ran high. But the battle was won, and the sisters remained.

The "Memorial Movement" of 1853 was the personal work of Dr. Muhlenberg. This was an appeal addressed by a number of clergy to the House of Bishops, praying them to take some steps looking toward the unity of Christendom, particularly by granting to individual Bishops a greater discretion as to whom they would ordain, and by providing for a greater flexibility in the use of the Book of Common Prayer.

"That they all may be one!" It was the eucharistic prayer of Jesus Christ on the eve of the great Sacrifice. Holy men have longed for it and worked for it, and to-day the great heart of the Church is sighing "How long, O Lord?" and is yearning to draw closer to herself all those wandering ones who know not their holy mother. Many an effort has been made toward the reconciliation of the sects with the Church. How much has come from these efforts, we cannot be sure. Many of them seem to us ill advised. To ignore differences between others and ourselves is not to erase them. To surrender one item of The Faith committed to the Church as a keeper, is impossible. Only God can tell what will finally bring together the divided elements. But of one thing Ave may be sure: to be untrue to the Church can never be of lasting service to her. Peace is pleasant, but better to fight valiantly for her, than to surrender one inch of her ground!

The Memorial had little immediate effect. A Commission on Christian Unity was appointed by the House of Bishops. At the next session of General Convention, held in Philadelphia in 1856, the House of Bishops made a declaration that "the order of Morning Prayer, the Litany and the Communion Service, being three separate offices, may, as in former times, be used separately under the advice of the Bishop of the diocese." It seems strange now, that such a declaration was necessary; but at that time the usual morning service was the combined use of Morning Prayer, Litany and ante-Communion, with infrequent and oftentimes irregular, celebrations of the Holy Communion, added after the main service had been finished.

The Commission on Christian Unity was authorized to confer with other Christian bodies, but no practical results came from it. Perhaps, however, the agitation of the subject of the division of Christendom did some good in an educational way.

The last great work of Dr. Muhlenberg was begun in 1866, in his seventieth year. This was the establishment of a Church village on Long Island, which he named Saint Johnland. The intention was to transplant poor families from the tenement houses of New York, to the purer air in the country. The corporation was to erect cottages and rent them to such families at a very low rate. It was an experiment in Christian Socialism, and it was not altogether successful. The poor people refused to be transplanted, and preferred the poisoned air and the overcrowded condition of the tenements, to the fresh seaside home at Saint Johnland. However, a successful home for aged men, several houses for children, an industrial school, a school house, a library and village hall, a beautiful church, the "Church of the Testimony of Jesus," with a few cottages, were built and are successfully maintained to-day. It is out of debt, and has a considerable endowment. Asa plan to counteract the social evils of the tenement houses, however, it did not succeed.

Herein lies a condition for social reformers to consider. Saint Johnland, as conceived by Dr. Muhlenberg, had features very similar to those lately announced by "General" Booth, of the Salvation Army, in his much-heralded work, "In Darkest England." His scheme for a transplanted colony of the "submerged tenth" was very like Dr. Muhlenberg's dream of Saint Johnland, which was submitted to a practical test and was found wanting. The social reformer who would do something of lasting benefit--who would be a worker and not a theorizer--must keep in mind this strange element of the case: the tenement house population will not be removed from the cities.

This was the last of the great works of Dr. Muhlenberg, and was the joy of his declining years. These were years of work, seeking to pour oil upon the troubled waters of ecclesiastical seas, which in those days were turbulent. He died on the 6th of April, 1877, at his home in Saint Johnland, and was sincerely mourned by hundreds whom he had befriended.

We have said before, that Dr. Muhlenberg was no theologian. He called himself an "Evangelical Catholic." He believed thoroughly in standing closely by the name of "Catholic," and so far back as 1851 made a grand vindication of the name. His efforts to call down a new life into the Church, into her worship and into her work, were wonderfully successful, and have permeated the whole Church of to-day. What he did, has been a tremendous power for good in the Church. The Flushing Institute, S. Paul's College, the Church of the Holy Communion, S. Luke's Hospital, were each the first to do a definite work, and a work that has now spread throughout the land. The Church can never have another Muhlenberg. He was a unique character who will be remembered most for his own personality. His work remains as a perpetual monument to him. The Church will always honor his memory.

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