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The Life and Work of William Augustus Muhlenberg
Doctor in Divinity

By Anne Ayres

New York: T. Whittaker, 1889.


The Muhlenberg Family.--The Patriarch Muhlenberg.--General Muhlenberg's Last Sermon--The Marriage of William Augustus Muhlenberg's Father and Mother in Connection with the Jay Treaty.--Conrad Weiser.--Question as to Whom he Married......

THE Muhlenbergs are associated with the earliest days of the republic as a highly respected and honorable family. Men eminent for piety and learning, for patriotism and public usefulness, grace their annals. The parent stock was Saxon, probably of the historic town of Muhlberg, on the Elbe, but in the course of events, they removed to Eimbeck, in Hanover, then one of the free cities of Germany, and here, in 1711, was born the founder of the American branch of the name, "the blessed and venerable Henry Melchior Muhlenberg," as he is styled in his epitaph at The Trappe, Montgomery Co., Pa., the burial-place of the Muhlenberg families.

This great and good man, owing to the early death of his father and other reverses, had a hard struggle in obtaining the education which ultimately adorned his piety and talents. He passed some time in the orphanage of Francke, at Halle, and was twenty-four years old when he entered upon a collegiate course at Gottingen. After his graduation there he returned to Halle, where he was ordained to the ministry of the Lutheran Church.

During his residence in the universities of Gottingen and Halle, he formed the acquaintance of learned and noble persons who became his warm friends and patrons. In the Heister branch of the Muhlenberg family there is preserved as an heirloom an ancient silver-mounted snuff-box which was given to him, as a token of friendship, by Frederick the Great. Chief in his regard was his early benefactor, the eminent Christian philanthropist and scholar, Augustus Herman Francke, in connection with whose mission house, in 1742, he accepted an appointment as missionary to the German and Swedish Lutherans in the then British Provinces of America. He had supposed himself destined to a mission in the East Indies, and was making ready to go to Bengal, when a seemingly fortuitous circumstance made it plain that Providence had ordered it otherwise. It was reserved for him to be the founder and Patriarch of the Lutheran Church in. this land, and to transmit, through his eminent great-grandson, a more extended blessing.

He was a man of many gifts and of apostolic zeal. With wonderful endurance, he traversed the country from Georgia to the borders of Canada, building churches and schools, preaching and teaching in different languages, and so comforting the scattered families of his people that they called him everywhere "Father Muhlenberg," by which endearing epithet he is still designated among Lutherans. His first church, built in the first year of his mission, at the village of Trappe, Pa., he named "The Church of Augustus," after his friend Francke, and he also added "Augustus" to the "Frederick" of his second son's name, whence it has descended to numerous individuals of the Muhlenberg race, and among them to the subject of these memoirs. The latter gratefully remembered to the end of his long life the far-back kindness of Francke to the head of his family, and sometimes when, in his abounding sympathy for some forlorn youth, he thought he might seem to be doing too much, he would say, half apologizingly, "You know my great-grandfather was a poor orphan boy at Halle."

The Patriarch Muhlenberg had three sons: John Peter Gabriel, Frederick Augustus, and Henry Ernst, all of whom he designed for the ministry. He sent them to Halle to be educated for this purpose; but the young men returned to America, just as the long smouldering fires of the Revolution were ready to break out in war, and patriotic and high-spirited, the field and the council had more attraction for them than the pulpit. Henry, the youngest, alone fulfilled his father's intentions. He passed his days as a pious and devoted Lutheran pastor, adding to his spiritual cure a close study of the natural sciences, in which he obtained eminence, particularly that of botany. During an enforced absence from his church, through stress of war, he contributed some valuable works to this department.

Peter, the eldest son, took orders, very curiously, both in the Lutheran and the English Church. He had for his parochial charge the so-called "Valley Churches" of the Blue Ridge, Va.,--a hardy, independent flock, with whose spirit of resistance to Great Britain he keenly sympathized. He instructed his people openly in their civil rights, and accepted the colonelcy of a regiment, while yet their pastor. At length, probably through the influence of General Washington and Patrick Henry, with both of whom he had a personal acquaintance, he finally abandoned the sacred ministry for a military career.

"His congregations, widely scattered along the frontier, were notified that, upon the following Sabbath, their beloved pastor would preach his farewell sermon.....The appointed day came. The rude country church was filled to overflowing with the hardy mountaineers of the frontier counties.....

So great was the assemblage that the quiet burial-place was filled with crowds of stern men who had gathered together believing that something, they knew not what, would be done in behalf of their suffering country .....He came and ascended the pulpit, his tall form arrayed in full uniform, over which his gown, the symbol of his holy office, was thrown. He was a plain, straightforward speaker, whose native eloquence was well suited to the people among whom he labored.

.....After recapitulating, in words that roused the coldest, the story of their wrongs, and telling them of the sacred character of the struggle in which he had unsheathed his sword, and for which he was leaving the altar he had vowed to serve, he said, that, in the language of Holy Writ, there was 'a time for all things,' a time to preach and a time to pray, but those times had passed away, and, in a voice that echoed through the church like a trumpet blast, 'that there was a time to fight, and that time had come.' . . . A breathless stillness brooded over the congregation. Deliberately putting off the gown, he stood before them a girded warrior, and descending from the pulpit, he ordered the drums at the church door to beat for recruits.....His audience, excited in the highest degree by the impassioned words which had fallen from his lips, flocked around him, eager to be ranked among his followers. Old men were seen bringing forward their children, wives their husbands, and widowed mothers their sons, sending them under his paternal care to fight the battles of their country. . . . . Nearly three hundred men of the frontier churches that day enlisted under his banner, and the gown then thrown off. was worn for the last time." He rose to the rank of Major-General, and holds an| honored place among the patriot heroes of the Revolution. His brother Frederick Augustus, the Patriarch's second son, served his country as a statesman. He was successively Treasurer of the State, President of the Convention which ratified the Constitution of the United States, member of Congress, and First Speaker of the House of Representatives under Washington's administration.

In the year 1795, while Frederick A. Muhlenberg filled the Speaker's chair for the second time, his eldest son, Henry William, married Mary, daughter of Mr. William Sheafe, a merchant of Philadelphia of German extraction, and William Augustus Muhlenberg was the eldest child of this union.

Henry W. Muhlenberg was paying his addresses to Miss Mary Sheafe at the time that the nation became so frenzied in the fierce agitation which followed the ratification of the "Jay Treaty." The House of Representatives was composed largely of the opponents of the treaty, and it was for a long time doubtful if the bills for the indemnification of Great Britain, which made part of it, would be passed. Mr. Sheafe, a strong federalist, anticipating that the vote would be a very close one, perhaps a tie, when the casting vote of the Speaker would be all-important, is reported to have said to Frederick A. Muhlenberg, "If you do not give us (the federalists) your vote, your Henry shall not have my Polly." It was ascertained that the leaning of the Speaker was in the right direction, and Henry and Polly were married accordingly. The bills subsequently passed by a bare majority. "William Augustus Muhlenberg was fond of telling this little story as showing how nearly he might not have been what he was (so high did party feeling run), usually adding, "But the vote went the right way, peace was secured, and here I am."

Both families, from the period of their settlement in the country, having married within their own nationality, he was of purely German descent, unless we accept a tradition, cherished by himself, of a strain of the aboriginal American, through the union of a remote ancestor, Conrad Weiser, with an Indian maiden. He used to say, "I like to think there is a drop of genuine American blood in my veins." Upon this obscure question there is much difference of opinion in the Weiser family. [Dr. C. L. Weiser of Pennsburg, Pa., in a recent biography, rejects the tradition, until actual "record" be adduced. On the other hand, Mr. Thos. B. A. Weiser of Brooklyn, N. Y., a grandson of Conrad Weiser's youngest son Benjamin, entirely accepts it.] Conrad Weiser's fragmentary yet eventful history affords warrant for inferring that there was such a marriage; a confirmation of which is further suggested by the physiognomy of some of the descendants, and among these, of that of William Augustus Muhlenberg, whose lineaments clearly indicated a not unmixed Teutonic origin.

Conrad Weiser figures prominently in our provincial history. He was born in 1696, in Astael, or Afstaefdt, in the electorate or duchy of Wurtemberg. In 1709 he emigrated with his father and others of the family to New York. At seventeen, a friendly chief inviting him, he was sent to live for a while with the Maquas or "Six Nations" Indians, for the purpose of learning their language and modes of life, and returning thence he acted for some years as a volunteer interpreter between his own people and the native tribes of the neighborhood. He became in due time the pioneer of the Germans in the settlement of Central Pennsylvania, and for thirty years served as Indian agent and interpreter for the colonial government of Philadelphia. His record is that of a man of great probity and piety, and of untiring industry in the service of his adopted country. In addition to his arduous official duties, he labored zealously for the conversion of the Indians to Christianity, associating himself, for this purpose, with such men as Spangenberg, Ziesberger, and Count Zinzendorf. To qualify some Moravian brethren to preach the gospel to the Maqua and Iroquois tribes, he instructed them himself in the native tongues. Under all these circumstances, arid taking into account an ardent and enthusiastic nature and the primitive manners of those days, it would be nothing incredible that he should choose an Indian convert for his bride. The mention that he makes of his marriage in a brief autobiography, which has been preserved, justifies the assumption that he did so, thus: "In 1720, while my father was in Eng, land, I married my Anna Eve, and was given her in marriage, by the Rev. John Frederick Heger, reformed clergyman, on the 22nd of November, in my father's house in Schochavy." The omission here and throughout the biography of any patronymic in speaking of his wife, while he gives that of his mother; the celebration of the marriage, contrary to German usage, in the house of the bridegroom's father; and the Christian name of the bride,--all point to the verification of the tradition. "Anna" as the name of his godly mother whom he piously revered, and "Eve" as that of the primeval woman, would in the poetic German mind be a very natural baptismal name for one who, so to speak, was to be the progenitress of a new race. But, perhaps, there is room for a different and less romantic theory.

Anna Maria, the eldest surviving daughter of Conrad Weiser and his "Anna Eve," became the wife of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, and was thus William Augustus Muhlenberg's great-grandmother, on the father's side.

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