Project Canterbury

The Life and Work of William Augustus Muhlenberg
Doctor in Divinity

By Anne Ayres

New York: T. Whittaker, 1889.

CHAPTER II. 1796-1811.

Birth and Childhood.--Early Religious Sentiment.--Death of his Father.--Preference for the Episcopal Church in his ninth Year.--A Quaker School-master.--The Academy.--Exemplary Boyhood.--Inventive Faculty.--St. James's Church.--Disappointment at the Consecration.--Innate Ecclesiastical Aestheticism.--Boy Journals.--Grammar School of the University

WILLIAM AUGUSTUS MUHLENBERG was born in Philadelphia on the 16th of September, 1796, in a house which then stood on the corner of Third and Cherry Streets, but has since been pulled down. He was baptized by the Rev. Dr. Helmuth of the Lutheran Church.

With the first dawn of reason he seems to have known the fear and love of God. Questioned upon this point, he replied: "I think I can say, there never was a time, that I was unmindful of the presence of God, or without reverence for divine things, and I always looked forward to being a clergyman. When not more than eight years old, I remember I used to have church on Sunday evenings, going through a kind of preaching, at which the family would attend, to encourage me with their presence. I recollect very well that when I didn't behave myself, they would say to me, 'William, that will not do for a minister.'" The youthful sermons here alluded to were much thought of by his relatives, but no notes of any of them have been kept. They were not childish gibberish or "make-believe" church, but as serious an explanation and application of a text as the thoughtful little preacher knew how to give. At the same time, child-like, he would always have a crimson shawl placed over a piece of furniture for a pulpit, and never forgot to take up a collection, the man-servant being usually present with a plate for the purpose.

One life-long peculiarity, familiar to those who knew him thoroughly, manifested itself at a very tender age. It did not matter how well he succeeded in what he took in hand to do, or how much approbation might be bestowed upon his work, he would invariably point out wherein it might have been more perfect, never reaching his own ideal. His father, whom he lost when scarce nine years old, is remembered as in the habit of remarking to his mother, "What a pity William always makes us see how much better he might have done that which pleased us so well!" One marvels what were those performances of a boy of seven or eight years, which drew forth such comment.

William retained a vivid impression of the last hours spent with his father. Mr. Muhlenberg died suddenly of apoplexy, and the evening preceding the attack he drove his young son in a chaise from Philadelphia to their country-house at Norristown. The boy never saw his father alive again, and to the last of his days always associated a mellow September evening in the country, and its attendant sights and sounds, with his father's death.

A further incident, in this connection, also impressed him strongly. It would seem that in the excitement attendant upon the sudden illness of Mr. Muhlenberg the boy was left for a time unheeded, not even knowing that his father had expired. Wandering in a melancholy manner about the house, he was mounting the stairs when a door opened above and some member of the household came out. "Well, William," she said, "your father's dead;" and then, in the same breath, to a servant who stood below, "Betsy, put on the hams;" the funeral hams, that is, according to a custom, in those times, of spreading a collation for the mourners. A keen sense of the incongruous stamped this scene upon the child's mind no less forcibly than did his tenderness and sensibility that of the sunset drive.

There were two other children: a daughter next in age to himself, afterwards Mrs. Mary Rogers, and another son, Frederick Augustus, who became a physician and died in the prime of life. A pretty picture has come down to us of William and his sister, one nine the other seven years of age, going alone, hand in hand, reverently and discreetly, Sunday after Sunday, to Christ Church, Philadelphia. The worship of the Lutheran Church, at that time, was in German, and as the children were ignorant of the language, their mother did not require them to attend there; so, left to himself in the matter, the boy thus early made his election of the Episcopal Church. Old Christ Church became very dear to him, especially its grand organ, which, to his ears, none other ever equalled. Bishop White, the rector, owing to some annoyance experienced by the congregation, had made a rule excluding all children not accompanied by their parents or guardians, but the devout behavior of this little pair procured them an exemption, and some good people observing their regular attendance gave them a seat in the gallery, where a noticeable object of interest for them was General Washington's pew, which still retained its red velvet linings. [There is an anecdote with regard to General Washington's church-going, which may be told here: "In the English Prayer-Book, the Litany follows the 'Collect for Grace,'--the American revisers of the book have placed it after the 'Prayer for the President," which took the place of that for the 'King's Majesty.' This was done, Bishop White said, that General Washington, not attending church in the -afternoon, might hear the prayer in his behalf."--W. A.]

After a while a Lutheran minister the Rev. Philip Meyer, began to preach in English, and then Mrs. Muhlenberg desired the children to go with her. They did not at all like the change, especially as the Lutheran services were held in a hall without any of the attractive accompaniments of worship to which they had grown accustomed in Christ Church.

William's education began with a school-mistress, of whom he retained only the faintest remembrance. He was next placed at a seminary of the Quakers, or Friends, under one Jeremiah Paul, where he acquired the rudiments of English, but not making the progress his mother expected, she removed him. He said of this school: "My most distinct recollections are that we had to go to Quaker meeting every Thursday morning and there sit quiet for two hours; and on the day of my leaving I received a whipping from the schoolmaster; good old Jeremiah, as he applied the rattan, saying, 'I ought to have given thee more of this, and then thy mother would not have to complain" of thee learning so little."' This vindictive castigation was the one whipping of his boyhood. After this he was entered at the Philadelphia Academy, at that time a celebrated school in charge of the Rev. Dr. Abercrombie, one of the assistant ministers of Christ Church, and famous for his pulpit oratory.

About this time Mrs. Muhlenberg, with her three children, went to live with her mother, Mrs. Sheafe, at the northeast corner of Market and Seventh Streets. [Mrs. Sheafe's maiden name was Seekel, and to her brother, Mr. Lawrence Seckel, we owe the delicious little pear of this name. When William Augustus Muhlenberg was a child, visiting at his great-uncle's, a German used to bring these pears for sale, always refusing to tell where he got them. After a time Mr. Lawrence Seckel purchased some land of the German, and there was the pear-tree from scions of which the fruit has been propagated throughout the country.]

William had a chivalrous love and admiration for his mother, and often dwelt fondly on the fact that though left a widow so young, with wealth and beauty in possession, she did not marry again, but devoted herself, and the fortune she inherited from her father, solely to the benefit of her children.

He, on his part, was the pride and delight of mother and grandmother, and was treated by them with an indulgence which he never abused. Referring to this period, his sister says of him, "He was a most reliable boy and a very amusing brother, always entertaining us with some new play or exhibition." He was very ingenious, arid in the intervals of lessons occupied himself in scientific illustrations; in mezzotinting on glass, in making fireworks, in which he excelled, and in mimic theatricals. He had a workroom at the top of the house where he carried on these operations, and a friendly druggist at the corner of the street with whom he was very intimate on the subject of the chemicals necessary in his experiments, so that his grandmother used to say his choice of a profession lay between that of a clergyman and an apothecary.

In the spring of 1806 an accidental circumstance greatly furthered the boy's predilection for the Episcopal Church. The growth of the city of Philadelphia, and the tendency of the population towards the westward parts, made an Episcopal place of worship necessary in that direction, and-the vestry of Christ Church and St. Peter's appointed a committee to consider "the ways and means for building another church." Searching for a suitable site in the neighborhood of Seventh and Market Streets, they came upon a lot of ground belonging to his mother, Mrs. Mary Muhlenberg, and bought the same of her for the sum of eight thousand five hundred dollars; and on June 10th of the following year the corner-stone of St. James's Church was laid, St. James's being included in the same corporation with Christ Church and St. Peter's, and Bishop White being rector of the three as "united churches." The vestry, in purchasing the land of Mrs. Muhlenberg, gave her, besides the money, a large "double pew," as it was called, in the middle aisle. This, and the proximity of the new church to their dwelling were arguments for the attendance of the mother and her children there, which the eldest son eagerly pressed, and not without effect Mrs. Muhlenberg determined upon the change, though in so doing she had to exercise much firmness in resisting the opposition of different members of her family who had then joined the English Lutheran congregation already alluded to. They thought she did grievously wrong in forsaking what they termed "the old faith." Nevertheless, later, most of them followed her example.

Meanwhile the church was completed, and when the day for the consecration arrived, William was all anticipation. The occasion failed, in one respect, to meet his expectations. Their house being very near the church, it had been arranged that the bishop and clergy should meet there to put on their robes and form the procession. Afterwards, however, Bishop White, wishing to make as little parade through the streets as possible, preferred a house still nearer the church. "I well remember," he said, "what a sore disappointment it was to me; for I had been talking with my schoolmates of the great honor to be done our house in the bishop thus using it." The consecration took place May 1st, 1810.

William Augustus Muhlenberg was innately a church boy, and a devout appreciation of sacred offices and of the meaning of fast and festival was intuitive with him. Further, his strong natural taste for the scenic made the appropriate application of it to the offices of religion delightful. This was spontaneous, instinctive,--neither the result of teaching nor the imitation of any model,--and it goes far to harmonize, or at least explain, the seeming inconsistencies, in after years, of his ecclesiastical aestheticism with his immovable evangelic faith.

From childhood he entered heartily into the Church Year. Page after page of his boy journals is filled with notices of the festivals as they come, and how he observed them. These youthful diaries are very artless jottings of whatever happens to concern him, and, particularly, of his faults and shortcomings; for, from first to last, never was soul more honest with itself.

Yet the scrawled and blotted pages are none the less alive with true boy nature, his sports with his companions, his likes and dislikes, with many a droll and keen observation, of men and things as he meets them.

One of his minutes of Christmas exhibits strongly his ardor for. religious services, and is illustrative, prophetically, of maturer days. After noting, on Christmas Eve, that school was broken up until after New Year's Day, that the confectioners' and fruit stores are in holiday array, and the mince pies being made at home, he adds: "I have dressed mamma's room and my own with boughs as handsomely as I could;" and then drawing with his pen, at the head of the page, a large glory-rayed star with the monogram IHS in the centre, he writes: "Prepare, my soul, to celebrate thy Saviour's birth. Behold, my soul, thy Saviour born in a manger! How great the condescension! Oh, the love of God! My soul swells with holy love. Oh! sacred flame keep up." He records that at seven o'clock on Christmas morning he went into St. Mary's and "all the chapels," and then to morning service at St. James's, which he found decorated "as well as might be," but evidently not to his satisfaction. He tells of the sermon by Dr. Abercrombie, and that he stayed to witness the celebration of the Lord's Supper (he had not yet been confirmed), then of the afternoon service by Mr. Kemper. He enjoys it all, and regrets at night that the day is over. "O dies felicissima! Dies dilecta!" he exclaims, "How happy should I be if I could spend all my days like this!" At the same time he laments that the -services were not richer and fuller. "Were I an archbishop, the churches on this most holy day should shine with brilliancy, not poor laurel only. I would have the altar in white, a large painting representing the Nativity, wreaths of cedar and laurel to hide the walls, a choir with loud-bursting organ and thousand voices should sing their alleluias. Churches I would have builded in the most magnificent manner," etc., etc.; concluding with, "but I am young. I speak not contrary to what our good bishop thinks wise."

Before this, in his twelfth year, he had completed his merely English education at the academy, receiving a diploma for his proficiency in the different branches At the commencement, which consisted chiefly in exercises in elocution, being required to take part in an original dialogue on the "Choice of a Profession," true to his earliest wish, he declared his preference for the sacred ministry, quoting from Cowper:

"The pulpit, therefore--(and I name it filled
With solemn awe, that bids me well beware
With what intent I touch that holy thing)."

Leaving the academy he attended for three years the Grammar School of the University of Pennsylvania, preparatory to entering college.

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