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The Life and Work of William Augustus Muhlenberg
Doctor in Divinity

By Anne Ayres

New York: T. Whittaker, 1889.

CHAPTER IV. 1815-1820.

Study of Theology.--Interview with Bishop White.--The Theological Seminary Question.--Earnest Preparation.--First Communion.--Self-searching Questions at Close of Year.--Reforming the Organ Loft.--Office of Clerk abolished.--Removal to Arch St.--A Prayer in Every Room.--Founded a Church in Huntingdon Co.--Proposed Visit to Europe abandoned.--Ordained Deacon.--Bishop White's Assistant.--Extreme Diffidence at Beginning of Ministry.--Bishop White's Meekness.--Anecdotes.--The Sunday Schools.--Church Music.--An Auxiliary Bible Society.--Visiting among the Poor.--Ordained Priest--Accepts a Call to St. James's, Lancaster.--Letter from Bishop White

NOT more than ten days passed, after Mr. Muhlenberg's graduation, before he called upon Bishop White in reference to his study of theology. The bishop gave him a very cordial welcome, telling him he had an hereditary right to the sacred office, through his great grandfather, Dr. Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, whom, though a Lutheran, he said he venerated as an elder brother in the ministry. Bishop White was fond of anecdotes, and entertained the young candidate a while with pleasant stories of his great-uncle, General Peter Muhlenberg, who had been ordained in England by the bishop of London at the same time with himself.

As to his theological curriculum, the bishop referred him to the course prescribed by the bishops for candidates for orders, advising him to begin with reading Paley's Evidences of Christianity, to which succeeded Butler's Analogy, Stackhouse's History of the Bible, and Adam Clarke's Commentary, the last then a new work, from which, as from the other authors named, Mr. Muhlenberg and two fellow students recited regularly to Mr. Kemper. The young men also met once a fortnight in the bishop's study, to read essays of their own on subjects chosen by the bishop.

It was not until a year or two later than the time of which we are speaking, that the formation of a Theological Seminary came seriously under consideration. The subject then awakened much interesting discussion, particularly on the question, whether a large general institution, or a multiplication of smaller schools, were the more desirable, and one of Mr. Muhlenberg's earliest writings on a distinctively church matter, was a paper on this point, which he delivered before the bishop at a meeting of the Theological Society in 1817. It was a clear, forcible, but youthfully eager argument for a large General Institution, or Theological University, as he would have had it, differing in this from his revered church-father, Bishop White, who expressed his preference for the establishment of local or diocesan seminaries.

Mr. Muhlenberg, in his preparation for the ministry, had other training than that of books. He constantly accompanied Mr. Kemper in his visits to the sick and poor of the city, and seems to have made very diligent use of such opportunities of improvement, recording in his diary the most instructive of these experiences. "Students of divinity," he writes, "ought to be acquainted with such scenes. Mr. K. told me he had never been in a sick-room before he was called to visit one as a clergyman." With the same earnestness of purpose he now gave more "serious attention to music," not for an amusement, but that he might "be able to do something towards making the services of the church more elevating to the pious, and more impressive to the minds of the thoughtless." All his powers seemed bent towards fitting himself for the high office at which he aimed. "Do I indeed hope one day to preach the Gospel of salvation," he writes; "O God, if that be thy will, sanctify my whole heart for the work!"

It was not until now, Easter, 1815, in his nineteenth year, and two years after his confirmation, that he became a communicant. No reason appears for this long postponement of his admission to the Lord's Table; but throughout his ministry he was wont to advise an interval between Confirmation and the partaking of the Holy Communion, at least for young persons, often saying in this connection, "One step at a time." Habitually, from childhood, he remained to witness the celebration of the sacrament, and his own experience led him to recommend this practice to non-communicants of whatever age, and particularly to the young, as a means of edification and preparation. He concludes the record of his own first communion with these simple words: "O Jesus, grant that nothing in my future life may disagree with what I have done to-day."

The last pages of his journal for this year illustrate strongly his intense reality and that holy strictness with himself which characterized him always. Designed simply for his own eye, and only preserved to be used as tests and waymarks whereby to try himself in future years, it would not be proper to give more than a brief extract, by way of example, as to the manner in which he habitually wound up each closing year; the form of the exercise adapted of course, as time went on, to his riper experience and wider responsibilities.

The paper is dated "Tuesday, Dec. 31, 1815," and reads:

"The end of another year. How much better and wiser have I grown since the last return of this season? Come, my soul, let us enter upon the examination--

"Oh Almighty God, assist me with thy grace while I endeavor to remember the multitude of my past follies and sins. Shine into my heart, that my secret wickednesses may be brought to light. Enable me to keep sacredly the resolutions which I shall make, if they be agreeable to thy holy will. Oh let them not be as those which I have formerly made. This I beg for Jesus Christ's sake.

"Have I grown in grace?

"I have been admitted to the altar this year, and have frequented it; but I often fear that I have been an unworthy recipient. I am thoroughly convinced that my improvement in holiness has not been so much as it should have been, considering my advantages--But, to answer my question, I must propose others to myself.

"Do I diligently read the Holy Scriptures?


"Do I habitually revere my mother?


"Do I keep continual watch upon my lips?

"No! But, oh thou Searcher of hearts, have I not made some advancement in this duty?

"Have I respected in all things the requisitions and ordinances of the Church?

"I have endeavored to be obedient.

"Have I properly observed the Sabbath and Holy Days?

"What shall I answer? The world would say, 'Yes' for me--but, oh God, thou knowest the secrets of the heart, to thee I must say--'No.'

"Have I been industrious in my studies for the ministry?

"Oh here I have been shamefully neglectful--Lord Jesus, take from me my indolent disposition!

"Do I indulge myself in sinful thoughts?

"Lord, I thank thee that thy Spirit has often--very, often--preserved me from pollution. Yet, O God, hear the intercessions of my Redeemer!

"Have my good or charitable actions been done with a view to the glory of God?

"A few.

"Do I ever think of trusting to my own works for salvation?

"Glory be to thee, for thy Spirit hath taught me better I

"Am I constant in prayer for grace and spiritual blessings?

"I fear the coldness, not the unfrequency, of my devotions will be charged against me.

"Are God and holy things often in my thoughts?

"Yes; but will not my condemnation be increased by the consideration that I have sinned against such great light."

Then follow earnest supplications and resolutions in view of the new year.

From boyhood to his life's end, William Augustus Muhlenberg's evangelical faith and great heart of love drew him in Christian brotherliness towards believers of every name, and his activity and candor led him to know and to appreciate what was being done in the great mission of the Gospel to mankind by the religious bodies around him; but he was always unfalteringly and zealously attached to his own communion. His youthful aspirations breathe ardent desires for her advancement, and for her adornment with every thing conducive to the beauty and interest of the worship. Commenting, in his diary, on the remarkable revival of religion under Mr. Kemper, which has been named, he adds: "Oh! that it may increase more and more, until our church shines forth in her primitive splendor; then will all see her excellence." Again: "I count it one of my greatest Christian blessings that I am in communion with a church that has no other foundation than the apostles and prophets, that preserves in simplicity the primitive orders, and is descended of a mother who is justly styled the Pride of Christendom!" This youthful zeal combined with other qualities of his mind to make him, from the first, something of a reformer, an instance of which occurs at the very outset of his course as a student for the ministry, when he brought about, somewhat amusingly, the abolition of the office of parish clerk, which at that time, both in England and America, was a very ungainly concomitant of public worship.

St. James's Philadelphia, was then the church of his affections. There he had his first class in Sunday school, and that school was one of the first in the country. There, too, he had his first singing boys, having, at the request of Bishop White, taken the direction of the music. He found rather a bad set in possession of the "organ loft," and it was on his reporting their ill-behavior to the bishop, who was also rector, that he received full power to effect a reform.

The clerk, who had hitherto been supreme, was, naturally, very jealous of Mr. Muhlenberg's interference, and resisted it. At the practisings, as a first step in reformation, it was arranged that this functionary should simply lead the bass: but when Sunday morning came, he took his place at the centre desk and sang out as precentor as heretofore, the organist and he understanding one another, for they were equally opposed to the "revolution," as they deemed it. As long as the clerk did his old part of leading the responses, and giving out the psalm, it was impossible to keep him in the necessary subordination; Mr. Muhlenberg stated this difficulty to the bishop, who at once threw himself into Ms young brother's plans. Indeed he was very glad of such co-operation in a reform which was beyond his own power; for with regard to the organist and singers, the good bishop had often said, "Forty years long was I grieved with this generation;" he immediately said he would dispense with the clerk's leading the responses, and would give out the psalm himself. He, at the same time, furnished Mr. Muhlenberg with a written commission, as warrant for his action to the clerk. On the strength of this, Mr. Muhlenberg went the next Saturday afternoon to the organ gallery, and, assisted by his brother, chopped away the clerk's desk, and sewed together the curtains in front of it, thereby reducing the clerk to the level of the other singers. The amazement of the poor man on Sunday morning, at finding himself thus disposed of may be imagined. And who now would give out the metre psalm? To the surprise of the congregation as well as of the clerk, the bishop, who officiated that morning, did it himself; and thenceforward the rector always gave out the metre psalm in St. James's, and soon after in Christ Church and St Peter's also. [About twenty-five years ago, the writer happening to be in Philadelphia 'with Dr. Muhlenberg and his sister, they paid a visit to old St James's, when Dr. Muhlenberg told this story, merrily pointing out the scene of his exploit He had a farther anecdote touching the office of clerk, which, though the occurrence is later, is in place here. "Soon after my ordination," he said, "being in New York, accompanying Bishop White on his way to Hartford for the consecration of Bishop Brownell, at an evening party at my sister's, I asked Bishop Hobart how he, with his church views, could allow a layman, every Sunday, in his presence, to stand up and exhort the people. Ha naked me what I meant. I replied, 'The clerk giving out the psalm with the call to "sing to the praise and glory of God."' He laughed, and I know that not long after the practice was abolished in New York also."]

The removal of the family, at this time, to a house of Mrs. Muhlenberg's in Arch Street, seems to have been an event of some importance in the life of the young student Their residence on the corner of Market Street had become unpleasant from the numerous horses and wagons congregating there, and with the joyous, loving thankfulness, which was so strong in him, he makes much of the grateful change of neighborhood, and still more of his kind mother's care and pains in fitting up a particular room for his use as a study,--his first study,--pouring out his heart in a tribute of filial gratitude and affection. Ten years later, we have incidentally another glance of his inner life, in connection with this house. Philadelphia was then no longer his home; but having occasion to pass through the city, he revisited the Arch-Street Mansion, and talking with himself in his journal, of its memories and associations, he adds: "How well I recollect coming here alone after church one Sunday afternoon,--just before we moved in,--I offered a prayer in every room; nor have those prayers been wholly unanswered."

In the second year of his divinity studies, by a resolution of the "Episcopal Society for the Advancement of Christianity in the State of Pennsylvania," it was required that candidates for orders should read service as frequently as possible in the vacant churches of the neighborhood. Mr. Muhlenberg hailed his first exercise of this kind with lively gratification. From his earliest years, the goal of his ambition was, to be a minister, and this was a tangible step towards it. He writes, "Sunday, June, 1816,--This is the first time I have been invested with any spiritual office. I read a sermon, from Gisborne, on the Love of God, to a congregation at Radnor Church." In the month of August following, having a license from Bishop White, he went to Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania, and remained there over six weeks, founding a church in the town of Huntingdon, in that county. He gained the affections of the people and was treated with marked kindness. "I felt quite like a clergyman," he adds, in noting the above facts.

A further object of interest with him, was the formation of an auxiliary Bible society, composed chiefly of young men, Mr. Muhlenberg being a manager, and, it would seem, treasurer. Bishop White was the president of the parent society,--the first Bible society in this country.

His theological course was drawing to a close, and new plans were to be formed. It had always been his intention, seconded by his mother's wishes, to spend some time in Europe, for the benefit of travel and the acquisition of the German and French languages, particularly the former, of which, on account of his ancestry, he was naturally unwilling to be ignorant He longed especially to visit the cathedrals of the old world, St. Paul's having been one of the visions of his boyhood. He mentioned to Bishop White his purpose to go abroad for a time and asked him whether it ought to be before his ordination or after. The Bishop told him it should by all means be before; but then went on to say he had been hoping his ordination would take place speedily, since the vestry, for some time past, had wished to appoint a young man to assist him in the parochial duties of the rectorship, and he had been thinking of him for the place. Bishop White's assistant! He was overwhelmed at the mention of so great an honor. There was not a moment's hesitation. The thought of going to Europe vanished at once, and he hastened home to his mother with the good news, who was no less filled with joy than himself. Mrs. Muhlenberg, had, a little before this, become a communicant of the Episcopal Church, attributing her revived interest in religion to Mr. Kemper's preaching, and not less, perhaps, to the influence of her eldest son. She had been confirmed in the Lutheran Church, in her youth, and the rite, in accordance with Bishop White's practice, was not repeated. It is a curious fact that Bishop White himself was never confirmed.

Mr. Muhlenberg now prepared himself, with double diligence, for deacon's orders, which he received at the earliest age permitted by the church. He attained his twenty-first year on the 16th of September, 1817, and two days after, September 18th, it being the sixteenth Sunday after Trinity, he was ordained by Bishop White, in St. Peter's Church, in company with Mr. Richard M. Mason, formerly one of his classmates in Dr. Abercrombie's academy. On the afternoon of that day, he preached his first sermon in Christ Church, from the text, "Pray without ceasing." He preached twice the following Sunday, and soon after was elected by the vestry as "assistant, or chaplain, to the rector of Christ Church, St. Peter's and St. James's, i. e., to Bishop White."

The venerable bishop and his youthful chaplain were well suited to each other. Mr. Muhlenberg complained in these days of an "unconquerable timidity" in the exercise of his public duties, rather it was that delicate sensibility and retiring shyness, which, through life, lent so great a charm to his originality and independence of mind. But this grace was sometimes a little troublesome to its possessor, particularly in the earlier part of his ministry. A tradition has come down (through the family concerned in the circumstances) of his exceeding diffidence when called upon for the first time to baptize an infant. It was in St. Peter's Church, a day or two after his ordination. His countenance suffused, his" whole manner became embarrassed, and he earnestly requested Bishop White, who was present, to administer the rite for him. But the good bishop would have his young brother make a beginning, and did not yield.

A story of another kind is told of the first confirmation which he attended as bishop's chaplain. While the right reverend father was "laying hands" on a chancelful of young people, an excited lady rushed up, exclaiming in a loud whisper, "Mr. Muhlenberg! Mr. Muhlenberg! He said she! the bishop said she!" "Move him to the end of the row," was the quiet rejoinder. The bishop had made a mistake in the gender of the catechumen, the lady's son, but by this ready expedient all was made right when the round of the chancel was completed.

Bishop White was himself a pattern of saintly humility, instances of which Mr. Muhlenberg took pleasure in relating. One of them is in point here. On the first Sunday of his officiating as assistant, the bishop preached in the morning, and Mr. Muhlenberg read prayers, which latter service was of course understood to be especially the deacon's office. In the afternoon, when Mr. Muhlenberg was to preach, the bishop put on the surplice to read prayers. Mr. M. reminded him that to read prayers was the duty of his assistant. The bishop replied, "You read for me this morning, and I read for you this afternoon." The young deacon remonstrated, begging him for appearance' sake to allow him to take his place at the reading desk; but the bishop remained firm, and walked out of the vestry saying pleasantly, "Turn about is all fair." "Turn about!" said Mr. Muhlenberg, in telling the story--"turn about between the Patriarch of the Church, then past seventy, and a boy honored with the appointment of chaplain to him!" The vestry very naturally objected to this arrangement, saying that the assistant ought always to read prayers, and laughing as at "Bishop Muhlenberg and Mr. White," Eventually, however, he yielded to what was thought right in the matter. On another occasion the bishop apologized to Mr. Muhlenberg for asking Bishop Moore, then on a visit to him, to preach in his turn. The good bishop habitually avoided speaking in the first person in his sermons and addresses, and to avoid an "ego "would sometimes use so much circumlocution as to impair the clearness of a sentence. One more anecdote in this connection is worth repeating. One day when Mr. Muhlenberg was in his company, a third person entered and related at length a story of shameful wrong-doing on the part of a clergyman well known as opposed to Bishop White on church questions. The bishop listened with grieved look and in utter silence, and when the narrator ceased, immediately introduced another topic of discourse.

The three years of Mr. Muhlenberg's diaconate were well filled with work. Preaching was not an onerous duty, alternating as he did with the bishop, and each sermon besides serving for the three churches. These early sermons were practical rather than doctrinal; they were plain, evangelical discourses. Speaking of this period of his ministry, he said: "I always aimed to be understood by my hearers, and I think I never preached beyond my own experience. Whether this was right or wrong, I do not say; but such was the fact." He greatly disliked what he called "the preaching tubs" of those days, feeling ill at ease in them; and, throughout life, never overcame a nervous timorousness in high pulpits, always preaching from the desk when he could.

The Sunday schools of the parish were an especial object of his care, particularly that of St. James's, which he had organized himself. He was the means also of forming a Sunday school society that became the basis of the present Protestant Episcopal Sunday School Union; his creating and vitalizing energy in the Church thus beginning with his earliest exercise of her ministry. The celebration of the first anniversary of the society when all the children of the three churches met at St. James's was a great occasion.

He paid much attention to the music at St. James's, the immediate charge of which he was able to retain through the agency of his brother. He formed a choir there and published a collection of chants for their use. He longed to do more than was in his power for the appropriate observance of the Church Year; and in his diary of this date laments the general neglect of Good Friday. "The church was open for service," he writes, "and there was a moderate attendance; but the sermon of him who preached was quite a general one, without the slightest allusion to the Day. The anniversary of our country's independence is punctiliously observed,--should the day whereon we were redeemed from the slavery of sin pass thus unheeded by? Would that it were devoutly observed by Christians of every name!"

He found himself very much in demand by some of the good ladies of the parish, particularly of one or two who became warmly attached to him, visiting the sick and poor with them, and helping them in works of charity generally. A large amount of this sort of duty, and also of baptisms and funerals, seems to have devolved upon the young deacon, and his memoranda of these labors are often both characteristic and prophetic, showing thus early the germs whence sprang, in after years, so much noble fruit Closing a notice of one of his experiences, a sad tale of penury and bereavement with not a place where the poor people might lay their dead, he sighs almost audibly: "How I wish some plan could be brought about so that the poor might not be excluded from our churches and burial-grounds." From the beginning, he attached great importance to parochial visiting, and laid down a plan for himself which he hoped would secure his acquaintance with every parishioner. But the complex nature of the parish in the union of the three churches, and the extended duties devolving upon him through this, prevented the satisfactory accomplishment of his aim. On the 22d of October, 1820, he was admitted to the priesthood by Bishop White, in Christ Church, having completed his twenty-fourth year the September previous. Shortly after this event, he accompanied the bishop to Lancaster, Pa., for the consecration of a new church there, St James's. The ceremony took place on a Sunday, and, in the afternoon of the same day, Mr. Muhlenberg preached. His sermon gave so much satisfaction that he was immediately invited to the rectorship of the parish, or rather to three fourths of it, every fourth Sunday being reserved for the old minister, and on that Sunday the young rector was to preach at Pequa, in the same county.

The bishop at once advised an acceptance of the call. This was a little piece of strategy of the good bishop's, for he had no idea of parting with his chaplain. On the contrary, he thought to make use of the circumstance to render Mr. Muhlenberg's engagement as his assistant a permanent one, instead of leaving it subject to an annual election as it then was. He knew the esteem in which the young minister was held, and did not dream of his resignation being allowed to take effect. In this he was sorely disappointed. Mr. Muhlenberg accepted the call to St. James's, Lancaster, and the vestry let him go; for reasons, however, independent of any personal consideration, but connected with a policy of their own.

Mr. Muhlenberg, for his part, was well content with this result. Much as he regretted leaving Bishop White, he was not satisfied with his work in the united churches, and, further, had begun to desire an independent pastoral charge.

His official severance from his venerated friend, did not terminate their affectionate intercourse, as evidenced by autograph letters of the bishop's, as far down as the year 1831. Mr. Muhlenberg had won his kindest regard and retained it. The letters alluded to are not of any general interest. The subjoined copy of a note addressed to Mr. M. in the second year of his charge at Lancaster is characteristic of the rest of the correspondence and of the bishop's old-fashioned style which he never relinquished.

PHA., March, 5,1822.

REVD. AND DEAR SIR:--Your Brother informed some of my Family that yon propose to be in this City ye Beginning of next Week. I presume you will come furnished with what a certain clerical Brother compared to a Highway-man's Pistol. But that ye Pistol may be of ye proper Metal, I judged it expedient to inform you that we have appointed, Sunday ye 17th, for Sermons in Behalf of our Sunday-School Society. I remain yours affy,


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