Project Canterbury

The Life and Work of William Augustus Muhlenberg
Doctor in Divinity

By Anne Ayres

New York: T. Whittaker, 1889.

CHAPTER V. 1820-1824.

Religion and Learning in Lancaster.--Apathy of the People.--Mr. Muhlenberg's Activity.--Forms a Sunday School.--Interest in Public Education.--Obtains Passage of Bill through Legislature.--Large School-house erected.--Personal Devotion to this School.--Improves the Monitorial System.--Other efforts for Enlightenment of the Town.--The Special General Convention, 1821.--Plea for Christian Hymns.--Effort in another Direction.--Church Poetry.--Hymn Committee appointed at General Convention, 1823.--Mr. Muhlenberg a Member.--Faithful Pastoral Labors.--Extracts from Parish Notes.

RELIGION and learning were at a low ebb in the city of Lancaster, Pa., when Mr. Muhlenberg entered upon his cure there. This was on the 2d of December, 1820. In his church on the Christmas Day following there were but fifteen communicants. The parish had fallen into decay through having service but once in every four Sundays, and this by a rather superannuated clergyman, and Sunday school there was none; though for some time past a union school had been in operation, composed of all the English-speaking denominations of the place, among the teachers of which were members of St. James's Church.

Public education seemed to be as little in advance as that of the church, and an indifference existed in this regard which at once roused Mr. Muhlenberg. "The apathy on the subject of education which prevails in this place," he wrote soon after his arrival, "is fearful. I hope a better day is dawning. Happy shall I be if I am at all instrumental in its progress."

The story of his efforts to this end is worth giving somewhat in detail. He was not without his troubles in making the working of his church more efficient, but his energy and perseverance overcame them all. His earliest step was to form a Sunday school of his own, naturally regarding that as a very important part of a pastor's charge. He immediately brought about the- erection of a house for the purpose, and some who had been his warm friends took offence at this, thinking the measure precipitate. They were hard to move from their old sleepy ways. As soon as the Episcopal school-house was opened, those teachers who were members of St. James's of course withdrew from the union to teach in their own Sunday school. Their withdrawal was another offence. It was looked upon as a sectarian measure and of aristocratic character, the comparatively few Episcopalians of Lancaster being of the upper classes. But the school was quickly filled with children who flocked to it from all quarters, and particularly from the Lutheran Church, where, as yet, there was no English Sunday school. It soon numbered a hundred children in each division, i.e., of boys and girls severally, with a body of excellent teachers, and continued a very flourishing school throughout Mr. Muhlenberg's incumbency. His own personality was the life and soul of it. There are those who at this day, after more than fifty years, love to tell of the charm of that school, or rather of its devoted rector. One of these, now a bishop of the Church, who was a Sunday scholar there when six or seven years of age, and later one of his beloved college sons, has never lost the impression then made upon him. [Bishop Kerfoot of Pittsburg.] The bishop recollects looking up to the young pastor's face as he was officiating at a funeral, and saying to himself, "How beautiful he is!" He tells also of going in common with other little ones of the congregation to Mr. Muhlenberg's study, where, after counsels suited to their tender age, they were sometimes regaled with fruit from the spreading boughs of a tree in the garden below, which the pastor ingeniously contrived to reach for them by means of a long stick with a hook and open-mouthed bag at the end of it.

But the two hundred children of this Sunday school were a small proportion of the young of Lancaster who had reason to regard Mr. Muhlenberg as their best friend. In his labors for the public education of the place, he was the source of a far wider benefit. During his diaconate in Philadelphia, he had been elected a director of the public schools in that city, which were then conducted on the Lancasterian, or monitorial, system. He became much interested in that system, and was not long in Lancaster before he took measures for introducing it there. He obtained the passage of a bill through the legislature, making the city of Lancaster the second public school district in the state, Philadelphia being the first. This was done with his usual un-obtrusiveness and did not attract much attention, but after the bill was passed and a large school-house began to be erected from the public funds, the German residents took alarm, and remonstrated against the legislation as unjust, since only the English language would be taught in the school. They were too late. The school-house was completed, costing from nine to ten thousand dollars, and accommodating some six hundred children.

Mr. Muhlenberg was the youngest member of the Board of Directors, but, as the originator of the school, its working was left very much with himself. He indirectly obtained the appointment of a candidate for orders in the Episcopal Church as principal, and as the prayers, Scripture reading, and hymn singing were a daily exercise, many of the scholars were drawn to the church Sunday school, the head being the same in both. Mr. Muhlenberg visited this public school constantly, instructing the teachers himself, and taking as much interest in it as if it had been a work of his own. He introduced an important change in the Lancasterian method. The monitors according to that system were taken from the body of the scholars and remained on an equality with them; Mr. Muhlenberg selected a number of the older and more exemplary boys and girls to compose a class of monitors, who received instruction by themselves, and held a higher rank in the school than the other children. It was the care of this public school which, interesting him increasingly in Christian education, led him, at this time, to regard that as likely to be the chief vocation of his ministry, lie took two of the boy monitors of the school" to live under his own roof, and these became two of the first tutors in the Institute at Flushing.

Another beneficent work was greatly furthered if not actually originated by him. Unlike almost every other city of equal size in the Union, there was no public library of any kind in Lancaster, and the young mechanics and apprentices of the town -were in a state of great mental as well as moral indigence. In the spring following his advent, we find a meeting of the citizens called to form "A Public and Apprentices' Library." Very few attended, but a committee was appointed to draft the Constitution of the Library, and Mr. Muhlenberg was made its Chairman. A little later, this Library Committee met in his study on the question of founding an Athenaeum.

Christian hymnody became, at this time, a subject of great interest to him. There were then only fifty-six hymns in the Prayer Book, and the metre singing was confined almost entirely to Tate and Brady's crude version of the Psalms. This poverty of our worship he set forth in a tract entitled "A Plea for Christian Hymns," which he addressed to a friend in the Special General Convention, meeting in Philadelphia in 1821. Eventually this paper accomplished its mission, but Mr. Muhlenberg was much disappointed that at the time it gave rise to no action. It was characteristic of his perseverance and of the tenacity with which he held to an idea he knew to be right, that he prosecuted his object in another direction. He prepared a selection of Metre Psalms and Hymns from various authors, which he entitled, "Church Poetry," and put the volume into use in his own congregation. It was quickly adopted by several other pastors, in different parts of the country, who agreed with Mr. Muhlenberg that in the use of hymns the clergy were free. In this opinion they were sustained by Bishop White. Mr. Muhlenberg obtained permission to express the bishop's sentiments on the subject in an article that he published in one of the periodicals of the day, and which thus brought the matter into wider notice and gave rise to the remark at the next General Convention (1823) that "it was high time the church acted in the matter, for if not, the clergy would take it into their own hands." Mr. Muhlenberg, who was a member of that convention, then became one of a committee appointed on the subject of Psalms and Hymns. The conclusion of this history belongs to a subsequent chapter.

These labors in behalf of public education and hymnody, while reaching far beyond Mr. Muhlenberg's own flock, were in the first instance suggested by their needs and earnestly applied to their particular moral and religious improvement His fidelity as a pastor to the humblest parochial duty, and his deep, unfeigned concern for the salvation of the souls given to his care, appear very interestingly in every page of his parish notes of this date. For the sake of the insight they afford into this part of his life, we extract a few of the more general of these private memoranda:

...." Spent the morning in visiting several of the poorest members of the church--am convinced that much more can be done, in this way, out of the pulpit than in it--Spoke with more ease and freedom than last week--I thank God for it, and pray he will give me necessary utterance."

. . . . "Procured Allein's Alarm and Barter's Call--I wish I could preach more in the manner of these writers--God alone knows how I agonize in prayer to be useful."

Sunday. "Rose at six. Looked over sermon--Sunday school at eight Preached in the morning on Baptism, and administered the ordinance to------and to ------. The former I think was qualified, but the other was so unsociable and dull that, although I could not refuse her the sacrament, she desiring it, I was not as well satisfied as I wished--Afternoon at the Sunday school--attendance 176--Evening preached an old Sermon,--'Unto you that believe'--This was laziness--I had no excuse for not writing a new one."

Another Sunday. "Confirmation, seventeen candidates. The bishop gave too little notice, or I could have done better. Might have had a larger number, but discouraged some who did not regard the rite seriously. It is too often looked at as a ceremony of the Episcopal Church, proper to go through with, instead of a public profession of religion."

After a Sunday well fitted with work. "Holy Spirit, descend and bless the labors of this day--If I am convinced of any religious truth it is that without divine grace our labors for our own salvation or that of others are altogether vain."

. . . . "Was called up at three A. M. to see a man who thought himself dying. He was much alarmed--had no clear ideas of the Gospel. Strove to show him the necessity of repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. He was too much frightened to be edified--Called to see him again after breakfast--'Oh! can't you give me some consolation?' he cried. How painful were those words to me--How would my natural feelings prompt me to set before him all the glories of heaven. I went as far as I could, knowing that he had not led a Christian life."

.... "Mrs.------'s little daughter is dead. Found the poor mother in an agony of grief--Tried to administer religious consolation, but when the loss is so fresh the sufferer refuses comfort. The child was her idol, she says. I'm pleased that she recognizes the hand of God in its removal."

. . . . "Mr. ------ told me that -----" (an influential member of the parish) "was displeased with my using an extempore prayer after my sermons. But I am decided to continue it. I think it edifying, and it serves to impress the sermon on the mind."

. . . . "Was delighted this afternoon by two of my Sunday-school teachers desiring me to hold a prayer-meeting in the school-house. They are much impressed, and tell me that among their fellow-apprentices there is a spreading concern for their souls. I promised to give the subject serious attention. I 'know how prayer-meetings are often abused, but when conducted properly they may become nurseries of the church. In this matter one must endeavor to take the medium between enthusiasm and formality. . . . Young converts' weaknesses are so closely intertwined with their pious feelings that the former must be indulged for the sake of cherishing the latter. If, with a rude hand, we proceed to root up the tares, we may spoil many a fine blade of wheat that would have ripened, and borne fruit abundantly.--Lord, I pray for thy direction! My heart is indeed refreshed at the prospect of a revival of religion in this place where its influence is so little felt"

Some time later. "Two young brothers, ----- and -----, of the prayer-meeting, came by my request to my study. I wished an opportunity to talk with and advise them on the present state of their minds. While I encouraged their serious feelings, I tried to make them distinguish between mere feeling and sober religion. I warned them against Spiritual Pride, and against Censoriousness, that common failing of young converts. I stowed them the danger of zeal without knowledge, and urged upon them a diligent attention to the study of the Holy Scriptures, and to prayer. I recommended them, in conversing with their companions, to speak little of their own feelings, and more of the practical duties of the Christian. I solemnly cautioned them to look for the evidence of their conversion only in the right state of their hearts and lives, and concluded with prayer to God, in their behalf. They are young men of rather weak minds, and mistake too much animal feeling for real godliness. But Piety, in this soil, is so rare a flower that I am disposed to nourish and water every thing that bears its resemblance, or has any of its fragrance."

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