Project Canterbury

The Life and Work of William Augustus Muhlenberg
Doctor in Divinity

By Anne Ayres

New York: T. Whittaker, 1889.

CHAPTER VI. 1824-1826.

Joy and sorrow.--Resoluteness.--An Occurrence several Years later.--The Roman Catholic Preacher.--Sentiments regarding Celibacy.--His Journals and Prayers.--"I would not live alway."--History of the Hymn.--His Dissatisfaction with it.--A Fable Apologetic.--Power of Looking at himself Objectively.--Attempted Emendation of the Hymn.--Another in 1876.--Original Version in full.--Why he wrote these several Versions.--Unexpected Popularity of the Piece.--The Attention it drew.--Burdensome Honors.--A Contemporaneous Effusion.--Might have been a Poet.--Byron and Moore.--Conscious of kindred Power.--A Poet of a higher Kind.--Musical Gift.--A rare double Endowment.--Education prospectively his Vocation.--Resigns Charge at Lancaster.--Passage from his Farewell Sermon

MOST lives have their romance, and the one before us was not an exception, of which a separate story might here be written, were it to the purpose of these pages. Both the light and the shadow of that romance fell upon the years of earnest work spent in Lancaster, and when Mr. Muhlenberg gave up his charge there, he left behind him the grave of his earthly hopes.

As illustrating a strong element in his character, we make a single extract from his private diary in this connection. He had incurred the displeasure of a gentleman whose favor, at the time, was of importance to him, by instituting an evening service; after reviewing, for a minute or two, the advantages he would be likely to gain by some concessions in this particular, he adds: "But for no earthly consideration whatever, not even the attainment of the dear object of my heart, will I sacrifice what I believe to be the interests of my church. O Lord, help me!"

He never formed a second attachment Several years after the time of which we now speak, his friends became anxious for his alliance with a lady of very suitable connection, who was known to have a predilection for him. He called once or twice upon her, and had proposed on a certain Sunday to escort her to morning service. On his way to keep the appointment, he passed a Roman Catholic church, and stepping in for a moment, these words of the preacher fell upon his ear: "We have but one heart; if we had two hearts, we might give one to God and the other to this world; having but one, God must have it all." "Amen!" said William Augustus Muhlenberg's inmost soul; "Farewell, ------," and he neither took the lady to church nor sent her the book she had asked to borrow of him. His visits had been those of an acquaintance only, and he was free to excuse himself

Not to be misleading, however, it is a duty to quote in this connection, "some words of his own bearing upon the point before us. "If celibacy," he said, "has been the destiny of my life, it was not its programme. I never advocated the unmarried state as preferable for a clergyman, though in my own case, in the orderings of Providence, it has enabled me to do various works in the church, which otherwise I might not have undertaken or even have thought of." He believed, indeed, and inspired others with the belief, that in all ages and in all the parts of Christendom, there have been individuals who, from supreme love to God chose to forego the ordinary ties of earth, remembering our Lord's words, "He that is able to receive it, let him receive it;" but he condemned entirely the imposition of rules to this end upon organizations or classes, either of men or women, and always spoke with the strongest reprehension of the enforced celibacy of the Roman clergy. His journals, now and henceforward, throw increasing light upon the means whereby, through God's grace, he reached that spiritual growth which, combined with his fine natural endowments, made him the man he was. These papers are not, by any means, a connected record of his life. There are lapses of weeks, months, and years in their dates; sometimes they are quite fragmentary, but he evidently felt it profitable to write them as faithfully as he could; primarily for self-improvement, subordinately for the assistance of memory in other things. At the end of every few years, we find they have been prayerfully reperused, and the date of such exercise marked upon them, sometimes with a suggestion of the reflections excited. All along, with an affecting simplicity and sincerity, their pages breathe an intense desire after holiness and usefulness, and show a close self-searching, a jealous self-discipline, a depth of penitence, and persistency of prayer, such as one reads of- the church's greatest saints. He frequently wrote out at length his private prayers, and it is remembered that in his ministry he sometimes recommended this as a helpful spiritual exercise, especially for those who unhappily, even in their closets, required a precomposed form. "If you must have a form of prayer in private," he would say tersely, "write it yourself."

The first version of his far-famed hymn, "I would not live alway," belongs to this period. It is popularly believed to have been composed under the loss alluded to on a preceding page; but this is a mistake. We have his own words to the contrary. "The legend," he says, "that it was written upon an occasion of private grief, is a fiction." In fact the hymn was penned before the event referred to took place. Despite his cheerful temperament, there was in Mr. Muhlenberg, as in all earth's greater souls, a vein of melancholy, and this is one of its manifestations, not untinged, perhaps, by some forecasting, though unrecognized, shadows of the sorrow so commonly associated with it. Later in life, when his growth in Christ had advanced far above that to which at this time he had attained,--when, borne on the wings of a more vigorous faith, he lived habitually in a freer, clearer spiritual atmosphere, enjoying what he liked to call "the joy of strength and the strength of joy,"--he greatly faulted this early hymn, as not having a healthy Christian tone, and in 1871, nearly fifty years after its birth, took it quaintly to task on this score, in a very original and charming little paper, entitled "A Fable Apologetic." He had a remarkable faculty for looking at himself and his works "objectively," so to speak. He could project himself before his own mental and moral vision, and approve or condemn as dispassionately, it seemed, as if he were judging some indifferent party. In the same way, he could always put himself wonderfully in the place of any one who had injured or opposed him, or whom he had accidentally offended, giving the other the full benefit of every possible excuse or palliation. And this he would do, not as constrained by duty, much less by any false sentiment, but spontaneously, instinctively, out of the greatness of his fine candor and genuine Christian charity. Sometimes in a minor matter,' he would half-playfully arraign himself, as "Wilhelm August Muhlenberg," giving his name its German form and pronunciation, and so taking the pros and cons of the case. This would be in the presence of very intimate friends only, and his singular power of thus "objectively" discussing himself would never have been brought so publicly to bear upon the composition before us, but for its unexpected popularity and the consequent sincere desire he felt to make it a better expression of Christian faith and hope. In 1871, in connection with the "Fable Apologetic," already named, he tried an emendation of the piece, which he called "'I WOULD NOT LIVE AWAY EVANGELIZED." But the trembling hand of age could not sweep the poetic lyre .with the grace and beauty of youthful vigor, and, however holier the strain, the evangelized version did not take. Not with any. "Be it faulty, as it may," people said, "we like the old better." And truly the hymn, as it came originally from his own heart and mind, with its Christian sentiment clothed in perfect imagery and its sweet and musical rhythm, has found an echo in too many other hearts, carried joy and consolation to too many mourners, for it not to remain ever a glory to him that he wrote it At the same time his riper experience is not to be disregarded and there are many sanctified souls who will unite with him in saying, as in his later years he loved to do: "Paul's desire to ' depart and be with Christ,' is better than Job's 'I would not live alway.'"

In the year 1860, when publishing a little collection of his verses for the benefit of St. Luke's Hospital, he had made an attempt to correct what he felt to be amiss in the original piece by means of a postscript, appended to it; and in 1876, only the year before he was taken away from us, he completed still another version, which in some respects is the most interesting of all.

"I would not live always!" no longer I sing;
Live alway I shall, whilst Jesus is King:
United to Him, His righteousness mine,
My life bound in His, no fate shall untwine:
Ne'er till sin enters Heaven, and death wields his rod,
Defiant, enthroned in the palace of God--
Ne'er till Heaven's a grave-yard, and Christ lies there slain,
Shall I cease in His glory and with him to reign.


Job vii. 16.

I would not live alway--live alway below!
Oh no, I'll not linger when bidden to go:
The days of our pilgrimage granted us here,
Are enough for life's woes, full enough for its cheer:
Would I shrink from the path which the prophets of God,
Apostles, and martyrs, so joyfully trod?
Like a spirit unblest, o'er the earth would I roam,
While brethren and friends are all hastening home?

I would not live alway: I ask not to stay,
Where storm after storm rises dark o'er the way;
Where seeking for rest we but hover around,
Like the patriarch's bird, and so resting is found;
Where Hope when she paints her gay bow in the air,
Leaves its brilliance to fade in the night of despair,
And joy's fleeting angel ne'er sheds a glad ray,
Save the gleam of the plumage that bears him away.

I would not live alway--thus fettered by sin,
Temptation without and corruption within;
In a moment of strength if I sever the chain,
Scarce the victory's mine, ere I'm captive again;
E'en the rapture of pardon is mingled with fears,
And the cup of thanksgiving with penitent tears:
The festival trump calls for jubilant songs,
But my spirit her own miserere prolongs.

I would not live alway--no, welcome the tomb,
Since Jesus hath lain there I dread not its gloom;
Where he deigned to sleep, I'll too bow my head,
All peaceful to slumber on that hallowed bed.
Then the glorious daybreak, to follow that night,
The orient gleam of the angels of light,
With their clarion call for the sleepers to rise
And chant forth their matins, away to the skies.

Who, who would live alway? away from his God,
Away from yon heaven, that blissful abode
Where the rivers of pleasure flow o'er the bright plains.
And the noontide of glory eternally reigns;
Where the saints of all ages, in harmony meet
Their Saviour and brethren, transported to greet,
While the songs of salvation exultingly roll
And the smile of the Lord is the feast of the soul.

That heavenly musick I what is it I hear?
The notes of the harpers ring sweet in mine ear!
And see, soft unfolding those portals of gold,
The King all arrayed in his beauty behold!
Oh give me, oh give me, the wings of a dove
To adore him--be near him--enrapt with his love;
I but wait for the summons, I list for the word--
Alleluia--Amen--evermore with the Lord.

One must appreciate the amount of attention which "I would not live alway" attracted to its author, and particularly during the last twenty years of his life, to exonerate him, as is entirely due, of any thing like egotism in putting forth these various versions of it. It was, as already intimated, his genuine surprise at finding people make so much of the hymn which moved him to these endeavors to render it worthier of their attention. The kind of notice it drew towards him was sometimes amusing, occasionally a little troublesome. Persons would call upon him, to the interruption of some serious business, "Just," as they said, "for the purpose of shaking hands with the author of 'I would not live alway,'" or beset him for his autograph with a line of his "immortal hymn"; or again, accidentally catching his name as they passed him, exclaim,

"Have I the honor to speak to the author of 'I would not live alway'?" Both his humility and his pride rather rebelled against these demonstrations: his humility in that he did not think himself worthy of any such notice; and his pride, because so much more was made of this one production than of all his other labors collectively. "One would think that hymn the one work of my life," he would sometimes say rather grimly.

There is another beautiful little effusion, written in 1824, in the same year with the original "I would not live alway," which is not too long for insertion here. We give it as a good example of his style--


Since o'er thy footstool here below,
Such radiant gems are strewn,
Oh, what magnificence must glow,
My God, about thy throne!
So brilliant here these drops of light,
There the fall vision rolls, how bright!

If night's blue curtain of the sky,
With thousand stars inwrought,
Hung like a royal canopy
With glittering diamonds fraught,
Be, Lord, thy temple's outer veil,
What splendor at the shrine must dwell!

The dazzling sun, at noontide hour,
Forth from his flaming vase,
Flingling o'er earth the golden shower,
Till vale and mountain blaze,
But shows, O Lord, one beam of thine,
What, then, the day where thou dost shine!

Ah! how shall these dim eyes endure
That noon of living rays,
Or, how my spirit so impure
Upon thy brightness gaze?
Anoint, O Lord, anoint my sight,
And robe me for that world of light.

Thus he might have been a poet, had he surrendered himself to that one thing. At the time of his writing the two pieces just noticed, Byron and Moore were coming into fame. He read their works, and felt that he possessed a kindred power. "I could write, too," he said to himself.. He was full of musical numbers and threw off verse with much facility; but his sacred office was too dear and absorbing, and the works to which his consecrated genius prompted him too laborious, to admit of any close application to merely literary pursuits. Hence, while of a highly poetic nature and of exquisite taste, he has not left us any productions of the first order as to the Poetry of Letters. Yet he was a heaven-born poet withal, in the essential meaning of the word, for "God's own prophets are his poets, under-makers," and he had "the vision and the faculty divine," inspiring him to create beautiful and enduring forms, in beneficent works and in habitual loveliness of gracious deeds, "more strong than all poetic thought."

One very rare gift he pre-eminently possessed: that of making, not only songs and hymns, but the appropriate melodies for singing them, of which instances will appear further on. It was with his musical as with his poetical endowments, he had both taste and talent, and produced, with much ease, numerous chants and airs, as he wanted them; but the exercise of this gift was simply an accident in his occupied life, or a chance refreshment by the way.

"He had been now five years and a half in Lancaster--years admirably filled with useful and durable labors. Every year had strengthened his impression that Christian education was to be his principal work, and impelled by this idea, as well as by other considerations, unnecessary to relate, in the summer of 1826, he tendered a resignation of his charge. It was not, at first, accepted, the vestry requesting him to reconsider it. This he declined, and took leave of them about the middle of July, overwhelmed with the regrets of the people. The following is a passage from his farewell sermon: "Let the harmony continue which has existed between yourselves and your brethren of other denominations. Hitherto it has gone on delightfully. May it not be interrupted. Why should Christians quarrel about the little points in which they differ, instead of loving each other for the great ones wherein they agree? They all profess to be on the road to heaven, strange that they should go fighting along the way. If we are children of the same Father, travelling toward the same home, and hoping to sit down, at last> to the same banquet, let us 'love as brethren.'"

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