Project Canterbury

The Life and Work of William Augustus Muhlenberg
Doctor in Divinity

By Anne Ayres

New York: T. Whittaker, 1889.

CHAPTER VII. 1826-1828.

Christian Schools Essential to the Commonwealth.--Originater of their Type.--Eventful Sunday at Flushing.--His Hymns of this date.--The Hymn Committee.--Association with Dr. H. U. Onderdonk.--Convention of 1826.--The Hymns passed.--Absence of Party Feeling.--A Dinner-Table Talk.--Taken at his Word.--The Flushing Institute.--Exhilarating Effect of a New Project.--Life-Long Fertility in Plans of Beneficence.--Searching the Ground of his Undertaking.--Opposition of Family.--His Mother's Fears.--A Portraiture.--The Reward he sought.--Visits Lancaster.--Dr. H. U. Onderdonk chosen for Assistant Bishop of Pennsylvania.--Carries the Tidings to the Bishop Elect

IT was not simply literary taste and a benevolent affection for youth that prompted Mr. Muhlenberg to give up so large a part of his life to education. He was a Christian philanthropist and patriot, as well as a fervent minister of the Gospel, and all through his labors in Lancaster the conviction had grown upon him, that not only the hope of the Church, but the salvation of the commonwealth, centred in the Christianizing of education. He saw in this the only safeguard of the State; the only security that the liberty of our free institutions would not become licentiousness. And so he conceived of Christian schools throughout the land which should substitute as nearly as possible Christian homes, for the proper training of the young.

This conception for his own part, was beautified with all the many-hued colorings of his peculiar gifts and graces, and it became his heart's desire to give it substantial form. He would surrender himself person and fortune to its realization. He would have for his assistance in the work, men like-minded with himself, whose views of education had "not been formed in the shops where it is vended as an article of trade," but, looking upon it as a sacred calling, would consecrate themselves to it on the highest and holiest principles. It was for him to train such, as he did most effectually. And he saw in his own church peculiar capabilities for the work. He felt that "in her catholic faith, in her venerable rites and chastened forms, in her enlightened reverence for antiquity, in her habits of subordination, and in her love of genuine Protestant liberty, she presented the form of Christianity which eminently qualified her for moulding the character of the young, and in these days of reckless innovations, for training the Christian citizen."

Entranced with the picture in his mind, as he always was while revolving and shaping a new idea, he yet stood, as was also his wont, waiting God's will for an opening with the simplicity of a little child, ready to go where it was sent and do what it was bidden. He was always a watchful observer of the indications of Providence, and perhaps his hallowed genius, in these cases, showed itself almost as much in his quick perception and use of opportunities with regard to time, place, and people, as in the original thought of the work. So where, or when, he should begin the projected school was undetermined; but solid learning as well as solid Christian morals was to distinguish it, and that he might be the better qualified in all respects for its inauguration, he determined, now that he was free from any pastoral charge, to make the long-promised visit to Europe for the observation of the institutions of the old world.

There was no seminary in the United States, at that time, which combined thorough scholastic training with a high order of Christian nurture; no Harrow or Marlborough or Rugby. And if there had been any thing analogous to those great public schools of England,--even a Rugby with its Arnold,--it would not have embodied his ideal It was for him to originate the type, which in the course of the last fifty years has been reproduced, with more or less of variation, in the many church schools for the education of both sexes which have grown up over the land.

He decided upon the voyage, and leaving Lancaster, went to New York to spend a few days with his mother and sister previous to embarking. Tidings reached him there that his brother, who had been abroad for two years, was on the point of returning, and wishing to see him before he sailed, he postponed his departure for three or four weeks. While waiting for his brother's arrival, he happened one Saturday to be in the study of the Rev. Dr. Milnor, when a gentleman from Flushing entered and asked the doctor if he could not recommend him a supply for their vacant pulpit on the morrow. The doctor knew of no one, but, turning to Mr. Muhlenberg, said, "Could not you go?" Ho consented, and thus unwittingly took the first step towards a more speedy realization of his educational plan than he had contemplated, and towards eighteen years of pre-eminent devotion to it, in that locality. He preached (extemporaneously) at St. George's, Flushing, on the Sunday; and, the next day, was invited to the rectorship. At this, he hesitated, but at length said he would take charge of the parish for six months, if the vestry chose, and not being able to do any better, they agreed to this. He still entertained the idea of going to Europe, but several considerations combined to make so much of delay acceptable to him, particularly the opportunity thus afforded of more frequent intercourse with his family, from whom during the last six years he had been much separated.

He went to Flushing towards the end of August or beginning of September (1826), being then just thirty years of age. The two youths of the monitorial class at Lancaster, already mentioned, accompanied him and lived with him as his sons. Amid the abundance of work which here, as elsewhere, opened up under the-impulses of his zeal, we find him giving patient lessons to these lads in Greek, Latin, algebra, rhetoric, etc., besides the never-forgotten instruction in the Christian life and doctrine, and together with this an attention to their pleasure, health, and comfort, altogether paternal; for instance, one of them having made himself sick by too close an application to study, he sat up the greater part of the night, waiting upon the boy, and watching him with all a parent's solicitude.

Some of the hymns of Mr. Muhlenberg with which we have become familiar in the Prayer Book were written in the first months of his residence in Flushing: "Like Noah's weary dove," "Saviour, who thy Hock art feeding," and perhaps "Shout the glad tidings." He was much occupied, at the time, in selecting and arranging material for the "Committee on Psalms and Hymns," of which he was a member, and, it may be added, the chief worker, and these original compositions were inserted in the report. "Shout the glad tidings" was written at the especial request of Bishop. Hobart, who wanted a Christian hymn to the tune of "Sound the loud timbrel o'er Egypt's dark sea." Mr. Muhlenberg's "Plea for Christian Hymns," in 1821, and "Church Poetry," in 1823, it has been already shown were initiative of the whole matter.

A single meeting of the committee was held in Philadelphia in the fall of 1823, and after that, though several attempts were made to have a session, nothing was done until May, 1826, when the committee mot in New York and referred the business to a sub-committee, consisting of Bishop Hobart, Dr. Turner, Dr. Wilson, and Mr. Muhlenberg, with the understanding that Dr. H. U. Onderdonk, then of Brooklyn, should sit with them. This committee again did nothing; they did not even meet, and the subject would probably have been postponed until another Convention, had not Mr. Muhlenberg and Dr. Onderdonk undertaken to prepare something which the committee might act upon immediately before the meeting of the Convention.

Mr. Muhlenberg had felt some reluctance in uniting with Dr. O----- in this, knowing how widely they differed in taste, sentiment, and opinion; but when they got fairly to work, all went vastly better than he had anticipated. There were concessions and conciliations on both sides, and a very kind hospitality on the part of Dr. and Mrs. Onderdonk, so that the visits to their house, where the meetings were always held, were pleasant ones. Topics, other than the Psalms and Hymns, often came up, and a frank, good-natured tilt on church points sometimes took place, neither combatant feeling the worse for it. If Mr. Muhlenberg did the larger part of the selecting and arranging, Dr. Onderdonk undertook all the labor of transcribing and preparing the copy for the press, and the work of these two was made the foundation of what was done later in Philadelphia, where it came before the whole committee as the report of the sub-committee.

The committee held several sittings with a remarkable concord of action. Mr. Muhlenberg makes grateful note of this and of some other interesting particulars, connected with the conclusion of the hymn business:

"Brother Meade," he wrote in his journal of this date, "was not more ready than was Bishop Hobart to have a respectable body of hymns, and I was surprised to see how cheerfully the latter admitted what the other, would repeat, in several instances from memory. 'Twas thus we received 'My Saviour hanging on the tree,' and 'I love thy kingdom, Lord,' from the mouth of Brother Meade; and 'How firm a foundation' and 'Since I've known a Saviour's name" from Mr. Key. .....On the score of my own compositions, amendments, etc., I have every reason to be satisfied--'Saviour, who thy flock art feeding,' 'How short the race our friend has run,' 'Shout the glad tidings,' 'I would not live alway,' and 'Like Noah's weary dove," are those of mine which are wholly original. I am aware that they are wanting in the chief excellence of a hymn,--devotional spirit. 'I would not live alway' was at first rejected by the committee, in which I, not suspected of being the author, agreed--knowing it was rather poetry than an earnest song of redemption. It was restored at the urgent request of Dr. Onderdonk.

"The committee reported by referring, in a pamphlet (the preparing and printing of which fell to my lot), to their first publication based upon 'Church Poetry,' and to this of Dr. Onderdonk and myself. The Hymns passed the House of Bishops first--then the other House with considerable unanimity.

"I thanked God when the question was decided, sincerely believing it is for the good of his church. Although the collection is not altogether such a one as I could wish, it is, yet, a great acquisition to our worship, and will, no doubt, further the interests of piety. I shall never repent the agency I have had in the matter. There is a peculiar satisfaction to me, in the circumstance that it has been a measure of no party. Men of both sides were on the committee,--bishops, clergy, and laity. Dr. Onderdonk and myself are at the very antipodes of the ecclesiastical globe. It has been indeed a favorite object with the evangelical party, but it has had the support of the highest churchmen. Thus, in the only church affair, of general interest, in which I have had any influence, there has been no party feeling or manoeuvre. May such be the case in all that I undertake for the church!"

The Hymns passed November 14th, 1826. They were thus secured to the church, but considerable after labor came upon him in attending to the proofs and other particulars of their publication.

In taking up his abode in Flushing, Mr. Muhlenberg with his two boys had to board for some time at the one hotel of the place, there being no more suitable accommodation in the village, and it happened at dinner one day, in the general dining-room, he was attracted by the conversation of some gentlemen, concerning building an academy at Flushing, with provision for a family and boarding pupils. He joined them, and, quite unpremeditatedly, said if they would erect such a building as he desired, he would occupy it and begin the Institution himself. He did not think much of what had passed, expected indeed to hear no more of it, when in the evening the gentlemen came to his room, and he found he had been taken at his word. He could not well draw back, yet was not quite ready to commit himself so hastily. The interview ended, however, in his agreeing to have a plan drawn for the projected academy, which was to be erected and owned by an Incorporated Company, to whom he was to pay an annual percentage of a certain amount on the cost And so the "Flushing Institute," merged later in St. Paul's College, began. He had prospectively designated his contemplated school "The Christian Institute," and the stockholders learning this, in drafting their bill for the legislature, called their organization "The Christian Institute of Flushing." But the gentlemen who brought the bill forward thought the word "Christian" would prejudice the members against it, as they were opposed to the incorporation of religious societies, and asked the consent of the rest to change the name to "Flushing Institute." In this Mr. Muhlenberg heartily concurred--"In truth," he said, "I never wished the stockholders to call themselves 'The Christian Institute.'"

The building, a commodious and sufficiently imposing structure, did not come about without some of the friction incident to mortal affairs; disagreements among the Trustees as to locality and other details. Mr. Muhlenberg stood quietly aside watching the progress of things until, at one moment, a shipwreck of the whole scheme seeming imminent, he stepped forward, and in a way of his own, carried it over the breakers. The corner-stone was at length laid, with the usual ceremonies, August 11, 1827. Inside the box, with other documents, was a Greek New Testament, deposited with these words, "Believing that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the best knowledge, the true wisdom, and the only foundation of moral virtue, we deposit this New Testament in the original language, praying that its faith may ever be the corner-stone of Education in this Institute."

The Christianizing of education was now, more than ever, the predominant theme of his reveries, and he took a pure delight in every step towards the fruition of his plans. His lively affection for the young, the talent he felt he possessed for interesting them, and, above all, his appreciation of the influence of their training upon coming generations combined, with the poetic sentiment that was so strong in him, to shed a lustre on those days of anticipation which brightened his horizon far and near.

A new project, indeed, whatever the vision in his mind, was always a fountain of exhilaration to him, giving elasticity to his tread, a ringing joyousness to his voice, and a sort of radiancy to his whole being. Those who were nearest to him could discern such an inspiration before he uttered a word on the subject The flow of spirits it engendered glorified the daily drudgery with which, in his unselfishness, he was apt to load himself, and his routine duties were never more thoroughly discharged than under such an influence, when his eyes saw every thing in roseate tints, "hues of their own, fresh borrowed from the heart."

Where he was sufficiently familiar, the new-born idea would be the absorbing topic of conversation. He was, as he used to say, "full of it," and persons and things, great and small, as they came before him, were pressed either immediately or prospectively into its development. On the other hand, with all his wonderful perseverance in following up such an idea,--laying it down in the face of an obtruding obstacle, and taking it up again, sometimes months, nay, years afterward,--when he plainly saw that the thing "could not be," there was no gloomy reaction; both his faith and the buoyancy of his spirit yielded a cheerful acquiescence.

This peculiarity of his temperament was signal, and had much to do with the amount of work he achieved. His fertility of mind in plans and projects seemed inexhaustible. Not a hundredth part of his conceptions came to shape, yet rarely any were wholly unfeasible or without some high and holy end; but they were impracticable in the nature of human things to a single life with the ordinary allotment of auxiliary agencies. Far into old age these creations were produced no less frequently than in earlier days: "Let me tell you,"--he would say to the friend who for the last thirty years or more of his pilgrimage, was very far from him,--"let me tell you what I have been pleasing myself with," and then, with his countenance all aglow with the light which was quenched only with his life, he would set forth some noble or ingenious scheme, always for the good of his fellows or the advancement of the church--always to do good. Too often the reply, in such cases would be, "A beautiful plan, but you can not undertake it. It is useless to think of it, because--thus--and so." And with what sweetness and humility would he take the rebuff, sometimes using a little pleasantry, to reassure his colloquist; as thus: "I see, I see! You are right; we can't do unlimited good with limited means. My little bird hops upon a bough and trills away his 'tu-tweet, tu-tweet!' you shake your head at him, and down he drops--dead! Thank you. Always keep me straight" It would be hard to find in the annals of Christendom, a saint more single in heart and aim and more simply submissive to God's will than was this great soul; and so, when he found himself being "carried away" by some new work, he would strenuously fold, the wings of his enthusiasm, and entering into his closet, searchingly try himself, whether the thing were of God, or of his own will and fancy only. The opposition of his relatives,--"as loving a mother, sister, and brother, as ever lived" (so he wrote),--to his Flushing plans intensified his self-searching as to that particular work; and in the period between his first thought of the Institute and the actual "breaking ground "for the building, he gave much time to the satisfying of his conscience, and also to endeavors to reconcile his family. This last without success. They esteemed what he wanted to do as not sufficiently respectable--as in fact an abandonment of the ministry.

His mother naturally dreaded the burden he was about to assume, apprehending the trouble and responsibility he must incur in such an undertaking. Further, she thought him qualified to distinguish himself in the pulpit, and not unreasonably feared that "in keeping school," as she phrased it, he would give up preaching. In vain he tried to show her that he was "about to make an important experiment in education, which, if it succeeded, would be unbounded in its blessed influences." She could not be persuaded. Nor is this surprising, taking into account the estimation in which the calling was then, held, and that she had not the prophetic intuition to discern that it was he who was to make the school-master's office honorable in his own person, to arouse the church to the dignity and importance of the work of education, and in the methods he should originate to establish new and Christian relations between the teacher and the scholar, thus far too often mutually regarded as natural enemies.

We have data for picturing him as he then stood before his mother in the prime of young manhood: goodly in form and presence, with a countenance of mingled sweetness and nobleness, rich waves of auburn hair shading the well-set head and broad brow, deep-set penetrating eyes, large mouth and chin completing well the face as indicating the strength there was in his character, and a voice of rare power and flexibility.

This of the outer man--as to intellectual and spiritual gifts, she knew him to possess a cultivated mind, quick intuitions, a poetic imagination, keen but chastened wit, and a tender, sympathetic nature; all sanctified from his boyhood up, by the evident grace of God in heart and life. Was it surprising she should exclaim, "William, you a school-master!

The surrender of himself to Christian education was an era in his life; he recognized it, and his affectionate heart longed for the sympathy both of his natural kindred and of his brethren in the household of faith. But in the beginning, in neither particular was his wish granted.

We have seen how little encouragement his relatives gave him; referring to his fellow-clergymen, he wrote:

"Brother O------only laughs at my scheme; Brother W------ cares nothing about it; Brother M------seems pleased with the thing, and has little doubt of its success. But there is not much use in going about asking the opinions of different persons, for every body is so much interested in his own concerns, he has little time or inclination to consider any thing else with more than momentary attention. I trust I embark in the attempt with an eye to the glory of God, and the best interest of my fellow creatures; I may therefore humbly hope for success.

'"But I can only spread my sail,
Thou, thou, must breathe th' auspicious gale.'"

When the building was near completion, we find the following:

"O Lord, do thou look down in favor upon this devotion of myself to thy service, as I humbly hope it is! Let zeal for thine honor consume every impure motive with which I may be actuated. Let my eye be single, and since I believe I can best serve thee in the way before me, let me be decided and persevering. Endow me with the qualities proper for my office. Make me firm in the exercise of discipline, yet always tender and compassionate. I would obey the precept of my Redeemer, to 'feed his lambs.' Like him, may I gather 'them in my arms and carry them in my bosom.' Make me industrious, uniform in my temper, and continually mindful of the end of the work I have taken in hand. Let me continually be looking to thee for direction and strength. And, O my gracious Lord, wilt thou deign to accept my services. Wilt thou take me as an instrument of thy glory. I am--unworthy, utterly unworthy, of the honor, yet, as thou dost accomplish thy purposes through the lowest of thy creatures, thou mayest accept of me; thou may'st employ me to turn many to righteousness--even to raise up ministers of thy word. Lord, if I know myself, I ask no higher portion, and shouldest thou see fit to confer it upon thy servant, to thy name,--O yes, to thy name, not to a poor creature enlightened, directed, strengthened only by thy Spirit,--to thy name be the glory through Jesus Christ. For his sake have mercy upon me. For his sake smile upon my labors. For his sake employ me in thy service. For his sake sanctify me and fit me for everlasting happiness.--Amen and amen!"

"Mem.--In order to free myself as much as possible from the influence of improper motive, I resolve to devote the profits of the Institute to the cause of Christian Education and the support of Christian missions.--W. A. M."

[The author's attention has been called to an oversight in earlier editions of this biography, of due mention of Dr. Muhlenberg's interest in missions. Incidentally, as in the above item, his feeling on the subject appears; but the cause of missions, whether foreign, domestic, or of the city, so possessed his heart that a more distinct expression of the fact should have been made.

[A Christian, missionary, whatever his nationality or church relations, was always met as "a brother beloved" and every possible aid afforded him. Again, many yet remember the yearly missionary services of his own church, on the evening of "The Epiphany," when the little sanctuary in festive attire, and ablaze with light, would be thronged to overflowing with devout worshippers, who brought, chiefly in gold, their offerings, amounting to many thousands of dollars; the few wealthy members of the congregation munificently making up for the "widows' mites" that largely characterized the collection. A. A.]

In the spring of 1827, he greatly enjoyed a fortnight's sojourn among his former charge in Lancaster, where he met an unusual number of the clergy, as they passed through the town on their way to Harrisburg, for the election of an Assistant Bishop of Pennsylvania. Church parties there were at a white heat on the subject. There was great excitement and an extraordinary conflicting of choices and expectations. The result was as usual in such a posture of affairs, whether political or ecclesiastical, an intense surprise, even to the bishop elect himself, Dr. Henry U. Onderdonk. Mr. Muhlenberg's own preference had been strong for Dr. Meade, as the assistant of his beloved Bishop White, now nearing his eightieth year, but a kindly intimacy had grown up between himself and his "hymn-colleague," and seeing the thing was done, it was not in him to avoid sympathizing in the emotions which the unexpected advancement would create. He hastened to convey the tidings to Dr. O. himself, and thus notes the interview:

"May 12, 1827. Arrived in New York, and went directly over to Brooklyn, to enjoy the treat of making Brother Henry's heart right glad. Found him at home, and made him sit down patiently to hear the news from Harrisburg. To his guessing who the elected bishop was, I continually replied it was some one he liked still better--'A man,' I told him, 'after his own heart.' After keeping him in suspense for a while, telling him what I thought of the individual, that he was 'too high a churchman,' an 'opponent of Bible Societies,' etc.,--thus taking the opportunity of saying to himself what I had said of him to others,--I said, 'Let me now take leave of you as a fellow presbyter and fellow hymn-monger, and salute you as Henry, Bishop of Pennsylvania.'

"'No?--'But it would be wrong to record the expressions of such a moment. He seemed considerably affected, and received the intelligence, I thought, like a Christian man."

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