Project Canterbury

The Life and Work of William Augustus Muhlenberg
Doctor in Divinity

By Anne Ayres

New York: T. Whittaker, 1889.

CHAPTER IX. 1835-1839.

Preparations for St. Paul's College.--Repute as an Educator.--Reply to Bishop Doane's Proposal.--Purchase of a Farm near Flushing.--Success of the Institute.--Ten Thousand Dollars of Debt.--His Mother's Aid.--No Thought of Surrender.--Ultimately met his Expenses.--Scenery of College Point.--Laying a Corner-stone that Received no Super-structure.--Enduring Work of St. Paul's College.--Why the Permanent College Edifice was not built.--A noble Principle of Action.--Plans for a Sojourn in Europe.--His Brother's unexpected Death.--Characteristics of Dr. Frederick A. Muhlenberg.--Grief and Tenderness of Survivor.--Turns to Work again.--Temporary Buildings erected.--St. Paul's College begun.--Principles and Discipline of the Same.--The Rector's Increase of Care.--Divine Support.--Tenor of Daily Intercourse with Students.--Tact in Dealing with them.--Skilful Moral Probing

THE development of his work into a thoroughly-appointed college with buildings and grounds of its own, had always been an essential part of Dr. Muhlenberg's plan, and for a year or more previous to the date of this chapter he had been looking in different localities for a suitable site. [About this time (1836) he received his degree of Doctor of Divinity from Columbia College, N. Y.] When it transpired that he purposed a change, the impression he had, even thus early, made as an educator, became strikingly apparent. He was solicited in various directions to accept the control of one and another important institution of learning, or, again, to establish himself in this or that diocese for the founding of his own college. Among the latter proposals was one from Bishop Doane of New Jersey, his reply to whom is very characteristic. After a courteous acknowledgment of the bishop's kind letter, and a wish that his school really deserved the esteem expressed for it, he goes on to say: ". . . . Whenever I have contemplated a removal, it has always been to the northward. Political considerations induce me to prefer New England, and somewhere on the Sound, in Connecticut, has been long, in my imagination, the ultimate location of my college. Candor, however, dictates another answer. The seminary proposed for your diocese, doubtless is designed to be subject to specific ecclesiastical control. I am never restless under government, but such arrangement might interfere materially with the prosecution of my plans, and would impair too much my freedom of action in the enterprise. Attachment to the Episcopal Church and submission to her proper authority will, I hope, always characterize any institution of which I may have the charge, but the security for these must be found only in the consistency of my character as an Episcopalian--whatever it may be--and in my duty as a Presbyter of the church. In a word, I prefer the independence of a private Institution....." This letter is dated Oct. 4, 1834.

At length, what he sought was found close at hand, in a farm of a hundred and seventy-five acres, lying along the East River, north of Flushing, on part of which now stands the village known as "College Point," the name he then gave to his purchase. He afterwards disposed of a portion of the land, leaving about one hundred acres for the college territory.

The Flushing Institute had been an entire success. In its last year, the applications for admission doubled that of any preceding one, and from the extent, unsolicited, of this confidence in his methods, he assured himself that the funds requisite for constructing a substantial permanent edifice would be easily obtained.

He had hired the Institute building, in the first instance, for three years only, and contemplated eighty boys as the extent of his school family. In the third year he found himself with a hundred pupils, but also, the initiation of the work costing more than he anticipated, with ten thousand dollars of debt, and this in addition to the absorption of all his private means. Mrs. Muhlenberg, his mother, stood ready to assume his responsibilities in this amount, and hoped he would now relinquish the undertaking to which she had never become reconciled. He could honorably have done so, having fulfilled all that he had pledged himself to, but nothing was further from his mind than such a surrender. He kept bravely on, and in the end the School paid its expenses.

College Point was purchased in the summer of 1835. It was a very beautiful domain and admirably adapted to its purpose. There was a water front of more than a mile, and the Point, stretching far into the river, formed in one direction a sheltered cove, or bay, for safe boating and other water sports, and rose landward into a broad, high knoll which commanded a fine extended view of the Sound with its ever-shifting panorama of vessels, from the snowy-winged pleasure yacht to the Atlantic steamer. A more magnificent "campus" could not be imagined.

The college edifice was designed to stand on the summit of the knoll. It was to have been an extensive and substantial structure, costing about fifty thou sand dollars. We say was to have been, for it never came to pass, notwithstanding that the corner-stone was laid in the presence of the bishop of the diocese, Oct 15, 1836, with enthusiastic anticipations. The day of this ceremony was one of great interest and enjoyment to the concourse of friends who participated in its exercises. The rector wrote both an address and an ode for the purpose, and associates and pupils drew propitious omens from air, earth, and sea which seem to have been at their loveliest for the occasion.

"The liquid azure," wrote one who was present, ."the ethereal atmosphere, the balmy breeze, only strong enough to float the banners and spread the white canvas of a hundred vessels, withal the golden verdure lighted by a mellow autumnal sun, enraptured every one with the scenery." Nor was the futility of that glad "foundation-day" failure. True, the walls over the corner-stone then laid never rose above the basement story, and St. Paul's College was, to the end, housed in wooden buildings aside those of the Grammar School at the foot of the knoll; but the true living -work of the Christian college went on, none the less. It was as faithfully and earnestly impelled as though honored with a habitation of porphyry and marble, and if not made locally permanent by means of solid masonry, has been essentially perpetuated in its offsets and in the multitude of kindred institutions, existing at this day in our church, of which St. Paul's College was the exemplar.

But how came the solid structure begun upon the knoll to be stopped? Owing to no individual or private failure, but from a great public monetary disturbance. When Dr. Muhlenberg made his preparations for building, subscriptions were coming in, which, with other prospective contributions and general promises of support, justified the step; but shortly came the great financial crisis of 1837, when banks collapsed, the strongest institutions staggered, and men of supposed solid wealth were reduced to poverty, as in a day. Among these last were some of Dr. Muhlenberg's chief friends and helpers, and his resources were, of course, almost summarily cut off. He kept on with the basement story until the funds he had in hand were exhausted, and then suspended operations. He did not regard the cessation as other than temporary; expecting to resume building with the revival of business; but, however this might be, he would not entangle his sacred undertaking with debt. The work, as already intimated, was never resumed. There were lookers-on who appreciated Dr. Muhlenberg's high principle in this matter, and who in due time pointed it out to the church.

The editor of the Journal of Christian Education in March, 1841, may be quoted as illustrative: "On passing up the Sound," he writes, "one of the principal objects that strikes the eye of the observer as he approaches College Point is the foundation of a large stone building raised some eight or ten feet above the ground and there abandoned. On asking why it is left in this unfinished state, the answer is that its proprietor had not the means at the time to carry it further, and would not get into debt. But was not Dr. Muhlenberg working for the church, and might he not have gone on to build assured that in an emergency the church, aroused by the exciting appeals that could readily be framed, would step in to save his college from the bailiff? Unquestionably. The general sentiment and practice invited him to pursue this course. But he chose not to adopt it. We admire his self-denial and thank him for his good example. . .

"Those unfinished walls indicate the sober, patient, and confiding wisdom which looks far into futurity, disregarding present consequences. No churchman on beholding them can employ the reproach, 'This man began to build,' for he would be obliged to add, 'But we (the church) for whom he was building, would not permit him to finish.'"

A structure of wood had been erected at the Point for the Grammar School, which was opened in 1837; while a number of the younger boys composed a distinct establishment in the Institute building, conducted by two of the Instructors on their own responsibility, but upon Dr. Muhlenberg's plan. [Rev. Dr. C . F. Crusé and J. B. Kerfoot] At this juncture, and pending the reaction of the business world, which he hoped would give a new impetus to the college building, Dr. Muhlenberg thought he saw the opportunity so far back descried for a sojourn of some length in Europe. He proposed to himself an absence of two years, and planned to give the Grammar School for that period to the care of two of his most competent associates, who, while maintaining the principles and order of the School as he had established them, were to have for themselves whatever profit might accrue. His brother, Dr. Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg, for some years past associated with him as physician of the Institute, and professor of physiology, hygiene, and the natural sciences, was to be his representative during his absence in all that concerned the college enterprise. This plan was frustrated by the unexpected illness and death of this only and beloved brother. He was seized with rapid consumption, and expired June 11th, 1837.

Dr. Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg was a highly cultivated and accomplished man, and full of musical talent. Further he was his brother's spiritual child as well as his dear companion--"Frater et Filius Christi"--and the survivor used to speak of this loss as the chief sorrow of his life. A number of musical compositions, secular as well as sacred, were left by him. A tune afterwards named "Frederick" in the Tune Book of the Protestant Episcopal Church, is one of these, and was written for his favorite hymn, "Saviour, source of every blessing." On his death-bed, which was wonderful in its fulness of Christian peace, Frederick asked his brother to sing this hymn. Complying, the latter said, "Henceforth we shall always sing that hymn to your own sweet tune"; a promise which has been observed in all Dr. Muhlenberg's institutions. Another little incident further illustrates the tenderness of Dr. Muhlenberg's affection, though it occurred full three years after his brother's decease. A new organ was in contemplation for the College chapel. In a musical point of view, this was very desirable, but the associations of the old one, its early use in the Institute, and especially by his brother Frederick made him very unwilling to part with it. "If," he writes, "I were to give it to Erben (the organ builder), I should bargain to have several of the stops put into the new organ, particularly the Dulciana, on which my brother, now in Paradise, used to make such heavenly music."

Once more he relinquished the thought of going to Europe, and, a combination of favorable circumstances encouraging him, resolved without further delay to proceed with the establishment of his college in such buildings as he could then command. Accordingly, without abandoning all effort, to continue the work upon the knoll, he erected commodious and sightly edifices of wood, adjoining those of the Grammar School, along the shore, and here St. Paul's College was begun in the year 1838, with a full corps of professors and instructors, and all the usual appliances of a collegiate institution. The leaden box which had been laid within the corner-stone of the Flushing Institute was dug out, and placed under the new building at the Point "It was deposited unopened," wrote Dr. Muhlenberg on the occasion, "to show the identity of the Institution."

In entering upon St. Paul's College, he had proposed to relieve himself of the care of the younger boys, by transferring the Flushing Institute to the independent charge of -the two gentlemen already mentioned; but the lamentation at his withdrawal on the part of parents and guardians was so great, "so loud a wail went up," as one said, that he could not resist the appeal, and within a short time resumed his former relations. The boys and the two instructors removed to the Point, and all united again under Dr. Muhlenberg.

The fundamental principles of the College were the same as those of the Institute, viz., that the study of the ancient languages and of the exact sciences forms the true groundwork of a liberal education; that in the discipline of the intellect there can be no substitute for the old process of patient application; that moral and religious training must go hand in hand with the cultivation of the intellect; that the religious instruction must be in accordance with the creed of some particular church, hence here of the Protestant Episcopal; and that pure and enduring motives are to be urged in the culture of the mind as well as of the heart.

Some paragraphs from a paper of Dr. Muhlenberg's of this date will illustrate more specifically the genius and sentiment of the Institution. First, as to its name after St. Paul: "As St. Paul, the most educated of the apostles, glorified his Divine Master with his learning and eloquence, so in the College, human wisdom must be consecrated with the spirit and made subservient to the interests of the Gospel....."

Again: "The doctrines of original sin, of regeneration by the Holy Spirit, of justification by faith, and what are usually termed 'the doctrines of grace' as taught by St. Paul, must be the theology of the College. . . ."

Secondly as to Discipline: "The guardians of youth, in ordinary colleges, are expected to exercise parental authority, not at discretion, but in the execution of laws and statutes already enacted by higher powers. Hence, the pupil is the citizen of a commonwealth, obeying its laws, but standing on his rights and warning his governors not to exceed theirs; instead of being the member of a family, to the head of which he is to render unqualified obedience, and whose will is to be his law. In this state of things parental authority is removed to a distance, and the first lesson which the boy learns is his own independence. And this, it will be maintained by some, is precisely the kind of training proper for American youth, whose free-born spirit should brook no other. But surely the feeling of independence is not of so slow a growth in our country that it must needs be fostered at school. The spirit abroad in the laud should lead us to think rather of checks than of incentives, and to require subordination in the boy as some preparation for the sovereignty of the man.

"But collegians, it may be said, are not boys--their age requires that they be governed like men, not by the will of their superiors, but by a code of laws, to which their guardians are amenable as well as themselves.' This is an error. The age of collegians is the very period of life when they most need the discretionary guidance of parents and governors, and when no written laws are sufficient to regulate their conduct. From fourteen to eighteen is the most critical period of human life. It is the age of feeling and passion, and consequently the age of danger, and then shall the youth be allowed all at once to judge for himself? Then may there be a sudden relinquishment of paternal control? No; then, more than ever, he needs the care and counsel of his guardians, and therefore then, more especially, should he be taught the duty of a ready acquiescence in their will. Surely the rapids in the stream of life are not the place for dispensing with the pilot.

"It may be objected that such government leaves too much room for caprice and even tyranny in the preceptor. But the preceptor is answerable to public opinion. If he play the petty despot he will soon lose his subjects, for the parent has the right of removing his child, and the child has the privilege of private communication with, the parent. This is a sufficient check on the abuse of power, and it should always be secured.

"The discipline contended for is not easy in practice, since it supposes a provision for parental interest and affection, as well as for parental power, and without a good degree of the former, the latter will be unavailing. But the former can hardly be expected where the business of education is adopted merely as a means of livelihood and abandoned as soon as possible for a more agreeable or more lucrative employment.

"There may, in such cases, be able, conscientious, and effective instruction; but the influence and control over the pupil, here supposed necessary, can only be where education is undertaken from views of duty and with the same benevolence of motives that leads to the sacred ministry. Then there will be a hold on the respect and affection of the pupil which, will make parental discipline a reality. And thus it should be--Education should be not only a learned but a sacred profession. Men devoted to it should be a recognized order in the church, and be expected to give themselves to its duties with the philanthropic and self-denying spirit of the Christian missionary."

Dr. Muhlenberg had now a more complete work and a larger field for his peculiar talent and experience, but with these came a corresponding increase of care and a demand upon him for attention to details which only the sacredness of the cause could make acceptable. A glimpse of this is found in a page of his journal of these days. It is part of one of those codes of rules, or promises, with which, his life through, he was in the habit of disciplining himself.

". . . . I will endeavor continually to remember that I am working in the service of Jesus Christ and must therefore do patiently what he sets me at, whether it seem great or small in my eyes."

"I will avoid unprofitable talk about plans for the future, and go steadily on with the work of the hour."

"I will pursue more methodically my endeavors to the religious welfare of the boys.....The cares of the College and School are the cross which I must bear for Jesus Christ's sake. When I think of this I go cheerfully to work and can make the most trifling duty a religious act. Lord, grant me the spirit of contentment, and grace to abide patiently in my lot. O help me, blessed Saviour--strength, strength, strength, that is what I want! O deny it not to me, thy poor but loving disciple!...."

The Institute and the College were one and the same thing. The wholesome strictness and tender sympathy which had not failed to yield good fruit in the former, were brought to bear with equal zeal upon the latter. By degrees, it may be that the exterior machinery of the College became more prominent; showing more of the formalities, as well as the love and spirit of order; but there was never any substitute of the artificial and the showy, for the sincere and the substantial. Alike in the School and in the College from beginning to end, the professors and instructors, as well as the rector, when released from the restraint of the class-room and chair of office, went among the students with the utmost freedom and familiarity; both, parties standing on that ground of unaffected sincerity and mutual kind feeling which, was always the sure basis of the discipline of Dr. Muhlenberg's Institutions.

A record of his individual dealings with his boys, in matters great as well as small, were the data for such obtainable, would form a very interesting and instructive volume. Few preceptors have known their pupils as he knew his; and fewer yet, perhaps, have been as naturally qualified for understanding them. He used to say that for true teaching, as well as for the ministry, a threefold call was necessary, namely, that of "Nature, Grace, and Education." Eminently was he, thus, thrice endowed. He possessed, especially, a rare skill for leading his charge to unfold any wrongdoing of which they were guilty. Like St. Paul, being crafty he caught them "with guile." He knew how to throw himself into their particular weaknesses and temptations. "And he made you feel so comfortable," said one of his latest sons, "even when probing you to the quick, leading you on, sympathizing with, and helping you, where another would have given you a flogging."

Sometimes an improvised rhyme, or a witty word, would substitute a graver rebuke. Thus, to one who was talking grandiloquently of "our glorious Union and its star-spangled banner," Dr. Muhlenberg (never forgetful of the blot, now happily effaced, with which that glory was then tarnished) instantly replied: "Oh yes;

"The stars are the scars,
And the stripes are the wipes,
Of the lash on the negro's back."

With gentle irony, a delicate weapon which he knew well how to wield, he sent to a rather self-righteous young disciple a slip of paper bearing within, simply this--no other word--

"18th hymn corrected--3rd verse--

"I did seek thee when a stranger
Looking for the fold of God;
I, to save my soul from danger,
Earned redemption in thy blood."

To another, denouncing too vehemently, the wrongdoing of a companion, he said "Ah! my dear------, the Lord has a good many different sorts of sinners"; thus, irresistibly compelling the accuser to look within.

This is how he dealt with a youth in whom he discerned some vain-gloriousness as to his performances in the chapel choir. It was the young man's duty to get the number of the psalm and hymn for the service, and going one Sunday morning to Dr. Muhlenberg for the purpose, while the latter was turning over the leaves of the Prayer Book, apparently making a selection, the youth began to speak of the music of the preceding Sunday, somewhat in this wise: "We did pretty well in the choir last Sunday?" "Yes," without lifting his head. "That anthem went finely, I think"--fishing for the praise which he had looked for after singing it, but did not receive. "Yes," still turning over the leaves. Presently, thinking the Doctor rather long, he said, "What shall we sing to-day, sir?" The Doctor lifted his head, and said gravely, "Why, let us sing to the praise and glory of--'John Smith'--(borrowing a name) such and such a psalm and hymn." The individual, now a clergyman of the church, frankly told this story against himself, adding that from that time forth, at any rising of the old self-complacency these words of the beloved pastor and teacher would come back forcibly to him.

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