Project Canterbury

The Life and Work of William Augustus Muhlenberg
Doctor in Divinity

By Anne Ayres

New York: T. Whittaker, 1889.

CHAPTER XII. 1844-1846.

Forgetting the Things behind.--New Subject for Creative Talent.--Contemplates Relinquishment of College.--What he had Accomplished for Christian Education.--The Church of the Holy Communion.--Why not St. Sacrament?--Peculiar Constitution of Parish.--Architecture of the Church.--Its Interior.--Evangelical Catholic Symbolism.--Church opened for Divine Worship.--Consecration by Bishop Ives.--Last Labors for St. Paul's College.--Its End.--Success of his Educational Work.--Reminiscences of Scholars--Bishop Bedell's Tribute.--Anecdote.--Church Sisterhoods.--A Bow drawn at a Venture.--The First Sister.--Answer to a Young Man asking his Friendship.--"Our Souls must work together."

"FORGETTING the things that are behind," was a favorite saying of Dr. Muhlenberg's, and indicative of a marked tendency of his life to press on towards the development of a new thought, as soon as that which he had in hand was fully demonstrated. At this time, an ideal parish occupied his field of vision, through the purpose of his sister, Mrs. Mary A. Rogers, in pursuance of the wishes of her deceased husband, to build a free church in the city of New York She naturally expected her brother should be the pastor of this church, and there were circumstances which seconded his inclinations in that direction.

If the projected college edifice had been completed, it is possible he might not have felt himself equally at liberty to surrender his present charge, but notwithstanding much earnest and persistent effort to that end, the stone walls of the basement story-remained as they were left in 1836, while the buildings in use at the Point, from their insufficiency of private rooms for the students of the higher College classes, had become increasingly inconvenient.

Without a suitable permanent edifice he could not satisfactorily go on, and he began to be impressed with the conviction that he had possibly done enough for education in presenting, what he believed to be, the pattern of a true Christian seminary of learning. He was not mistaken in this conviction, for at the time of which we speak, schools modelled, so far as might be, after St. Paul's, had sprung up in all directions. Every diocese became ambitious to have one, and bishops and doctors of the church had resorted to College Point, and sat at his feet, as learners of his methods. [Among the institutions which thus had birth, the Rev. Dr. Libertus Van Bokkelen, names the following: The Raleigh Episcopal Institute, N. C.; the High School, Alexandria, Va.; Rev. Dr. Bowman's Lancaster School, Pa.; Bishop McIlvaine's schools, Gambier, Ohio; Jubilee College, Illinois; St. James's College, Hagerstown, Md.; and the schools of Bishops Kemper and Otey, in their respective dioceses.]

The contemplated church presented a new and delightful subject for his creative talent, and he hailed his sister's proposition as an opening, in the ordering of providence, for exemplifying his long-cherished theory of the Church of Christ as a Brotherhood, and also for setting forth a more reverent and expressive ritual of worship than as yet prevailed.

The "Church of the Holy Communion" he christened his conception, ere yet the details of the structure were matured. "Why not call your church 'St. Sacrament,' at once?" said his friend Dr. Seabury, on hearing the name. "Because that is not at all my idea," replied Dr. Muhlenberg; "but communion or fellowship in Christ, of which the sacrament is the divinely appointed bond;" and in his address at the laying of the cornerstone, on July 24th, 1844, he yet more fully explained himself, thus:

"Let this sanctuary be called the Church of the Holy Communion. Nor let it be only a name. Let it be the ruling idea in forming and maintaining the church, and in all its ministrations. Here let there be a sanctuary consecrated especially to fellowship in Christ, and to the great ordinance of His love. This will rebuke all the distinctions of pride and wealth.....As Christians dare not bring such distinctions to the table of the Lord, there, at least, remembering their fellowship in Christ and their common level in redemption, the high and the low, the rich and the poor, gathered together around the sacred board; so let the same brotherhood prevail, let there be no places for the differences of worldly rank in the Church of the Holy Communion."

The church was to be supported by the offertory, as in primitive times, every one laying by, according as God had prospered him, against the first-day of the week; and it was not to be placed in the hands of a vestry.

Mrs. Rogers retained the proprietorship in the beginning, after which it was conveyed to a body of trustees, of which Dr. Muhlenberg became one. Hence, the Church of the Holy Communion was not represented in Convention. Dr. Muhlenberg always deplored the incongruity of elements, composing those bodies in the church; maintaining that a true Council of the Church should consist solely of communicating members, and further, that the delegates, representing a parish, should be elected by the communicants of that parish, all voting alike. Speaking of the peace and love which he hoped would always prevail in the new church, he adds: "From one source of contention at least, that of ecclesiastical politics, a church will be free, which will maintain its outward union with the Body at large, only through the union of the Pastor and the people with their Bishop, and so preserve its unity by adhering to the 'fellowship of the Apostles.'" The architecture of the church, a pure specimen of English Gothic, people called "Upjohn's best." Mr. Upjohn was the architect, but both the style of the building, and its minutest details came under the close direction of Dr. Muhlenberg's taste and reverential spirit. He brought to this creation symbolism essentially the same as that which he had so long employed in St. Paul's College, but more artistic and costly. They who were associated with him in those days, remember to have heard little or nothing of this or that ecclesiological authority and custom, as influencing aesthetic points. The question was the signification and beauty of the proposed symbol.

The interior, as he left it, was full of pure evangelical Catholic meaning. The ever-open Bible standing under the simple chancel-cross; below it, on the altar cloth, the unchanging command of our Divine Lord--"This do, in remembrance of me"; high above these, with its primitive forms and symbols, the great east window, making a background of rich soft coloring for the whole. In the centre of the beautiful wheel window of the south transept, a circle enclosing a cross, with the intersected legend--"All and in all;" and in the six sections radiating from this centre, emblems of the offices of our Lord Jesus Christ as our Prophet, Priest, and King, and of the order and ministry of the church;--and the pure white marble font with its carved wreath of water-lilies encircling the words--"He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved."

The building was sufficiently completed for use in May, 1846, and was consecrated by Bishop Ives on the third Sunday in Advent of that year; the diocese, unhappily, through the suspension of Bishop Onderdonk, being virtually without a head. In this emergency Dr. Muhlenberg had anticipated that his old friend, Dr. Milnor, would preside at so much of a consecration service as, under the circumstances, they expected, but this venerable man died very suddenly, before the church was finished, and when the time came, advantage was taken of a sojourn of Bishop Ives in the city to obtain his services for the occasion.

During the two years occupied by the projection and building of the church, Dr. Muhlenberg gave himself with unremitting fidelity to his charge in St. Paul's College, revolving at the same time many plans for the continuance of the Institution when it should pass out of his hands. Eventually the Rev. Mr. J. G. Barton, the Senior Professor of Greek and Latin, of whom honorable mention has been made in connection with the College commencement of 1839, became his successor. But, owing to various causes, the work did not long survive the withdrawal of its founder. Within three or four years St. Paul's College ceased to exist, and the buildings and land were sold to a private purchaser. This last, however, not without an endeavor, fruitless through the pressure of his city work, to preserve the place to the church as a country orphanage.

The educational period of Dr. Muhlenberg's history was so eminent in results that his scholars may be justified from their standpoint, in claiming as they do, that his best work was comprised within these eighteen years, though in reality those labors were but the foundation of yet greater works, which one after another grew with his life into one symmetrical whole of usefulness and beauty. But it is true, that "beyond all the ties of family he belonged to his boys." They were his children, and know better than any other could do the lovableness of his character, "so grand in its simplicity, so full of tenderness, while replete with power, so childlike in its true humility," and so totally unselfish, that his actions were neither tarnished nor trammelled by any aspiration after earthly honor or gain.

One of his oldest spiritual sons throws light on the interior life of the school and its master in the following extracts from a recent letter:

". . . . Dr. Muhlenberg had no eccentricities of mind or manner, no oddities of any kind, nothing in short differing from most men that I have ever met, except the deep reality and entire unselfishness that pervaded the whole tone of the Christian man..... All that I can now recall of special incidents at the Institute, resulted directly from some principle in practical life taught by him to the boys. For example: One day he called them together and read to them from the newspapers, a statement of destitution and distress among some German emigrants recently landed in New York. He then asked them whether they would like to give something in relief. In an instant, there were loud and vociferous offers. One said, 'I'll give two dollars,' another, 'I'll give one,' another three, all were ready to give something, and thus a large sum was, at once, subscribed. But the boys, by a standing rule of the Institute, were not allowed spending money, except to a very limited extent, and there was not money enough, in the pockets of all of them put together, to pay more than a small portion of the sum they wanted to give. The Doctor then said to them that he had no doubt their parents would be gratified to pay the several sums named, if made an item of charge in their school bills, but what he, at present, wanted to know was what they would give themselves, without calling upon their parents, i. e., he wanted them to give their own alms. And so, he asked them, 'Are you willing to give these poor creatures your dinner?' There was a general response of assent, but it was not vociferous like the other. It was subdued, yet earnest and sincere. Then the matter for decision was, How shall it be done? And it was de cided thus, to select two of the most expensive week day dinners--for Sunday was always a feast--to make their own meal on plain bread and molasses on those two days, and to give, through Dr. Muhlenberg, the difference in cost to the needy emigrants. This difference, in a large family amounted to a goodly sum, which was thus the result of the self-denial of the boys and others. This incident illustrates the principle taught by the Doctor, that self-denial for the purpose of giving is held to be a part of acceptable giving at all times. There is no such thing as giving of that which costs us nothing.

"Again: Almost all the lessons for recitation were prepared in two rooms, called the 'Large Study,' and the ' Little Study.' In the former there was always an instructor to preserve order, and to have a general oversight. In the 'Little Study,' used by the older and more meritorious boys, there was not the presence of an instructor, the boys were expected to refrain from conversation, and to attend faithfully to their studies; and were at liberty to leave the room at their discretion. This plan of trusting to the honor of the boys worked admirably well. It was a great matter to be promoted from the big to the little study. ... A similar practice was observed in regard to quiet in the dormitories, and keeping within the bounds of the Institute grounds.

"Occasionally, when a boy became so frequently troublesome as to be on the point of being dismissed from the school, one of the others, who was of exemplary habits, or sometimes one of the instructors, in order to avoid the boy's dismission, became security for the delinquent for a time, say for one, two, or three weeks. The meaning of security was fully explained, and the recipient of the kindness was made to understand, that any future misconduct of the kind complained of, would be charged to the security. . . . This gave an unusual, and powerful stimulant to the boy who had done ill, to do well in future. It was necessary to conduct the whole matter, very discreetly, and in most cases, the result was very favorable. It fostered sentiments of kindness and love on both sides, touched the secret springs of family love, gave the thought of one mediating for another, and thus suggested, and helped to keep in mind, the infinitely higher love, and greater mediation of which we all are recipients. . . ."

Another pupil, writing to his former schoolmates on a special occasion, indulges in the following tender retrospect: "Doctor Muhlenberg was never the schoolmaster to us. I remember as though it were yesterday, the first time I was placed under his care. It was the Autumn of 1829. I was almost an orphan, and although quite young had already passed three years at boarding school, when I was sent to Flushing. The first evening we were summoned to family prayers. This little circumstance, with the fervor of him who led the devotions, were things so new to me that they made a lasting impression. I remember distinctly the room, and all the circumstances, and I think every pupil who ever came to Flushing must have known intuitively, at the very first contact, as I did then, that he was forming a tie, which differed from that of master and pupil. Young as we were, I am sure we realized that it was not for earthly gain, nor earthly honor, that our Principal had withdrawn himself from the world, and from society, where he was so fitted to shine. A loftier aim was evident, even to our youthful apprehensions,--and we saw that he esteemed it little profit to us, if we conquered the subtleties of language or mathematics, and thought not of a higher victory. You all know how warm and often tender a friendship, seemed to spring up towards him in the breast of all who came to him; how it seemed untouched by the boyish resentment which usually follows correction and punishment; and how, even with the incorrigible, the parting was always in sorrow, perhaps in tears, but never in anger or unkindness. We remember, and can never forget, that voice of gentle remonstrance, which so affectionately pleaded with us to beware of evil, and turn to Christ, in the day of our youth."

At the beginning of the Institute, Dr. Muhlenberg had most fervently prayed that among the sons whom he should bring up might be some who would become ministers of the Gospel. This was the one earthly reward he asked, and it was signally granted. As early as the year 1834, he saw this fruit on which he had set his heart, beginning to ripen under his hand, and in his private diary thus pours out his happiness: "The prospects are animating--Oh, the joy of being a coworker with God--of being the means of raising to his glory a temple on earth where many souls may be born to life everlasting--I have enough success to believe that God is with me, and to be an earnest that he will enable me to do what I long to do for the honor of His Name."

He estimated the number of pupils during his rectorship as approximately nine hundred, about fifty of whom, counting some of his college students who accompanied him to New York to complete their studies, entered the ministry of the church. [The Rev. Dr. Jacob W. Diller and Bishop Kerfoot of Pittsburg were among the first-fruits of the school. Bishop K., for some years, as chaplain of the College, rendered valuable assistance in spiritual work among the boys.] Bishop Bedell of Ohio, may be named from the fact of his having been one of the earliest pupils of the Flushing Institute. He entered on the first day of the occupancy of the building, and before "work was actually begun. The following extract from a tribute of the bishop's to his "dear old Master," in a Convention-address, is to the purpose here: "During these years Dr. Muhlenberg laid the impress of his character upon some eight hundred boys. Those who survive are now men, most of them are in positions where they touch the very springs of society, and direct the forces that are moving this age. One has played his part well in diplomacy, and still is wielding political influence. [John Jay, Ex-Minister to Austria; later, Chairman of Civil Service Reform Committee, investigating New York Custom House.] Another stands to-day among the chiefs in our commercial metropolis, and lately welcomed the president into that great company which controls the finances of our land. [Samuel D. Babcock, President of Chamber of Commerce, New York.] Another, the sweet boy-singer leader of the school choir, is now heard through his hymnal in hundreds of our churches and leads the devotion of thousands of souls as he learned to do when we were boys together at Flushing. [John Ireland Tucker, D.D., of Troy.] Another stands prominently among critics of the English tongue. [Richard Grant White.] Others lead at the bar or in medical life. Many are clergymen. Three are bishops--of Northern New Jersey, Pittsburg, and Ohio." [The late Bishop Odenheimer, Bishop Kerfoot, and Bishop Bedell.] Bishop Bedell further says--"I chanced to go into a butcher's stall in a market in New York a year or two ago, and casually dropped Dr. Muhlenberg's name while speaking to my companion. The butcher laid down his knife and asked, 'Do you know him?' I replied. And then he said, 'I once went to school to him for a year. How I would love to see him! Do you think I might call on him?' I met the doctor that day and told him the incident. The next morning scarcely had the butcher opened his stall, when his old master--nearly eighty years of age--stood beside him, and the hard hand of toil was clasped within the loving grasp of one to whom every scholar was a dear child never forgotten.....Blessed the boys that had such a teacher and fragrant is his memory to every one that ever sat as a learner at his feet."

The part of his life given by Dr. Muhlenberg to the Institute and College was necessarily a period of much retirement and comparative obscurity. Beyond the repute of his work, and the publicity incident to the conduct of its immediate affairs, he came, personally, little in contact with the outer world, and was not much known even to his brother clergymen in the city of New York. During the last years of these labors, zeal for the honor of his church forced him for a little while into some prominence, but in a matter so wholly apart from his own history that it is not necessary here to revive its painful details.

In the summer of 1845, he gave the initiatory impulse to a Church Sisterhood, but unconsciously and indirectly, in the first instance, both on his own part and on that of the subject of his influence; and through the rest of his life, he would revert to the particulars which follow as a remarkable Providence. He was "on the crest of the advancing wave" in the matter of sisterhoods, as in other points of church progress. There was then no organization of the kind in the Episcopal Church, either, in America or in England. The Lutheran deaconesses were beginning to be spoken of as doing a good work in the little village of Kaiserswerth, on the Rhine, and the picture of a community of Christian women, consecrated to the service of charity, had entered into his dreams of the church he was about to establish, but he had not given his mind to any plans on the subject, nor taken a step towards the embodiment of his idea, when it was somewhat signally precipitated.

It was on a Sunday, in the little chapel of St. Paul's College, College Point, where Dr. Muhlenberg's sister and niece and some lady friends were spending part of the summer vacation. The rector preached a sermon on "Jephtha's vow," with an application glancing at the blessedness of giving one's self undividedly to God's service. The suggestion was covert and guarded. Reading over the manuscript later, there seeded little in it to produce a very marked effect, yet the arrow from the bow thus drawn "at a venture," was guided by a Higher Power, straight to the heart of at least one of his hearers. The latter at that time was too little acquainted with the preacher to speak freely of the deep impression received. All that was ventured in meeting Him casually after the service, was a brief expression of the interest felt in the discourse and the conviction that there was something better and happier than the ways of our every-day Christianity. "Yes," Dr. Muhlenberg rejoined; '"No man that warreth entangleth himself in the affairs of this life that ho may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier,'" and after this single utterance passed out of the room. But the text thus spoken, "was a nail in a sure plane," which thenceforth, through a lifetime, was never to loose its hold; and from this germ, was developed later the Sisterhood of the Holy Communion, so called, from -the parish under whose first pastor it originated. The formal organization of the community took place later. This first Sister was consecrated one winter evening in the church, at the dispersion of the congregation after daily service. Besides the pastor in his surface within the chancel, and the Sister in her accustomed dress kneeling at the rail, the only other present was the good old sexton, waiting to put out the lights. The whole was as simple as it was solemn.

Those were days of great excitement in the Episcopal Church. The secession of Mr. Newman and others of the Oxford School to Rome was then recent, and all parties were filled with alarm at whatever they thought tending in that direction. The very name "Sister" would have been obnoxious. But it was not so much prudence, as a sense of the sacredness of the engagement, which ruled in the privacy of the above occasion. Observation and talk would kill what there was of divine life in this germ. All true growth is hidden and silent. So a reserve on the subject seemed mutually, almost tacitly, understood.

While arranging for the occasion, it transpired that the pastor had made a partial engagement to be present at the consecration of a church out of town; but learning the Sister's -wish, he immediately set this aside. On her demurring at any change of plan on her account, Dr. Muhlenberg at once replied, "What is the consecration of a church to the consecration of a life!"--a trifling incident, yet illustrative of his habitual, instant sympathy in any spiritual endeavor. How great a power for good that quick Christly sympathy has been to hundreds and to thousands will be best appreciated by those who were ever favored to be the recipients of it. Coming within its influence, was as if one passed from under a cold, gray November sky, with its leaden landscape and prospective drudgery of winter toil, into the inspiriting warmth and color of a fine June morning. The powers of heart, mind, and soul would spring to Christian work, as though treading on air, or rather as borne along by the felt support of those words which were so often his parting charge to his disciples: "Be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might." So did he dignify, ennoble, idealize, whatever of Christian service he came in contact with.

Thus was obtained the womanly element essential to the domestic administration of the various charities, already, to Dr. Muhlenberg's mental vision, clustering around the Church of the Holy Communion.

He saw the future Sisterhood. But in its first member he received more than a beginning of the community he desired to organize; for counting it the noblest of privileges to work under such a leader, she threw her life heartily and unreservedly into all his plans and aims, with unceasing thanks to God for the opportunities of usefulness so largely opening up to her through his wise and holy guidance. Assuredly, as one has expressed it, "Dr. Muhlenberg met the supreme test of true goodness and true greatness; for to none was he so good and so great, so pure, so tender, and so loving, as to those who knew him best and were most with him." [Bishop Littlejohn of Long Island.] Naturally, as time went on, the relation thus formed grew to be essentially a paternal and filial one, the difference of age itself inducing this. The church-sister became the church-daughter, and the constant companion of his labors throughout the rest of his consecrated life.

The spiritual element was always indispensable to Dr. Muhlenberg in any thing like friendship. To a young man, a stranger, who, in a very remarkable manner, once ardently importuned his affection, but whose way of life lay in quite a different direction, he said with his habitual frankness: "I never cared much for any one not helpful to me in my work for the Lord;" and in a letter to one whom he had educated, and who was, at the time, ably assisting him in the induction of the work at College Point, he wrote: "... Therefore it is, my dear son, that you must be more to me than a business man in the College. There is no communion of heart in dollars and cents, in, etc., etc., etc. . . . You must be my partner in the service of Jesus Christ. You must unite with me in leading the young to the kingdom of Heaven--our souls must work together."

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