Project Canterbury

The Life and Work of William Augustus Muhlenberg
Doctor in Divinity

By Anne Ayres

New York: T. Whittaker, 1889.

CHAPTER XXVI. 1873-1874.

One more Effort for Unity.--Address before Evangelical Alliance.--Representative United Communion.--Hedging in the Lord's Table.--Anticipation.--"Veni Creator."--The Dean of Canterbury, Bishop Cummins, and the Archbishop's Chaplain commune in Presbyterian Churches.--A Word going to the Root of the Matter--Liberality of the Episcopal Church as to Communion.--An Evangelical Catholic Union.--Bishop Cummins's Secession deplored.--A published Disapproval.--Reformed Episcopal Church.--Not an earnest Religious Movement.--Illness.--Mental Depression.--Spiritual Communion.--A last Writing in Journal

IT remained for Dr. Muhlenberg to make one more public effort in the cause of unity. He was among the appointed speakers of the Conference of the Evangelical Alliance, held in New York in Oct. 1873, and his mind being at the time intensely occupied with the consideration of the Lord's Supper in its relation to Christian Union, he waived the topic laid down for his address in the programme of the Conference, and read a paper that he had prepared on the above theme.

This last has been pronounced the least wise of all his writings. That is yet to be proven. Time must show whether the principle lying at the core of this essay is a seed to perish in the planting, or haply a true mustard seed of the kingdom, growing up by and by into a great brooding tree of holy love and peace. It would seem quite possible that a man of Dr. Muhlenberg's experience, so full of the mind of Christ, and withal so signally endued, with originating power, might lead in a plan for genuine church fellowship, where some, at first, are not prepared to follow. "The highest mountains first catch the morning sunbeams."

The address is an ardent plea for Representative United Communions. What is meant by this can only be thoroughly understood by an attentive perusal of the published treatise. Dr. Muhlenberg is careful to explain that he is not suggesting any interference with the accustomed order of administering the Holy Communion. "We all have," he says, "a strong attachment to our own eucharistic modes. Nothing here said would in the least disturb it. It is a pious attachment which it would be well-nigh impious to violate. Communicating within our own ecclesiastical households we should be disorderly if we did not conform to their established order. Never, in the main, could I part with that of the Liturgy, enshrined in my heart, as it enshrines all catholic and evangelic truth."

He glances at the strange fact that the Lord's Supper, in its origin essentially a bond of brotherhood, is an actual wall of separation between the different hosts of Christendom. Not to speak of "the wrathful controversies, the bitter theological strifes, the mutual excommunications of which this blessed ordinance has been the occasion-the centre of peace the very centre of war; there is the singular exclusiveness in the matter common among all Protestant Christians. . . ." In a note referring to .the general indisposition of Christians to communicate outside of their respective churches, he says allowance is to be made for it, "in their fears that in departing from the ways to which they have always been used in their communions, the solemnity of the ordinance in their minds would be impaired. . . . So of some of the sectarian terms of admission to the communion-they are designed to protect its sanctity." "Once," he adds "when I was inviting the communicants of different denominations, in a ward of St. Luke's Hospital, a devout old Scotchman wondered I could be so loose. I told him that in my church all who desired to come, unless they were openly unworthy, were welcome to her Board; and that, I added, I thought was to her peculiar credit and in the spirit of her Master. 'Nay,' he rejoined, 'for the honor of the Lord, we must hedge in the Table of the Lord.' When we remember how much excommunicating there has been by the wise and learned for 'the honor of the Lord,' and in defence of human dogmas decreed to be his truth, we can excuse the old Scotchman. With growing light, let us hope there will be less and less of mistaken zeal. It is only among enlightened Christians, to be found among the lowly as well as among the high, that we can expect much affection for united communions. These occasions, let me finally observe, would of course be extraordinary occasions, and should not be lacking in any thing of order or circumstance that would increase their solemnity and make it proportionate to their solemn object."

After carrying the mind back to the New Testament exhibition of the origin of the sacrament, and to the Pentecostal Christians whom "we find keeping the feast in their private houses, where the apostles, who as yet were the only ministers of the New Dispensation, could not always have been present to give their authoritative benediction," he suggests that the especial representative united communions which he has in view, would have, for their particular purpose, to be like those of the pre-ecclesiastical days wherein the Eucharist was ordained. He draws a glowing picture of the blessed effect upon the world, of Christendom fulfilling her prophetic type, "Jerusalem built as a city, at unity with herself," and concludes his address thus: "But all nothing,-communions, Alliances, hospitalities,-all nothing without larger outpourings of the Holy Ghost, in the love of Christ constraining us, in unselfishness, in the Spirit of conciliation and forbearance, in self-sacrifice, in the affection of hearty Brotherhood in Christ. Who will not pray for that in the invocation of the church for more than a thousand years,-Vent Creator."

During the conference of the Evangelical Alliance, the action of the Dean of Canterbury, and of another English clergyman, a chaplain of the archbishop's, as also that of the then assistant Bishop of Kentucky, in partaking of the communion in three several Presbyterian churches, was pointedly criticised in one of the daily journals. With his heart full of the subject of Intercommunion, Dr. Muhlenberg could not resist "putting in a word," going to the root of the matter, viz., the origin and essential nature of the Lord's Supper. In concluding his note, he says of the instance of communicating under review: "What was there to hinder it? of course nothing in the Bible, nor in the law of the Episcopal Church. She prescribes a certain order of Holy Communion for her members communicating within her pale; but there are baptized Christians outside her pale. Does she forbid her members ever to commune with them? I have never heard of any of her ministers being disciplined for inviting non-Episcopalians to their chancels, which is not an uncommon thing with them. Indeed it is claimed as an instance of her liberal spirit. Thus recognizing Christians beyond her jurisdiction as worthy of a place, side by side with her members, in the highest act of Christian fellowship; how can she teach her members to eschew like fellowships when invited to it by Christians of the same faith with themselves anywhere? She does not. She dare not. Intercommunion among Christians, to be exercised on their own private judgment, is one of their inalienable rights."

From this time forward he loved to dwell on what he named "the ministry of the fellowship," often saying, "I would rather be called 'a minister of the fellowship of Jesus, the Christ,' than by the proudest title Church or State has to confer." At the same time, these sympathies and labors for unity, not uniformity, in no degree impaired his steadfast affection for his own communion. As a true son he spared no pains to open the eyes of the venerable mother to her urgent need of greater flexibility and adaptiveness to the times, but he never dreamed of voluntarily separating himself from the primitive household. The secession of Bishop Cummins at this time, and other circumstances relating to the organization of the Reformed Episcopal Society, brought this out very distinctly.

He had not been ignorant of the growing discontent of some of the best minds of the church, at the increasing bias in ecclesiastical legislation, and the correspondent growth of exclusiveness, both in theory and practice. A few years back (1869) he had met a number of such in an Evangelical Catholic Conference at Philadelphia, where his presence and counsels were enthusiastically spoken of as "oil poured upon the troubled waters." It is remembered that then, as well as later, he would frequently express himself to this effect:

"Let us have a good courage. Let us maintain what we know to be the fundamental principles of the Protestant Episcopal Church, prayerfully act up to our convictions and our inherent rights as her members and ministers of the Gospel, and leave the rest to God." Again: "If a hundred clergymen of good repute for godly living united in this 'Evangelical Catholic Union,' we should be listened to, and room would be made for us-or, if not, and we are 'cast out of the synagogue,' why then we should be martyrs in a good cause, and might glory in it. But this last is not to be supposed."

The resignation of Bishop Cummins in the winter of 1873, with its sequences, was both a surprise and a pain to him. He deplored the creation of "another sect." And when in the early days of the new organization, presuming upon his sympathy in their church principles, and his well-known liberality of Christian sentiment, they indirectly claimed him as of their party,-allusions to this effect appearing more than once in print,-he felt constrained to disclaim all connection with them, as publicly as the contrary had been implied. In his note of explanation to the editors of the journal who had thus brought him forward, he says, in relation to the bishop's grievances, "I have constantly maintained that they could have been relieved by another than the sad alternative which he has adopted."

A more distinct expression of his sentiments on this subject is given in the following extracts from the copy of a letter addressed to a brother clergyman, in reply to one from him in which he earnestly desired Dr. Muhlenberg's approval of the Reformed Episcopal Church.

It is an affectionate letter of some length. Dr. Muhlenberg, says, among other things, "Bishop Cummins had no necessity to take this step. He might have remained in the exercise of his episcopate, and have done what he thought right-or, if not, it was time enough for him to go when his liberty was restrained. So I told him before his resignation. I deplore his secession. I lament his forming another denomination so much identified with himself. It is not an earnest religious movement, not to be mentioned aside of Luther's or Wesley's or that of the Old Catholics. . . I have written. Bishop ------ before of my strong disapprobation of Bishop Cummins's course. . . ."

In the spring of the year 1874, an unwonted shadow fell across Dr. Muhlenberg's path, and was not removed for several months. Though not of robust physical organization, he had hitherto enjoyed almost unvarying health. Sometimes, while compassionating the Hospital patients, he would say, "What do I know of sickness?" Now his turn came. He was visited with severe malarial illness, caused, the physicians thought, by the upturning, in the next street, of a great extent of new ground for the purpose of building.

The malady did not effectually give way until late in the autumn, and, at its imminence, it seemed as though his life would succumb. The most sorrowful part of the visitation was the mental depression which attended the earlier stage of the disease, amounting, at times, almost to religious despondency. Friends and lovers mourned over the strange shrouding of his bright nature, and it may be that his excessive physical weakness was taken advantage of by our great adversary for extraordinary buffetings. So it seemed to some tenderly observing him. Like Banyan's Christian in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, where the saint could not distinguish the utterances of the fiend from his own voice. But at the worst period of this conflict, it may be said of him' as of another of God's workers, "His doubts were better than most men's certainties." Nor was the darkness of extended duration. It passed off long before his recovery from the bodily disease, and the clouds never returned again.

In the summer of this year of illness, and when he was beginning to feel a little more like himself than he had done for many previous weeks, he made a single, and, as it proved, final entry in his journal. There is a pictorialness and pathos in this last of his written communings with himself, covering in its large and feeble characters six pages and move of the book that claims for it a place in the story of his life:

"St. Luke's Hospital, Sunday, July 12th, 1874. Thermometer 80. In my chamber. Too weak to be with them in the Holy Communion. Dr. C------, my present assistant, conducting the services. I expected to be strong enough to take part only in the administration. But the oppressiveness of the weather and my debility makes me content with spiritual communion. The Sisters and M------, the good women of the female staff of the house, are there in true sisterly love. Be with them, O Lord. Give them abundantly of thy Spirit, uniting them, more and more, in the fellowship of Jesus Christ. My dear Sister A., whom thou dost wonderfully bless with unusual health and strength, O still uphold her with thine especial grace for her soul. . . . Shall I ever be at the communion in the Chapel again? Feeling as I do, I hardly hope it. 'God's will be done,' I can say with perfect resignation. If I pray-'O spare me a little that I may recover my strength,'-it is riot so much for the pleasure of doing more work, as that what I have done may be purified by my repenting of all there has been wrong in it, that I may be fitter for my change, 'More washed in the fountain that cleanseth from sin.' Day by day, not anxious for the morrow, may I patiently wait on the Lord, bearing or doing, as he shall graciously appoint. . . . Now they are receiving-I am with them. May our bodies be made clean by his body and our souls washed through his precious blood, that we may ever dwell in him, and he in us. Now they are singing the 'Gloria in Excelsis.' The rain pouring and the thunder rolling its bass in the heavens.

'"Thou only, O Christ, with the Holy Ghost, art most high in the glory of God the Father. Amen.'"

Immediately after this came the following, in the same trembling hand: "The last time I discoursed in public was in my address before the Evangelical Alliance, in October 1873. I don't expect ever to appear in the pulpit again, and I rejoice that my last subject was what it was,-United Representative Communion. I am happy that such were the farewell words of my public ministry. I was enabled to deliver them with more force than had been usual with me for some time. I hoped to conduct the first of the projected communions, which was to have been this spring."

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