Project Canterbury

The Life and Work of William Augustus Muhlenberg
Doctor in Divinity

By Anne Ayres

New York: T. Whittaker, 1889.


Effect upon Community of his Death.--Multitude of Tributes.--Extracts from the more important.--The Bishop of Long Island and others.--An Ode "In Memoriam"

"IT is but just and natural that when such a man dies the whole community should be moved." So a clergyman expressed himself in commenting upon Dr. Muhlenberg's life and character, shortly after his decease. The impression made by the event was profound and widely spread. Sermons, addresses, resolutions of respect and affection, tributes of all kinds, were poured forth both by the secular and the religious press, and as well from Christian bodies and individuals, exterior to his own communion, as from almost every diocese within its border.

Passages from several of the more important of these tributes have, with due acknowledgment, been freely used in the course of this work, whether to explain some great church movement or to illustrate any particular wherein a lower pen could not do equal justice to the subject. But there remain one or two others of the class, too thoughtfully analytic and. eloquently true, not to have more than the fugitive existence of their first issue, some extracts from which, regarding traits and characteristics, not hitherto fully brought out, may most appropriately close this inadequate presentation of our beloved and venerated father in the church.

The following is from the bishop of Long Island in his annual address: ". . . . The church at large has been called to mourn the loss of one whose saintly character and remarkable labors, extending over a long life, made him beyond, perhaps, any man of his day, whether bishop, priest, deacon, or layman, the common property of the church throughout the land. His canonical residence was of no moment in making up his record, for his real home, his acknowledged place, was in the hearts of God's people. ... He was a man of whom any age of the church might have been proud. Fame and honor, and with them the noblest form of influence, might have been his, if he had only done one of the many great works for which history will give him a foremost place among his fellows. He was not prominent as a thinker in the purely intellectual sense. He was not strong in the power that grapples with and holds firmly in hand the subtle distinctions and abstract issues of metaphysical speculation. He did not excel as an apologist or a controversialist. He laid no claim to--nay, shrank from being considered an authority in theology regarded as a logical or scientific exhibition of the whole counsel of God. He, indeed, often said what his life-work so gloriously evinced, that his heart had more to do with his confession of faith than his head. And yet, though he had no taste or faculty for--nay, rather dreaded the dry metallic ring of the higher tasks and exercises of disciplined thinkers, he left behind, both in prose and verse, thoughts that will breathe and burn in the souls of men when not a few of the so-called great minds of the day shall have been forgotten. It is astonishing that so quiet and gentle a life should have developed so many of the qualities and gifts of leadership--leadership neither claimed by him, nor formally conceded to him by others; but none the less real and effective. Scarcely an important movement can be named peculiar to the last forty or fifty years of our church life, and which will be likely to tell upon the next half century of that life, that he did not originate or help others to originate..............

"Such a life tempts us to linger upon the many tinted and mellow side lights glancing from it in all directions, as well as on the great, visible, focal points on which its energies converged. No life has been lived among us in this generation that has furnished richer materials for a biography of lasting interest to the church. It was habitually hidden from public sight, and singularly uneventful as the world reckons, but its individuality was intense, and its ardor of feeling and conviction contagious. His highest power was not in speech or in the pen--happy as he was in the use of both--but in personal contact, in the peculiar spiritual atmosphere that enveloped him. He 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............

"It is our pride and joy that his honored grave is with us on Long Island; made, as was his wish, with the poor and lowly, the crippled and the friendless, who in all coming years shall sleep in the same spot with the beloved Founder of St. Johnland--some day to rank amongst the noblest ventures of this, or any other age. That sheltered hillside, where rest the mortal remains of William A. Muhlenberg, will grow dearer and dearer to God's people, as time rolls on; and unless we have greatly exaggerated the quality and amount of his work for Christ, and all for whom Christ died, it will in fifty years, be accepted as one of the Christian Meccas of our country; and certainly of our Island."

The bishop of Central New York says: "With the least possible parade, with a force individual and single, with a self-forgetfulness that seemed absolute, he has made a place for himself in the priesthood of this church, and in the attachment of its members, from the highest to the lowest, which was altogether characteristic; and it is left entirely empty by his removal. Without being either a theologian or a statesman, he was greater than either, and while apparently wrong in some opinions, comprehended as few men, living or dead, have, what the worship and work of this church in America ought to be....."

A brother presbyter writes: "There were in him many striking characteristics, almost every one of which would have made him a man of mark. But these were so blended and so beautifully harmonious in action as to present a singularly complete and symmetrical whole. Like the colors of the rainbow, each was distinct in itself, and yet so gently did these features shade off and melt into one another, that it was impossible to tell where the one ended and the other began.....It was impossible for such a nature to move in straight lines, or express itself according to any established rules. His logic was the logic of deeds, rather than of words. He had a wonderful fancy, and it was wonderfully active. This it was which gave to his words and ways such an intense interest, and made his wit so ready, and at times so amusing, and yet so real and so true. Often, by a single sally of this trenchant weapon, he would expose and annihilate some pretentious folly, or administer a rebuke never to be forgotten. But his fancy, like the heat-lightning of a summer's evening, playing along the horizon, lit up and beautified every thing it touched. These elements spread an indescribable charm over all his life, and made his presence and companionship a continued delight and benediction. Added to these was a comprehensiveness which included all that was valuable--a discrimination which properly assorted and distributed whatever was to be used--and a strong practical sense which controlled and guided every thing to the accomplishment of objects and ends proposed. Dr. Muhlenberg was a man of strong, almost resistless, will--but he was never self-willed. He was also a man of positive and clearly defined opinions, but never opinionated. He was open to convictions, ready to receive suggestions from any and all sources, and as ready to modify, or change his plans and opinions for any which might be wiser and better. There was none of that foolish pride of opinion which so often disfigures otherwise great men. While he was a teacher, he was also a learner. He never did any thing so well but that it might be improved. He abhorred the idea of stereotyping rules of feeling, or thinking, or acting. And he had but little respect for those whose mind could only move in ruts and grooves, and do things in a particular way. . . . . He rather despised that kind of consistency which can not tolerate change, even for the sake of improvement. .... He knew God, perhaps, better than most men. But it was not in him to trouble himself much about metaphysical terms and distinctions, nor was it possible for him to belong exclusively to any particular school of thought or of polity. He was so thoroughly catholic that he was ever ready to receive any thing good from all schools. While he was a churchman and deeply loved the worship and ways of his own church, he never failed to recognize as brethren beloved, all the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, wherever found. He cordially disliked all narrowness, and bigotry, and exclusiveness, as hostile to the spirit of Christianity, and inconsistent with the brotherhood of believers. His love and service in the cause of Christ, and of suffering humanity, were not restricted by any ecclesiastical lines, but went out to all, and ministered to all as there was ability or opportunity. He was eminently the common property of a common Christianity, and his life and character are an illustrious example of its spirit and of its power. One such life does more to disarm infidelity, and to commend the Gospel of Christ-than all the arguments which can be made, or all the controversies which may be waged. It stands forth like the sermon on the mount--the embodiment and illustration of God's law and God's truth to man. In its spirit and beauty, it is a psalm of perpetual praise and thanksgiving. We bless God for it. We bless God that this great community has, through so many years, been permitted to see and study it. No words of ours can express the benefits and blessings of such a life. The living example has passed away, and we shall see it no more forever. But its silent influence remains, and will continue to inspire and shape human sympathies and human energies from generation to generation, even unto the end.....

"The best monument to the memory of Dr. Muhlenberg," said another, "is not any one institution . . . .....but the influence of his life and example throughout this community, in the interest of Christian charity. He was himself a prince in the kingdom of heaven, according to the measurement of rank given by our Lord. Not a great man was he as the world estimates greatness, by degrees of wealth, office, power and authority, but his greatness was in self-subjection for the good of others, in practical usefulness. How many has be initiated into the sweet charities which he himself exemplified. How many have been taught by him to find their pleasure and luxury, in giving for worthy objects. How many rich men and women in this city, whose confidence he had won by his manner of life, have been persuaded to bestow on public charities the money which would otherwise have been squandered on display and self-indulgence. How many currents not of mere impulsive instincts, but of educated Christian principle, have been started by him; which will continue to flow wider and deeper long after every edifice associated with his name shall have fallen into ruins. It is his rare but true eulogy, pronounced by many, that there is, and ever will be, more of Christian charity in the world, because Dr. Muhlenberg has lived in it as he did. This is a monument to his memory which is imperishable." [Rev. Dr. William Adams, in New York Observer.]

Some extended quotations have been made in the body of this work from an address delivered by Dr. Harwood before an association of clergymen, of which at the time of his death, Dr. Muhlenberg was the senior member. A further passage from this, and the conclusion of a poem spoken on the same occasion by the Rev. Dr. George D. Wildes, will complete the design of these extracts.

". . . . His fellow Christians of every name were dear to him: with his liturgical genius he was not afraid of free prayer, nor did he ever tremble for the safety of the ark of God. Clearly he was possessed of a strong common sense, which was inspired by the fire of a poetic temperament. He used frequently to say that all his thoughts were embodied in concrete forms, and that he could not frame abstract propositions. This was entirely true. His thinking is in the institutions and the charities he organized. You see from them and in them, the dominating traits of his faith and religious life. His faith was not a theological formula, but a living conviction and power. It was a free, joyous allegiance to Jesus Christ. The incarnation of the Word of God in Jesus was the central idea of his theology and the inspiration of his Christian life. It was brotherhood in Christ--brotherhood through Christ--that he aimed to exemplify. Upon this account his religious sympathies overleaped the barriers of his own communion, and upon this same account he toiled for those who needed assistance. This made him the consoler of the wretched and the counsellor of the rich. It gave to him a blessed standing ground, and he remembered day and night that the Lord Jesus became poor in order that we through His poverty might be rich. . . . People in distress, sought his counsel and strong men went to him for advice. He was honored with the affectionate veneration of thousands throughout the land, and New York, which bows down to wealth, was proud of this eminent citizen, who could but say with the Apostle Peter: 'Silver and gold have I none: but such as I have, give I unto thee.'

"This Club has special reason for offering its homage to the great presbyter who sleeps now in the sweet seclusion of his beloved St. Johnland. He took the liveliest interest in every project and work that we have thought and wrought He stands before us in the fulness of his living, charitable, eager religion, striving to embody his idea in concrete work and not in intellectual forms. He hailed in us fellow-workers, and we beheld in him the wise master-builder who sought to make men one in the fellowship of a simple faith. . . ."

Man among men; the kind courageous heart
Chivalric, true, to aid the weaker part,
Free in the liberty
Of Christ's own free,

"His the rare martyr soul; for truth and right
The pleader and the worker; in the might
Of Christ's great might to stand
At his command.

"Not the gray annals of an elder time,
Of joyful service and of faith sublime,
In rubricated name
Tell worthier fame.

"Fourscore and one! yet not the good old age
Measured by years alone; if these were all,
Unmeaning life, and vain the sacred page,
The patriarch's record: then 'twere wise to install
For all it grants, long life as sovereign good;
To account the hours for God and duty given.
Servants of greed, and passion's fitful mood
The all in all, and verity of heaven!
Not thine, dear saint! thou of the head encrowned
With glory in the ways of righteousness
Thus to thyself to live; but toilful, found
Blessing and blest where'er thy Lord would bless
Not to 'live alway,' this thy song and prayer;
To live to Christ, thy life's supremest care."

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