Project Canterbury


Church of the Holy Communion

New York




Sunday, March 18, 1928



Father of this Church, St. Luke's Hospital, and
Saint Johnland


"A Dreamer of Christian Unity"

Sermon preached by



The following are the Churches, the educational and philanthropic institutions participating in this Founder's Day Festival, and constituting a practical demonstration of Church Unity the Episcopal, the Presbyterian, the Baptist, the Methodist, the Congregational, the Lutheran, the Dutch Reformed, the Unitarian, the Hebrew, the Russian Orthodox Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Polish National Catholic Church.

Also the Federal Council of Churches, the Department of Missions of the Protestant Episcopal Church, the Union Theological Seminary, the General Theological Seminary and Columbia University.

Genesis 37: 19, 20.

"Behold this dreamer cometh . . . . We shall see what will become of his dreams."

Joseph was a dreamer, and his dreams came true. The beloved Founder of this parish was a dreamer, and his dreams are more and more coming true.

We do not always think of him as such, but rather as the realist, the pioneer, the first in so many things. that the Church has found to be good.

It is an amazing list the first free Church, the first with daily services for the people, the first where the sick and the poor were cared for, the first effective organization for charity, the first Sisterhood among English-speaking people, the first Fresh Air Work in the City of New York, the first Employment Society for poor women, the first Men's Club, the first Weekly Communion, the first Boys' Choir, the first Industrial Community and the first Christmas tree.

These things which are now so largely incorporated into the Church's life began with him as dreams before they were transformed into fact.

But there was still another dream toward which all these others tended a dream bigger and broader and better, that looked far into the future and which could not hope for immediate fulfillment in an apathetic and sectarized Christendom. This dream which transcended all the rest was of Christian Unity, a binding together of Christians everywhere in a common brotherhood not uniformity, not organic Church Union, but a "fellowship of Christian minds" in the love and service of a common Lord. And this dream breathed the Spirit of our Lord, when he prayed that "they all may be one, as thou Father art in me and I in thee, that they all may be one in us." But its conception was so great, its aim so high, and its accomplishment seemingly so far beyond human probability, that many said in his day, and are saying still, "We shall see what will be come of his dreams."

The student of the evolution of ideas will naturally ask whence came this noble aspiration, so far ahead of his time? But one has not far to seek. Its origin can be found, its development can be traced, its course can be charted without a shadow of a doubt. Is it not known that dreams are but the reflection of our waking thoughts? This hope, then, of a unification of a dismembered Christianity was not an afterthought, nor yet in essence a forethought, but merely a welling up of what was inherently in the man.

I think we must go first of all to the root from which he sprang. He came from Lutheran stock. His forefathers had been conspicuous in that communion. The mere accident of no services in the German language in his own church at a critical period led him as a small boy to Christ Church Sunday School in Philadelphia and later into membership and the ministry of the Episcopal Church. And although he accepted the Church in its fullness--its beauty, its order, its mission--he could never forget the piety of his parents, or of those others overseas who had severed old ecclesiastical relations that religion might be free. There grew up in him, therefore, a sympathy with Christian souls not counted as members of the Church of his adoption.

I think if we would account for those soul-stirrings for a realization of the wider mission of the Church we must also look to this parish which he loyally served for thirteen years. He came as its first rector. Although situated at the time in an open field and in a section described as not far removed from the city, he soon saw the coming of a population to which the parish must minister. Among these were those unfamiliar with the Church, and who were largely deprived of any Christian influence. For these he yearned. Had the Church no message for them? Could she reach these unchurched masses that were at her very doors? Surely not with her rigid services of Morning and Evening Prayer, and yet she was not permitted by canon to alter, or supplement, or substitute anything beyond the letter of the law. Hence the effective prosecution of parish work itself demanded that one be allowed to adapt the services to the occasion and cast them in intelligible and attractive form.

Nor can we overlook the fact that in himself was a union of the two vital elements of the Church too often held to be poles apart and too seldom combined, viz., Catholicity and Evangelical truth. He frankly styled himself an Evangelical-Catholic and boldly defended himself against all corners. He was Evangelical in that he acknowledged the Gospel to be the supreme message, with the Bible as our ultimate authority; Catholic in that that message was for all men and that the Church with its Episcopate was the divinely appointed agent for its propagation. Many saw in this a contradiction and charged him with inconsistency, but to him there was neither contradiction nor inconsistency, but rather an inescapable synthesis of two things that rightfully belong together. Without Catholic order there can be no directing force or uniting power, and without the Evangelical spirit the Church can never hope to fulfil her mission. Therefore in any effort to win the world for Christ Catholicity must be preserved in all its integrity, while Evangelical freedom must be as strenuously maintained.

These all had their part in pointing Dr. Muhlenberg to the inevitable goal of Christian Unity. And yet there was another, perhaps more powerful than all the rest. And this was the distressful sight of waste and of an un-Christian attitude in the Mission Field. It was a sight which was intolerable. Never were there more generous contributions for mission work. Never were volunteers more ready to give themselves, and if need be their lives, for the spread of the Gospel but once in the field, beyond a few social amenities, they were in rival camps, altar was set over against altar, creed against creed, denomination against denomination to the bewilderment and confusion of the would-be convert. To which voice should he listen? Where should he find the truth? How should he be made to see that there is but "one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all?" Dr. Muhlenberg clearly saw that the fault was not so much in the Mission field as in the Church at home. We are not united here. We have not one voice but many, and do you wonder that he should dedicate his life to the securing of such a unity as should bring all believers into one fold under one Shepherd?

In these things, then, we see the making of the man, as well as the factors that entered into the making of his dreams.

The members of the parish may or may not realize that underneath this roof they have a "Jerusalem Chamber" like that famous one at Westminster from which great things came. But so it is. In a small room here, with the rector and a small group of friends, the dream took shape. It issued in the form of a Memorial to the House of Bishops and was the beginning of what is known as the "Memorial Movement" with which his name is inseparably connected. A Memorial to the House of Bishops, yes, and for two reasons first that it might escape the acrimonious debate which would surely follow in the House of Deputies, and secondly and chiefly, because of his lofty conception of the prerogative of the Episcopal office, as the seat of authority and the proper source of reform.

But when the Memorial came before that august body at the Convention of 1853 it came as a surprise and as though a bomb had been exploded in their midst, rousing some of the staid Fathers from their lethargy, voicing the latent hopes of others and calling forth the violent opposition of many. It was not a calm sea upon which the little bark was launched. And yet the petition was couched in the most courteous language, it was expressed in the briefest form, and it breathed the sincerity of the memorialists and their loyalty to the Church and to the office which that Church was designed to fill.

At the heart of the Memorial lay three distinct appeals, each based on conviction born of experience, that the Church was not adequately fulfilling her mission.

First--Greater liberty in the services to meet the needs of the new day.

Secondly, wider recognition of Christian fellowship, which though they walk not with us yet give full evidence of the fruits of the Spirit.

And thirdly, an unshackling of the Episcopate, that it may do its larger work in a larger way, unhampered by custom or tradition, or canon.

In short, it was a plea for the emancipation of the Church, and more especially of the Episcopate, from those unhappy restrictions which time had brought, that thus it might go forth boldly as God's chosen instrument of Catholic order and Evangelical truth.

The space allowed in the Memorial was not sufficient for a proper defense of such radical and almost revolutionary proposals, and so it was quickly followed by a flood of pamphlets, known as the Catholic Papers, in which a more adequate discussion was possible. Here he could set forth the case in its fullness. Here he could state in detail both the need and the method. Here he could raise the serious question of whether the Protestant Episcopal Church, as administered, was really a help or a hindrance in its primary mission of winning the world for Christ.

Hence with meticulous care he described situations, and with argument and incident and irony and humor, but always with Christian courtesy, he pled with the Church to assume her whole missionary responsibility and so lead in the crusade that all peoples should be brought to march under the one banner of the Cross.

Listen to some of his trenchant words which rang through the Church as a challenge and a plea.

"We were the colonial daughters of England," he says, "when as yet no American nation was born, and that original type has never changed. But while Presbyterian and Puritan have adapted themselves to the nation we have been, and are, a stereotype of England still. . . . The difficulty lies not so much in the Liturgy itself as in our too rigid use of it. . . . Imagine St. Paul haranguing the crowd of Athens or Lystra, in every discourse and at every fresh section beginning with his Dearly beloved brethren, reading Venite and Te Deum when he found no music, making his own responses, and so on through Litany and Ante-Communion, service on service, Ossa on Pelion, before he could speak one hearty word of the Kingdom of God! It is no caricature. Not a missionary meeting in Western wilds, nor a handful of countrymen, untrained in liturgies but hungering after truth, can listen without these preliminaries

The constraints of the canon are responsible for the mistaken policy. We ask that they be done away."

And again:

"We have no feasts of charity. That highest feast of charity, the Holy Supper, is no longer a feast at which Christians meet simply as Christians and as fellow disciples of a common Lord. There is not one table but a hundred tables, table against table, the partakers of each saying theirs alone is the table of the Lord. . . . We eschew one another's company at the table of Jesus Christ, and that, alas! for conscience' sake. As long as this lasts in vain shall we hope to convert the unbelieving world. What! try to persuade men to come and be children with us of the Almighty Parent, while we are not in amity enough ourselves to meet at the board of his dear and only Son! Teach them to say, 'Our Father, who art in heaven', while we will not come together as brethren in his house to unite in the prayer! No wonder we fail!"

And yet again:

"Young men in the non-Episcopal Churches, preparing for the ministry, now look upon Episcopal Ordination as one of our peculiarities as part of what they call our sectarianism. Place it within reach on confessedly catholic terms, strip it of all unessential accessories, and they will look upon it with new eyes." . . .

. . . "Episcopal Orders, and no others, admit everywhere to the pulpits of the Protestant faith. This is incontrovertible and immutable. Hence it will be seen that the Episcopal Church has an element of union at her disposal and which she is now willing to diffuse on the most liberal terms. . . . Harm it could do none. The good to which it might lead cannot be measured."

And as a further aid he said:

"Let steps be taken toward an inter-ecclesiastical congress on the same plan as the English or American Congress of the Episcopal Church. Let it be held in the Spring of the year, and let it take the place of the May anniversaries, which were once a power, but are now only a memory. Let representatives, lay and clerical, come to a central meeting place, not to vote, nor to preach, nor to exercise ecclesiastical function, but to tell of what they have and what they lack."

At this time "he was at his ripest age, when the glow of youth had passed into a larger wisdom, but there was still within him the child-like faith, the intention of the heart, the broken torrent of eloquent speech, the grand Catholic aspiration."

And I cannot refrain from quoting this bit of humor in resuming a conversation with a noted clergyman of the Church. "Doctor, what is your idea now of our Church's place in the great gathering above?" "Why, I believe that the Episcopalians will be in the first circle around the throne, the Presbyterians next and so on," the Doctor replied.

"Then you do expect other Christians to be there too, only not in so much honor?"


"Well, since there is so much possibility of closeness in heaven, wouldn't it be well to become a little acquainted on earth?"

No one can fail to sympathize with his ideal of Christian unity in its larger aspect. But it is not for your preacher today to pass judgment upon its particular form, whether wise or unwise, whether sound or unsound or whether tending to promote unity or further division. At the same time it cannot be denied that it contained implications which are admittedly open to question, such as: The equality of the ministry in all Christian Communions; the Episcopate, not an order of necessity but of convenience; the unity; which he sought, merely Pan-Protestant and not Catholic.

Those were vulnerable spots in a scheme otherwise so magnificent, and as might be expected led to bitter words and active opposition.

But, even so, success was very far from lacking. In spite of party fears, jealousy of Episcopal authority in the lower House, and the inertia of the body as a whole, steps were immediately taken in the Convention of 1853 to give the subject consideration; and at the following convention the Bishops officially declared that Morning Prayer, Litany and Holy Communion were separate services and might be used separately; that on extraordinary occasions different parts of the Prayer Book might be used at discretion; and that special services would be prepared for the use of those not familiar with the Church. And still further, a Commission on Church Unity was appointed "as an organ of communication or conference with such Christian bodies or individuals as might desire it".

The first part of his battle was won. And his biographer adds that "Dr. Muhlenberg was the unquestioned reviver of the genuine Catholic temper in the American Church. And that whatever advances have been made since in the direction of Catholic freedom, tolerance and charity are due to him more than to any other person or influence."

On April 8, 1877, full of years, he died, and was buried in his beloved St. Johnland, as he had wished, where as he loved to say, "I can speak from my grave for the Evangelic Brotherhood."

It is given to few men to see the full fruition of their dreams or the ripe fruit of their labors, and Dr. Muhlenberg was not one of these.

And yet he had been only nine years dead when the General Convention in 1886 took the requested lead toward Christian Unity, in the proposal of the Quadrilateral, on the basis of the Scriptures, the Nicene Creed, the two Sacraments and the historic Episcopate locally adapted.

It was substantially all that he had asked for in the Memorial and it seemed like his voice from the grave, speaking for the Evangelic Brotherhood.

Thirty-three more years passed and from the Convention of 1919 came the Concordat with the Congregationalists for the ordination of such of their clergy as would accept responsibility to the Bishop though they remained to minister to their own people. One more response to that call for leadership in Christian fellowship which came from this earnest pleader--and here, as elsewhere, we must admit that, though dead he yet speaketh.

But the most amazing thing of all was what took place at Lauzanne in August of last year the most significant Church Assembly in a thousand years. It was the historic realization of the Inter-ecclesiastical Congress suggested so long before only on vastly broader lines, not Pan-Protestant this time, but Catholic, including all the great Communions of the world, save one, who came together to discuss their differences and returned astonished at the extent of their agreements. In this gathering today, almost as representative as that at Lauzanne, we reverently bow our heads and say, "though dead he yet speaketh."

Yes, he dreamed a great dream. He saw a great vision,--a vision no less great because faulty in some details, and who shall say that in some generation, far distant from our own, that vision shall not have become purified and complete!

When that day comes, as come it will, and when the faithful departed look down from the ramparts of Heaven, there is no one who will gaze upon that glorious scene with more joy and satisfaction, than he, who gave of the travail of his soul that it might come to pass.

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