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Henry Melchior Muhlenberg helped to shape Lutheranism in America

One of the most important and influential American Lutherans that ever lived was born 300 year ago in Hanover, Germany. Henry Melchior Muhlenberg (1711-1787) came from a middle-class family, but through his efforts (and with some aid) became a pastor.

In 1741 he was commissioned as a missionary. Though his first desire was to go to India, he was sent instead to several Lutheran congregations near Philadelphia, where he arrived in November 1742.

Mark Granquist

The Lutheranism that Muhlenberg established in North America was essentially a “churchly” Pietism.

Upon his arrival in North America, Muhlenberg found a growing Lutheran population but one that was weakly organized, poorly led, and riddled by disputes. Over the next 45 years, though his call was primarily to serve the Philadelphia congregations, in reality he became the acknowledged leader of most Lutherans in North America.

Muhlenberg organized the first synodical organization of American Lutherans in 1748 — the Ministerium of Pennsylvania — and provided it with a constitution, liturgy, and hymnbook. His direct influence covered Lutheran congregations from New York to Virginia and occasionally as far south as Georgia. He traveled constantly, founding new congregations, maintaining established ones, and frequently arbitrating disputes among and within them. He also served as an influential leader of German-Americans in colonial America and became adept at defending Lutheran interests in the tempestuous world of colonial politics, especially during the traumas of the Revolutionary War.

When Muhlenberg arrived in North America, he had little direct support or money, and initially had to deal with direct opposition from elements of his congregation. The transition to the North American context was very difficult for the Lutherans who encountered a strange new world of voluntary pluralism and democracy, no state support, and the religious domination of English-speaking Reformed Protestants. Muhlenberg worked especially closely with other German-American Protestants — Reformed, Moravian, and others — but also worked with the “English” (as in, English-speaking) churches around him.

Though firmly Lutheran, he was open to new groups and peoples. He knew and advocated for Native Americans and called for the evangelization of enslaved African Americans. He also provided occasional pastoral services at no charge to African Americans in Philadelphia. He was acquainted with many of the colonial religious and political leaders, such as colonial evangelist George Whitefield and Benjamin Franklin.

Dealing with the competition

As Muhlenberg struggled to establish and define his vision of Lutheranism in the American colonies, he had direct competition from three other groups. In New York and New Jersey, the Lutheran leader was William Berkenmeyer, a German pastor sent to America by the Lutheran church in Hamburg. In Pennsylvania and the middle colonies, there was an established group of German Moravians under the guidance of Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf. And because of its religious toleration, Pennsylvania was the home to numerous different groups of German Anabaptists and Radical Pietists, including Mennonites, Amish, Dunkers, and Brethren.

Berkenmeyer was too rigid in his approach and unable to adapt to the new American context, so he was drawn into numerous battles among local pastors and congregations. Muhlenberg was unwillingly dragged into a number of these conflicts but was often able to bring about resolution where Berkenmeyer could not. Increasingly, Muhlenberg’s influence grew among the New York and New Jersey congregations. When Berkenmeyer died in 1751, Muhlenberg faced little competition for control from other local Lutheran pastors.

In the 1740s, Zinzendorf made two trips to North America to promote his plans, and when he failed to push his union plans through, he turned to meddling in local Lutheran congregations, seeking to place Moravian preachers in Lutheran parishes. This was a direct and immediate threat to Muhlenberg when he arrived in 1742, and he worked hard to counter the Moravian influence among the Lutherans, which faded after 1748. In a similar vein but much less organized, the German Radical Pietist and Anabaptist groups also sought to gather immigrant Germans into their congregations, and away from Muhlenberg’s Lutheran congregations.

In all of this, Muhlenberg sought a center position. The Lutheranism that Muhlenberg established in North America was essentially a “churchly” Pietism, a moderate form of Pietism that sought to work within the confessional boundaries of Lutheranism, warmed by a healthy dose of Pietist spirituality. This movement took a broad view of the Christian community and essentially held to a “folk church” understanding of the Christian community. While stressing the Lutheran centrality of justification, it also maintained a parallel sense of sanctification, with an emphasis on a life lived in response to grace.

In his congregations Muhlenberg stressed living a life of personal moral integrity, the duty of all Christians to share the Gospel, and the Bible as the central living narrative that informs the Christian life. It was this sense of the church and Christian life, and the ways in which they were formed in an American context, that was Muhlenberg’s lasting contribution to American Lutheranism.

Mark Granquist is Associate Professor of Church History at Luther Seminary, St. Paul. He lives in Northfield.

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