The Black Robe from Halle
On this day in 1787 Henry Melchoir Muhlenberg died in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. He led a long life (born in Einbeck, what is today Germany, but then was in the Electorate of Hanover in 1711). He studied theology at Göttingen University and came under the influence of the Pietists at Halle (Augustus Herman Franke especially). After spending some time at the Halle Foundation (which is still in operation and may be visited to this day) he was ordained by the Leipzig Consistory of the Lutheran Church in 1739. He was ordained at St. Nicolai Church in
Leipzig (this is still a Lutheran Church and may be visited as well-more on this church in another post). It is interesting to note that at the same time as Muhlenberg’s ordination Johann Sabastian Bach was the Cantor in Leipzig. Whether the two ever met is not known. Muhlenberg’s first call was to serve as an assistant pastor at a parish near Grosshenersdorf in the far eastern part of Germany, very near the what is today the Czech border (again this parish church is still Lutheran and may be visited, though due to its rural nature one must drive there).
Meanwhile in Pennsylvania Colony scattered Lutherans began to meet for prayers, Bible study and Catechism. They desired a preacher, to baptize their children and to receive the Holy Communion. Over eleven years passed as they sent letter after letter to Consistories and synods requesting a pastor. Finally, through the mediation of Augustus Franke Muhlenberg was approached about the call to serve a three-point parish in the Philadelphia region. The call to serve in Pennsylvania came with this caveat: Muhlenberg would be sent there with a return ticket to Germany. Muhlenberg accepted. His journals (he was a prolific journal keeper as all pietists were at the time) at this part of his life are fascinating. He next travels to his home town of Einbeck to say good bye to his aged mother and siblings. He preaches in his hometown parish and is given a hard time by the local Superintendent (essentially the local Lutheran bishop) for preaching without his permission. It’s a rough way to leave your hometown, but Muhlenberg pressed onward. His next stop was London.
Muhlenberg's Ordination Certificate from Leipzig (now held in the archives at the former Lutheran seminary in Philadelphia)
In London, he meets up with The Reverend Frederich Michael Ziegenhagen who was the Lutheran court chaplain to King George I who was both King of England and the Elector of Hanover of which Muhlenberg was a subject. There in London Ziegenhagen takes Muhlenberg under his wing and helps him with his English and his preaching. They also have a Black preaching vestment made for Muhlenberg.
From London Muhlenberg sets sail first to South Carolina to visit the Salzberger settlement of Lutherans in northern Georgia Colony (more on them in another post). He next takes a small schooner in the late fall of 1742 to Philadelphia up the east coast of the colonies. Once in Philadelphia he connects up with his fellow Germans and from this point forward his ministry of preaching the gospel and organizing the church in this place is legendary (more on that in future posts).
One of the take aways from Muhlenberg’s early story is this: mentoring is so vital to ministry. Muhlenberg was mentored by Franke at Halle and Ziegenhagen in London. They took the time to work with the young preacher, to improve his skills, to give him confidence for his vital work of ministry in a foreboding and dangerous place. We see this with St. Paul and St. Timothy. We cannot hope to have future preachers of the gospel if we do not mentor young men along for this vocation.
Another take away from his early story: Ministry takes courage. People often have the picture of pastors as “meek” and “mild” ne’er-do-wells who sip tea with old ladies. Muhlenberg shows us it takes courage to go forward and to say what is what. The truth is when the Word is preached in its fullest one will get problems. The devil rages. The hardened hearts recoil and struggle back. Muhlenberg shows us that to be a preacher one must be bold, courageous and audacious in delivering the goods of the gospel and to never stop.
On this commemoration of Muhlenberg, I might suggest you pick up his condensed journal entitled The Notebook of a Colonial Clergyman. Muhlenberg will inspire you with his courage and leadership of the early Lutheran Church here in Pennsylvania.
Lord Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd of Your people, we give You thanks for Your servant Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, who was faithful in the care and nurture of the flock entrusted to his care. So they may follow his example and teaching of his holy life, give strength to pastors today who shepherd Your flock so that, by Your grace, Your people may grow into the fullness of life intended for them in paradise; for You love and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.