Reformed Churchmen

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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

16 September 1796 A.D. William Augustus Muhlenberg Born—American Lutheran-Turned-Episcopal Clergyman. He was a great-grandson of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg (1711–1787), "father of Lutheranism in America.”


16 September 1796 A.D.  William Augustus Muhlenberg Born—American Lutheran-Turned-Episcopal Clergyman.  He was a great-grandson of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg (1711–1787), "father of Lutheranism in America.”

William Augustus Muhlenberg (16 September 1796 – 8 April 1877) was a famous Episcopal clergyman who accomplished many different things in a long life of service to God and others. For example, Muhlenberg is considered not only the father of a unique kind of education in the United States (see "Church school" below); he was also an early exponent of the Social Gospel, founded St. Luke's Hospital in New York City, and should be seen as an early leader of the liturgical movement in Anglican Christianity. While Muhlenberg's model schools on Long Island had a significant impact on the history of American education, especially by way of the graduates who founded other schools all over the United States, Muhlenberg left his work in secondary education in 1845. It may well be the case that Muhlenberg became so famous for his post-1845 achievements that many students of Episcopal or educational history do not even know of his fame as a schoolmaster, a vocation to which he gave himself heart and soul between 1818 and 1845.



He was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on September 16, 1796, into a distinguished and patriotic family. He was a great-grandson of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg (1711–1787), "father of Lutheranism in America," and grandson of Frederick Muhlenberg (1750–1801), who was a member of the First and Second Continental Congresses and Speaker of the House of Representatives. Muhlenberg was prepared at the Philadelphia Academy and the Grammar School of the University of Pennsylvania. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1815. In 1817, he was ordained a deacon in the Protestant Episcopal Church, and became assistant to Bishop William White (1748–1836) in the rectorship of Christ Church and St. Peters, and later at St. James', Philadelphia. During these years he was also very much influenced by his older friend and priestly companion Jackson Kemper (1789–1870), who became the first Missionary Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in 1835.

In 1820 he was ordained priest and until 1826 was rector of St. James' Church, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Largely owing to his efforts, Lancaster was the second public school district created in the state. His interest in church music and hymnody prompted his pamphlet of 1821, A Plea for Christian Hymns; he drew up for the use of his own parish a collection of Church Poetry (1823); and in 1823 he was appointed by the General Convention a member of the committee on psalms and hymns, whose collection, approved in 1826, contained several of Muhlenberg's own compositions, including I would not live alway, Shout the glad tidings, and Saviour, who thy flock art feeding.

Muhlenberg as a young man.

Founding of the Church School Movement

From 1826 to 1845 he was rector of St. George's, Flushing, Queens, In 1828 he became "Principal" of the "Church Institute" in Flushing, where he initiated a unique and highly successful method for the education of boys. In 1836, the cornerstone was laid for a new educational enterprise a mile north of Flushing. This more ambitious initiative was named St. Paul's College and Grammar School. (College Point in present-day Queens County NY is where Muhlenberg's school was situated.) Richard Upjohn designed a magnificent main building. The foundations for the building were completed by 1837 and the edifice of pink stone and white marble began to rise on the hill above Long Island Sound. It was not only the unfortunate financial Panic of 1837 but the party squabbling within the Episcopal Church that prevented Muhlenberg from collecting on the pledges to capitalize and endow St. Paul's. Without adequate endowment, the state legislature denied Muhlenberg's request for a collegiate charter, which meant that St. Paul's could not legally grant the degree of Bachelor of Arts. The ruination of St. Paul's left a lasting wound in Muhlenberg's heart. One of the greatest educators in American history—admired by even public school promoters—departed Long Island for good in 1847. But Muhlenberg's philosophy and practice of education had already been handed over to younger men who made a monumental contribution to the history of American education (see John Kerfoot, James Lloyd Breck, and Henry Augustus Coit).

Muhlenberg's Educational Principles

W.A. Muhlenberg did not favor the "fine literary institutions" springing up all over the United States in his time. His schools were above all Christian communities wherein a Goal beyond academic excellence was pursued. That Goal was Character, and the Christian character in particular. "Character" is not simply moral goodness; "character" is that constellation of good qualities, skills, and attitudes that enable a person to be effective in the real world—for example, to be able to handle a challenging course of study. The attainment of character enabled a youth to achieve academic excellence as a matter of course: This was Muhlenberg's secret.

The schools Muhlenberg created were Christian families with Christ as the Head. By "Church school" he did not mean a narrow, denominational or sectarian emphasis; not at all. Rather, Muhlenberg meant that the school was part of the Body of Christ. The school was the association where Grace (or God's help) abounded for the believer, and Grace enabled Muhlenberg's "school sons" to achieve great things. Muhlenberg and his school-making heirs assumed that the school is the Church in its scholastic mode. Muhlenberg was very practical: He believed that Christianity was more than a philosophy or a hopeful idea; Christianity is a definite practice in the real world. Therefore, echoing John Henry Newman, Muhlenberg ever insisted that "there can be no such thing as Christianity in the abstract." Muhlenberg was one of the most non-sectarian religious leaders of his generation, but he realized that, unless a school is some religion in particular, it will soon not favor much religion at all (it will become secular), or it will become a battleground of different pieties jockeying for position. A lasting and healthy religious tolerance in a community is actually made possible by a religious center or established discipline from which hospitality and tolerance issues forth to all members of the community. In this attitude Muhlenberg and his protégés were rather Anglican. It may be suggested that Episcopal preparatory schools have been successful in American history because they feature an "established" religion on a campus: It is from a position of strength that a school community is able to be tolerant, welcoming, and open to new ideas without throwing the baby out with the bath water.

From the extant sources we may say with confidence that W.A. Muhlenberg's personal experience in the public schools between 1818 and 1826 left him with a conviction: A watered-down, lowest-common-denominator religion will give children and youth the wrong idea about Christian faith and practice. Even in the 1820s in "Protestant America" Muhlenberg experienced considerable restraint from the teaching of religion and even morality. He wanted the Institute at Flushing to be completely uninhibited in the practice and teaching of Christianity "in one of its particular forms," not at all to exclude students and families from the fellowship (Muhlenberg was in no way an exclusive fellow, even as a young man) but to be definite for the sake of practical success in the incremental formation, brick by brick, of the Christian character. Thus, there is a subtle difference between Muhlenberg's approach and "sectarian" education. Muhlenberg's Anglicanism was broad and inclusive. The "particularity" of the Church Institute would be as inclusive and inviting as the worldwide and single Body of Christ, or Church catholic.

We might aver that Muhlenberg had a "theology" of education. It was subtle if successful and it was his protégés who fleshed it out over many years and put it into especially effective practice. They applied "the Doctor's" method through trial and error. In The Application of Christianity to Education, (1828), Muhlenberg took his own Christianity for granted (of course) and assumed that a moral education will be based on Christianity because he assumed that God did reveal himself in an especially definitive way in Jesus Christ. Muhlenberg was confident that through divine revelation (i.e. the Bible) latter-day human beings can know something of the Will of God, at least about the most important matters in life; therefore, a moral education must be based on the gaining of a knowledge of that Will of God. As a thoroughly trained classical scholar, Muhlenberg was familiar with the great examples of moral goodness in the pagan world (just as he was acutely aware of the many ways that Greek and Roman civilization fell far short of the Gospel imperative to love). For Muhlenberg and his scholastic heirs the Gospel and Christianity are true, hence the best education in their reckoning will incorporate both. Even in the 1820s most American schools did not ignore Christianity but they did practically neglect it. Virtue in the Christian sense of the word is what the Doctor was after, and Virtue in his mind was Jesus Christ, the Model of school ideals. A critic might respond that liberal learning or practical knowledge is the end of education, not virtue; but Muhlenberg's public utterances—very practical and based on real experience in the classroom—collectively make a Reply to the critics: The pursuit of Virtue allows a person to "receive" education (as Henry Coit of St. Paul's put it): Liberal learning and practical knowledge are made better, more solidly held, and longer-lasting if gained along the way to Virtue or while Virtue is forming in the inner person. Otherwise high-quality education is just for the top 10% of the population, and Muhlenberg was far more democratic than that.

Muhlenberg wrote in the same 1828 pamphlet that students in his school must understand that "the Law of God is the law of the school," but, again, it would be a huge mistake to assume that Muhlenberg was any sort of moral legalist or in any way old-fashioned about authority and discipline. In Muhlenberg's Anglican/Episcopal thinking, the "Law of God" meant a pattern or blueprint rather than a rigorist or legalistic approach to proper living in a scholastic brotherhood. Another way to make the point of Muhlenberg's innovative method is to remember that he strongly discouraged emulation (the public comparison of weaker to stronger students) and would not exact corporal punishment unless the boy in question specifically requested it. Needless to say, these commitments distinguished Muhlenberg from most educators and schoolmasters in America at the time.

The schools at Flushing and College Point were scholastic brotherhoods wherein life lessons were learned every day and astonishing achievements were the expected property of all. The sources reveal that the schools were happy if intensely busy communities. The "method" produced outstanding graduates who were educated in many ways and not just intellectually. (Lloyd Breck (1818–1876) might be used as a "poster boy" for Muhlenberg's method. Breck spent five years on Long Island with Dr. Muhlenberg and the staff. He was considered by his peers to be an earnest man of only average ability. Yet he matriculated at the University of Pennsylvania as a third-year student and graduated the following year magna cum laude. Following divinity school, Breck went west and founded three seminaries, four boarding schools, three colleges, and a score of parochial schools. His classical learning enabled him to enjoy an extraordinary teaching life, and he was perhaps the most effective Christian missionary among the Mississippi Indians of upper Minnesota because he was well-versed in the history of the way the Gospel moved into the pagan cultures of the late antique world. In any case, Breck recreated Muhlenberg-type scholastic communities among the Chippewas and Ojibwas, and these Native Americans loved him and supported his efforts in the North Woods.)

For Muhlenberg, education must be holistic and comprehensive, because truth is large, not small, and the human person is made of parts that must be brought by Grace into a harmony. (As with Socrates, Muhlenberg rejected the notion that Virtue is being good at one thing; rather, Virtue is general human excellence—the situation wherein all parts of a person, each of his or her virtues, have been brought into a harmonious unity.) He took it for granted that, if the inner person receives education, then everything falls into place, including the growth and progress of the reason: If the end of education in a school is "character," then a great many different types of persons are enabled to make good use of a worthy academic course. Again and again Muhlenberg and his scholastic heirs proved that their method works.

Muhlenberg's successful "application of Christianity to education" was more original and comprehensive than the work begun at Rugby School in 1828 by Thomas Arnold (1795–1842), and Muhlenberg's hands-on experience in public education in Pennsylvania between 1818 and 1826 gave him, when combined with his own experience on Long Island, considerably more experience for school making than his exact contemporary, Horace Mann (1796–1859), who was a politician. Muhlenberg was far ahead of his time when he saw that the community is itself educative. The insight anticipated John Dewey by seventy years and the work of cultural anthropologists by a hundred years. He showed himself an experienced teacher when he wrote in a pamphlet, "Some great minds are slow in developing, the acorn gives little promise of the oak." And the following maxim was prophetic in light of the course American education has taken since his day: "The head should not be furnished at the expense of the heart." While Muhlenberg and his scholastic heirs assumed that a rich and demanding course of study was but another means to a higher End, this did not mean that they ever allowed religion to usurp academic rigor and high scholastic standards. "Religion," Muhlenberg insisted, "should never be held to account for inferior scholarship." The motive here was simple and sound: God in Christ calls all persons to work with God's Grace and strive after the highest goals in every aspect of our human nature. What distinguishes human beings from other creatures is that humans are created in the image of God (imago Dei), which means (among many other things) that we have been given brains and a rational faculty made for exercise, development, and maturation. As Henry Coit (1830–1895), a disciple of Muhlenberg once put it, "A high aim is better than a low one." But the New Testament is full of the same idea.

Muhlenberg's Impact on American Education

The methods of Muhlenberg's scholastic models on Long Island were widely admired and translated in other regions and cultures. In 1842 Muhlenberg participated directly in the establishment of Saint James School in Western Maryland. He sent his right-hand man at St. Paul's College and Grammar School, John Barrett Kerfoot (1816–1881), who later became the first Bishop of Pittsburgh. For his nationally impacting work in education, Kerfoot was awarded an honorary doctorate by Cambridge University. (The institution Kerfoot founded in 1842 was first named "Saint James Hall," then "The College and Grammar School of St. James's." The Civil War sent the College to the bottom, but the institution was re-opened in 1871 as Saint James School, which is to this day perhaps the best embodiment in the United States of the "Church school" ideals and method of Muhlenberg, Kerfoot, and their heirs.) James Lloyd Breck's educational work was mentioned above. Nashotah House Episcopal Seminary in Wisconsin is a Breck foundation, as well as the Shattuck-St. Mary's School in Faribault, MN. A former student of both Muhlenberg and Kerfoot, Henry Augustus Coit (1830–1895), was the founding Rector of St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire (1856). Kerfoot's nephew was the founding Headmaster of St. Mark's School, Southborough, MA (1865). Endicott Peabody (1857–1944) founded Groton School in 1884 and showed his debt to Muhlenberg by referring to the latter's "method" in public utterances and sermons promoting his school in Massachusetts. Peabody placed a portrait of the great man in his study. Another evidence of Peabody's debt to Muhlenberg is that he would correct any person who called Groton a mere "prep school." He insisted that Groton was a "Church school"—a Christian family with Christ as the Head. The founders of St. George's School in Rhode Island (1896) also looked to Muhlenberg as the pioneer of a new kind of education in the world. It can be said that Muhlenberg was instrumental to the founding of the Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia (1839). Muhlenberg consulted with William Nelson Pendleton, the founding headmaster of the EHS, and, when the Bishop of Virginia asked Muhlenberg to send an expert on his method to Alexandria, Muhlenberg sent the Reverend Milo Mahan (d. 1870) to be the keystone of the new faculty. Mahan was the most brilliant student Muhlenberg prepared. He had been teaching at St. Paul's, College Point.

The founders of the Muhlenberg-type schools were not immune to the influence of educators in England (this influence became especially strong at the beginning of the twentieth century), but the historian James McLachlan demonstrated the uniqueness of the schools founded by Muhlenberg and his disciples (see American Boarding Schools: A History (1970). Saint James, the Breck institutions, St. Paul's Concord, St. Mark's, Groton, St. George's, and a dozen other schools not named in this article—each became famous for their successful combination of Christian faith and practice, the formation of character in adolescents, and premier academic programs. This combination is quite rare in the United States today.

Muhlenberg's Religion

William Muhlenberg's mature religion may be described as a solid Anglican Christianity with a strong American accent. He was opposed to the "novelties" of both Roman Catholicism and conventional, dogmatic Protestantism. He was most eager to affirm everything permitted by the Scriptures and Antiquity (i.e. the teaching of the Church Fathers and of the universal Church prior to the Schism of A.D. 1054). He might have favored the well-known maxim of the seventeenth-century Anglican Bishop John Cosin: His Church was "Protestant and Reformed" but "according to the Ancient Catholic Church." In this position he was very similar to Edward Bouverie Pusey (1800–1882), an Oxford professor and a leader of the 19th century Church Revival movement within the Church of England. Muhlenberg was well educated in the Bible and writings of the Church Fathers, and influenced by the Oxford Movement. Other influences included William White (1748–1836), John Keble, John Henry Newman, Pusey,[1] Richard Hooker (1554–1600) and the "Christian liberty" emphasis in the practical and pastoral theology of Jeremy Taylor (1613–1667). As a youth, Muhlenberg memorized the Fifteen Sermons and Analogy of Religion of Bishop Joseph Butler (1692–1752), the greatest Christian mind of eighteenth-century England.

Muhlenberg was born a Lutheran, converted to the Protestant Episcopal Church as a boy, and was trained by Bishop William White in Philadelphia. Muhlenberg began to call his religion "Evangelical and Catholic." For him the 'Evangelical' term denoted a sincere devotion to the Person of Jesus Christ, dedication to learning the Word of God in the Scriptures, and responsibility to both live and share the Gospel. 'Catholic' meant rooted in a faith and order that resists novelty because it was universally held; this Catholic foundation allows Christians to explore their own times within happy guidelines and healthy discipline. Newman's Parochial and Plain Sermons, published in eight volumes, are at once Evangelical and Catholic, in many ways parallel to Muhlenberg's. Muhlenberg believed that the Church is the Body of Christ on earth: The Church is independent of the state, of the world, and of the market, and there is such a thing as apostolic faith and order. Muhlenberg's religion was utterly focused on the Person of Jesus Christ whom he worshipped with great devotion and yet without sentimentality. He believed that Christ lived very intimately in his schools, that Jesus ministered to the sick and dying at St. Luke's Hospital, and that it was none other than Christ who must be the proper "study" of youth and adults.

Muhlenberg was keen to make worship more interesting and memorable for his students. He used a "ritual" in his chapels at Flushing and College Point to imprint Christian doctrine, but was horrified when Newman converted to Roman Catholicism in 1845. Though not a few of Muhlenberg's former students and disciples became leaders of the Anglo-Catholic movement, Muhlenberg himself was not "Anglo-Catholic" but rather both a thorough-going Anglican Christian and a proud American. Thus Muhlenberg promoted both liberty and discipline, innovation and tradition, exploration and the established authority of divine revelation. Darwin's theory never particularly bothered Muhlenberg, who wrote patriotic poems, as well as became the first Episcopal priest to hold weekly Eucharist and daily offices. In 1853 he submitted a resolution to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church which became known as the Muhlenberg Memorial. It called for open-mindedness and for the freedom of parish clergy to be responsive to the needs of the people, especially in terms of their Sunday morning worship.[2]

Some of Muhlenberg's papers and articles were published in two volumes by Anne Ayres, who also wrote his official biography from papers Muhlenberg saved for her (though she disregarded his request to destroy them after he died. Evangelical Catholic Papers were published between 1875 and 1877.

Later Years

Photograph of Muhlenberg in old age.

In 1845 he moved to New York City, where in 1846 he became rector of the Church of the Holy Communion, a free church built by his sister, Mrs. Mary A. Rogers. Here Muhlenberg founded the first American order of Protestant Episcopal deaconesses, the Sisterhood of the Church of the Holy Communion, begun in 1845 and formally organized in 1852. The work of the sisterhood led to Muhlenberg's establishment of St. Luke's Hospital (opened in 1858), for which his congregation made offerings each St. Luke's Day after 1846. In 1866 he founded on Long Island the Church Industrial Community of St. Johnland. He bought 535 acres (mostly wooded), with a shore front of 1½ m. on Long Island Sound, near Kings Park, to be a home for the aged and for young children, especially cripples. The plan was not reformatory nor purely charitable, and a moderate rent was charged for the cottages. The St. Johnland scheme was very typical of the man who craved Christian community and worked all his life for Christian brotherhood. In the St. Johnland cemetery is the grave of Dr. Muhlenberg, who died on 8 April 1877 in St. Luke's Hospital, New York City.

Muhlenberg is honored with a feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) on April 8. Many latter-day students of the history of American education have never heard of William Muhlenberg in connection with top-grade schooling. This might be attributable to the fact that he left schoolmastering in 1845 for New York City, where he became internationally famous for many other endeavors: the founding of the first rent-free parish church in Manhattan (the Church of the Holy Communion in 1844); the establishment of the first religious sisterhood in Anglicanism since the Reformation (the Sisterhood of the Holy Communion, 1844 and formally incorporated in 1852); and the founding of St. Luke's Hospital in 1858, which still serves the citizens of New York City. Muhlenberg looked for Christ among the poor and weak. He loathed party spirit in the Church. He was an early light in the Ecumenical Movement out of respect for the clearly expressed desires of Jesus and his affection for his fellow man.

See also

Further reading

  • Church Leader in the Cities: William Augustus Muhlenberg by Alvin Skardon (Philadelphia: University Press of Pennsylvania, 1971).
  • "Muhlenberg" in David Hein and Gardner Shattuck, The Episcopalians (Westport CT: Praeger, 2004).
  • The Life and Work of William Augustus Muhlenberg by Anne Ayres, (New York: Thomas Wittaker, 1889).
  • A History of the Episcopal Church by Robert Prichard (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Pub., 1999).
  • "Episcopal Schools: History & Mission" in Carper and Hunt, eds., Handbook of Faith-Based Schools in the United States (June 2012).
  • "Social Vision, Character, and Academic Excellence in Nineteenth-Century America: William Augustus Muhlenberg and the Church School Movement, 1828-1877" by Walter Lawrence Prehn III (Ph.D dissertation, University of Virginia, 2005): University of Michigan online access.


1.       Jump up ^ Ayres Muhlenberg, page 168

2.       Jump up ^ A History of the Episcopal Church by Robert Prichard, pp. 150-51

External links
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