Heinrich Melchior Mühlenberg

Heinrich Melchior Mühlenberg (1711-1787) was the German-born clergyman who organized the scattered Lutheran congregations in America into an independent sect.

Heinrich Melchior Mühlenberg was born in Einbech, Germany, on Sept. 6, 1711. He was a Pietist to whom religion was a way of life, not belief in a creed. This concept of religion was brought to America early in the 18th century by groups of German immigrants. Accustomed to a state church in the homeland, these people were at a loss in America, where there were neither ministers nor schoolmasters enough for their small settlements.

Mühlenberg, trained at the University of Halle, was sent to America in 1742 by the Pietist center to minister to the Lutherans in three Pennsylvania congregations. He was 31, energetic, dedicated to the ideals of Pietism, and possessed executive ability and a high degree of common sense. Fortunately, he could preach in three languages, English, German, and Dutch. His three congregations were widely scattered, requiring a hundred miles of traveling each week to serve them, and he even discovered a fourth group. He also discovered that two young impostors, pretending to be ministers, had laid claim to two of these congregations.

In a month's time, Mühlenberg had gotten rid of the impostors and had arranged to teach the children for a full week in each of his four parishes by turn, as there was no schoolmaster in any of these settlements. He had also collected members for a fifth congregation in New Jersey. A long and difficult visit to Georgia, another to groups along the Hudson River, and a missionary trip through Maryland filled many months. His reports back to the Pietist center in Halle brought helpers and funds, as many calls for ministers and schoolmasters continued to come in. He built churches and a schoolhouse, arbitrated church quarrels, and restored order in tangled situations.

After 6 years of energetic and imaginative labors, Mühlenberg felt the time had come to unite all the churches he served into a representative body with power to license and install their own preachers and to handle their common problems. With this in mind, he called a synod in 1748 of pastors and representative laymen from each parish. A common liturgy was adopted and reports given of each church and parochial school. Thus the Lutherans of America became a sect independent of Old World control.

Meanwhile Mühlenberg had become a permanent resident of America. He had married Anna Marie Weiser, daughter of Johann Conrad Weiser, an intermediary between colonial governors and the Indians, and had founded a distinguished American family. He died in New Providence (now Trappe), Pa., on Oct. 7, 1787.

Further Reading on Heinrich Melchior Mühlenberg

Biographies of Mühlenberg include William J. Mann, Life and Times of Henry Melchior Mühlenberg (1887); Reverend William K. Frick, Henry Melchior Mühlenberg: "Patriarch of the Lutheran Church in America" (1902); and Paul A. W. Wallace, The Muhlenbergs of Pennsylvania (1950).

Additional Biography Sources

Riforgiato, Leonard R., Missionary of moderation: Henry Melchior Muhlenberg and the Lutheran Church in English America, Lewisburg Pa.: Bucknell University Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1980.