William Augustus Muhlenberg (1796-1877), American clergyman, was the principal representative in the Protestant Episcopal Church of the reform enthusiasm that swept America during the early 1800s.
Born on Sept. 16, 1796, into a prominent Pennsylvania family, William Augustus Muhlenberg received both secondary and college education at the University of Pennsylvania. Although his ancestors were leaders among Pennsylvania Lutherans, his mother permitted him his preference for the Protestant Episcopal Church. In 1820 he became a priest and assumed a pastorate in Lancaster, Pa.
For the next several years Muhlenberg busied himself with writing hymns and helping found a public school system, but the community was uncongenial. At the age of 30, while visiting relatives at Flushing, N.Y., he agreed to serve for 6 months as minister to their parish. Subsequently he joined with local businessmen to found the first Episcopal church school and became its headmaster. His emphasis on educating the "whole child" foreshadowed progressive education in the 20th century.
Muhlenberg's energies, however, soon sought a new outlet. In 1846, distressed by the fact that only the upper socioeconomic groups appeared in Episcopal congregations, he organized the Church of the Holy Communion in New York City, where both rich and poor could worship. It was a "free" church in the sense that pews were not rented or bought. With its service programs—medical care for the indigent, needlework for unemployed women, and holiday dinners for the poor—the Church of the Holy Communion was a prototype of the "institutional church" characteristic of the later Social Gospel movement.
The spirit of Muhlenberg's ecumenical ministry was reflected in his journal, the Evangelical Catholic, in which he argued the universality of the Church's mission. In 1853 he sought to spread that spirit to his whole denomination by presenting a "Memorial" asking for reform at that year's general convention. Many of his demands were too radical for his day, but his efforts did lead to changes in the prescribed order of service.
While at the Church of the Holy Communion, Muhlenberg launched a drive to fund a charity hospital, St. Luke's. He also sponsored the first Protestant sisterhood, composed of women devoted to nursing. In 1859 he left his congregation to take up duties as full-time pastor of St. Luke's.
After the Civil War, Muhlenberg undertook one last project, the establishment of a Christian socialist community on Long Island. Intended as a refuge for poor families from New York, the community languished until the emphasis shifted to providing a home for elderly men and physically challenged children. There Muhlenberg lived out his last years.
There is little modern scholarship on Muhlenberg's life. The only biography, a brief account marred by tedious digressions on the nature of religious virtue, is William W. Newton, Dr. Muhlenberg (1890). William T. Addison's discussion of Muhlenberg in The Episcopal Church in the United States, 1789-1931 (1951) reflects the faults of its source—Newton.