Digging Deeper: Remembering Muhlenberg
By Rob Kieselowsky
I'm willing to bet you aren't aware that the Lutheran Service Book sets aside October 7 as a day to commemorate the life of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg who was born more than 300 years ago. We in fact remember him as the Father of American Lutheranism. As a colonial era missionary from Germany to the American colonies, Muhlenberg faced many unique and challenging obstacles in his service to our Lord's Church.
On his way to America, Muhlenberg had to stop in London at the king's court to receive his call documents to serve the German immigrants in Pennsylvania. The monarch of England at the time, George II, was actually of German ancestry, being from Hanover. After a long, arduous journey in 1742 across the Atlantic Ocean and up the eastern seaboard to Pennsylvania, Muhlenberg found that the churches he was to serve were already being served by individuals with dubious credentials. So he began his ministry convincing people that he was the one properly called to serve these congregations. This he effectively accomplished, and then worked to unify the scattered Lutheran churches in the American colonies.
This work of bringing order to the Lutheran churches would face difficulties as the American Revolution began to approach. Some Christians in the American colonies simply could not justify the cause for independence in light of the teaching of the Scriptures, especially in Romans 13, where the Apostle Paul writes, "Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities." These Christians saw no means of disregarding the instruction of Paul, opposed the American Revolution, and were labeled "loyalists."
Many other Christians saw this war for independence as justifiable because they believed that the British government had ceased to function properly as a legitimate governing authority within the expectations of British political tradition. The famous line,"No taxation without representation" was rooted in an understanding of how government must operate. If a political institution, which claimed authority, stopped acting within its defined limitations, then for many Christians,that political institution no longer warranted the submission called for in Romans 13.
Muhlenberg was not a patriot during the American War of Independence. He simply could not reconcile Romans 13 with the cause for independence--even more so when the governing monarch was German and his grandfather's court chaplain had given him the direction to come to the colonies as a minister. And yet, he saw no wisdom in being counted among loyalists who opposed the American Revolution because that position would certainly disrupt his ministry. So, he pursued a position of neutrality, even as he was persecuted and criticized by people on both sides.
Muhlenberg, it seems, had an understanding of the Lutheran doctrine of the these two kingdoms. Christ, our Lord, rules His creation through the vehicle of two kingdoms. The Kingdom of the Left consists of civil authorities and the government,which maintain order in society. They rule by means of the law and are responsible for carrying out punishment for immorality and sin. The Kingdom of the Right, the domain of the Church, pursues the salvation of souls. In the Church, the Gospel predominates, and it exists to preach the message of forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ.
Muhlenberg understood that as a called minister of Christ's church he was first and foremost responsible for the proclamation of the Gospel. He went so far as to advise his parishioners to respect whatever authority existed, even if the authority switched back and forth as the British and American forces acquired and surrendered territory throughout the war.
Interestingly, Muhlenberg even suffered through a difference of conviction with his own sons. One son left his ministerial post in Virginia to command troops in the Continental army and eventually became an assistant to General Washington. Another son left the ministry to pursue politics,was elected a representative of Pennsylvania to the United States House of Representatives, and became the first Speaker of the House.Yet,through these and many other challenges to his ministry, Pastor Muhlenberg left a tremendous legacy. He established several new Lutheran congregations, helped organize the first Lutheran synod in America, and was also instrumental in the formation of the first American Lutheran liturgy. He died on October 7,1787, and so we commemorate him on this day each year to be reminded of the grace of God in the life of a faithful pastor. We are encouraged by his life to pray for our pastors, for their faithfulness, and for their continued work in the proclamation of the Gospel among us.
Rev Robert Kieselowsky serves Philadelphia Lutheran Ministries as executive director and as pastor for Logos Lutheran.
This article was originally published in the fall 2010 issue of Higher Things Magazine.
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