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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Pastors & Patriots: The Muhlenberg Family of Pennsylvania

Pastors and Patriots: The Muhlennerg Family of Pennsylvania
Fig. 3: Weathervanes from Augustus Lutheran Church, Trappe, Pa., 1743. Iron. (Right): H. 42, W. 29. (Left): H. 29, W. 12. Courtesy, Augustus Lutheran Church, Trappe, Pa.
Fig. 3: Weathervanes from Augustus Lutheran Church, Trappe, Pa., 1743. Iron. (Right): H. 42, W. 29. (Left): H. 29, W. 12. Courtesy, Augustus Lutheran Church, Trappe, Pa.
by Lisa Minardi

Fig. 1: After Jacob Eichholtz (1776–1842) Portrait of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg (1711–1787), Pennsylvania, c. 1825–50.  Oil on canvas. Preservation Society of Newport County,  gift of Mrs. Alletta Morris McBean.
Fig. 1: After Jacob Eichholtz (1776–1842)
Portrait of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg (1711–1787),
Pennsylvania, c. 1825–50.
Oil on canvas. Preservation Society of Newport County,
gift of Mrs. Alletta Morris McBean.

ABOVE:
Fig. 3:
Weathervanes from Augustus Lutheran Church, Trappe, Pa., 1743. Iron. (Right): H. 42, W. 29. (Left): H. 29, W. 12. Courtesy, Augustus Lutheran Church, Trappe, Pa.

Henry Melchior Muhlenberg (1711–1787) was the patriarch of the Lutheran Church in America and progenitor of one of the most influential Pennsylvania German families in history (Fig. 1). This year marks the 300th anniversary of his birth. Three of Henry’s sons also achieved significant renown: Peter (1746–1807) as a general during the American Revolution, Frederick (1750–1801) as the first Speaker of the U.S. House, and Henry Jr. (1753–1815) as a botanist. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, speaking during the 1942 bicentennial of Henry Muhlenberg’s arrival in this country, said, “Clergymen, soldiers, scholars, and statesmen, the Muhlenbergs have represented the best in our national life since the earliest days of the Republic.”1

Born on September 6, 1711, Henry Melchior Muhlenberg was the son of Nicolaus Melchior Muhlenberg, a shoemaker, and Anna Maria Kleinschmidt.2 The family lived in the town of Einbeck, located in the electorate of Hannover, now in north-central Germany. In 1735, Henry entered the University of Göttingen, where he studied Greek, Hebrew, mathematics, logic, and theology; then went to the Francke Institutions in Halle, a center of education and philanthropy founded in 1695 by August Hermann Francke. Muhlenberg taught in the orphanage at Halle and became an inspector of its infirmary. On August 24, 1739, he was ordained a Lutheran minister. Presented with an appeal from three Lutheran congregations in Pennsylvania that were in need of a pastor, he accepted the call and arrived in Philadelphia on November 25, 1742, where he learned that the Philadelphia congregation had disintegrated into factions and that the two other congregations he was to serve, Trappe and New Hanover, were also falling apart.

Fig. 2: Augustus Lutheran Church, Trappe, Pa., built 1743. The oldest extant German Lutheran church in Pennsylvania, Augustus has survived in remarkably unaltered condition and is a National Historic Landmark. The exterior stucco is a later addition, first applied in 1814.
Fig. 2: Augustus Lutheran Church, Trappe, Pa., built 1743. The oldest extant German Lutheran church in Pennsylvania, Augustus has survived in remarkably unaltered condition and is a National Historic Landmark. The exterior stucco is a later addition, first applied in 1814.

For the next forty-five years, Muhlenberg worked tirelessly to build the Lutheran church. His first sermon in Trappe was delivered in the senior deacon’s barn since no church had yet been built. On October 6, 1745, the congregation’s first church (Fig. 2) was consecrated and named Augustus, after the founder of the Halle Institutions. The roof of the church was topped with two wrought-iron weather vanes (Fig. 3) that may have been made by Friedrich Marstellar, a local blacksmith and one of the early deacons. Interior furnishings included a pewter communion service with a large flagon made by Johann Philip Alberti of Philadelphia (Fig. 4).3

Serving three congregations was no easy feat. Trappe and New Hanover were ten miles apart, with Philadelphia some thirty miles to the southeast. In addition to his regular Sunday services, Henry had to conduct baptisms, funerals, marriages, and visits to the sick as well as travel periodically to congregations that were further afield. As the demands of his ministry grew, Henry found it increasingly difficult to manage without a wife. On April 15, 1745, he married Anna Maria (Mary) Weiser (1727–1802), sixteen years his junior, whom he described as “pure of heart, pious, simple-hearted, meek, and industrious.”4 The marriage was also strategically important in Muhlenberg’s efforts to strengthen the Lutheran Church, as Mary’s father, Conrad Weiser (1696–1760), was a leading figure in the Pennsylvania German community and an important ally for his new son-in-law. The couple settled in Trappe, where they built a two-story stone house at a cost of more than £200 provided by Conrad Weiser.

Fig. 4: Communion service of Augustus Lutheran Church. Large flagon attributed to Johann Philip Alberti (d. 1780), Philadelphia, ca. 1755. Small flagon, probably Cologne, Germany, ca. 1750.  Chalices, probably Germany, ca. 1750. Baptismal basin, probably England, ca. 1750. Courtesy, Augustus Lutheran Church, Trappe, Pa.
Fig. 4: Communion service of Augustus Lutheran Church. Large flagon attributed to Johann Philip Alberti (d. 1780), Philadelphia, ca. 1755. Small flagon, probably Cologne, Germany, ca. 1750. Chalices, probably Germany, ca. 1750. Baptismal basin, probably England, ca. 1750. Courtesy, Augustus Lutheran Church, Trappe, Pa.

In 1761, the Muhlenbergs moved to Philadelphia so Henry would be in closer proximity to the city’s large German Lutheran congregation. A brick church, known as St. Michael’s, had been erected during the mid-1740s. A second and larger church, Zion Lutheran, was built between 1766 and 1769 (Fig. 5) at a cost of more than £9,500. Designed by architect Robert Smith, Zion was an elegant brick structure adorned with Venetian windows, brick pilasters, and classical urns. With seating capacity for 2,500, it was one of the largest churches in the colonies and one of the largest public buildings in Philadelphia. A fire in 1794 caused part of the church roof to collapse and gutted the interior, including the large organ built by David Tannenberg in 1786. On December 26, 1799, the rebuilt church became the site of George Washington’s state memorial service. Bishop William White, rector of Christ Church, led the service, and “Light-Horse Harry” Lee of Virginia delivered his famous eulogy in which he referred to Washington as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”5

In 1763, the Muhlenbergs sent their three sons to Germany to be educated. Peter, the eldest, was unhappy at Halle and was apprenticed to a merchant-apothecary, but ran away in 1766 with a British regiment sailing to America. Frederick and Henry Jr. studied at Halle for six years, returning home in September 1770. The three Muhlenberg brothers joined their father in the Lutheran ministry for a time, while two of their four sisters also married Lutheran pastors.

Fig. 5: New Lutheran Church, in Fourth Street Philadelphia, drawn and engraved by William Russell Birch (1755-1834) and Thomas Birch (1779-1851), 1799. From Birch’s Views of Philadelphia (Philadelphia: W. Birch, 1800). Zion was torn down in 1869, and St. Michael's in 1872. Courtesy, Rare Book Department, Free Library of Philadelphia, Pa. Fig. 6: House of Henry and Mary Muhlenberg from 1776 to 1787, then Peter Muhlenberg from 1787 to 1802. Courtesy, Historical Society of Trappe, Collegeville, Perkiomen Valley, Inc.
Fig. 5: New Lutheran Church, in Fourth Street Philadelphia, drawn and engraved by William Russell Birch (1755–1834) and Thomas Birch (1779–1851), 1799. From Birch’s Views of Philadelphia (Philadelphia: W. Birch, 1800). Zion was torn down in 1869, and St. Michael’s in 1872. Courtesy, Rare Book Department, Free Library of Philadelphia, Pa.

Fig. 6: House of Henry and Mary Muhlenberg from 1776 to 1787, then Peter Muhlenberg from 1787 to 1802. Courtesy, Historical Society of Trappe, Collegeville, Perkiomen Valley, Inc.

In 1776, as talk of revolution grew in Philadelphia, Henry Muhlenberg purchased a house in Trappe as a refuge for his family (Fig. 6), and on July 11, moved there with his wife and youngest daughter, Sally. From this home they watched the events of the Revolution unfold. Miles away in Virginia, Henry’s eldest son, Peter, became drawn into the conflict. On January 12, 1776, he accepted a commission as a colonel of the Eighth Virginia Regiment and after raising troops among the Germans in the Shenandoah Valley went on to serve with distinction during the war. A silk flag from this regiment descended in his family (Fig. 7). According to legend, Peter delivered a rousing farewell sermon in which he exhorted his congregation that “there is a time for all things—a time to preach and a time to fight,” after which he threw off his clerical robe to reveal his military uniform and promptly began mustering volunteers. The “fighting parson” went on to serve with distinction during the war. In 1781 Peter commanded the brigade that took Redoubt 10 from Cornwallis in the siege at Yorktown. Promoted to major general on September 30, 1783, he retired from the army on November 3, 1783.6

Fig. 7: Flag of the Eighth Virginia Regiment, ca. 1776-1778. Silk; paint. H. 41-1/4, W. 45. Originally salmon in color, this is one of only about thirty extant Revolutionary War flags. Private collection. Photograph courtesy, Winterthur Museum.
Fig. 7: Flag of the Eighth Virginia Regiment, ca. 1776–1778. Silk; paint. H. 41-1/4, W. 45.
Originally salmon in color, this is one of only about thirty extant Revolutionary War flags. Private collection.
Photograph courtesy, Winterthur Museum.

Fig. 8: Engraved by James W. Steel after Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827), Portrait of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg (1711-1787), in William B. Sprague, Annals of the American Pulpit; or Commemorative Notices of Distinguished American Clergymen of Various Denominations, vol. 9 (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1869).Courtesy, Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, Pa.
Fig. 8: Engraved by James W. Steel after Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827), Portrait of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg (1711–1787), in William B. Sprague, Annals of the American Pulpit; or Commemorative Notices of Distinguished American Clergymen of Various Denominations, vol. 9 (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1869).Courtesy, Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, Pa.

By the end of the war, Henry was in his seventy-third year. His wife, Mary, despite being seventeen years younger, was also in ill-health. In 1784, Henry was awarded an honorary doctor of divinity degree from the University of Pennsylvania. It was probably on this occasion that his portrait (now missing) was painted by Charles Willson Peale (Fig. 8). No portrait of Mary is known to exist, probably due to an accident in 1781 in which she fell into a kettle of boiling beets that severely scalded her face and upper torso. After Henry’s death on October 7, 1787, so many people gathered at Augustus Lutheran Church for his funeral that the service had to be delivered outdoors. Mary lived another fifteen years, dying on August 23, 1802.

Frederick and Peter advanced rapidly in their careers (Figs. 9, 10). In 1784, Peter was elected to the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania and served as vice president under Benjamin Franklin through 1788. Frederick, the middle son, left the ministry in 1779 to fill a vacancy in the Continental Congress. The following year, he was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly and served two terms as Speaker through 1783. Frederick was president of the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention in 1787, and both he and Peter were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives the following year. Frederick was made Speaker when Congress convened in 1789.

Fig. 9: After John Trumbull (1756–1843), Portrait of Peter Muhlenberg (1746–1807), ca. 1800–1825.  Oil on canvas. 30-1/4 x 25 inches. Collection of Brian and Barbara Hendelson.
Fig. 9: After John Trumbull (1756–1843), Portrait of Peter Muhlenberg (1746–1807), ca. 1800–1825.
Oil on canvas. 30-1/4 x 25 inches. Collection of Brian and Barbara Hendelson.

Fig. 10: Joseph Wright (1756–1793), Portrait of Frederick Augustus Conrad Muhlenberg (1750–1801), New York, 1790. Oil on canvas with applied wood strip. 47 x 37 inches (framed). Courtesy, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. Fig. 11: Jacob Eichholtz (1776–1842), Portrait of Henry Muhlenberg Jr. (1753–1815), Lancaster, 1811. Oil on canvas. 29 x 23-7/8 inches (unframed). Courtesy, Phillips Museum of Art, Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, Pa.
Fig. 10: Joseph Wright (1756–1793), Portrait of Frederick Augustus Conrad Muhlenberg (1750–1801), New York, 1790. Oil on canvas with applied wood strip. 47 x 37 inches (framed). Courtesy, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

Fig. 11: Jacob Eichholtz (1776–1842), Portrait of Henry Muhlenberg Jr. (1753–1815), Lancaster, 1811. Oil on canvas. 29 x 23-7/8 inches (unframed). Courtesy, Phillips Museum of Art, Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, Pa.

Henry Jr. was the only brother to remain a minister (Fig. 11), though he, too, found a calling beyond the ministry. In 1787, he became the first president of Franklin College (now Franklin and Marshall) in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He was also an internationally renowned botanist, known as the “American Linnaeus” for his work on plants and his much praised Catalogue of the Hitherto Known Native and Naturalized Plants of North America (1813).

Subsequent generations of the Muhlenberg family continued to play a significant role in American life, finding success in the ministry, medicine, science, military, and politics. In tribute to them, numerous places and institutions bear the family name, including Muhlenberg County, Kentucky (est. 1798); Muhlenberg Township, Berks County, Pennsylvania (est. 1851); and Muhlenberg College (est. 1867) in Allentown, Pennsylvania. The rich spiritual and material legacy of the Muhlenberg family lives on today through its many descendants.


Pastors & Patriots: The Muhlenberg Family of Pennsylvania, a major exhibition on view through December 18, 2011, at the Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art at Ursinus College, Collegeville, Pennsylvania, brings the family to life using historical portraits, furniture, needlework, firearms, and many other artifacts—most of them never before exhibited or published. For more information, visit www.ursinus.edu/berman. An illustrated catalogue published in partnership with the Pennsylvania German Society is available for sale through the Berman Museum at 610.409.3500.


Lisa Minardi is curator of Pastors & Patriots: The Muhlenberg Family of Pennsylvania and author of the accompanying catalogue.


1. In Stephen Hess, America’s Political Dynasties (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1966).

2. Biographical information for this article is based on Lisa Minardi, Pastors & Patriots: The Muhlenberg Family of Pennsylvania (Collegeville, Pa.: Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art, 2011); Lisa M. Minardi, Of Massive Stones and Durable Materials: Architecture and Community in Eighteenth-Century Trappe, Pennsylvania (Master’s thesis, University of Delaware, 2006); and Lisa M. Minardi, Family and Domestic Life of Pennsylvania Germans in the Eighteenth Century: A Study of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg and His Family (Honors thesis, Ursinus College, 2004); see also Paul A. W. Wallace, The Muhlenbergs of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1950).

3. For a similar flagon marked by Alberti, see Donald M. Herr, Pewter in Pennsylvania German Churches, Publications of the Pennsylvania German Society, vol. 29 (Birdsboro, Pa.: Pennsylvania German Society, 1995), 89.

4. Theodore G. Tappert and John W. Doberstein, trans. and eds., The Journals of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, 3 vols. (1942; reprint, Camden, Maine: Picton Press, 1980), 1:94, 102.

5. Charles H. Glatfelter, Pastors and People: German Lutheran and Reformed Churches in the Pennsylvania Field, 1717–1793, Publications of the Pennsylvania German Society, vol. 13 (Breinigsville, Pa.; Pennsylvania German Society, 1980), 411–16, 420; Raymond J. Brunner, That Ingenious Business: Pennsylvania German Organ Builders, Publications of the Pennsylvania German Society, vol. 24 (Birdsboro, Pa.: Pennsylvania German Society, 1990), 85–87.

6. The flag was sold at Pennypacker Auction Centre, Reading, Pa., Collections from the Estates of Minnie T. Nicolls and Frederick W. Nicolls Jr., June 25–26, 1962, lot 539. Only about thirty Revolutionary War flags survive today; a set of three related examples from the Third Virginia Detachment were sold at Sotheby’s on June 14, 2006.

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