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8 Sep 2011

St. Michael’s Lutheran Church celebrates 300th birthday of founder Henry Melchior Muhlenberg decried slavery; first to integrate church

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September 8, 2011 Category: Oasis Posted by:

On Sunday, September 25, 2011 at 3 pm, St. Michael’s Lutheran Church, 6671 Germantown Ave, will celebrate the 300th birthday of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg. Born Sept 6, 1711, Muhlenberg is considered the founder of the Lutheran Church in North America.


Bishop Claire Schenot Burkat, the first female bishop of the Southeastern PA Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, will preach. Reception and entertainment will follow the service. All are welcome. For more information call; 215-848-0199 or


The celebration coincides with the annual St. Michael’s Day commemoration and holds great local interest. Muhlenberg and St. Michael’s, the oldest Lutheran Church in Philadelphia founded in approximately 1728, have a rich history together. Muhlenberg served as the church’s pastor from 1743-1745.


St. Michael’s was among the few fledgling Lutheran congregations that sought help from the German homeland for pastoral support. Muhlenberg was sent to assist.


Muhlenberg’s pastorate and subsequent interactions with St. Michael’s are full of drama. At first great success crowned his work and the congregation grew so rapidly that in 1746 it was necessary to enlarge the church. A tablet erected at the time of this work is today in the gable of one of the vestibules of the new church.


However, there seems to have been dissatisfaction with the way in which he personally conducted the affairs of the congregation, with all finances in the hands of the Pastor, and with little control of church matters by its members.


There was also distrust of Halle Pietism (Muhlenberg’s tradition) in the minds of the Palatinates and Hessians who made up the greater part of the congregation; for their neighbors who opposed the building of the church were Pietists of the Halle tradition.


During the upcoming celebration, The Rev. Dr. Karl Krueger, Director of the Krauth Memorial Library of the Lutheran Theological Seminary of Philadelphia (LTSP) will tell the story of how St. Michael’s member, Johann Jakob Beyerle, a baker in Germantown and now entombed in St. Michael’s cemetery, engaged in an argument with the patriarch regarding who had the right to choose the pastor for St. Michael’s.


Muhlenberg believed that the Ministerium (term for Synod) had the right because the Halle Foundation and its Pennsylvania Mission Fund had trained the pastors and financed their voyage to Pennsylvania. Beyerle argued that on this side of the Atlantic Ocean that right belonged to the parish council because they guaranteed to repay the monies that had been borrowed for the construction of the church.


The argument between Baker and Muhlenberg lasted ten years. Dr. Krueger will reveal the ending when he tells the entire story on the 25th.


Muhlenberg simultaneously oversaw two other Philadelphia churches. The demands of his time were so great that he was able to preach at St. Michael’s on weekdays and eventually his assistant, Peter Brunnholtz, took over in 1745.



Muhlenberg returned several times to preach at important occasions. Most notably, in 1752, when a new sanctuary for St. Michael’s was being consecrated, Muhlenberg presided over a ceremony when a black male, Christian Gotthilff, was baptized. This may have been the first African American in Lutheran history to be baptized and the beginning of integration within the church. St. Michael’s today is well known as a diverse congregation.


Muhlenberg decried slavery. After a rough Atlantic crossing of twelve weeks and arriving in South Carolina in 1742, he saw slavery first hand and, describing its horror in his journal, he prophesied that “one day God’s judgment would descend upon the nation that tolerated such a cruel system.” Upon observations in Charleston, he commented sharply, “One finds here many slaves who are only half black, the offspring of those white Sodomites who commit fornication with their black slave women.”


During his lifetime, Muhlenberg planted more than 100 churches from Savannah, GA, to Lunenberg, Nova Scotia. He and his wife Anna had eleven children, part of the Muhlenberg dynasty. Their descendants were active in the US military (their son a major general in the Continental Army), politics (including a grandchild who became governor of Pennsylvania), academia and ministry.


A Muhlenberg exhibition is on display at the Lutheran Theological Seminary of Philadelphia, 7301 Germantown Avenue, featuring artifacts from the seminary, the Lutheran Archives Center at Philadelphia and the Francke Foundation of Halle, Germany.


Additional Muhlenberg 300 events are planned through spring of 2012 at the seminary. For more information: 300.

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