Planting a Lutheran church in America

Daily Reading for October 7 • Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, Lutheran Pastor in North America, 1787

From Henry Melchior Muhlenberg’s theological orientation and his realization that adaptation to a new American environment was essential if Lutheranism was ever to become a true ecclesia plantata emerged his ecclesiastical polity. His emphasis on the dignity and authority of the ministerial office stemmed from his concept of the preacher as the steward of God’s mysteries, to whom Christ had entrusted both word and sacraments. The minister, in Muhlenberg’s view, was both an exemplar of Christian life and a bridge between creature and Creator. In his hands lay the instruments of converting grace and, for this reason, he was owed respect and obedience by the people of God. To a great degree, Muhlenberg’s theological basis for sacerdotal preeminence was European rooted. Though the European layman had a voice in matters ecclesial, it was definitely subordinate to that of the pastor. . . .

Muhlenberg’s views on the validity of one-man ordination are ambiguous. He repeatedly stated that he lacked the authority to ordain in this manner. In each instance, however, this was coupled with the fact that the candidates who presented themselves were, in his opinion, unqualified and unworthy of ordination. He had, in actuality, recognized the validity of the orders of men ordained by a single preacher. In practice, however, one-man ordination had been, in Pennsylvania, the hallmark of the vagabond itinerants who so infuriated him, so his reluctance to initiate such a practice might well have been based on prudence than on any canonical scruples. In the final analysis, expediency won out over strict obedience to Halle for, as Muhlenberg informed Francke, “while we dutifully respected the instructions of our Fathers forbidding the catechists to preach, we had to consider very carefully what was best to be done under the circumstances.” . . .

In addition to an ordained ministry, Muhlenberg believed that the church in English America needed a common liturgical framework to serve as a compromise between various local customs and usages. In the end, he adopted the liturgical schema of London’s Savoy Church, adding to or deleting from it as conditions warranted and necessity dictated. . . .Given his strong views on the need to channel religious enthusiasm into a liturgical framework, it is understandable that Muhlenberg’s first synodical action would be the framing of a uniform liturgy.

From Missionary of Moderation: Henry Melchior Muhlenberg and the Lutheran Church in English America by Leonard R. Riforgiato (East Brunswick, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1980).

Past Posts