Dr. Muhlenberg

A BELIEF in Apostolic Succession does not preclude one from an independent belief in the continual appearance, even if in broken succession, of apostles whose credentials are to be found in their apostolic life. It has seemed to some that Dr. Muhlenberg was a man born out of due time, and that there was an anachronism in his flourishing in the nineteenth century. Both his familiar friends and strangers were wont to remark on a certain likeness in character and presence to St. John the Divine, and the repetition by him in varying forms of that doctrine of Christian brotherhood which is so emphatically announced in the older apostle’s letters and gospel has made the comparison a natural one; yet no one can read Dr. Muhlenberg’s Life,1 and regard him as in any sense presenting an extinct or antiquated type of Christianity. The picturesqueness, so to speak, of his life, which has struck people so forcibly, had not a particle of unreality about it; there was no assumption of some obsolete phase of religious manners, nor was there any masquerading in devotion ; the genuineness of his nature was utterly opposed to anything of this sort, but there was in him a poetic sensibility which led him to appropriate whatever was native to him in historic Christianity, and a poetic power which found expression less in verse than in a certain unique and very beautiful effort after the restoration of order in human life. He was a religious poet; but though his name in literature is joined to one or two musical hymns, the true place to look for his art is in the memorial movement, in the cluster of charities of which the Church of the Holy Communion and St. Luke’s Hospital are the centres, and in St. Johnland. In the inception of these projects he showed the artist’s power, as in their conception he had shown a poet’s insight, and both the conceiving and the realization were marked by a genuine religious faith.

It is the merit of this delightful biography that, while it is written with no singular skill, it is unusually transparent as a medium through which to regard a remarkable man. There are no marks of suppression by the biographer; apparently her single aim has been to clear away whatever might withdraw the attention from her subject, and the book thus leads the reader on to the close with an unflagging interest. It is rare indeed to find so unpretending and so successful a piece of biographic work. There was everything in the subject to tempt an ambitious writer into making a fine portrait; as we have intimated, the character is so unique and its expression so original that it would have been easy to throw an air of improbability over the whole by emphasizing certain characteristics. As it is, the truthfulness of the picture is warranted by the unaffectedness with which it is painted.

It was Dr. Muhlenberg’s fortune to be easily misunderstood. At a time when the church to which he belonged was timid and suspected he used its liturgical stores with a freedom and an effectiveness which startled his associates, and upon the Tractarian movement in the Church of England he was quickly identified with it in the minds of those who judged exclusively from a use of symbols and forms common to him and the English ritualists. He was himself attracted by the revival in England of ecclesiastical æsthetics, and for a moment seemed ready to be drawn into the deeper currents of the stream ; but a resolute examination of the ground on which he stood was followed by a more positive assertion of his acceptance of what is known as the evangelical creed. The simple courage and sincerity of the man were displayed in his refusal to abandon practices and forms which he held to be historical in the church, and not the exclusive property of the new party, although associated with the doctrines of that party in most people’s minds. Thus he was looked upon with suspicion both by the sacerdotalists and the evangelicals. It was not that he steered a middle course between these extremes, but that in a perfectly modest and unobtrusive manner he asserted his independence, and gave free expression to his belief and his poetic nature.

He was imagined by many also to be an unpractical enthusiast. The real truth was that Dr. Muhlenberg not only believed in the ideal which his generous and poetic nature perceived, but he regarded it as something to be made real, something of larger worth than dreams, and he had the patience and perseverance which put more practical men to shame. It was his magnificent faith which thus built St. Luke’s Hospital and made it a real Hôtel Dieu, and the picture which is given of his own residence there and paternal charge is exquisitely beautiful. So his latest and we think his noblest dream of St. Johnland was precisely one of those poetic fancies which have stirred men to hopes and aspirations, but furnished him with a solid scheme to be labored over and achieved. A village expressing Christian socialism in definite outline was the result, and while the Life does not furnish us with all the details which we could wish of this very interesting experiment, enough is displayed to make the picture of the founder upon his eightieth birthday something more than the graceful sketch of a king in noman’s land. An endowment fund of twenty thousand dollars had been raised in connection with St. Johnland, and it was desired to make it known to him on that birthday: —

“ He was induced to make the journey the evening before, so that he might be rested for the demands of the morrow. He rose bright and well the next morning at an early hour, and the first event of the day was his acceptance, while yet in his chamber, of this grateful tribute. He was left alone with his emotions for a while; then a choir of voices broke out in song on the greensward northward of the house. Young and old had gathered below his windows at break of day, to wish him joy of his eighty years in the native birthday lyric sacred to his anniversary. He threw up the sash and looked out. It was a beautiful sight. Every upturned face, standing a little aslant that they might see him the better, was illumined by the newly risen sun, and beaming also with the pleasure of his presence. Leaning forward a little, that he might take in the whole, his countenance irradiated with holy love and his arms stretched out and over them in unspoken benediction, he stood there awaiting the termination of their singing. Scarcely had the last word died upon their lips, when his own voice, strong and sonorous, led them in “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” Then came the Lord’s Prayer in heartiest accord, followed by a fervent, soul-breathing benediction, after which they dispersed for breakfast in the several families, and every household later had a brief, sweet visit from him. ... In the afternoon came the ordinary festivities of the founder’s birthday for the whole settlement, in the fine old grove. It was thought that the previous exertions of the day would make him unable to be among his children there ; but in the midst of their hilarity, some one joyfully exclaimed, 'Why, there’s Dr. Muhlenberg! ’ He had walked up alone from the house, and was pausing a moment on the brow of the hill to gaze upon the scene. His slender form stood out strongly against the golden autumnal sky, the soft, rich hues of which were all in harmony with the ripe saintliness of his well-nigh perfected spirit. He joined the holiday-makers, and all went as merrily as if that were not the last time he and his St. Johnlanders would ever he together again upon earth.”

The institutions which he called into life may have a longer or shorter existence ; they were built to endure, and they include principles which are no mere idle vagaries of an enthusiast; but the longest life possible to them can hardly add to the testimony which his character and ambition receive from them. The humility of the man, his unfeigned desire to serve, his ardent temperament husbanding all resources for positive beneficence, and his nature freely giving of its own abundance through channels only dreamed of by others, — these have a perennial charm as set forth in this unpretending and satisfying biography. To have known such a man even through a book is to have received an inspiration from heaven.

  1. The Life and Work of William Augustus Muhlenberg. By ANNE AYRES. New York: Harper and Brothers. 1880.