It seems as if almost everyone knows that Martin Luther founded the German Lutheran Church, but do you know who started the Lutheran Church in America? When Henry M. Muhlenberg arrived in Philadelphia on this day, November 25, l742, the Lutheran church had no organization in America. He was greeted with skepticism by the three Lutheran churches that he was to oversee. But Henry had no intention of supervising just three churches. He set to work. Thirty years later there were 81 congregations in Pennsylvania and nearby states and 30 in other parts of America. Muhlenberg was the virtual founder of the American Lutheran church.
Around l735, German Lutherans began arriving in Pennsylvania in large numbers. They asked European Lutherans to help by sending pastors. One man wrote, "We live in a country that is full of heresy and sects. As far as our religious interests are concerned, we are in a state of greatest destitution; and our means are utterly insufficient to effect the necessary relief, unless God in his mercy may send us help and means from abroad." In response, German Lutheran leaders asked Henry Muhlenberg to become pastor of the United Congregation of Pennsylvania.
After a rough Atlantic crossing of twelve weeks, Henry arrived in South Carolina in 1742. There 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. Continuing north to Philadelphia, Henry immediately set to work building up the Lutheran churches in the region. He travelled extensively across the colonies from the Hudson to the Potomac rivers. A great organizer and hard worker, his firmness, tact, and patience made him respected by his people.
Henry died in l787, having realized his dream of planting churches in America. Lutherans were so scattered and records so inadequate that no one knows for sure the full extent of Muhlenberg's success. But when he died after forty years of labor, John Christopher Kunze, another influential American Lutheran wrote, "To the late Dr. Henry Muhlenberg, who died in the year 1787, belongs the immortal honor of having formed in Pennsylvania a regular ministry, and, what is somewhat remarkable, to one of his sons, who officiated as Lutheran minister from the year 1773 to 1776 in the city of New York, that of having formed the evangelical ministry of New York State."
- Adapted from an earlier Christian History Institute story.
- Heinrich Melchior Muhlenberg Patriarch lutherischen kirke Nordamerika. Allentown, Pennsylvania, 1881. Source of the image.
- Muhlenberg, Henry Melchior. Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Scribner, 1958-1964.
- Nelson, E. Clifford. The Lutherans in North America. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975.
Last updated July, 2007.