Muhlenberg’s Adaptive Ecclesial Order


Henry Melchior Muhlenberg (b. September 6, 1711; d. October 7, 1787) accepted a call to serve as a missionary pastor “to the Lutheran people in the province of Pennsylvania” on his thirtieth birthday, after having served two years as a Lutheran pastor in his native Germany. Following an additional year of preparation, he arrived in America on September 21, 1742 , landing first at Charleston , South Carolina , then reaching Philadelphia on November 25. For the next forty-five years Muhlenberg provided pastoral ministry to Lutheran congregations in and beyond Pennsylvania . He also helped to found and lead the Pennsylvania Ministerium, the initial meeting of which occurred at the occasion of the ordination described in this essay.


[1] On the afternoon of Sunday, August 14, 1748, the Tenth Sunday after Trinity, Henry Melchior Muhlenberg processed with a company of preachers, elders and deacons to St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Philadelphia. There, before the altar, Muhlenberg and his fellow clergy “laid hands upon Mr. [John Nicholas] Kurtz and consecrated him to the holy ministry.”[1] That milestone event in Muhlenberg’s pastoral career exemplifies two of the leading concerns that guided his labor among Lutheran churches in colonial North America: ecclesial order and ecclesial mission. The convergence of those two concerns in Muhlenberg’s ministry provides instruction relevant to Lutheranism and other Christian traditions in the United States in the 21st century.


Ecclesial Order

[2] Muhlenberg had taken pains to ensure that Kurtz’s ordination would be unimpeachably valid in the recognition of Lutheran and other denominational church authorities. Kurtz had arrived in America in January 1745 under the auspices of the missionary institute at Halle, Germany, which had also arranged for Muhlenberg’s mission to America two and a half years earlier. But while Muhlenberg was already an ordained pastor before leaving Germany (he was ordained in Leipzig in August 1739), Kurtz was only licensed by the church to the office of “catechist.” That meant that he could assist Muhlenberg and other pastoral coworkers in many ways, including preaching or the public reading of sermons prepared by others, but could not assume the full responsibilities of pastoral ministry and leadership in congregations. Almost immediately, Muhlenberg began to press the issue of ordaining Kurtz.[2] Gotthilf August Francke, the director at Halle, assured Muhlenberg that “[f]rom the beginning I had the intention of ordaining the catechists.”[3] (Along with Kurtz, Francke had sent a second catechist, John Helfrich Schaum, who, a weaker candidate in Muhlenberg’s opinion, was ordained a year later than Kurtz following more extensive preparation.) But, continued Francke, “every caution and careful testing of their competence, faithfulness and disposition in other respects, especially also true poverty of spirit, are highly necessary before you can proceed to their ordination.”[4] In correspondence that spanned more than a year, Francke advised Muhlenberg how to proceed with “every caution and careful testing” of Kurtz’s competence for ordained ministry.[5] Muhlenberg heeded Francke’s advice, but he also understood that a unique responsibility rested upon his own shoulders. “Whatever you decide is right in the circumstances,” Francke had written, “will not be unacceptable to me”; Francke added, “[t]here is no need for any authorization from us, nor would this be adequate against every reproach.”[6]


[3] Muhlenberg was particularly sensitive to the possibilities of “reproach.” During his student years in Germany he had faced charges before the state government for operating a charity school without proper authority.[7] When he came to America, he habitually presented documents certifying his own pastoral and missionary authorization. Such credentials helped to distinguish him from various religious entrepreneurs—rogues, as Muhlenberg deemed them—who passed themselves as legitimate Lutheran pastors among scattered colonial settlements in order to make a living. Muhlenberg regarded such unauthorized activity as one of many factors imperiling stable church life in America, and he always challenged unauthorized competitors on the grounds of his own due authority afforded him by recognized ecclesiastical bodies.[8] It was imperative to Muhlenberg that Kurtz would act under similar due authority. Accordingly, Muhlenberg ensured that Kurtz was tutored in theology and supervised in pastoral training over a period of three years, taking care, as Francke had advised, not to proceed hastily in the matter of Kurtz’s ordination. On Saturday, August 13, the day before the ordination, Muhlenberg and three ordained Lutheran colleagues commissioned by Halle conducted a formal examination of Kurtz, based upon nine questions that had been drafted the previous day and presented to Kurtz for written response.[9] Documents pertaining to Kurtz’s pastoral call were signed by Kurtz and by the elders and deacons of the congregation in which he was to serve. Participants and witnesses at the ordination included the ordained Halle missionaries, the Swedish Lutheran pastor Johann Sandin (serving Swedish Lutheran congregations in New Jersey and Pennsylvania under authority of the archbishop of Sweden), three Reformed preachers, and delegates from the congregations affiliated with the Halle mission in North America.[10]


[4] The congregation to which Kurtz was called to service as an ordained pastor was located in Tulpehocken, Pennsylvania. A few years prior to Kurtz’s ordination, the Tulpehocken congregation had been served by Tobias Wagner, an ordained pastor from Württemberg, Germany, who, like Muhlenberg, had come to America in 1742. Though Wagner was not associated with the Halle mission, Muhlenberg had tried to include him in shared arrangements to provide pastoral leadership to scattered Lutheran congregations. That effort, however, proved disappointing. A year before Kurtz’s ordination, Muhlenberg wrote about Wagner: “he is unable to produce a regular call to this country. He came of his own accord and conceit and offered himself and even forced his way in.”[11] Muhlenberg wanted to ensure that the circumstances of Kurtz’s ministry in the Tulpehocken congregation would be different, as far as possible beyond reproach.


[5] Muhlenberg’s concern for ecclesial order was driven by his understanding of the Christian life and the requirements for its cultivation. Theological training and pastoral experience had convinced Muhlenberg that human beings were inventive and resourceful in their resistance to God, and adept at justifying their resistance. Christian life, therefore, involved unwavering contention against human resistance to God. Muhlenberg, friendly to the interests of both Pietism and the Great Awakening, located the field of that contention within every individual Christian, because, in his view, the Christian life involved daily personal attention to the overcoming of one’s own resistance to God. The agent of that work, which Muhlenberg understood as conversion, is God the Holy Trinity, but human beings are called by God to be witnesses to that work, to trace its movement within their own lives in order thereby to glorify God. The church, in Muhlenberg’s understanding, served as both the instrument and the expression of God’s converting work in human lives. Through the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments, the contention against human resistance to God was joined, and Christian congregations represented human life and community ordered toward the glorification of God. Ecclesial disorder subverted the sacred vocation of the church as instrument and expression of God’s converting work in human lives, because disorder encouraged resistance to God. Bemoaning the constant tendency of congregations—and often pastors as well—to engage in bickering and dispute, Muhlenberg remarked: “Party and sectarian zeal is a hideous creature; it injures the power of godliness, etc.” He elaborated, proverbially: “This is what happens when preachers and congregations dispute, and undermine each other and are thrown into disorder; they keep the shell of the mussel while the lawyer takes the pearl for his faithful services.”[12] The cultivation of Christian life required a well ordered church, and Muhlenberg labored to arrest the disorder that seemed to him always and everywhere ascendant in colonial North America.[13]


Ecclesial Mission

[6] In his journals and his correspondence with church leaders in Europe, Muhlenberg frequently commented on the differences between the circumstances of the church as he had known them in Germany and the circumstances of the church as he found them in America. Generally he contrasted the more mature and better established order of the church in Germany with the prevailing absence of similar order in America, describing the difference as that between the planted church in Germany and the yet-to-be-planted church in America—ecclesia plantata and ecclesia plantanda, respectively. But Muhlenberg’s concern for ecclesial order in America was never motivated by a simple desire to replicate on American soil what he had known in Germany. An astute observer of American circumstances, Muhlenberg realized that many of the possibilities and provisions for ecclesial order in Germany were not available in America, and would, in any case, be incompatible with the attitudes and conditions of American freedom. This vexed Muhlenberg greatly throughout the forty-five years of his ministry in America, but it never defeated him or incapacitated his leadership. Muhlenberg represents an excellent example of leadership that capitalizes upon strengths rather than acquiesces to deficiencies, that proceeds upon the possible rather than stagnates over the impossible. If he had been driven solely by a concern for ecclesial order, he might have been undone by the rampant disorder he experienced in America. Instead, his concern for ecclesial order was informed by another equally forceful concern: ecclesial mission. His attention to the requirements of ecclesial mission allowed him to be flexible and adaptive in his efforts to establish ecclesial order.


[7] Kurtz’s ordination illustrates this point. In Muhlenberg’s assessment, the mission among Lutheran congregations in America required more pastors. Muhlenberg presented his assessment regularly in reports to Halle and in repeated requests that more pastors might be sent. Halle did send pastors to America, but never in numbers adequate to the missional requirements as Muhlenberg perceived them. A catechist, such as Kurtz, was helpful to the mission, but not sufficient. In 1745, the year of Kurtz’s arrival in America, Muhlenberg received a request to help mediate a bitter dispute between Lutheran congregations located in the vicinity of the Raritan River in central New Jersey and their pastor, John August Wolf.[14] Wolf had been sent to serve the Raritan congregations a decade earlier under authorization of the Lutheran consistory in Hamburg, Germany, to which the congregations had petitioned for a pastor.[15] The arrangement proved unhappy because Wolf—ironically named—seemed more interested in fleecing the congregations for material support than in serving their spiritual needs. Muhlenberg had to tread lightly in this situation since the Raritan congregations were affiliated with the regional oversight of pastor William Christopher Berkenmeyer, serving in the New York area under a commission from the Lutheran consistory in Amsterdam. Muhlenberg offered to defer to Berkenmeyer regarding the Raritan request for assistance, but nevertheless agreed to help when Berkenmeyer demurred.[16] Afterwards, he commented on the situation: “If we once have the door opened to us here, we can extend our operations in the surrounding regions. But alas! The congregations are now vacant, and the Moravians are already on the borders trying to find an entrance.”[17] Evident in the request for assistance that Muhlenberg received from the Raritan congregations was his expanding reputation as an effective leader. Evident in his comment about the pastoral vacancy in those congregations (following Wolf’s departure) was his vigilance toward missional opportunities. The opportunity among the Raritan congregations required the availability of an additional pastor, not otherwise engaged. Muhlenberg described the dilemma he faced:

The congregations have entreated us to lend them our assistant, Mr. Kurtz, until the Reverend Fathers [Muhlenberg referred in this way to Francke and his partners] send them someone. What to do? If we act too precipitately, we may deserve a reprimand. If we delay to act, our conscience may reprove us. If I were at one with the Moravians, I would soon have laborers and assistants enough.[18]


What, indeed, to do? The situation required a pastor; Kurtz had been requested, but Kurtz was not a pastor; Halle might send another pastor, but neither soon nor certainly; the Moravians were available, but (in Muhlenberg’s judgment) untrustworthy; hasty action might result in “reprimand”—the sort of reproach that would exacerbate disorder; the opportunity demanded response, but the provisions for a satisfying response were unavailable. Kurtz’s ordination three years after the Raritan dispute did not address the Raritan need of 1745, but does illustrate Muhlenberg’s capacity to adapt ecclesial order to the requirements of ecclesial mission. Experiences such as the Raritan dispute confirmed Muhlenberg’s conviction that ecclesial order must serve ecclesial mission, not arrest it. When Muhlenberg and his coworkers ordained Kurtz on August 14, 1748, they were acting precisely upon that conviction.


Contemporary Relevance

[7] Over two-and-a-half centuries since the ordination of John Nicholas Kurtz, Lutheran churches in North America have attained a degree of maturity and stability in ecclesial order that Muhlenberg could scarcely have imagined. Since the last quarter of the twentieth century, however, a renewed attention to ecclesial mission has developed in the context of institutional decline familiar by now to Lutherans and other Christians of the onetime and oft-named mainstream of American religion. In some ways, the contrast between the circumstances of the present moment and those of the previous century is analogous to the contrast between the circumstances that Muhlenberg had known in Germany and those he found in America. The ecclesia plantata of the previous century no longer obtains; Lutherans in North America are once again in circumstances better described as ecclesia plantanda.


[8] Muhlenberg’s precedent of adaptive ecclesial order in response to missional requirements finds parallels among contemporary developments in American Lutheranism. One example (with which this author is most familiar) is the TEEM program of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. TEEM stands for Theological Education for Emerging Ministries. The intention of the TEEM program is to provide ordained pastoral leadership to ministry settings that would otherwise remain bereft of such leadership. Such settings include, for example, ethnic-specific communities, Deaf communities, and rural and inner-city congregations—all of which, for various reasons, may be unable to identify or support a full-time pastor with an earned Master of Divinity degree but which, nevertheless, require the full pastoral ministry of Word and sacraments for their life together in Christ. The TEEM program seeks to identify individuals within those ministry settings who might be called to prepare for ordination and assume the responsibilities of pastoral leadership in those settings through a process alternative to the Master of Divinity degree program.


[9] The TEEM program was developed in part through the experience of the church with other models of leadership, such as Synodically Authorized Ministries (SAM), which prepared and designated non-ordained leaders to provide pastoral ministry in a variety of settings for which ordained pastors were unavailable. In many ways, a “synodically authorized minister” in the contemporary context is similar to a “catechist” in Muhlenberg’s context. SAMs, like catechists in an earlier century, are helpful to the mission of the church but not sufficient to the full missional requirements of pastoral leadership in many settings. Especially in light of the fact that many TEEM candidates for ordained ministry have also served as SAMs, the decision of the ELCA to inaugurate the TEEM program is analogous to Muhlenberg’s decision to provide for the ordination of the catechist John Nicholas Kurtz. In both cases, the requirements of ecclesial mission have prompted adaptations of ecclesial order.


[10] Muhlenberg was sensitive to the possibilities of “reproach” that could disorder the church and thereby impede ecclesial mission. Similarly, the ELCA seeks to avoid occasions of reproach that might undermine the intention and the integrity of the TEEM program. As Francke once counseled Muhlenberg, so in the present context “every caution and careful testing” is necessary to ensure that sound ecclesial order is maintained and urgent ecclesial mission is advanced.


[1] Theodore G. Tappert and John W. Doberstein, eds., The Journals of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, 3 vols. (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1942-1958; reprint, Whipporwill Publications, 1982), I:202; all subsequent citations of the Journals refer to Volume I, hereafter cited simply as MJ.


[2] See, e.g., ibid., 101.


[3] John W. Kleiner and Helmut T. Lehmann, eds. and trans., The Correspondence of Heinrich Melchior Mühlenberg, vol. I: 1740-1747 (Camden: Picton Press, 1993), 279; hereafter cited as MC I.


[4] Ibid.


[5] Francke addressed this matter in some detail, for example in letters to Muhlenberg dated February 26, 1746 and March 24 and September 17, 1747; see ibid., 279f., 319 and 352.


[6] Ibid., 319.


[7] Paul A. Baglyos, “The Muhlenbergs Become Americans,” Lutheran Quarterly XIX:1 (Spring 2005): 44.


[8] The most serious of such challenges occurred between Muhlenberg and the Moravian missionary Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf; see Walter H. Wagner, The Zinzendorf-Muhlenberg Encounter: A Controversy in Search of Understanding (Bethlehem: Moravian Historical Society, 2002).


[9] See John W. Kleiner and Helmut T. Lehmann, eds. and trans., The Correspondence of Heinrich Melchior Mühlenberg, vol. II: 1748-1752 (Camden: Picton Press, 1997), 11; hereafter cited as MC II. See also Board of Publications of the General Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in North America, Documentary History of the Evangelical Lutheran Ministerium of Pennsylvania and Adjacent States: Proceedings of the Annual Conventions from 1748 to 1821 (Philadelphia: 1898), 18ff.


[10] MJ 201f..


[11] MJ 171. On Wagner, see MC I:128, n. 9, and MC II:11, n. 3.


[12] Both quoted lines from MJ 337.


[13] Paul A. Baglyos, “Order and Disorder in Muhlenberg’s Pastoral Theology,” Lutheran Forum 36:1 (Spring 2002): 14-22.

[14] Charles H. Glatfelter, Pastors and People: German Lutheran and Reformed Churches in the Pennsylvania Field, 1717-1793, vol. II, The History (Breinigsville: The Pennsylvania German Society, 1981), 104f.


[15] See MC I:189, n. 4.


[16] On the relationship and contrast between Muhlenberg and Berkenmeyer, especially with regard to the Raritan dispute, see John P. Dern, ed., The Albany Protocol: Wilhelm Christoph Berkenmeyer’s Chronicle of Lutheran Affairs in New York Colony, 1731-1750, trans. by Simon Hart et al. (Camden: Picton Press, 1971), xlviiff.


[17] MJ 108.


[18] Ibid., 108f.



© December 2009
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 9, Issue 12