Tuesday, April 8, 2008

William Augustus Muhlenberg

Muhlenberg, whose feast-day we mark today, was an Episcopal priest born in 1796. His grandfather was the first Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. His strong interest in congregational song led to an 1821 pamphlet, A Plea for Christian Hymns. After compiling a collection of hymns for use in his own parish, he was appointed by General Conference to the committee which produced the Protestant Episcopal Hymnal of 1826.

Later in his career he founded one of the first Episcopal Church Schools in the country. In 1846 he became the rector of the Church of the Holy Communion in New York, where he founded the first American order of Protestant Episcopal deaconesses, the Sisterhood of the Church of the Holy Communion. The Sisterhood and the parish were instrumental in the founding of St. Luke's Hospital, where Muhlenberg became the first pastor and superintendent.

Muhlenberg wrote several hymns and sacred poems, some published in the Hymnal of 1826 and others produced later. A collection was published in 1860 for the benefit of St. Luke's Hospital. In the foreword, he wrote:

"What kind of poetical merit these compositions possess I perfectly understand. [...] Would that they had the inspiration of Watts's or Wesley's lyre!"

I have to agree that his hymns, now little-known, are perhaps not of the first order. His own version of Jerusalem, my happy home begins with these verses:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem,
Name ever dear to me;
O may at last my home be found,
Jerusalem, in thee!

O may these eyes thy crystal walls
And gates of pearl behold.
Thy jasper and thy sapphire stones,
Thy streets of purest gold.

The alleluias of thy hymns
Before the great I AM;
The harpers harping with their harps
The new song of the Lamb.

Not an improvement on the version we know today, though undoubtedly earnest (couldn't the harpers sound on their harps, or even play on them?). Much of his verse tends toward the flowery. I find one interesting hymn, Shout the glad tidings, that looks toward the gospel songs of the later nineteenth century - with the right accompanist it would probably rock the house.

Regardless of the merit of his own verse, Muhlenberg is rightfully honored today for his work in education and hospital building.

P.S. In 1976 the Church of the Holy Communion was deconsecrated after the parish merged with two other NYC congregations. In 1983
the building, at 20th Street and 6th Avenue, became the Limelight discotheque. The original altar is now in a church of the same name in Lake View, NY (outside Buffalo).

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