Thursday, April 8, 2010

William Augustus Muhlenberg

Episcopal priest and occasional hymnwriter William Augustus Muhlenberg (September 16, 1796 - April 8, 1877) is honored today on that church's calendar. He was ordained in 1820 and shortly thereafter was named to the committee which produced the third Episcopal hymnal in 1826. (Rather than downloading that book, you can also see its contents listed at the Oremus Hymnal site, which links to the texts of each of the hymns).

Muhlenberg moved to New York City in the 1840s, when be became rector of the Church of the Holy Communion, and oversaw the construction of the church building at Sixth Avenue and 20th Street. Around this time he met Anne Ayres, who wished to pursue a religious life. As there were no established religious orders for women in the Episcopal Church at that time, he named her a "sister of the Holy Communion" and began to think and write about the possibility of creating such an order. In 1852, the Sisterhood of the Holy Communion was officially established, with Anne Ayres as its head (as of this year, Ayres is also commemorated on this day).

The Sisterhood was instrumental in Muhlenburg's next great project, the founding of St. Luke's Hospital, which he had been planning since 1846. The first patients were admitted on Ascension Day, 1858 to the new facility, only the third hospital in New York City at that time. The Sisterhood was primarily responsible for patient care. The Alumni Association of the St. Luke's School of Nursing, which was established in later years, when professional nurses replaced the Sisters, has an interesting history of the founding of the hospital at their website (our commenter Dorothy is a graduate of that school).

This hymn was written by Muhlenberg in 1859, to be sung at the reception of a new Sister. While we would find it somewhat dated today (as, indeed, are most of his other hymns), I think it is interesting historically.

Thine handmaid, Savior! can it be?
Such honor dost thou put on me?
To wait on thee, do thy commands,
The works once hallowed by thy hands?

Daily thy mercy paths to go,
Bearing thy balm for every woe;
Thy sick and weary ones to cheer,
Bid them thy words of pity hear;

Parting with earth thy cross to bear,
Content thy poverty to share,
Rich in thy love, thou blessed Lord,
This life to me dost thou accord?

Oh, marvellous grace -- yea, even so!
The call I heard, 'twas thine I know,
"Come follow me," the heavenly voice,
How could it but constrain my choice!

Ny heart's free choice, yet bound by thee;
Thrice welcome, sweet captivity,
My soul and all its powers to fill
With love of thee and thy dear will!

Lord, give but light to show the way,
Strength from thyself to be my stay,
Grace, always -- grace to feel thee nigh --
Thine handmaid then, I live and die.

William A. Muhlenberg, 1859
Lowell Mason, 1830

While I don't know what tune they sang this hymn to, UXBRIDGE by Lowell Mason appeared in many nineteenth century hymnals (and even some modern ones) and would have been known by Muhlenberg and his church.

Anne Ayres wrote and published The Life and Work of William Augustus Muhlenberg in 1880, following her retirement as director of the nursing and housekeeping department of St. Luke's.


Dorothy said...

Yay! for St. Luke's Hospital!! And William Augustus Muhlenberg, of course. Thanks, C.W.S.!

C.W.S. said...

I thought it was interesting that the nursing school held graduation ceremonies at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, maintaining an Episcopal connection on some level until well into the twentieth century.