Heinrich "Henry" Melchior Muhlenberg was born in 1711 in Einbeck, in the German Electorate of Hanover. He studied theology at the University of Göttingen and was ordained in Leipzig in 1739. He believed that God intended him for a life of missionary service in India. However, he would be called in the opposite direction. In 1741, on his thirtieth birthday, he was encouraged to accept the request from the Lutherans in Pennsylvania. He reluctantly agreed to go for three years. He would stay until his dying day.
Before leaving Europe, Henry came under the tutelage of another great mentor whom he came to regard as a "father", Friedrich Michael Ziegenhagen, the court preacher in the German royal chapel of St. James in London. "For more than fifty years [Ziegenhagen] acted as middleman between Halle and the missionaries in India and pastors in North America." Henry stayed in London from mid-April to mid-June 1742 where he received additional pastoral training and English language instruction from Ziegenhagen in preparation for his missionary work in America.
He departed for America in June aboard the packet boat George. The voyage took over 14 weeks. The passengers would have died of thirst if two passing English vessels had not supplied them with water. Arriving at Charleston on 21 September 1742, he proceeded to Georgia for a brief consultation with the Lutheran pastors there. His first experience of the New World was its slavery, the abuse of black women by their white owners, and the refusal of the whites to evangelize the blacks for fear that they might rise up and overthrow their oppressors. Henry wrote disgustedly in his journal that "the so-called Christians lead a more evil life than the heathen." He went on to baptize and marry black Christians throughout the course of his ministry.
He embarked from Charleston on a small vessel on 12 November. It was a rough ride north by boat through storms and stagnant tides. "My sickness increases and makes me vomit day and night. Our ship’s company curses to make one’s hair stand on end. As long as I was able to speak, I admonished them, but to no avail, for it has already become second nature. To be among such people is a foretaste of hell" Thirteen days later Henry reached Philadelphia and his new congregations in Providence and New Hanover, assigned to him by the church’s governing body back home in Halle. However, upon his arrival, he was surprised to find another pastor in his place.
The person was not exactly a pastor, but a "quack salver," as Henry called him and his like. One of the most lucrative lines of work for charlatans in colonial North America was in churches. Often these were men who had been defrocked back in Europe for misconduct, but sometimes it was just opportunists who sniffed out a steady flow of fees from services and sacraments. To Henry’s dismay, the people at New Hanover excused their faker, saying that “even though he was not ordained and often drank to excess, he did preach edifying sermons.”
He immediately plunged into the daunting tasks that lay before him. His first places of worship were a barn or carpenter shop in Philadelphia, a barn at Providence (Trappe), and a partially completed church at New Hanover, thirty-six miles from Philadelphia and ten from Providence. In 1743 the corner stones for churches at Philadelphia and Providence were laid and in 1747 the New Hanover church was completed and dedicated in 1747.
"While in the first years of my stay in Pennsylvania I was alone, a total stranger to the nature of Pennsylvania, this empire of sects, chaos of temptations, without any administrative experiences and with no friend or advisor, with no letters or particular instructions from our worthy Fathers, exposed to really inhuman stress and strains in the widely dispersed villages, exposed to uncountable challenges from some self-appointed godless Lutheran pastors, from the Moravians, and other sects as well as from my own so-called uncivilized and dispersed Lutherans, and pulled into the drudging construction of the external buildings [of the congregations] ...."
In addition to organizing the existing congregations from New York to Maryland, he was faced with the rivalry with the Moravians for German-speaking Protestant settlers, who were like sheep without a shepherd.
Moravians traced their roots to Jan Hus, a professor of philosophy and rector of the University in Prague, who was burned at the stake in 1415, 100 years before Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation. The denomination was almost wiped out during the religious wars of the 1600s. The spiritual journey for the Moravian Brethren began in 1722 when the religious reform leader Count Nicholas Louis Von Zinzendorf offered refuge on his estate in the Saxony region of Germany to a group of religious dissidents from Moravia. The Unity of the Brethren eventually lived in the town of Herrnhut, Germany. Since many came from Moravia, their neighbors described them simply as "the Moravians."
After their rebirth under Zinzendorf's leadership, they became the first Protestant missionaries. In the 1730s Moravian societies were established in Holland, England and Denmark, as well as such far away places as Greenland, Surinam, Zanzibar and in the American colonies. Their first mission in the British Colonies was in Savannah, but they eventually traveled north to Pennsylvania where the church had bought two tracts of land. They founded Nazareth and Bethlehem and as those towns prospered, the Brethren wanted to expand in the colonies. Bethlehem became the center of Moravian activity in colonial America.
In 1741, Zinzendorf visited Pennsylvania, thus becoming one of the few 18th century European nobles to have actually set foot in the Americas. In addition to visiting leaders in Philadelphia such as Benjamin Franklin, he met with the leaders of the Iroquois and, with the assistance of Conrad Weiser reached agreements for the free movement of Moravian missionaries in the area.
When Muhlenberg arrived in Pennsylvania, there were suspicions among the Lutherans that Zinzendorf was posing as a Lutheran, holding interdenominational conferences and assuming leadership of the shepherdless Lutherans in the colony. On 30 December 1742, Henry met with Count Zinzendorf in Philadelphia and the two quickly became engaged in a dispute which was not resolved during the meeting. The Moravians were viewed as "peace-loving advocates of Christian unity who accidentally spread disunity."
Three years after his arrival, on 23 April 1745, married Anna Maria Weiser, one of Indian agent Conrad Weiser's daughters. Together they had eight children, six of whom survived to adulthood. Three of their sons became pastors and two of their daughters married pastors, earning Henry both the literal and figurative title of patriarch of the Lutheran church in America.
He would travel extensively throughout the Mid-Atlantic colonies and his ministry was not without its trials. “For the pastoral office in this country,” Henry once wrote in a fit of exasperation, “and to get along with these people without sacrificing either love or the truth, one needs not only a certain measure of grace and talent, but also an unusually sanctified temperament.” He had to resolve disputes over the ownership of church buildings and even cemeteries. Criminals roved freely through the land, "unruly and brazen sinners”and on occasion Henry himself was forced to be a witness in criminal cases. He was often sick, treated himself to regular bleeding as a remedy, and tried all kinds of medications that—from a later perspective—were as horrifying as they were ineffective. He suffered earthquakes, climate extremes, and “musquitoes” and “cackrotsches,” as his creative English spelling put it. He tried such exotic foods as raccoon and pumpkin, but nearly wept for joy when he got to taste sauerkraut again. He ministered not only to the German but also to the British, black, and native.
Then, after thirty years of restless labor to build up the American church, Henry might well have anticipated a peaceful retirement. Instead he got a revolution. When the American Revolution began, Henry was deeply troubled. He was a native of the Electorate of Hanover and, as such, had seen a subject of Kings George I, George II, and George III by virtue of his birth as well as his naturalization. He would leave Philadelphia and relocate to Trappe, twenty-five miles away. However, the removal to Trappe did not solve his problems. His eldest son Peter exchanged his clerical vestments for an army uniform when he accepted a commission as colonel of the Eighth Virginia Regiment.
He was reluctant to commit himself in any way either for or against the cause of independence, which resulted in him being caught in a cross-fire of suspicions and charges. During the British occupation of Philadelphia, he was denounced as a rebel. There were threats to arrest and hang him. He was also accused by some of being a British sympathizer. He tried to practice neutrality. He steadfastly held to the belief that it was the duty of the church to preach the Gospel and nothing but the Gospel in time of war as in time of peace.
Henry survived the war and kept at his ministry. In 1784 he officially retired and, to his great surprise, was awarded an honorary doctorate from Germany. On 29 September 1787, Henry wrote his last journal entry about the baptism of a child. The next day he took ill, and he died on 7 October, surrounded by his large family.