Leonard Woolsey Bacon.

A history of American Christianity online

. (page 16 of 34)
Online LibraryLeonard Woolsey BaconA history of American Christianity → online text (page 16 of 34)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

of the large numbers of the rising generation who know
not their right hand from their left; and, unless help be
promptly aflforded, the danger is great that, in consequence
of the great lack of churches and schools, the most of them
■will be led into the ways of destructive error."

This urgent appeal bore fruit like the apples of Sodom.
It resulted in a painful and pitiable correspondence with
the chiefs of the mother church, these haggling for months
and years over stipulations of salary, and refusing to send
a minister until the salary should be pledged in cash ; and
their correspondents pleading their poverty and need.2

1 Jacobs, "The Lutherans," pp. 191, 234; Dubbs, "German Reformed
Church," p. 271.

2 See extracts from the correspondence given by Dr. 'Jacobs, pp. 193-195.
Dr. Jacobs's suggestion that three congregations of five hundred families
each might among them have raised the few hundreds a year retiuired seems


The few and feeble churches of the Reformed confession
were equally needy and ill befriended.

It seems to us, as we read the story after the lapse of a
hundred and fifty years, as if the man expressly designed
and equipped by the providence of God for this exigency
in the progress of his kingdom had arrived when Zinzen-
dorf, the Moravian, made his appearance at Philadelphia,
December 10, 1741. The American church, in all its his-
tory, can point to no fairer representative of the charity
that " seeketh not her own " than this Saxon nobleman,
who, for the true love that he bore to Christ and all
Christ's brethren, was willing to give up his home, his
ancestral estates, his fortune, his title of nobility, his
patrician family name, his office of bishop in the ancient
Moravian church, and even (last Infirmity of zealous
spirits) his interest in promoting specially that order of
consecrated men and women in the church catholic which
he had done and sacrificed so much to save from extinc-
tion, and to which his "cares and toils were given." He
hastened first up the Lehigh Valley to spend Christmas
at Bethlehem, where the foundations had already been
laid on which have been built up the half-monastic insti-
tutions of charity and education and missions which have
done and are still doing so much to bless the world in both
its hemispheres. It was in commemoration of this Christ-
mas visit of Bishop Zinzendorf that the mother house of
the Moravian communities in America received its name
of Bethlehem. Returning to Philadelphia, he took this
city as the base of his unselfish and unpartisan labors in
behalf of the great and multiplying population from his
fatherland, which through its sectarian divisions had
become so helpless and spiritually needy. Already for

reasonable, unless a large number of these were families of redemptioners,
that is, for the time, slaves.


twenty years there had been a few scattering churches of
the Reformed confession, and for half that time a few
Lutheran congregations had been gathered or had gathered
themselves. But both the sects had been overcome by the
paralysis resulting from habitual dependence on paternal
governments, and the two were borne asunder, while every
right motive was urging to cooperation and fellowship,
by the almost spent momentum of old controversies. In
Philadelphia two starveling congregations representing the
two competing sects occupied the same rude meeting-place
each by itself on alternate Sundays. The Lutherans made
shift without a pastor, for the only Lutheran minister in
Pennsylvania lived at Lancaster, sixty miles away.

To the scattered, distracted, and demoralized flocks of
his German fellow- Christians in the middle colonies came
Zinzendorf, knowing Jesus Christ crucified, knowing no
man according to the flesh ; and at once " the neglected
congregations were made to feel the thrill of a strong re-
ligious life." " Aglow with zeal for Christ, throwing all
emphasis in his teaching upon the one doctrine of redemp-
tion through the blood shed on Calvary, all the social
advantages and influence and wealth which his position
gave him were made subservient to the work of preaching
Christ, and him crucified, to the rich and the poor, the
learned and the ignorant." ^ The Lutherans of Philadel-
phia heard him gladly and entreated him to preach to
them regularly; to which he consented, but not until he
had assured himself that this would be acceptable to the
pastor of the Reformed congregation. But his mission
was to the sheep scattered abroad, of whom he reckoned
(an extravagant overestimate) not less than one hundred

1 Jacobs, "The Lutherans," p. 196. The story of Zinzendorf, as seen
from different points of view, may be studied in the volumes of Drs. Jacobs,
Dnbbs, and Hamilton (American Church History Series).


thousand of the Lutheran party in Pennsylvania alone.
Others, as he soon found, had been feeling, like himself,
the hurt of the daughter of Zion. A series of conferences
was held from month to month, in which men of the vari-
ous German sects took counsel together over the dissen-
sions of their people, and over the question how the ruin-
ous effects of these dissensions could be avoided. The plan
was, not to attempt a merger of the sects, nor to alienate
men from their habitual affiliations, but to draw together
in cooperation and common worship the German Christians,
of whatever sect, in a fellowship to be called, in imitation
of a Pauline phrase (Eph. ii. 22), " the Congregation of
God in the Spirit." The plan seemed so right and reason-
able and promising of beneficent results as to win general
approval. It was in a fair way to draw together the whole
miserably divided German population.^

At once the " drum ecclesiastic " beat to arms. In view
of the impending danger that their scattered fellow-coun-
trymen might come into mutual fellowship on the basis of
their common faith in Christ, the Lutheran leaders at
Halle, who for years had been dawdling and haggling
over the imploring entreaties of the shepherdless Lutheran
populations in America, promptly reconsidered their no7t
possuimis, and found and sent a man admirably qualified
for the desired work, Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, a man
of eminent ability and judgment, of faith, devotion, and
untiring diligence, not illiberal, but a conscientious sec-
tarian. An earnest preacher of the gospel, he was also
earnest that the gospel should be preached according to
the Lutheran formularies, to congregations organized ac-
cording to the Lutheran discipline. The easier and less
worthy part of the appointed task was soon achieved.
The danger that the religious factions that had divided

1 Acrelius, quoted by Jacobs, p. 218, note.



Germany might be laid aside in the New World was effec-
tually dispelled. Six years later the governor of Penn-
sylvania was still able to write, "The Germans imported
with them all the religious whimsies of their country, and,
I believe, have subdivided since their arrival here;" and
he estimates their number at three fifths of the population
of the province. The more arduous and noble work of
organizing and compacting the Lutherans into their sepa-
rate congregations, and combining these by synodical as-
semblies, was prosecuted with wisdom and energy, and at
last, in spite of hindrances and discouragements, with
beneficent success. The American Lutheran Church of
to-day is the monument of the labors of Muhlenberg.

The brief remainder of Zinzendorf's work in America
may be briefly told. There is no doubt that, like many
another eager and hopeful reformer, he overestimated the
strength and solidity of the support that was given to his
generous and beneficent plans. At the time of Miihlen-
berg's arrival Zinzendorf was the elected and installed
pastor of the Lutheran congregation in Philadelphia. The
conflict could not be a long one between the man who
claimed everything for his commission and his sect and the
man who was resolved to insist on nothing for himself.
Notwithstanding the strong love for him among the people,
Zinzendorf was easily displaced from his official station.
When dispute arose about the use of the empty carpenter's
shop that stood them instead of a church, he waived his
own claims and at his own cost built a new house of wor-
ship. But it was no part of his work to stay and persist
in maintaining a division. He retired from the field, leav-
ing it in charge of Miihlenberg, "being satisfied if only Christ
were preached," and returned to Europe, having achieved
a truly honorable and most Christian failure, more to be es-
teemed in the sight of God than'many a splendid success.


But his brief sojourn in America was not without visible
fruit. He left behind him the Moravian church fully or-
ganized under the episcopate of Bishop David Nitschmann,
with communities or congregations begun at nine different
centers, and schools established in four places. An ex-
tensive itinerancy had been set in operation under careful
supervision, and, most characteristic of all, a great begin-
ning had been made of those missions to the heathen In-
dians, in which the devoted and successful labors of this
little society of Christians have put to shame the whole
American church besides. Not all of this is to be ascribed
to the activity of Zinzendorf ; but in all of it he was a
sharer, and his share was a heroic one. The two years'
visit of Count Zinzendorf to America forms a beautiful
and quite singular episode in our church history. Return-
ing to his ancestral estates splendidly impoverished by his
free-handed beneficence, he passed many of the later years
of his life at Herrnhut, that radiating center from which
the light of the gospel was borne by the multitude of
humble missionaries to every continent under the whole
heaven. The news that came to him from the " econo-
mies " that he had planted in the forests of Pennsylvania
was such as to fill his generous soul with joy. In the
communities of Nazareth and Bethlehem was renewed the
Pentecostal consecration when no man called anything his
own. The prosperous farms and varied industries, in which
no towns in Pennsylvania could equal them, were carried
on, not for private interest, but for the church. After
three years the community work was not only self-sup-
porting, but sustained about fifty missionaries in the field,
and was preparing to send aid to the missions of the mother
church in Germany. The Moravian settlements multiplied
at distant points, north and south. The educational estab-
lishments grew strong and famous. But especially the


Indian missions spread far and wide. The story of these
missions is one of the fairest and most radiant pages in the
history of the American church, and one of the bloodiest.
Zinzendorf, dying at London in May, 1756, was spared,
we may hope, the heartbreaking news of the massacre at
Gnadenhutten the year before. But from that time on,
through the French wars, the Revolutionary War, the War
of 1 8 12, and down to the infamy of Georgia and the
United States in 1837, the innocent and Christhke Mora-
vian missions have been exposed from every side to the
malignity of savage men both white and red. No order
of missionaries or missionary converts can show a nobler
roll of martyrs than the Moravians. 1

The work of Miihlenberg for the Lutherans stimulated
the Reformed churches in Europe to a like work for their
own scattered and pastorless sheep. In both cases the
fear that the work of the gospel might not be done seemed
a less effective incitement to activity than the fear that it
might be done by others. It was the Reformed Church
of Holland, rather than those of Germany, miserably
broken down and discouraged by ravaging wars, that as-
sumed the main responsibility for this task. As early as
1728 the Dutch synods had earnestly responded to the
appeal of their impoverished brethren on the Rhine in be-
half of the sheep scattered abroad. And in 1743, acting
through the classis of Amsterdam, they had made such
progress toward beginning the preliminary arrangements
of the work as to send to the Presbyterian synod of Phil-
adelphia a proposal to combine into one the Presbyterian,
or Scotch Reformed, the Dutch Reformed, and the Ger-
man Reformed churches in America. It had already been
proved impossible to draw together in common activity

1 Jacobs, "The Lutherans," pp. 215-218; Hamilton, "The Moravians,"
chaps, iii.-viii., xi.


and worship the different sects of the same German race
and language ; the effort to unite in one organization
peoples of different language, but of substantially the same
doctrine and polity, was equally futile. It seemed as if
minute sectarian division and subdivision was to be forced
upon American Christianity as a law of its church life.

Diplomacies ended, the synods of Holland took up their
work with real munificence. Large funds were raised,
sufficient to make every German Reformed missionary in
America a stipendiary of the classis of Amsterdam ; and
if these subsidies were encumbered with severe conditions
of subordination to a foreign directory, and if they begot an
enfeebling sense of dependence, these were necessary in-
cidents of the difficult situation — res dura et novitas regni.
The most important service which the synods of Holland
rendered to their American beneficiaries was to find a
man who should do for them just the work which Muhlen-
berg was already doing with great energy for the Luther-
ans. The man was Michael Schlatter. If in any respect
he was inferior to Miihlenberg, it was not in respect to
diligent devotion to the business on which he had been
sent. It is much to the credit of both of them that, in
organizing and promoting their two sharply competing
sects, they never failed of fraternal personal relations.
They worked together with one heart to keep their people
apart from each other. The Christian instinct, in a com-
munity of German Christians, to gather in one congrega-
\ tion for common worship was solemnly discouraged by

the two apostles and the synods which they organized.
How could the two parties walk together when one prayed
Vater unser, and the other unser Vater? But the beauty
of Christian unity was illustrated in such incidents as this :
Mr. Schlatter and some of the Reformed Christians, being
present at a Lutheran church on a communion Sunday,


listened to the preaching of the Lutheran pastor, after
which the Reformed minister made a communion address,
and then the congregation was dismissed, and the Re-
formed went off to a school-house to receive the Lord's
Supper. 1 Truly it was fragrant Hke the ointment on the
beard of Aaron!

Such was the diligence of Schlatter that the synod or
coetus of the Reformed Church was instituted in 1747, a
year from his arrival. The Lutheran synod dates from
1 748, although Muhlenberg was on the ground four years
earlier than Schlatter. Thus the great work of dividing
the German population of America into two major sects
was conscientiously and effectually performed. Seventy
years later, with large expenditure of persuasion, authority,
and money, it was found possible to heal in some measure
in the old country the very schism which good men had
been at such pains to perpetuate in the new.

High honor is due to the prophetic wisdom of these
two leaders of German-American Christianity, in that
they clearly recognized in advance that the English was
destined to be the dominant language of North America.
Their strenuous though unsuccessful effort to promote a
system of public schools in Pennsylvania was defeated
through their own ill judgment and the ignorant prejudices
of the immigrant people played upon by politicians. But
the mere attempt entitles them to lasting gratitude. It is
not unlikely that their divisive work of church organization
may have contributed indirectly to defeat the aspirations
of their fellow- Germans after the perpetuation of a Ger-
many in America. The combination of the mass of the
German population in one solid church organization would
have been a formidable support to such aspirations. The
splitting of this mass in half, necessitating petty local
1 Jacobs, " The Lutherans," p. 289.


schisms with all their debilitating and demoralizing con-
sequences, may have helped secure the country from a
serious political and social danger.

So, then, the German church in America at the close of
the colonial era exists, outside of the petty primeval sects,
in three main divisions : the Lutheran, the Reformed, and
the Moravian. There is free opportunity for Christians
of this language to sort themselves according to their
elective affinities. That American ideal of edifying har-
mony is well attained, according to which men of partial
or one-sided views of truth shall be associated exclusively
in church relations with others of like precious defects.
Muhlenberg seems to have been sensible of the nature of
the division he was making in the body of Christ, when,
after severing successfully between the strict Lutherans in
a certain congregation and those of Moravian sympathies,
he finds it " hard to decide on which side of the controversy
the greater justice lay. The greater part of those on the
Lutheran side, he feared, was composed of unconverted
men," while the Moravian party seemed open to the re-
proach of enthusiasm. So he concluded that each sort of
Christians would be better off without the other. Time
proved his diagnosis to be better than his treatment. In
the course of a generation the Lutheran body, carefully
weeded of pietistic admixtures, sank perilously deep in
cold rationalism, and the Moravian church was quite car-
ried away for a time on a flood of sentimentalism. What
might have been the course of this part of church history
if Muhlenberg and Schlatter had shared more deeply with
Zinzendorf in the spirit of apostolic and catholic Chris-
tianity, and if all three had conspired to draw together into
one the various temperaments and tendencies of the Ger-
man Americans in the unity of the Spirit with the bond of
peace, may seem like an idle historical conjecture, but the


question is not without practical interest to-day. Perhaps
the Moravians would have been the better for being bal-
lasted with the weighty theologies and the conservative
temper of the state churches; it is very certain that these
would have gained by the infusion of something of that
warmth of Christian love and zeal that pervaded to a
wonderful degree the whole Moravian fellowship. But
the hand and the foot were quite agreed that they had no
need of each other or of the heart.^

By far the most momentous event of American church
history in the closing period of the colonial era was the
planting of the Methodist Episcopal Church. The Wes-
leyan revival was strangely tardy in reaching this country,
with which it had so many points of connection. It was
in America, in 1737, that John Wesley passed through
the discipline of a humiliating experience, by which his
mind had been opened, and that he had been brought into
acquaintance with the Moravians, by whom he was to be
taught the way of the Lord more perfectly. It was John
Wesley who sent Whitefield to America, from whom, on
his first return to England, in 1 738, he learned the practice
of field-preaching. It was from America that Edwards's
" Narrative of Surprising Conversions " had come to Wes-
ley, which, being read by him on the walk from London
to Oxford, opened to his mind unknown possibilities of
the swift advancement of the kingdom of God. The be-
ginning of the Wesleyan societies in England followed in
close connection upon the first Awakening in America.
It went on with growing momentum in England and Ire-
land for quarter of a century, until, in 1765, it numbered

1 Jacobs, pp. 227, 309, sqq. ; Hamilton, p. 457. No account of the Ger-
man-American churches is adequate which does not go back to the work of
Spener, the influence of which was felt through them all. The author is com-
pelled to content himself with inadequate work on many topics.


thirty-nine circuits served by ninety-two itinerant preach-
ers; and its work was mainly among the classes from
which the emigration to the colonies was drawn. It is
not easy to explain how it came to pass that through all
these twenty-five years Wesleyan Methodism gave no
sound or sign of life on that continent on which it was
destined (if one may speak of predestination in this con-
nection) to grow to its most magnificent proportions.

At last, in i ^66, in a httle group of Methodist families
that had found one another out among the recent comers
in New York, Philip Embury, who in his native Ireland
long before had been a recognized local preacher, was
induced by the persuasions and reproaches of a pious
woman to take his not inconsiderable talent from the
napkin in which he had kept it hidden for six years, and
preach in his own house to as many as could be brought
in to listen to him. The few that were there formed
themselves into a " class " and promised to attend at
future meetings.

A more untoward time for the setting on foot of a re-
ligious enterprise could hardly have been chosen. It was
a time of prevailing languor in the churches, in the reaction
from the Great Awakening ; it was also a time of intense
poHtical agitation. The year before the Stamp Act had
been passed, and the whole chain of colonies, from New
Hampshire to Georgia, had been stirred up to resist the .
execution of it. This year the Stamp Act had been re-
pealed, but in such terms as to imply a new menace and
redouble the agitation. From this time forward to the
outbreak of war in 1775, and from that year on till the
conclusion of peace in 1783, the land was never at rest
from turmoil. Through it all the Methodist societies grew
and multiplied. In 1767 Embury's house had overflowed,
and a sail-loft was hired for the growing congregation.


In 1768 a lot on John Street was secured and a meeting-
house was built. The work had spread to Philadelphia,
and, self-planted in Maryland under the preaching of
Robert Strawbridge, was propagating itself rapidly in that
peculiarly congenial soil. In 1 769, in response to earnest
entreaties from America, two of Wesley's itinerant preach-
ers, Boardman and Pilmoor, arrived with his commission
to organize an American itinerancy ; and two years later,
in 1 77 1, arrived Francis Asbury, who, by virtue of his
preeminent qualifications for organization, administration,
and command, soon became practically the director of the
American work, a function to which, in 1772, he was
officially appointed by commission from Wesley.

Very great is the debt that American Christianity owes
to Francis Asbury. It may reasonably be doubted whether
any one man, from the founding of the church in America
until now, has achieved so much in the visible and trace-
able results of his work. It is very certain that Wesley
himself, with his despotic temper and his High-church and
Tory principles, could not have carried the Methodist
movement in the New World onward through the perils
of its infancy on the way to so eminent a success as that
which was prepared by his vicegerent. Fully possessed
of the principles of that autocratic discipline ordained by
Wesley, he knew how to use it as not abusing it, being
aware that such a discipline can continue to subsist, in the
long run, only by studying the temper of the subjects of
it, and making sure of obedience to orders by making sure
that the orders are agreeable, on the whole, to the subjects.
More than one polity theoretically aristocratic or monarchic
in the atmosphere of our republic has grown into a practi-
cally popular government, simply through tact and good
judgment in the administration of it, without changing a
syllable^of its constitution. Very early in the history of


the Methodist Church it is easy to recognize the aptitude
with which Asbury naturalizes himself in the new chmate.
Nominally he holds an absolute autocracy over the young
organization. Whatever the subject at issue, " on hearing
every preacher for and against, the right of determination

Online LibraryLeonard Woolsey BaconA history of American Christianity → online text (page 16 of 34)