WHO WAS G.H.E. MUHLENBERG?
Gotthilf Henry Ernestus Muhlenberg, the fifth child and third son of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, patriarch of the Lutheran church in America, and his wife Anna Maria Weiser, daughter of Conrad Weiser and his wife, was born on November 17, 1753. At the age of 10 he, along with his two brothers, was sent to Halle, Germany to receive an education that would prepare each for the ministry. Henry Ernestus studies included Latin, Greek, Hebrew, music, including choral works and the piano. He returned to Philadelphia on September 13, 1770, after the Director in Halle told his father that he did not have the character to become a pastor. Despite these reservations, in the years following their return all three brothers were ordained, Henry Ernestus being the only one who remained a clergyman throughout his life. His brother, Peter, left the pulpit to serve as an officer in the Revolutionary army while Frederick turned to politics, becoming the first Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Henry Ernestus was ordained on October 25, 1770. He undertook the task of riding through mud and snow, high water and hot sun to serve as a supply preacher for his father, his brothers or anyone else who needed his services. After hinting for months, on July 26, 1774 he married Catharina Hall, who bore him eight children. On January 1 and 2, 1780, he preached at the Lutheran church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, now known as Holy Trinity Lutheran Church. On January 7th, the Vestry issued him a call. A harsh winter made for perilous travel so that it was not until March that he was able to return with his wife and children to undertake his new duties.
Pastor Muhlenberg began his work at Trinity with enthusiasm. In 1785, in a letter to his father, he reported that he "baptized 179, confirmed 72, administered the Lord's Supper to 627 and buried 48" the year before. In addition that year he officiated at the marriage of 62 couples, visited the sick and preached two different sermons on Sundays, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Believing that his sermons would be better understood by a reading congregation he ordered books from Germany as well as this country and gave them to his congregants to read, the beginning of the church library that still exists today. He oversaw the building of the church steeple and later ran a lottery to pay for it. Of all his churchly duties he enjoyed the work with confirmands and the young people the best.
But his interests were larger than Trinity. He took an avid interest in the synod of the Lutheran church holding various offices and speaking on many topics. Interested in the examination of new clergymen he composed a list of questions to be asked prior to ordination. The American Philosophical Society elected him a member in January 1785. In 1787 the legislature of Pennsylvania granted a charter for the founding of a college to be named after Benjamin Franklin in Lancaster. The 46 trustees met in Trinity church and elected Muhlenberg to be its first "principal."
MUHLENBERG THE BOTANIST
Although Henry Ernestus devoted much time and energy to other activities, his first love was botany. A self-taught botanist, by 1778 he was keeping a "Botanical Tagebuch" and had a systematic plan for his pursuit. Soon he was corresponding with leading botanists throughout the world. He had many unpublished manuscripts and several published works that were greeted with eager anticipation by his fellow botanists. In spite of this he wrote that botany was his avocation not his vocation as it was for the people with whom he corresponded. During his pastorate in Lancaster he lived in a house on the northeast corner of Duke and Grant streets, a building that still stands. His large backyard was filled with plants. His particular area of study was grasses. By 1813 when one of his manuscripts was published, he had 320 American grasses and reeds species among 3,670 total species. His herbarium was recognized as the most complete in the country and he grew many of these species in his garden as well. Always proceeding with care his motto was festiva lente, hasten slowly.
MERIWETHER LEWIS MEETS G.H.E. MUHLENBERG
Meanwhile Meriwether Lewis came to Lancaster to learn surveying and navigation from Andrew Ellicott and to buy guns from among the finest gun makers in the country. He arrived here riding alone on horseback on April 19, 1803 and returned to Philadelphia on May 9. While here he became acquainted with Muhlenberg. Unfortunately there is no record of the meeting in Muhlenberg's neat but tiny handwriting and none has been found by anyone else who was privy to the meeting. What was the nature of their meeting? Muhlenberg has been referred to as a Renaissance man. Obviously he had a fine intellect and many interests. Surely he and Lewis would have conversed about the nature of the expedition, its possibilities of untold discoveries and its dangers. Among the dangers would have been injury or illness. Certainly they would have discussed current medicines. Doubtless he would have recommended his good friend, Dr. Benjamin Rush's pills. Muhlenberg spent a part of his time making new medicines and dosing himself or a friend with the results. Perhaps he would have given him some new medicine that had been found to be especially successful.
We can be sure that the conversation would have revolved around botany. The two men would have walked through the Muhlenberg garden examining various plants, the importance of making a sketch before removing a specimen from the soil and discussing ways to preserve them. They would have spent time studying Muhlenberg's herbarium so that Lewis would know what to take as a specimen and how to preserve it properly. Perhaps in order to give him experience in surveying and navigation, Andrew Ellicott and Muhlenberg would have taken Lewis on a ramble through the countryside, stopping to sketch botanical specimens and then preserving them in an appropriate manner and using the instrument Ellicott had given him to find their way back. Whatever their activities they must have been excited for Lewis and willing to share their combined wealth of knowledge to make the Expedition a success.
Upon returning from the Expedition, Meriwether Lewis' collection of plants and seeds was given to Frederick Pursh for study and publication. Meanwhile Muhlenberg had received seeds from Lewis and had planted some of them in his garden where they were growing. Among them was allium bifolium described in an unpublished manuscript of 1807 as "Onion of the Missouri within the Rocky Mountains." In 1807 Lewis appeared before the American Philosophical Society three times to discuss his Expedition. Was Muhlenberg in attendance for these exciting presentations? Maybe the two men had the opportunity to talk privately about his experiences and especially about his botanical research. We hope they did but it remains a mystery.
Muhlenberg served as pastor of Trinity for 35 years until his death on May 23, 1815.