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Not So High Church: William Augustus Muhlenberg as Test Case

We have been talking recently about the concepts of being “high church” and “catholic” as regards to ecclesiology, liturgy, aesthetics, and one’s view of tradition. This is a conversation at the center of TCI’s identity, as we count ourselves as members of the ongoing “Reformed Catholicity” and “Evangelical Catholicity” conversation while we at the same time repudiate the fundamental theology of “high church” discipline. We mentioned this here and in the conclusion to our essay on Luther’s so-called “catholicity.” Our contention is that the overwhelming majority of commentators misuse the terms “high church” and “catholic,” mistaking externals for essentials. This is a very confusing assertion to many, and so we would like to offer one recent test case: William Augustus Muhlenberg.

Pastor Muhlenberg is known mostly to American Episcopalians, though he was a very important figure in educational reform in New York. He also was one of the first to use the expression “Evangelical and Catholic.” Many have wrongly assumed that he was therefore akin to the Oxford Movement or even the Mercersberg Theology. Bishop Ray Sutton of the Reformed Episcopal Church, an ecclesiastical group with some connection to Pr. Muhlenberg (at least initially), even referred to him as “very high church.” This confusion can be explained entirely due to the externals; Pr. Muhlenberg looks the part. However, upon examination of his basic theological principles, it can be easily seen that Pr. Muhlenberg is fully evangelical, even in the more modern sense of that term. In terms of discipline and ordination, he is actually something of a moderate if not a low churchman.

Professor Allen C. Guelzo explains the contours of Pr. Muhlenberg’s ecclesiology in his book on the origins of the Reformed Episcopal Church, For the Union of Evangelical Christendom. Dr. Guelzo writes:

By the time he left Flushing Institute, he had built the devotional life of the school around an elaborate observation of the church year, together with a surpliced boys’ choir in the chapel and an altar with flowers and pictures of the Nativity and the Resurrection. In 1846, when he became the rector of the Church of the Holy Communion in New York City, Muhlenberg introduced weekly communion services, organized a sisterhood for social service, put away his preaching gown in favor of exclusive use of the surplice, and erected an altar with crosses, candles, flowers, and incense. To young seminary students enchanted with the Tracts, the Church of the Holy Communion appeared as “the extremest height possible, and its extremes consisted of a proper altar with a cross and flowers, and a choir of unvested boys who chanted the Psalter.” (62)

Thus the image of Muhlenberg as “catholic” and “high church.” But Dr. Guelzo continues:

But Muhlenberg was neither High Churchman nor Anglo-Catholic. Whatever his dress and the peculiar decorations of his church, his theology and his spirit were firmly Evangelical. His ceremonial innovations, often his own ad hoc inventions, were part of his private campaign for an “Evangelical Catholicism” that would harness the fervency of “practical Christianity” to the discipline of “Catholic” church order, a subject on which Muhlenberg and Newman shared not even the slightest common ground. At first he had been intrigued by the Tracts, and he visited England in 1843 principally to interview Newman and Pusey. But what he found there, and in Newman’s writings, worked in him a profound revulsion against Anglo-Catholicism. By the time he came to the Church of the Holy Communion, he had concluded that Anglo-Catholicism was a “delusion,” and those in New York who mistook his penchant for ceremony there as sympathy with the Anglo-Catholics were about to receive the surprise of their lives.

On October 18, 1853, during the sessions of the General Convention of the church, Muhlenberg and eleven other presbyters put before the House of Bishops a “Memorial” that in effect called on the bishops to set the church on a direction decisively away from the Tracts and more toward the pan-Protestant ecumenism so beloved by the Evangelicals. Muhlenberg declared in the Memorial that “the divided and distracted state of our American Protestant Christianity” and “the utter ignorance of the Gospel among so large a portion of the lower classes of our population” had forced him to question whether the Protestant Episcopal Church, “with only her present canonical means and appliances, her fixed and invariable modes of public worship, her traditional customs and usages, is competent to the work of preaching and dispensing the Gospel to all sorts and conditions of men.” But Muhlenberg did not propose to dismantle any of those means and appliances. To the contrary, hardly anyone could have loved Episcopal government, liturgical worship, and traditional “customs and usages” more. The problem lay not in the “means and appliances” but in the narrowness with which the Episcopal Church guarded them, a narrowness that the Anglo-Catholics now threatened to narrow further. The solution, not only to the general problem of the church’s mission but also to the specific problem of the Anglo-Catholics, was to make the “means and appliances” more available and less restrictive to other Christian churches. Hence, the Memorial made three basic recommendations:

  1. The extension of Episcopal ordination to non-episcopal clergy; or to put it in plainer terms, the free offer of the Episcopal principle and the blessing of an apostolic ministry to any ministers who wanted it, even if they were and remained Presbyterians, Methodists, or Baptists
  2. The loosening of restrictions on “opinion, discipline and worship” for those presently within the Episcopal Church in order to create a new ecclesiastical system “broader and more comprehensive than that which you now administer”
  3. Stronger ecumenical ties with other Protestant denominations to effect “a Church unity in the Protestant Christendom of our land.” (62-63)

The memorial failed, but its radical nature should not be underestimated. Pr. Muhlenberg was calling for a formal ecclesiastical recognition of other evangelical churches and the granting of them “apostolic” status. This was thought to represent the typical “evangelical” position within the Episcopal Church at the time. Here was the theological foundation for such recognition:

Underlying the demands of the Memorial was Muhlenberg’s contention that the essential doctrines of the Episcopal Church had nothing to do with ordination or ritual and could be satisfied if any non-Episcopalian were willing to agree to three basic conditions:

  1. That “they declare their belief in the Holy Scriptures and the word of God, in the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds, in the divine Institution of the two sacraments, and in the ‘doctrines of grace,’ substantially as they are set forth in the Thirty-Nine Articles”
  2. That they would use certain parts of the liturgy including the essential parts of the administration of the Holy Sacraments
  3. That “they will make report of their ministry once, a least, in every three years to the bishop or some approved ecclesiastical tribunal.” (63-64)

The reference to the “doctrines of grace” need not be taken in a strictly Calvinistic way, of course, but it nevertheless sends the signal that Pr. Muhlenberg’s understanding of the gospel was fully “evangelical” in the American sense. He did not believe that ordination was at the essence of the church, but he did believe that allegiance to the Bible, the Trinity, the two sacraments, and a general “Reformed” understanding of salvation were. This is what Pr. Muhlenberg meant by “Evangelical and Catholic.” He meant the broadest possible recognition of all evangelical churches.

The Reformed Episcopal Church is itself a denomination which represents, or represented, this sort of ecclesiology. It was created with the express purpose of reflecting the “low church” version of “catholicity” and in in direct opposition to the high church and Anglo-Catholic parties. In fact, Dr. Guelzo’s thesis is that even more than opposition to supposed “Romanism,” the REC was founded on the principle of evangelical ecumenism, on extending the widest possible recognition to evangelical groups. In fact, with the consecration of Samuel Fallows, the REC would begin to evince the same sorts of liberalizing and modernizing trends which effected much of American Protestantism. The mainline Episcopalian church did the same thing, of course, but the key difference is that the REC remained anti-clerical and thus “catholic” whereas the mainline Episcopalians adopted a mixture of the high church discipline and Anglo-Catholicism.

None of these observations are meant to indicate full summary of Pr. Muhlenberg or the REC, though they both had much to commend themselves (Muhlenberg never joined the REC). It seems obvious enough abuses could and did arise within such contexts, and clearly such a vision of “Evangelical and Catholic” was unsuccessful at winning the day among Episcopalianism. But something very much like this vision was the de facto position of most American Christianity throughout the early 20th century, even if it never achieved a “formal” memorial or confessional status. Most of all, these sorts of illustrations are important for knowing what terms mean and how theological principles coexist with external and aesthetic concerns.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

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