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The Muhlenberg Memorial

Since there was some question over my appropriation of Muhlenberg to the “evangelical” party, I decided to give his famous memorial a closer read. It’s posted online, but this part really stands out:

The divided and distracted state of our American Protestant Christianity, the new and subtle forms of unbelief adapting themselves with fatal success to the spirit of the age, the consolidated forces of Romanism bearing with renewed skill and activity against the Protestant faith, and as more or less the consequence of these, the utter ignorance of the Gospel among so large a portion of the low classes of our population, making a heathen world in our midst, are among the considerations which induce your memorialists to present the inquiry whether the period has not arrived for the adoption of measures, to meet these exigencies of the times, more comprehensive than any yet provided for by our present ecclesiastical system: in other words, whether the Protestant Episcopal Church, with only her present canonical means and appliances, her fixed and invariable modes of public worship and her traditional customs and usages, is competent to the work of preaching and dispensing the Gospel to all sorts and conditions of men, and so adequate to do the work of the Lord in this land and in this age? This question, your petitioners, for their own part, and in consonance with many thoughtful minds among us, believe must be answered in the negative. Their memorial proceeds on the assumption that our Church, confined to the exercise of her present system, is not sufficient to the great purposes above mentioned—that a wider door must be opened for admission to the Gospel ministry than that through which her candidates for holy orders are now obliged to enter. Besides such candidates among her own members, it is believed that men can be found among the other bodies of Christians around us, who would gladly receive ordination at your hands, could they obtain it, without that entire surrender which would now be required of them, of all the liberty in public worship to which they have been accustomed—men, who could not bring themselves to conform in all particulars to our prescriptions and customs, but yet sound in the faith, and who, having the gifts of preachers and pastors, would be able ministers of the New Testament. With deference it is asked, ought such an accession to your means in executing your high commission, “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature,” be refused, for the sake of conformity in matters recognized in the preface to the Book of Common Prayer, as unessentials? Dare we pray the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers into the harvest, while we reject all laborers but those of one peculiar type?

Now, the memorial does go on to say that these non-episcopalian ministers, “need only such a bond to be drawn together in closer and more primitive fellowship, is here believed to be the peculiar province and high privilege of your venerable body as a College of CATHOLIC AND APOSTOLIC BISHOPS as such.” Thus Pr. Muhlenberg could be read as saying that the Episcopal church enjoyed this “more primitive fellowship” in a unique way, however, he set memorial in direct opposition to “the consolidated forces of Romanism” and he also granted that the non-episcopalian ministers truly possessed “the gifts of preachers and pastors,” that they would indeed be “able ministers of the New Testament,” and even that they are God’s answer to prayers for ministers. Additionally, he states that the matters in which these ministers are not in conformity are “unessentials.”

An even simpler consideration is that the Muhlenberg memorial was viewed as a piece of solidarity with the larger evangelical party of the day and was strongly opposed by both the High Church and Anglo-Catholic parties in the Episcopal Church. So it does seem that the original reading of Muhlenberg, that of a liturgical “catholic” Evangelical, is the correct one.

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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