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Archive Ecclesiastical Polity Reformed Irenicism Sacred Doctrine Steven Wedgeworth

William Augustus Muhlenberg: An Evangelical In Context

Matt Colvin, a missionary in the Reformed Episcopal Church, has written a thoughtful criticism of my reading of the Muhlenberg Memorial, arguing that I have failed to read its grammar closely. Pastor Colvin believes that Pr. Muhlenberg was indeed a High Churchman, although he demures from defining the term, and that at the very least Pr. Muhlenberg refused to recognize the ministerial orders of non-episcopally-ordained men. Thus, he believes that my summary of Pr. Muhlenberg’s “evangelical catholicity” is basically incorrect.

Pastor Colvin writes:

But Wedgeworth misses Muhlenberg’s use of the subjunctive: Muhlenberg does not say that they actually are “able ministers of the New Testament”, but that they “would be“. That is, Muhlenberg believes that they are doctrinally and spiritually qualified, but that they lack the proper authority from the Church. They are not currently ministers of the New Testament in Muhlenberg’s view, because they have not received ordination; and this is something that they can only receive at the hands of bishops. Thus, the memorial urges “the extension of orders to the class of men contemplated”, but not the recognition of Presbyterian orders as already valid or sufficient.

He adds:

There is no idea here of a bond of fellowship outside of episcopal polity. Note that the Muhlenberg Memorial does not concede to Presbyterian churches the dignity of the name “Church.” It calls them merely “bodies of Christians”…

…Note that Muhlenberg speaks of “admission to the Gospel ministry” (sc. from outside it), not of the PEC recognising the existing ministry of men who have not been ordained by bishops.

Muhlenberg wanted the Episcopal Church to ordain pastors from non-Episcopal churches who had scruples at certain ceremonies or prayers in the Book of Common Prayer. These are the matters that are “non-essentials” according to Muhlenberg. Episcopal ordination, on the other hand, was in his view necessary and non-negotiable. He did not have in mind Wedgeworth’s vision of “a liturgical ‘catholic’ Evangelical” movement inclusive of both Episcopal and non-Episcopal orders.

It should be noted here, that while Pr. Colvin and I have disagreed quite spiritedly in the past on a number of issues, the esse of the church and the grounds of a valid ministerial ordination have never been among the disputed points. Even here, his only concern is with the facts of history: what Pr. Muhlenberg actually believed and the text of the Memorial. One of Pr. Colvin’s strengths is certainly his desire to read historical texts within their own parameters (a historico-grammatical method, so to speak), and we are certainly at one in that regard. Indeed, my interest in Muhlenberg itself came from a search for the historical meaning of the expression “catholic,” and the nature of “evangelical catholicity” in that context. Pr. Colvin indicated that I had taken issue with a certain description of the Reformed Episcopal Church’s early character, but this is not actually what I did.1 What I objected to was the description of Muhlenberg as “very high church.” My rebuttal was that he was actually something of a “moderate if not a low churchman,” and I turned to the Memorial to support that claim. My larger interest was actually in the way in which Pr. Muhlenberg expanded the possibilities of what it mean to be a “catholic” churchman.

And so let us turn our attention to the Muhlenberg Memorial once more and review the contested statements. My initial assumption about the Memorial was that Pr. Muhlenberg was attempting to expand the Protestant Episcopal Church’s recognition of ministers in North America as a means to further his larger vision of an “evangelical catholic” union. I was assuming that Pr. Muhlenberg himself did recognize the ministry of non-episcopally-ordained men but that he believed that the recognition of their ministry by the Protestant Episcopal Church was the best way to achieve the larger Protestant Union he had been advocating. This obviously informed my reading of the Memorial, as Pr. Colvin rightly noted, and my understanding of Pr. Muhlenberg in this regard was itself dependent on the work of Dr. Guelzo.

Pr. Colvin takes the opposite view of Pr. Muhlenberg’s theology and reads the Memorial with the assumption that Pr. Muhlenberg “was a high churchman who believed in apostolic succession and did not recognize Presbyterian orders.” Even if he is not wholly committed to this description of Muhlenberg, for he does say that such a description is “attributed to” Muhlenberg by other Anglicans and Reformed Episcopal Church men, Pr. Colvin still believes that the grammar of the Memorial more naturally lends itself to this reading. For example, Pr. Colvin points out that the Memorial says that the pastors of other Protestant bodies “would be”  ministers and that the “primitive fellowship” which they lack “is here believed to be the peculiar province and high privilege of” the Bishops of the Episcopal Church who are “Catholic and Apostolic.” Pr. Colvin also draws attention to the Memorial’s language which asks for “a wider door to be opened for the admission to the Gospel ministry.” Thus, the men in question have not yet been admitted.

I would like to respond to these points briefly by looking again at the Memorial and then to turn to certain additional writings of Pr. Muhlenberg to explain why I believe that my initial reading of the Memorial was the correct one and that my initial description of Pr. Muhlenberg’s understanding of an “evangelical catholic” union was also accurate. It is also my hope that Pr. Colvin will himself by assisted by this even closer reading of Muhlenberg, as it will demonstrate that the three of us are actually agreed on the essential matters in dispute.

Back to the Memorial

I admit that the Memorial is ambiguous in key places. This is actually an intentional feature, however, as Pr. Muhlenberg was trying to achieve a union which itself included the full breadth of positions held by ministers within the Protestant Episcopal Church. It would not have been effective, at least not according to Muhlenberg’s own principles, if it alienated either the “High Church” or “Low Church” parties. As such, the questions highlighted by Pr. Colvin– whether or not episcopal ordination is, in fact, a “non-negotiable” which must precede one being an actual “minister” of the Gospel, as well as what exactly constitutes the essence of “the Church”– are not actually answered, nor is any one particular answer absolutely necessary in order for the Memorial to achieve its design. I would agree that it is possible to read the Memorial according to the assumptions of the High Church party, but it is not necessary to read it that way. I will give some good reasons not to read it that way before turning to outside material to better inform our interpretation and which will show us, I believe, that the High Church reading is not actually a correct reading of the Memorial at all.

To begin with, we need to be clear about what the Memorial is. It is not a general summary of Pr. Muhlenberg’s theology or even his thoughts on “evangelical catholicity.” It is, rather, a proposal for a specific ecclesiastical polity. It is true that the Memorial does not identify the other Protestant denominations as “churches,” but neither does it ever actually give a definition of “the church” or its bounds. In fact, whenever the term “church” is used at all, it is always in the particular sense: “the Church of which you have the oversight,” “our Church,” or “that Church.” Indeed, the only time the term is used beyond the mere identification of Pr. Muhlenberg’s own church is when he says that “a Church unity in the Protestant Christendom of our land” would enjoy an important first step by the Memorial. In fact, the larger union of which the memorial speaks is not described as a future subset of the Protestant Episcopal Church, but rather a “broader and more comprehensive” ecclesiastical system “surrounding and including” the Protestant Episcopal Church. This “broader” landscape is itself described by the Memorial as “our American Protestant Christianity” and “the Protestant Christendom of our land.” The goal then would be a national Protestant union.

The question of ministerial recognition is also not actually answered, and the various statements about it need not be read according to the High Church interpretation. To begin with, the “door [to] be opened to the Gospel ministry” is not simply the door for all ministers, but rather the door for “our Church” which “her candidates for holy orders are now obliged to enter.” Additionally, “the extension of orders” is an extension from the Protestant Episcopal Church of her orders. Neither statement actually claims that “our Church” is the entire church, nor that the orders of that church are the only legitimate orders. This was, to be sure, the assumption of many within the Protestant Episcopal Church, but it is not actually a claim made by the Memorial.

Further, Pr. Colvin points to the fact that the Memorial claims these men “would be” ministers, but he does not explain the reason that they “would be.” For the Memorial, it is because they are “sound in the faith” and have “the gifts of preachers and pastors.” The obvious question is where these gifts originated. The insinuation is that they came from “the Lord of the harvest” to whom the church has been praying. As such, the Memorial implies that it would be wrong to deny the recognition of the ministry to such men, since they already possess the spiritual gift. What kind of “High Church” ecclesiology admits that ministers (even improperly ordained or non-ordained ministers!) possess the charismatic gift prior to the ecclesiastical recognition?

Additionally, “the peculiar province and high privilege” which is said to belong to the “College of CATHOLIC AND APOSTOLIC BISHOPS as such” is not to make the other bodies into churches, nor to establish their esse as churches, but rather “to become a central bond of union among Christians.” Thus, while the Memorial does not actually call the other Protestant denominations “churches,” it also does not deny that they are churches, nor does it state that their ministers are not yet ministers. It only says that they are not yet recognized as such by the Protestant Episcopal Church, which, of course, was a matter of simple fact. While a High Church reading might argue that recognition by the Protestant Episcopal Church is identical with recognition by the Church catholic, that would be exactly the point in dispute between the High and Low Church parties.

The Memorial as an Evangelical Statement

At this point our readers might believe that I have only succeeded in neutralizing the critique. Am I not also left to assume what is disputed? If the Memorial really is so ambiguous, should I not at least retract my initial claim that it represented an evangelical spirit? I do not believe my situation is so dire. In fact, I believe that there are three reasons to continue to read the Memorial along the “evangelical” lines, the first of which can be argued from the framing of the Memorial itself, the second of which can be supported from the historical reception of the Memorial, and the third, and most definitive, can be derived from Pr. Muhlenberg’s other theological essays and his commentary on the Memorial.

First, we should notice the internal framing of the Memorial. While it attempts to avoid making statements which would divide Episcopalians, it consistently seeks to place them within the larger “Protestant” community. More than this, it also places this Protestant community in opposition to the Roman Catholic Church. Notice this explanation:

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 lower classes of our population, making a heathen world in our midst, are among the considerations which induce your memorialists to present the inquiry…

It is clear that the memorialists are attempting to defend and strengthen “Protestant Christianity” and “the Protestant faith.” The combination of unbelief and Romanism have weakened “the Gospel” and made “a heathen world in our midst.” The desired unity is clearly only between Protestants, and the Memorial goes on to say that the Protestants already hold to the same “one Faith, one Lord, and the one Baptism.” It is true that they lack the “closer and more primitive fellowship,” but this fellowship is not one that is shared between Episcopalians and Roman Catholics. The Memorial makes episcopal-oversight a necessary condition for this “fellowship,” but it does not make it a necessary condition for “the faith” nor “the gospel.” Episcopacy cannot even be said to be necessary for “Christendom,” since the Memorial speaks of that as already existing “in our land,” and it is clear that that “Christendom” is inclusive of but broader than the Protestant Episcopal Church.

The second reason to not interpret this Memorial as a High Church overture is because of its historical reception. The Memorial was mostly opposed by the High Churchmen, and it ultimately failed when the House of Bishops refused to enact any of its primary proposals. After the failure of the Memorial, Pr. Muhlenberg began to present similar kinds of proposals, only not to the Bishops of the Protestant Episcopal Church but to parachurch conventions, namely the Evangelical Alliance. Reformed Episcopalians ought to recognize that name, as it was the occasion of Bishop Cummins’s involvement in an Evangelical Alliance meeting which caused his exodus from the Protestant Episcopal Church.

Indeed, the elderly Muhlenberg, many years after the failure of his Memorial, reflected on the nature of his ecclesiological development:

I confess, as I advance in life, I grow increasingly tolerant of the various organizations of genuine Christianity, and proportionably impatient of the exclusive claims of any one of them to be that of Christ or His apostles. I come to look more and more at the Church simply as the Congregation of the Brethren in Christ. This is the Ecclesia of the Gospel, having equally the universal Christian consent. Brotherhood in Christ is eminently Evangelic Catholicism. What idea of the Church is more Catholic than that of the Society of men, in all ages and everywhere, united by faith to Jesus Christ, the Eternal Son of God, taking their nature upon Him, and so becoming their God- Brother, the one and only Mediator between God and man ? What virtue more Evangelic than the love of the brethren as brethren in Him? What more Evangelic and Catholic, pre-eminently both, than Charity, the informing spirit of the Church on earth, and so to be of the Church forever in heaven? May such be the Evangelic Catholicism of our Union, making it a true brotherhood in Christ, for a new bond of love to one another in Him, and a new encouragement to all such works of love as ” He hath ordained for us to walk in.” (Evangelical Catholic Papers: A Collection of Essays, Letters, and Tractates from the Writings of Rev. William Augustus Muhlenberg, During the Last Forty Years. ed. Anne Ayres. St. Johnland Press and Stereotype Foundry, 1875. p 459. All following parenthetical citations will be from this book.)

There can be no question about where Pr. Muhlenberg ended his life. The Memorial seems to be an attempt to introduce this same sort of “evangelical catholicity” (the kind which he would later propose to a parachurch organization!) into the ecclesiastical boundaries of the Protestant Episcopal Church.

The third reason to read the Muhlenbeg Memorial as an evangelical statement is that we have commentary from Pr. Muhlenberg himself explaining exactly what he meant. This commentary does not exhaustively determine the meaning or possible meanings of the Memorial, of course, since the Memorial was purposely crafted with the goal of being acceptable to a group of churchmen who held wildly different if not actually contradictory definitions of the church. Still, Pr. Muhlenberg’s own commentary is the most important and decisive material for interpreting his authorial intent. And so let us now look at his “Evangelical Catholic Papers.”

What Exactly Did Muhlenberg Believe?

As we have seen so far, several important terms need to be defined in order to answer the questions in dispute. We need to know how Pr. Muhlenberg defined the church, what function he believed episcopal ordination and even “succession” played, as well as whether he recognized the ministries of non-episcopal churches. Did Pr. Muhlenberg distinguish between the esse of the church and the plene esse, and if so, which characteristics or “marks” constituted the esse? These are all necessary questions to understand exactly what Pr. Muhlenberg meant by “evangelical catholicity” and what sort of “union” he hoped for his Memorial to achieve.

The Memorial’s chief weakness was precisely that it did not attempt to answer any of these questions. It left key terms undefined in the hopes that it could satisfy all parties. Pr. Colvin sufficiently explained the High Church reading of the Memorial. With the High Church assumptions, the Memorial would achieve “church unity” by assimilating the various Protestant bodies into the Protestant Episcopal Church, which through its possession of apostolic succession functioned as an organ of “the Church” (understood to mean the singular catholic and apostolic church). The clergy, particularly the bishops, would function as the embodiment of the Church, and the various non-Episcopalian pastors and preachers would be thereby received into the Church, thus accomplishing the union. By contrast, the classic Low Church position might go so far as to argue that all external union is unnecessary (and even redundant) as the true unity of the Church is found through the message of the gospel and the union of the Holy Spirit. There are other Low Church options, of course, which while not denying those same Low Church principles (unity in the gospel and the Spirit) still argue for the legitimacy and expediency of some external union. This external union was not absolutely necessary for the Church to exist, of course, but it would be necessary for that Church to enjoy and exhibit its full power and witness to the world. It is this last category in which Pr. Muhlenberg fits.

The most accessible source for Pr. Muhlenberg’s theology is Evangelical Catholic Papers, the collection of his essays, letters, and tracts compiled by Anne Ayres. In these essays, we have the writings Muhlenberg published before his Memorial, we an explanation and commentary of his Memorial which was published during the deliberations surrounding his Memorial, and we have essays expounding the same themes and ideas which were published after the Memorial failed. I will not attempt to give a comprehensive summary of all of the papers, but I will highlight some key quotations which explains Pr. Muhlenberg’s position on matters directly relevant to ecclesiology and church unity.

Unity and Union

Of fundamental importance in any discussion of “catholicity” is how the unity of the Church is to be achieved. The High Church party argued that such unity was ultimately to be found in apostolic succession, which amounted to valid episcopal ordination. The Low Church party argued that the Church’s unity was wholly spiritual and did not depend in any way on a particular church polity. Pr. Muhlenberg addressed the nature of unity with this sort of division in mind, but he found a way to address both concerns by making a distinction between unity and union. He writes:

There may be unity, when there is not union. Men may be cordially one in great principles, while in the application of those principles, and in the choice of means for their preservation or extension, they may be arrayed in hostile parties. There is too little union among Christians, nevertheless there is unity — the unity of Faith and Spirit; and it was this, rather than any external union, which the Redeemer so importunately entreated of his Father. (12)

It is important to note that Pr. Muhlenberg interpreted the high-priestly prayer of John 17 in terms of unity rather than union:

That such was the nature of the unity in his view, appears from his own words, “That they all may be one; as thou Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us.”

The oneness of the Father and Son being wholly spiritual, the oneness of believers being the same in kind, though less in degree, must also be wholly spiritual.

The nature of the union further appears from the consideration that the blessings implored throughout the sacerdotal prayer are ends, and not means for the accomplishment of ends. Thus the Redeemer prays that the Father would keep those whom he had given him from the evil; that he would sanctify them through the truth; that they might be made perfect in one; that they might be with him, and share the glory which the Father had given him before the foundation of the world. These are ends, sanctification and final glorification; the result of the mediation of CHRIST, and of all the means of grace. Now, union, or external unity, is not an end or a result, but a means, and valuable only as a means, for the preservation of spiritual unity, and therefore we may not suppose it to have been the subject of the Redeemer’s prayers. (12-13)

This passage is crucial for understanding Pr. Muhlenberg’s doctrine of the church, for he says that unity is necessary and guaranteed to the church because of Christ’s mediation. He also subordinates union, which he calls “external unity,” to “spiritual unity.” The purpose of “external unity” is “a means… for the preservation of spiritual unity.” He qualifies that external unity is only valuable insofar as it preserves spiritual unity. Pr. Muhlenberg even goes so far as to say that union considered in itself is of no particularly Christian virtue. “Union, or unity in outward bonds, could carry no such conviction [a confirmation of the true faith- SW]; for it may exist where there is little harmony of spirit, and distinguishes Popery and Mahomedanism in a much greater degree than genuine Christianity” (14). We see here, as is always the case in Pr. Muhlenberg’s mature writings, that Roman Catholicism is not considered to be “genuine Christianity.” The “evangelical catholicity” which he advocated was consistently exclusive of Roman Catholicism.

The opposition of “genuine Christianity” to Roman Catholicism is essential for understanding Pr. Muhlenberg’s doctrine of the church. He goes on to refute the High Church contention that “external union is inseparable from Christian discipleship” Against this he states :

Such contend that it was the subject of the Redeemer’s prayer, and thence again argue, that communion with the one visible Church, is the necessary means of union with CHRIST. But this is not Protestant doctrine, the grand center truth of which is the union of believers in CHRIST through faith alone. (14-15)

Notice especially that, for Pr. Muhlenberg, union with Christ is achieved “through faith alone.” This is thus an immediate union with Christ and not one which is subordinate to the visible church or its ministry.

What Sort of Union?

Of course, Pr. Muhlenberg greatly valued external unity. The ultimate goal of his “evangelical catholicity” was to achieve a Protestant union across the country. For Pr. Muhlenberg, union is both the “offspring” of unity and the “protector” of unity, as it enables Christians to better dwell together in love (15). He even compares unity and union to “soul and body,” though it is important to note that the “soul” of the Church is always its spiritual unity and the “body” its external union (15).

The character of the Protestant union hoped for by Pr. Muhlenberg is that of “a confederacy among the leading Protestant Churches” (18). Here we do have Pr. Muhlenberg attributing the title of “Church” to groups other than episcopal polities, and this was written prior to his Memorial. He explains the form of this ecclesiastical confederacy:

Such a confederacy might be analogous to the civil union of our own country, leaving to the separate Churches all their original independence, but uniting them, if not under one government, yet in the adoption of all the great principles which they hold in common. These great principles, together with a few provisions for combined action in certain movements, might form the constitution of the confederacy. (18)

Even if such a confederacy never became a full church union, “it would be, at least, a nucleus of union” and would make “the common ground of Protestants a visible and tangible thing” (19). From here, additional union could be pursued. “It would be a catholic basis on which, from time to time, might be erected all the superstructure of the visible catholic Church” (19).

Pr. Muhlenberg explained “the essential articles of agreement” would have to relate to doctrine, the pastoral ministry, and the public worship of the churches. He explains to what extent union could be hoped for regarding each of these. Perhaps surprisingly (though not so surprising to evangelicals) Pr. Muhlenberg wrote that union in doctrine would be “easy.” This is because “it already exists” (19). He believed that the Protestant bodies were already united on all of the essential articles of the faith (thus revealing some key assumptions), stating that “nothing would be easier than to frame a set of articles asserting the fundamental doctrines of the Gospel, to which nine tenths of the Protestant world would assent” (20.) What are these fundamental doctrines? Pr. Muhlenberg lists: “the nature and attributes of God as acknowledged by all Christians, the divinity and atonement of JESUS CHRIST, the fallen condition of man, the regeneration and sanctification of the soul by the HOLY SPIRIT, the justification of the sinner by faith in CHRIST alone, and good works the necessary fruit of faith” (20). Pr. Muhlenberg was so confident that unity already exists on these points that he wrote, “such primary doctrines would be adopted by Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, the United Brethren, and by others, especially if the creed were expressed, as would be desirable, altogether in the language of Scripture” (20).

The question of pastoral ministry would be more difficult. This was not because Pr. Muhlenberg believed that non-episcopalian ministers were lacking true ordination, but rather because there was widespread disagreement among the various churches’ understanding of ordination. Since this is the case, Pr. Muhlenberg attempted to find a sort of compromise solution:

The only possible way of removing the obstacle appears to be this: In a council of representatives from the various churches, assembled to debate the matter, let it be agreed to adopt that form of ordination, or conveyance of the external commission to the ministry, Which all believe to be sufficient, and not repugnant to the word of GOD. In order to accomplish this, the sufficiency and non-contrariety to the word of God of the proposed ordination, must be the only question considered. There must be no inquiry which ordination is the most apostolical, or which the most like that of the primitive Church, or which the most excellent; for on these questions every one would have his own views, and of course would contend for them; and thus there would be a repetition of the old and endless controversies with which the Church has long enough been perplexed. The single point to be determined should be, what form of ordination is acknowledged to be valid by all, and may be received by all without any sacrifice of conscience. If no such ordination can be found, union is impossible. If there cannot be a cordial admission of the due authority of one another’s ministry by the several churches, it is evident they must remain asunder. But the requisite ordination, it is believed, may be found. Let Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists, meet harmoniously and compare their views. Let them canvass the question in the spirit of brotherly love, and honestly endeavor to discover some ground of peace and union. Let them consent to substitute, in place of what they now prefer, any form of ordination in which all could conscientiously unite, and they would not be long in coming to a decision. This appears to be the most equitable, and indeed the only way of arriving at any harmony in the essential point of the ministry! After an authorized council had decided upon the expedient mode of ordination (as a measure of peace, be it observed, not what each would otherwise prefer), all future ministers of the confederate churches might be ordered according to it. (21-23)

This explanation makes it clear that no particular polity is being privileged over the other, nor is Pr. Muhlenberg attempting to dogmatically ensure that a particular minister’s ordination actually is valid. The goal is rather to assuage the conscience of all parties involved as a “measure of peace.” This is the traditional Protestant doctrine of order, combined with the Christian virtue of charity.

Pr. Muhlenberg was aware of just how tall an order this was:

The question of the sufficiency of ordination could not be determined by the plurality of voices in the council. For the conscience of no one must be violated. The majority could not change the minority’s views of truth. The problem to be solved is, what is expedient in the exigency, and lawful in the eyes of all. Any arguments of divine origin or superior antiquity, would only throw the council into interminable discussion. (22)

To make this possible, it would have to have been made clear that “there was no question about the sufficiency of their former commission, and that they submitted to this apparent reordination, only for the sake of harmony and greater good” (23). In a footnote, Pr. Muhlenberg explained that this might be done with a sort of hypothetical “safety” ordination, much like the old hypothetical baptismal formula, “If thou art not ordained, or duly commissioned, we now ordain, etc” (23). This sort of arrangement would no doubt irritate some of the lower-church evangelicals, but the principles articulated make it clear that any such compromise in this regard would wholly be for the sake of the weaker brother’s conscience. No minister would have to admit that his ordination were actually invalid nor would he have to grant that the authentic seat of ecclesiastical authority rested with any particular polity or historical institution.

The third element in the union is that of public worship. Here Pr. Muhlenberg exhibits the most modesty. He confesses that “union might not be deemed expedien[t]” (24). “Certainly,” he adds, “it would not be essential.” Still, he believed that it could be possible and proposed the following elements as consisting the core unity: “the reading the holy Scriptures, singing of psalms and hymns, and prayer” (24-25).

Who Could Be Included?

The sort of union thus proposed by Pr. Muhlenberg is not a singular “Church” in the High Church sense. Neither is it the three-branched church of the Anglo-Catholic imagination. Instead it is a confederation of Protestant churches operating in concord and mutually recognizing one another, including one another’s ordination and worship. Still, Pr. Muhlenberg does want to allow space for the High Church advocates within the Protestant union. He knows full well that for them the issue is that of apostolic succession, and so he attempts to also “admit” that doctrine within the union. Here Muhlenberg is perhaps stretching the limits of possibility, but his desire in this regard is genuine and explains why he labors so long in both directions, high and low. He is trying to allow for as many Protestant positions as possible. Of the High Churchmen he writes, “they would feel obliged, in conscience, to decline any proposition of union which required a relinquishment of it [apostolic succession]; but, if I mistake not, would cheerfully accede to one admitting it, although considerable compromise were demanded in matters not involving a sacrifice of principle” (36-37). Notice that this union admits the doctrine of apostolic succession in the sense of not requiring “a relinquishment of it.” Pr. Muhlenberg does not say that the doctrine of apostolic succession would itself be the basis of the union, nor that it would be forced upon the other Protestants. Instead, his union would attempt to allow for both positions.2

Pastor Muhlenberg did indeed want the High-Church Episcopalians included in his union. He also wanted the Baptists. He even carries out a thought experiment where a Baptist minister was ordained by an Episcopal bishop with the full understanding that the Baptist minister would continue his ministry as a Baptist, refusing to baptize infants. Pr. Muhlenberg believed that this would be acceptable. The only condition for ordination, Pr. Muhlenberg asserts, is “the original commission” which was “Go ye, and preach the gospel to every creature” (40). Strikingly he adds, “There might indeed have been other conditions implied in CHRIST’S knowledge of his Apostles, that secured the practice of infant baptism; but these do not appear, and since the commission is pleaded as expressed, the terms must be taken as they are known” (40).

Why Bishops?

The feature of Pr. Muhlenberg’s union which seems most to suggest a High-Church polity is the prominent role of the bishop. Indeed, as Pr. Colvin put it in his response, “Episcopal ordination… was in his view necessary and non-negotiable.” But the question is “necessary for what?” We should also pay attention to why Pr. Muhlenberg favors episcopacy for this union.

The answer to these questions is entirely pragmatic. Pr. Muhlenberg explains why episcopal government is the necessary uniting form of government by appealing to the fact that it is the one polity which all Christians can at least grant as valid even if not preferred:

In order to union, in the essential point of a mutual recognition of their respective ministries by the Protestant Churches, it has been proposed, in these hints, that that form of ordination should be adopted which is universally acknowledged to be valid, and not repugnant to the word of GOD. Such is episcopal ordination. Its validity none of the Protestant Churches can deny, since, through the Roman Church, it has been the common channel of orders to all.

… All arguments for or against episcopacy, as a primitive and apostolic institution, may be waived as foreign to the question in hand, and the inquiry confined to the sufficiency and lawfulness of episcopal ordination, and the adoption of it as a measure of peace. (46-47)

Again we see the language of “peace.” Pr. Muhlenberg consistently argues that diverse ministers should submit themselves to a unifying polity, not out of personal necessity, but in order to achieve mutual concord. “But no preference, however just, need be claimed, for all difficulty in the matter of ordination might be removed simply by making it the joint act of the confederate churches” (49). This would be an action of the all of churches, “Each Church would consider its own ministers alone as sufficient, but would consent to the assistance of others to give validity to the act in the eyes of all” (49).

This sort of pragmatic reasoning might give some room to suspect a doctrinal dodge. Is this not a sort of naive latitudinarianism? While Pr. Muhlenberg does refrain from making any particular conclusion about polity necessary for his union, he does explain his own position, appealing to the two marks of the church explained by the 39 Articles of Religion (51). He writes:

Thus, to constitute the Church, the pure word of GOD must be preached, and the sacraments duly administered, according to CHRIST’S ordinance. But what the pure word of GOD is, and when the sacraments are duly administered, are not declared, but are left with every man’s own reason and conscience, under the guidance of the HOLY SPIRIT. It is doubtful whether another definition of the Church could be drawn up, so extensive, and yet so particular, and hence so well calculated for the creed of an evangelical union. (52)

Thus we have a clear example of Pr. Muhlenberg’s preferred doctrine of the church. He says that any “inferences” from this statement are left “to private judgment” (52).

Commentary on the Memorial

Thus far, all of the quotes have come from Pr. Muhlenberg’s “Hints on Catholic Union,” published just prior to the Memorial in 1835. Now we can turn to Pr. Muhlenberg’s own “Exposition of the Memorial” and “What the Memorialists Want,” both written after the Memorial and while it was still being deliberated. As such, these essays explain not merely what Pr. Muhlenberg believed, but what the Memorial was meant to articulate and achieve.

Significantly, there is a reference to the Protestant Episcopal Church being “a branch of the Catholic Church of Christ” (90), but this is not contrasted against the rest of Protestantism (as in the Anglo-Catholic sense), but is rather spoken of as existing within Protestantism:

Though not by any formal understanding, yet really and in its practical working, Protestantism is a union, of which no one, will deny that our Church is a valuable member. Look at her in the sisterhood of its Christian sects. If she is rather old-fashioned in some of her ways, it is to her credit that she does not care to follow the fashion. If she is somewhat stately and formal, all must confess her matronly grace, her dignified and proper demeanor, her ardor tempered by sound judgment, her zeal always regulated by knowledge. (111)

Here we actually see an advancement from Pr. Muhlenberg’s earlier exposition. In “Hints on a Catholic Union,” he had professed that Protestantism enjoyed a unity. Here he says “Protestantism is a union.” And, most importantly, he includes the Protestant Episcopal Church “in the sisterhood of its Christian sects.”

High Church And Low Church

I believe that the principles thus far expressed by Pr. Muhlenberg show the Memorial to be an essentially evangelical document. Still, he does truly want the Memorial to include both the High Churchmen and the Low Churchmen:

Here let there be a suspension of the course of our remarks for the purpose of a few words in regard to the above command of the Great Head of the Church as devolving on the Episcopate. That it does so devolve is -of course evident to those Episcopalians who understand it as given to the Apostles in their capacity as the first of a line of men in the apostolical office designed to be continued to the end of the world. This involves the doctrine of the transmission of the ministry, solely, through the channel of the Episcopate, and forms the High Church dogma on the subject. Other Episcopalians maintain that the command given to the apostles was addressed to them, not solely in their official character as apostles, but also in their character as representatives of the whole body of the Church, and accordingly, that on the whole body of the Church rests the charge to preach the gospel. This is the theory of Low Churchmen, who together with it, however, maintain that from “the Apostles’ times there have been these three orders of ministers in the Church: Bishops, Priests, and Deacons.” This they hold to as an historical fact, and also to the further historical fact, that from the Apostles’ times, Gospel ministers of every grade, have been ordained by Bishops, wherever Bishops were to be found. In other words, that the Episcopate was the prime organ of the Church in discharging the duty resting upon her to publish the Gospel. Such they consider to have been the invariable practice, and hence adhere to Episcopal ordination, as of primitive and universal order, though not, with their High Church brethren, as of Evangelic command. This question may be left open, and yet the practical issue will be the same, unless indeed primitive and universal order be made of no account, which is not here supposed. They then who are required by that order, or who in virtue of it have an unquestioned right to commission men to preach the Gospel (viz. the Bishops) are eminently bound to do so. To them, as to no others, comes the voice of the Lord in unbroken accents along the current of centuries, “Go ye into all the world.” To this both high and low churchmen assent. But setting antiquity aside, making no account of the historical Episcopate, nor saying what the succession is worth, take the fact as it now stands. Take only what is patent and present: the Bishops, and the Bishops only, can give a commission to preach the Gospel which obtains credit everywhere in the Protestant world. (119-120)

In order to be able to include High Churchmen, the Memorial must not contradict or offend High Church principles. Pr. Muhlenberg believed that he could walk this tight-rope. Nevertheless, several statements which concede the evangelical case can be shown from this very text. For instance, Pr. Muhlenberg says, “Our Protestant Episcopal type is undoubtedly a very good type, perhaps it is the very best, but who will venture to say that it is the only type of the Gospel ministry?” (121). Of course readers know the answer. The High Churchmen would venture to say so! Again, Pr. Muhlenberg articulates an evangelical case when he writes:

On what ground do they take their stand, rejecting all others but Protestant Episcopal applicants for the ministerial office? …If there be any law or rule of the Protestant Episcopal Church confining them within her own range, it is null and void. It abridges their original commission. It trenches on their inherent powers. It contravenes the Higher Law. But there is none. (122)

Finally, Pr. Muhlenberg does articulate a clear principle on the matter of the apostolic episcopate, even if he does attempt to bury it somewhat in a footnote. “At any rate, a belief in the Apostolicity or antiquity of Episcopacy, is not an article of the Faith” (127-128). I am in full agreement with Pr. Muhlenberg, and I think he represents the thought of the English Reformation. I cannot see, however, how he does not directly contradict the High Church position, and this is probably one reason why his Memorial was ultimately found unacceptable to the Protestant Episcopal bishops.

The Expansion of the Protestant Episcopate

The role of the episcopate is central to the Memorial, as it is to Pr. Muhlenberg’s larger vision. The relevant question in order to determine principles, however, is why the episcopate is thought to be important. Again, the answer is pragmatic. Pr. Muhlenberg writes:

These two things they will be constrained to admit: 1. In order to any effective union and intercommunion among the several Protestant bodies, each must have a ministry, the validity of which is acknowledged by all the others. 2. That none but a ministry episcopally ordained is thus acknowledged. This is a fact that cannot be denied, nor by any possibility can it be changed. Episcopal orders, and no others, admit everywhere to the pulpits of the Protestant Faith. (150)

That only the episcopally-ordained ministry is acknowledged is not a statement of theological truth, nor is it thought to be a new affirmation, but is rather, as the quote illustrates, a matter of fact. It is the only ministry acknowledged by all Protestants.

Pr. Muhlenberg expands on this thought:

The central idea of the movement, as contemplated in the wider aim of the Memorial, is the emancipation of the Protestant Episcopate — upon this it all turns… The question of the integrity of the reformed churches, thus deprived by necessity of the Episcopate, is one with which we are not now concerned. As one of the memorialists I waive it. I have a settled opinion upon it, but the present argument does not call for its expression. It is wide of its scope. (181-182)

If the Memorial does not attempt to answer the question of the episcopate’s authority from an appeal to necessity, then what kind of authority should be considered? Pr. Muhlenberg answers “the authority of reason and common sense” (185). In fact, he goes on at some length explaining that the reason for a Christian to be “catholic” is wholly a product of historical study and the free consent of charity. It is not a matter of “faith” in the sense that the essentials of Christianity are.

What the Memorialists Want

We will move now to a second commentary on the Memorial, one written three years later and helpfully titled “What the Memorialists Want.” In this essay, Pr. Muhlenberg continues to attempt to convince those who are skeptical about the Memorial, and more than simply re-explaining the Memorial’s contents, he attempts to clarify the authorial intent and the intended ecclesiastical goal of the Memorial. He concedes that the Memorial is in places “vague” (201), but says that really this vagueness represents the Memorial’s “double bearing.” The two goals hoped for are “one on the Protestant Episcopal Church, as such; the other, which is its ultimate scope, on that Church, considered in its essential elements, as the norm of a broader and more catholic system” (202)” Thus we can understand why Pr. Muhlenberg would have to write within the restrictions of Protestant Episcopal polity. Nevertheless, his ultimate goal was much larger.

Pr. Muhlenberg takes a great deal of time explaining the ways in which his Memorial would affect the canons of the Protestant Episcopal Church, as well as the role of the Book of Common Prayer among its members. These are all matters internal to the Protestant Episcopal Church.  But after that explanation, he turns to the larger vision: “It remains that I state what they ask in the ultimate scope of their petition, and in its bearing on the Protestant Episcopal Church, considered in her essential elements as the norm of a broader and more catholic system” (255).

This “broader and more catholic system” would be one which indeed recognized the other Protestant bodies, but one which sought to do so in a way which would satisfy all Protestant parties. The Protestant Episcopal Church, Pr. Muhlenberg believed, ought to take the lead in this endeavor. He then goes on to explain why both Low Churchmen and High Churchmen ought to be in favor of such a demonstration. In the midst of these explanations, Pr. Muhlenberg does give his opinion on one of the distinctive High Church positions:

High churchmen would deny that they anathematize their orthodox non-episcopal brethren — that would be uncharitable. They only unchurch them. What is this unchurching? What does it amount to, as to the Christian estimate in which it obliges them to hold their unchurched brethren? Very little. I have never yet known a churchman, however extreme in his views, much distressed at the death of pious Presbyterian relatives or friends, as doubting their salvation because they were not in the Church. Not so the sincere Romanist. One dear to him dying out of the church is an intense grief, and he gives all he can afford in masses for the restoration of the unfortunate soul. With us all baptized true Christian men are undoubtedly saved. If consistently with our dogma we cannot embrace them in the Catholic Church, we yet have a place for them in the Communion of saints, so that practically the necessity of union with an Episcopal ministry, after all, we make of no great account. It does not affect salvation. Is it then only one of our tenets; or, in popular language, one of our “denominational peculiarities?” And for no more than that do we ignore our brethren? Do we refuse the hand of fellowship to those whom, we have no doubt at all, we shall joy to meet here after? At least, shall we not consent to a consideration of the practicability of recognizing that brotherhood on earth, which we shrink from saying will not exist in Heaven? (271)

That aside is actually quite telling. It appeared in the section where Pr. Muhlenberg professed to temporarily take the side of the High Churchmen in order to explain why his Memorial was consistent with their beliefs. Still, it should be obvious, he took the occasion to show that their beliefs were inconsistent.

Muhlenberg After the Memorial

The Muhlenberg Memorial went on to fail, not with a bang but with a whimper. The bishops of the Protestant Episcopal Church did create a committee for ecumenical relations, but they took none of the more direct actions suggested by the Memorial. Pr. Muhlenberg did not give up his quest for “evangelical catholicity,” but he did seek out new audiences, the evangelical parachurch committees and conventions. Two significant essays in this regard are his “Suggestions for the Formation of an Evangelical and Catholic Union” presented to the Evangelical Conference in Philadelphia in 1869 and his “The Lord’s Supper in its Relation to Christian Union” read to the Conference of the Evangelical Alliance in New York in 1873. Both of these papers continued to set forth Muhlenberg’s vision for union, but now with the Protestant Episcopal Church playing a much reduced role.

Evangelic Catholicism

In the first paper, Pr. Muhlenberg defines his terms, both “Catholic” and “Evangelical.” The first term, “Catholic,” refers to “Faith, Doctrine, and Order, which have been universal, always and from the beginning” (433). “But,” he adds, “primitiveness or purity did not long continue to characterize the Faith everywhere” (433). He then goes on to explain the corruption of the Church under Roman Catholicism. Because of this, Pr. Muhlenberg says, “Hence it is not sufficient to profess Catholicism. We must indicate its kind.” And for him, the kind of “Catholicism” desired is “Gospel or Evangelic Catholicism” (434). This “Evangelic Catholicism” was the subject of the Protestant Reformation:

This was restored at the Reformation, which in its main purport and idea, was a republication of the Gospel, trying the existing Catholicism by the standard of the Gospel, retaining or rejecting everything in the former as it agreed or not with the latter. The result, as I have said, was Evangelic Catholicism. (434)

Pr. Muhlenberg wants both, the primitive forms of “Catholicism” and the gospel of the Protestant Reformation or “Evangelicism.” He even goes on to explain these as external form on the one hand and internal freedom on the other, explaining that both are necessary:

In a word, Catholicism, as such, is more objective than subjective, while Evangelicism, is more the latter than the former, though, of course, in respect to the great facts of revelation, it is equally objective with Catholicism. Accordingly, Evangelicism deals more with the inward and spiritual. It considers the Church as the society of all true believers, the ” blessed company of all faithful people;” ministers of the Gospel, as having a call within from the Lord, rather than as ordained by man; the various forms of worship, as comparatively indifferent, so there be the “worship in spirit and in truth.”

Agreeable to these distinctions, our Church is both Catholic and Evangelic — Catholic in adhering to the ancient documents of the faith; Evangelic in requiring the faith of the heart and immediately in Christ. (435-436)

Pr. Muhlenberg even employs the famous “via media” expression, but not in terms of a middle way between Catholicism and Protestantism, but rather as between “Catholic authority” and “the light and freedom of the Gospel.” He explains:

Let us have our eyes open to the peril on both sides, and keep the via media, not between Rome and Geneva, but between genuine Catholic authority and the light and freedom of the Gospel. As consistent ministers of the Protestant Episcopal Church, while we take the divine oracles for the only rule of faith, we do not make light of ancient and world-wide interpretation of those oracles.(438)

Notice that the “rule of faith” is limited to the Scriptures, whereas the catholic tradition is said to be an interpretation of the Scriptures which plays an important but subordinate role.

Against Anglo-Catholicism

This essay is also important because in it Pr. Muhlenberg gives his very negative estimation of the Anglo-Catholicism of the Tractarians. He says that, while the Protestant Episcopal Church is not in much danger of falling into extreme evangelicalism, “Of the other extreme, facts show that the Church is in peril” (439). This other extreme is the anti-Reformational “Catholicism” coming out of Oxford:

The “advanced Ritualism” spreading among us claims to be Catholicism; and so it is, if we allow all that to be such which prevailed in the Church in the middle ages. Our ritualists say they are Pre-Reformation Catholics, a distinction which does not amount to much, unless by pre they mean some twelve hundred years or more before the Reformation. Catholicism of that date we can accept without materially favoring their system, which, all competent and disinterested men being judges, is, in its religious genus, or at least in its direct tendency, Roman Catholicism. The advances of this among us we have reason to fear, and that on more accounts than one. Dealing so much in externals, it falls in with the materialistic spirit of the times. Its attractions are alluring to the carnal man. It appeals largely to the senses and the imagination, making the fine arts handmaids of its mysteries. It claims eminently to meet the devotional element in our nature, which it may do, and still leave it unregenerate nature. As to its doctrine and ministrations, they converge in a religionism not founded on the Rock of Ages, yet satisfying thousands who feel the need of some thing to rest upon before God, yet seek it not by planting their feet at once on that only sure foundation. (439)

Notice Pr. Muhlenberg’s criticism of “the materialistic spirit of the times.” It must be remembered that Muhlenberg was himself known as a high-culture aesthete, one who enjoyed all the trappings of liturgy and the cathedral. But here he shows his true colors. All external matters must be subordinate to and in support of the gospel.3

Pr. Muhlenberg goes on to explain that the Church of England is currently courting a sort of union with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. His union, by contrast, would move in the opposite direction:

Our “Catholic” brethren, indulging their sympathies, look kindly on the Greek and Roman communions, wishing for some sort of alliance with them; so we, with our Protestant sympathies, would indulge them in a Protestant direction. Hence, we would cherish a relationship with the surrounding Protestant churches and especially with their ministers, as fellow propagators of the same great principles at stake. This is why we would maintain and show by a ministerial fellowship with them — not just for a courteous “exchange of pulpits,” but for a higher purpose — that demonstration of Evangelical unity which the times so urgently demand. (442-443)

A Low-Church Horizon

Pr. Muhlenberg had spent the majority of his career in defense of the Protestant Episcopal Church and its traditions. He had always been careful to prioritize Episcopalianism, even while also seeking a more catholic union. But towards the end of this life, after being effectively turned down by his own fellowship, Pr. Muhlenberg explained that his own convictions had began to shift towards the more Low Church understanding:

While such are my aspirations as an Episcopalian, I confess, as I advance in life, I grow increasingly tolerant of the various organizations of genuine Christianity, and proportionably impatient of the exclusive claims of any one of them to be that of Christ or His apostles. I come to look more and more at the Church simply as the Congregation of the Brethren in Christ. This is the Ecclesia of the Gospel, having equally the universal Christian consent. Brotherhood in Christ is eminently Evangelic Catholicism. What idea of the Church is more Catholic than that of the Society of men, in all ages and everywhere, united by faith to Jesus Christ, the Eternal Son of God, taking their nature upon Him, and so becoming their God- Brother, the one and only Mediator between God and man ? What virtue more Evangelic than the love of the brethren as brethren in Him? What more Evangelic and Catholic, pre-eminently both, than Charity, the informing spirit of the Church on earth, and so to be of the Church forever in heaven? May such be the Evangelic Catholicism of our Union, making it a true brotherhood in Christ, for a new bond of love to one another in Him, and a new encouragement to all such works of love as “He hath ordained for us to walk in.” (459)

Open Communion

Of final significance for our exploration here is Pr. Muhlenberg’s proposal for open communion between Protestant bodies. He believed that if they would not yet recognize one another’s ministerial orders, they might at least recognize one another’s communion as the one communion of the saints. He proposed another plan for eventual Protestant Union by the practical means of sharing the Lord’s Supper between Protestant bodies. He concedes that many Christian bodies do and have practiced a closed communion, out of supposed doctrinal necessity, but he feels no such doctrinal necessity, nor does he believe that it belongs in the Protestant Episcopal Church:

A happy change has of late years been going on. The fencing in of God’s board by man’s devices is one of the old ways which we are discovering must not necessarily be good only because they are old. We are coming into a clearer and freer atmosphere. The night is far spent ; the day is at hand. The icy barriers and frostwork of ecclesiasticism, congealed in the dark, are melting under the beams of advancing light. We have had Union Communions. (466)

He explains that these Christians are “loyal to the churches in which Providence has set them, giving them due preference and support,” but that “they own a yet higher allegiance to the law laid upon them in common” (466). This unity is the gospel.

This open communion would begin within the Protestant Episcopal Church, but Pr. Muhlenberg is clear that his goal is for it to spread throughout all of Protestant Christendom:

To that extent it would be a representative Holy Communion, but let it be extended farther — let it embrace more than only certain local congregations, however numerous. The great object in view is the union of the different branches of the ProtestantChurch — even Intercommunion. (467)

Notice his expression that there are “different branches of the Protestant Church.” This is fully consistent with Pr. Muhlenberg’s earlier writings, but it is more explicit. In fact, he continued to expand his vision, seeing how this “intercommunion” could itself serve as a worldwide Protestant Union:

Let us suppose their action went beyond this, and that they appointed delegates immediately from their own bodies, to meet in a stated, say annual, Holy Communion, coinciding in time with one or another of the local celebrations. Here would be a general Church Union. Here would be a concordat, not of theological dogmas or of ecclesiastical policy, yet of fundamental Christian doctrine, withal of Christian amity. Here would be a compact without diplomacy, without settlings of precedence, without mutual concessions — a compact signed with Christ’s own seal. Here would be an Oecumenical Council that might claim, as confidently as any ever held, the presence of the Holy Ghost. Here would be a universal confraternity, having that mark of divine creation, variety in unity — Lutheran and Calvinist, Zwinglian and Moravian, Episcopalian and Presbyterian, Methodist and Baptist all within the limits of a sound Faith — of all ranks and conditions, too, — the orthodox Emperor who sent us so cordial a greeting, and the pietist schoolmaster, the Primate of all England (so be it) who spake friendly words to us through his Dean, and the dissenting Bible reader, side by side in the equality of the one Faith, the one Lord, the one Baptism, the one God and Father of all, partaking of the one bread and the one cup given to them as brethren, by their God- brother at his own table of all-embracing love. Let that come to pass, and who will say that our Evangelic Christendom is destitute of all unity, a chaotic aggregation of confused and inter-repellent parts? — yet withal, the objection may be made, destitute of any organic union. Nay, nay, who was the great organizer of the Church? And when by any positive external act of his own did he ever organize it, if not when he instituted this one bond of fellowship for all his disciples through their fellowship with him? if not, too, when by the hallowed wine-cup he signified the only organism of which he ever spake, “I am the vine, ye are the branches.” (468-469)

Pr. Muhlenberg admits that such a vision is not likely to be realized any time near his own day. Still, he believes that it is an admirable vision and one worthy to be pursued, even incrementally. For our purposes, the vision is important because it locates the ultimate union in the participation in the unity. The Lord’s Supper, as an expression of the gospel, is the great unifier. In fact, Pr. Muhlenberg goes on to tackle the question whether the Lord’s Supper needs an “authorized administrator” in order to be valid, answering that such a teaching is absent from the New Testament (471). He adds, “If an officiating ministry was not required for the type under the old dispensation, surely none can be demanded for the antitype under the unpriestly dispensation of the new, save on the ground of custom not to be needlessly set aside” (473). He even states, “As the Eucharist was ordained before ecclesiastical order, so in partaking of it in its primitive form we must be pre-ecclesiastical,” arguing that the clergy and laity are on equal footing during the celebration of the Eucharist (474).

Pr. Muhlenberg adds that the mutual celebration of the major feast days might also enhance the union around the Eucharist, noting that these could be the appropriate occasions for the intercommunal gatherings. Still, he is clear in his concluding paragraph that the true unity would not be achieved even by these forms, but only through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit:

But all, nothing, — Communions, Alliances, hospitalities, — all nothing without larger outpourings of the Holy Ghost, in the love of Christ constraining us, in unselfishness, in the spirit of conciliation and forbearance, in self sacrifice, in the affection of hearty Brotherhood in Christ. Who will not pray for that in the invocation of the Church for more than a thousand years — Veni creator. (477-478)

Conclusion

This has been a rather lengthy exploration of Pr. Muhlenberg’s thought and the true meaning of his Memorial. It has been necessary, however, as there is relatively little scholarship on Muhlenberg’s theology available and because the terms and concepts in view have often been used in equivocal ways. Additionally, Pr. Muhlenberg’s project genuinely wished to honor the traditions of the Protestant Episcopal Church, as well as its present authority, but it also wanted to transcend those bounds and craft a truly catholic evangelicalism. Indeed, Pr. Muhlenberg wanted to assist in the formation of a single Evangelical ecclesiology.

Our conclusion brings us back to where I began. While Pr. Muhlenberg wanted to include both High Churchmen and Low Churchmen in his union, and so he would often identify himself with both or oppose himself to both, his principles were consistently evangelical, both in the older sense of the Protestant Reformation and in the new sense of internal subjectivity. This is essentially consistent with the portrait of Muhlenberg given by Prof. Guelzo in his book For the Union of Evangelical Christendom, and it is consistent, though certainly more nuanced and detailed, with my original post on the matter. We have seen that Pr. Muhlenberg did hold to evangelical principles, even stating them in precise terms at points, that he valued and prioritized episcopal government as both an ancient and orderly form and as the only practical way to achieve mutual recognition of ministerial orders among American Protestants, and we have seen how he eventually moved away from even this in favor of emphasizing open communion and the unity of the gospel.

I do think that Pr. Muhlenberg underestimated the problematic nature of the High Church concerning de jure divino episcopalianism and the doctrine of apostolic succession. He believed that such matters could truly remain adiaphora. It seems to me, rather, that such matters are ultimately inseparable from the essential matters, and, ironically, this sort of comparison actually places the thought of the great Richard Hooker (so often cited by Muhlenberg as the truest representative of Anglicanism) in the same camp as the Evangelicals. Nevertheless, Pr. Muhlenberg’s vision of evangelical catholicity remains an admirable one, and it is certainly a vision shared by the writers at The Calvinist International. Whatever external forms may or may not prove necessary, a united Protestant Christendom remains a prize to be sought.

  1. The REC is not really my main interest either. I have been told that Professor Guelzo’s history is somewhat uncomfortable for some in the modern REC, but I am not here interested in later REC politics or the circumstances surrounding Dr. Guelzo’s departure from that church. I do think, however, his presentation of 19th century Episcopalianism is more or less correct, and I continue to believe that he understands Pr. Muhlenberg rightly.
  2. Here we do see some difference between Pr. Muhlenberg’s evangelical catholicity and that of the original Reformed Episcopal Church. The founders of the Reformed Episcopal Church were explicit in their “Declarations of Principles” that episcopacy does not exist “as of Divine right” nor that any “one order or form of ecclesiastical polity” was essential for the church.
  3. Pr. Muhlenberg continued to profess a sort of “toleration” for these Anglo-Catholics, but even his supposed accommodations reveal biting critique: “But would you not have toleration? it may be asked. By all means, within reasonable limits; and within those limits, it may fairly be a question how far a ProtestantChurch should bear with her ministers openly repudiating Protestantism, declaring that any form of Catholicism is to be preferred to it, nor concealing their hope of un-Protestantizing the Church. But let that pass. For my own part, I will go as far as anyone for toleration, only let it be equal. Let it not be toleration only in one direction. Let it not give full swing to “Catholicism” and rein in Evangelicism” (441).

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.