Muhlenberg, William Augustus, 1796-1877

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Muhlenberg, William Augustus, 1796-1877

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William Augustus Muhlenberg (16 September 1796 – 8 April 1877), born in Philadelphia, PA, was an Episcopal clergyman and educator. He was the first rector of the Church of the Holy Communion, the founder of St. Luke’s Hospital, and considered the father of church schools in the United States.

A descendant of a notable German immigrant family, his great-grandfather, Henry Melchior Muhlenberg (1711–1787), arrived in America, from Hanover, in 1741 in response to the call for a Lutheran minister to pastor several churches in Pennsylvania. He is considered the father of Lutheranism in America.

Henry Melchior had three sons. The oldest, John Peter Gabriel, became a soldier and fought in the Revolutionary War and the youngest, Henry Ernest, a pastor. Frederick (1750–1801), grandfather of William Augustus, chose a political career and served as a member of the First and Second Continental Congress and as Speaker of the House of Representatives under President George Washington. Frederick’s son, Henry William died suddenly, leaving three young children, William Augustus, Mary Anna (who later married John Rogers), and Frederick Augustus, to be raised by their widowed mother.

William A. Muhlenberg was educated at the Philadelphia Academy and the Grammar School of the University of Pennsylvania, graduating from the university in 1815. In 1817 he was ordained a deacon in the Protestant Episcopal Church, and became the assistant to Bishop William White (1748–1836) while continuing his studies. In 1820, Muhlenberg was ordained a priest, and became the rector of St. James' Church in Lancaster, PA.

He developed an interest in educating young men and in 1826 resigned his charge to travel through Europe to study their educational systems. Before leaving, he agreed to fill a pulpit at St. George’s Church in Flushing, NY as a 6-month replacement, and this posting changed the course of his life. Here he became acquainted with a group of men who wished to establish a boy’s school and convinced Muhlenberg to lead it. It was named The Flushing Institute and Muhlenberg initiated a unique and successful method for the education of boys that focused on developing godly Christian character along with high intellectual values, which was then later reproduced in church schools across the country. Muhlenberg developed plans to establish a grammar and collegiate school in College Point, L.I. that would merge with the Flushing Institute, but funding sources dried up in the financial crash of 1837. Without an adequate endowment, the state legislature denied the charter for the school and Muhlenberg’s plans fizzled.

Muhlenberg lost interest in school administration in the following years and by 1845 he left the running of The Institute in the hands of his assistants and moved to New York City to become rector of the Church of the Holy Communion. Mary A. Rogers, his sister, funded the construction of the church as a memorial to her late husband, John Rogers, who wished to found a church where rich and poor could worship together as one community. Muhlenberg, an early proponent of the social gospel, founded various church ministries to assist the poor community that lay just outside of its upper-class residential neighborhood at 20th Street and Sixth Avenue.

Muhlenberg saw health care as a serious need of the community and in 1846 decided to set aside half of the Sunday offering on St. Luke’s Day (October 18th) for the founding of a Church Hospital for the relief of the sick. This became an annual offering. Fundraising lagged for a time, but picked up after the hospital was incorporated in 1850. Construction started in 1854. The Chapel, considered by Muhlenberg to be the heart of the Hospital, was completed first and opened in 1857 for public services. The Hospital architecture was so designed that the wards were built off of the Chapel in such a way that patients could hear services without leaving their beds. The Hospital itself was completed and opened in 1858. Rev. Muhlenberg, as Super-intendent and Pastor, had rooms in the hospital where he lived and worked for the rest of his life.

The Sisterhood of the Holy Communion, formed to serve the church ministries, became head nurses at the Hospital. Their leader, Sister Anne Ayres, became Muhlenberg’s second-in-command, his editor, and his biographer after his passing.

In 1866, Muhlenberg founded the Church Industrial Community of St. Johnland on Long Island, to care for handicapped children and the elderly, consisting of 535 acres with 1.5 miles of shorefront on Long Island Sound near Kings Park. This work continues today as St. Johnland Nursing Center.

Muhlenberg died on April 8, 1877 in St. Luke's Hospital, and is buried in the St. Johnland Cemetery.


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