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William Augustus Muhlenberg, one of America’s early hymn-writers, came from a most distinguished family. His great grandfather, Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, was the “patriarch of the Lutheran Church in America,” having come to these shores from Germany in 1742, and being the founder in that year of the first permanent Lutheran organization in the new world.

A son of the patriarch and grandfather of the hymn-writer bore the name of Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg. He, too, was a Lutheran minister, but during the stirring days of the Revolutionary period he entered into the political affairs of the struggling colonies. He was president of the convention which ratified the Constitution of the United States and also served as first speaker of the new House of Representatives. His brother, Rev. Peter Muhlenberg, was also a distinguished patriot. When the Revolution broke out, he was serving a congregation at Woodstock, Va. It was he who stood in the pulpit of his church and, throwing aside his clerical robe, stood revealed in the uniform of a Continental colonel.

“There is a time to preach and a time to pray,” he cried, “but these times have passed away. There is a time to fight, and that time has now come!”

Thereupon he called upon the men of his congregation to enlist in his regiment. Before the war ended he had risen to the rank of major general.


William Augustus Muhlenberg, the hymn-writer, was born in Philadelphia in 1796. Since the German language was then being used exclusively in the German Lutheran churches, he and his little sister were allowed to attend Christ Episcopal Church. In this way William Augustus drifted away from the Church of his great forbears, and when he grew up he became a clergyman in the Episcopal communion.

It is evident that Muhlenberg brought something of the spirit of the “singing church” into the church of his adoption, for in 1821 he issued a tract with the title, “A Plea for Christian Hymns.” It appears that the Episcopal Church at this time was using a prayer-book that included only fifty-seven hymns, and no one felt the poverty of his Church in this respect more keenly than did Muhlenberg.

Two years later the General Convention of the Episcopal body voted to prepare a hymn-book, and Muhlenberg was made a member of the committee. One of his associates was Francis Scott Key, author of “Star spangled banner.”

As a member of the committee Muhlenberg contributed four original hymns to the new collection. They were “I would not live alway,” “Like Noah’s weary dove,” “Shout the glad tidings, triumphantly sing,” and “Saviour, who Thy flock art leading.” The latter is a baptism hymn and is one of the most exquisite lyrics on that theme ever written. Although Muhlenberg never married, he had a very deep love for children. No service seemed so hallowed to him as the baptism of a little child. It is said that shortly after his ordination, when asked to officiate at such a rite, Muhlenberg flushed and hesitated, and then asked a bishop who was present to baptize the babe. The latter, however, insisted that the young clergyman should carry out the holy ordinance, 373 and from that day there was no duty that afforded Muhlenberg more joy.

Muhlenberg often expressed regret that he had written “I would not live alway.” It seems that the poem was called into being in 1824, following a “heart-breaking disappointment in the matter of love.” Muhlenberg was a young man at the time, and in his later years he sought to alter it in such a way that it would breathe more of the hopeful spirit of the New Testament. He contended that Paul’s words, “For me to live is Christ” were far better than Job’s lament, “I would not live alway.” However, the hymn as originally written had become so fixed in the consciousness of the Church, that all efforts of the author to revise it were in vain.

Nearly all the hymns of Muhlenberg that have lived were written during his earlier years. His later ministry centered in New York City, where he was head of a boys’ school for a number of years, and later rector of the Church of the Holy Communion. He soon became an outstanding leader in the great metropolis. After having founded St. Luke’s hospital, the first church institution of its kind in New York City, he spent the last twenty years of his life as its superintendent.

His death occurred when he was past eighty years. It is said that when the end was drawing near, the hospital chaplain came to his bedside to pray for his recovery.

“Let us have an understanding about this,” said the dying Muhlenberg. “You are asking God to restore me and I am asking God to take me home. There must not be a contradiction in our prayers, for it is evident that He cannot answer them both.”

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