William Faulkner once wrote that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This July 4th, as we celebrate our nation’s 246th birthday, I’d like to reflect on our own past. Here in Frederick, it’s not that hard. After all, the city was founded in 1746, and historical sites abound. The vast majority of Frederick’s downtown is a national historic district, and even unassuming sites like the WaWa on West Patrick have historical markers in front of them.
Turning back the clock, in 1640, almost two hundred years before the Saxon Immigration that would form the backbone of the Missouri Synod, the Rev. Reorus Torkillus settled in New Sweden, in what would later become Delaware. He was the first Lutheran pastor to settle permanently in North America.
While the Swedish Lutheran community he served would later become Episcopalian when they failed to find new pastors willing to move to America from Sweden, Lutheranism soon flourished in the East Coast.
A number of years later, in the 1700s, a group of German settlers in Pennsylvania requested that a missionary be sent over from Germany to serve them. Their prayers were answered by a man named Heinrich Melchior Mühlenberg, who held to a number of theological positions that were relatively unheard of at the time. The first was that Mühlenberg was confessional, and as such insisted that all American Lutheran pastors working under him subscribe to the entirety of the Lutheran Confessions. This position was not held by many of Mühlenberg’s successors, and indeed, did not become common in America until the founding of the Missouri Synod and the Wisconsin Synod a century later.
Mühlenberg soon headquartered his missionary activities in Trappe, just outside of Philadelphia, but many of the churches that he organized have left a firm footprint in our own region. Indeed, both Zion Lutheran in Middletown and Evangelical Lutheran in downtown Frederick (both ELCA) were Mühlenberg congregations. If you ever drive through small towns in Frederick and Washington counties and wonder why there are so many ELCA congregations, you have Mühlenberg to thank.
Aside from the churches that he founded, Mühlenberg is perhaps most well known for two of his children, Frederick and Peter, both of whom were Lutheran pastors.
Peter, in a sermon given on January 21, 1776 at the Lutheran parish in Woodstock, Virginia, famously gave a sermon on Ecclesiastes 3, and upon reaching the words “A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace,” (3:8 KJV) declared “And this is the time of war,” tearing off his robes and revealing a colonel’s uniform underneath. Indeed, during the Revolutionary War he faithfully served our fledgling country and was promoted to serve as general alongside George Washington. After the War he served as a representative from Pennsylvania in our nation’s First Congress.
Frederick, on the other hand, was elected to serve in the Continental Congress and was the first signer of the Bill of Rights, later serving as this nation’s first Speaker of the House.
This July 4th, remember that American history is also Lutheran history, and that Lutheranism has been inextricably connected with America since before this nation’s founding. I continually give thanks to God that in this nation we have the freedom (and duty) to be good citizens, and the freedom to worship openly.
This weekend, as you grill your hot dogs and hamburgers, as you blast your John Philip Sousa, and as you enjoy the fireworks, remember the Mühlenbergs, remember our founders, remember the cost of our freedom, and remember the faithfulness of our God.