Muhlenberg: How One Pastor Kept Politics out of the Pulpit

By Rick Ritchie

You probably don’t often hear Lutheran pastors preaching politics from the pulpit. Why not? Lutheran pastors have a long tradition of keeping politics out of the pulpit. This is because the pulpit is the place from which to preach the gospel to sinners. One example of why this is so comes from early American history, from a pastor who has often been called the Father of American Lutheranism: Henry Melchior Muhlenberg. On August 22, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was just a little more than a month old, and war was still raging. Muhlenberg wrote in his journals about being asked to address a battalion in German and English. This request was made at a time when pastors were held in especially high regard as 
they were often the most—
if not only—educated men in their communities. He was invited to give a “word of admonition,” or, his best moral advice. What was he, as a pastor, to say? Should he tell these American revolutionaries that they are disobedient to God by fighting the British? Or should he pray that their muskets will kill as many British as possible? Most pastors give into the temptation of deciding who is right. Muhlenberg doesn’t, even if his own opinion is not hidden:

Since I could not with good conscience refuse, I acceded to their request, for one should in charity be impartial and emulate the heavenly Father, who makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. I have not been charged with the task of investigating and comprehending the matter in controversy, nor is it possible for me to determine which party has the highest and best right, whether the one has a better right to make serfs of the inhabitants of America by force and to reap what they have neither plowed nor sowed, or whether the Americans have as good or even better right to defend the rights and privileges granted and stipulated to them by the highest God and by former crowned heads.

This is rather funny. On the one hand he tries to be impartial. On the other, we can see that if the British are making serfs, or slaves, of people, and the Americans are defending rights and privileges given to them by God, then the Americans are probably in the right. But Muhlenberg is serious about staying out of the judging business. He goes on:

Contending parties cannot be their own judges, and private persons possess no infallible scales to weigh without error the preponderant arguments of both sides. This is evident in this controversy in the many writings pro and contra, indeed, even in the speeches made on both sides of the conflict in parliament.

Even in England, some in the government wrote persuasive arguments for and against the American cause. If it was not clear to those educated persons whose business it was to figure this out, then how would it be clear to a busy pastor? A citizen may well choose one side over the other, but a minister who speaks for God is expected to deliver God’s view of the subject. Muhlenberg knows he cannot read God’s intentions in the mess of history. But God has revealed sure commands, even if they are sometimes complex in their application to the day’s questions:

Therefore, since the ministers neither can nor should be arbiters in such a conflict, they do best if they commit the whole thing to the only and highest Judge of heaven and earth and follow the rule of the Spirit of God given through the Apostle Paul, Romans 13, “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers,” etc. If God’s governance ordains or suffers that a king or a parliament or a congress should have power over me, then I must be subject to and serve two discordant masters at the same time.

This is really a startling idea. Rather than telling people that they have to decide which government to listen to, Muhlenberg sees Scripture as teaching that sometimes we might have two masters over us. Perhaps these men will have to obey both the English and American authorities at given times. But I suspect that maybe there is a little more here than meets the eye. This talk of “two discordant masters” reminds us of what Jesus taught. “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matthew 6:24). There is probably a suggestion here that the revolutionaries will outwardly obey whoever is over them at a given time. But their true loyalty will be with the masters they love, the Americans.

Muhlenberg is an example of a wise pastor. His job is to feed his flock with the gifts of the forgiveness of sins given by Christ’s Word and Sacraments, not to advance a war cause. He speaks carefully. He makes sure his own opinions are kept distinct from the Word of God, so that people are not led astray. Speaking like this tells people that if the British are ordering them around under threat, they are free to obey without sinning. (Imagine living in an area that goes back and forth between British and American hands several times!) But they will probably also hope this is temporary and that they can be back under American rule quickly, where they serve in love. He also speaks in such a way that his loyalties are hidden and his words don’t come back to haunt him later, should the British prevail. Those who do not know the Scriptures are likely to miss them. (The talk of discordant masters passed me by several times before I saw the parallel to the Gospel of Matthew.) Muhlenberg reminds us that while we might have to obey a cruel taskmaster for a time, our true loyalty will always be with the one we love. More than that, our true King will always be the Lord Jesus who rescued us from the tyrannical rule of the devil and sin.

Jesus Christ, the highest judge of heaven and earth, is worthy of even more love than the American generals. He fought a fight when we were happy to be the slaves of His enemy. His death and resurrection have assured that we have already won the war. Muhlenberg’s counsel is given in such a way that our thoughts are brought back to the fact that the political questions of the day, as pressing as they are, are secondary. After all, we have a King in heaven whom we will one day serve in “everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness,” whatever today’s conflicts may bring. In Jesus, we have that true King who, despite our rebellion, has come to save us and bring us back into His kingdom forever.

[Citations from Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, Notebook of a Colonial Clergyman ed. by Tappert and Doberstein (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg 
Press, 1959), pp. 161-164.]

Rick Ritchie earned his bachelor’s degree at Concordia University Irvine in 1988, and graduated with a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in 1990, after which he became Lutheran. He has written for Modern Reformation magazine, been a call-screener and guest for the radio show The White Horse Inn, a guest on Issues, Etc. and contributed to the books Christ the Lord (edited by Mike Horton), Let Christ be Christ (edited by Dan Harmelink) and Theologia et Apologia (edited by Adam Francisco, Korey Maas, and Steven Mueller). He can be reached at teacher@reflutheran.org