Friday, November 17, 2023

Today on the Christian History Almanac, we remember famed Botanist (and pastor) Henry Ernst Muhlenberg.

It is the 17th of November, 2023. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at; I’m Dan van Voorhis.


Finally, after years of this daily podcast, I get to combine my love of both church history and botany (and by “love of botany,” I mean I can barely keep my cacti alive). Let me begin with a description:

“This small-scale architectural gem celebrates a finely cut impeccably shaped green mound. Half the size of its taller relative, its dense mostly evergreen clump of upright narrow cylindrical blades bolsters slim purple-tinged plumes, which blanch to almond shades on rigid, 2 to 3 ft. tall skinny stems. Roaming the higher altitudes of the Chihuahuan desert in west Texas, New Mexico and northern Mexico.”

That’s right- the Pine Muhly grass- from the Muhlenbergia genus of grass. Does that ring a bell? We’ve mentioned this family, the Muhlenbergs, a few times on this show.

The patriarch, Heinrich Muhlenberg, is the patriarch of American Lutheranism- at least the East Coast variety starting in the 18th century. Of 7 Children, three are especially renowned. First was John Peter; he would be ordained only to leave the ministry for political service with the Virginia House of Burgesses, as a major general under George Washington during the Revolution and then as a U.S. Senator. The next oldest son was Friedrich Augustus; Fred would also train for the ministry only to leave it for political ambitions. He was the first Speaker of the House of Representatives.

But neither has a genus of grass named after them. That belongs to the youngest son, Gotthilf Heinrich Ernst Muhlenberg, aka Henry Ernst. He was born on this the 17th of November in 1753, in Trappe, Pennsylvania. Along with his older brothers, he was sent back to Germany for his education- first at the Franke Institute in Halle and then at the University of Halle (their father’s alma mater). He was ordained with his brother Fred in 1770 and began serving with his father- then only 17. In 1774, he was called to Philadelphia; in the same year, he was married. He would have two sons: Henry Augustus and Friedrich Augustus. (I picked up a genealogy of the Muhlenbergs in America- an almost 100-page book that goes up to just 1900- and half of them use variations of each other's names).

He was a staunch proponent of the new American experiment, a Whig by political persuasion he stayed in Philadelphia longer than the rest of his family (all suspect by the British for their colonial ties) but he had to flee in 1779, as one source tells us “dressed as a [native] robed in a blanket and with a gun on his shoulder” and that he would have been caught by a Tory innkeeper had he not been warned by a friendly Whig. (Tories were anti-Revolution, and Whigs- with an h- were pro).

While his brothers took this time to transition into their lives of political and military service, one source tells us that the “quiet and studious Henry clung to the holy office.” But he did more than “cling to the holy office.” He began to catalog the local flora and fauna. In fact, he was the first American-born botanist to catalog domestic plants and minerals. He would be called the “American Linnaeus” for his work in publishing and disseminating information about American shrubbery and more. He became so well known that he received a letter from then-President Thomas Jefferson, who let him know that the Lewis and Clark expedition should bring back information for him. He had a network of scholars across Europe that he kept in touch with, and he would host the German scientist Alexander von Humboldt in his Pennsylvania home.

But this avocation was second to his work in the ministry. In 1780, he was called to serve Trinity Lutheran Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania- a church he would serve for the rest of his life. Trinity Lutheran Lancaster, which had its first baptism in 1730, is still an active church today.

Henry would receive his Masters from the University of Pennsylvania and a Doctorate of Divinity. He would help found Franklin College- he served as its first president, a role later held by Phillip Schaff. Today, it is Franklin Marshall College, home of the DIII Diplomats.

While not as flashy as his brothers or as famous as his father- he was another faithful Muhlenberg- the one who stayed in the ministry, was a botanist of renown, and, for good measure, first observed the bog turtle and such it is also named after him. Muhlenberg would die in May of 1815; born on this day in 1753, Heinrich/Henry Ernst Muhlenberg was 62 years old.


The last word for today comes from Henry’s great Nephew- the clergyman William Augustus Muhlenberg- his “O Cease my Wand’ring soul.”

1. O cease, my wand'ring soul,
On restless wing to roam;
All this wide world, to either pole,
Hath not for thee a home.

2. Behold the ark of God!
Behold the open door!
O haste to gain that dear abode,
And rove, my soul, no more.

3. There safe thou shalt abide,
There sweet shall be thy rest;
And ev'ry longing satisfied,
With full salvation blest.

4. Ah, yes! I all forsake,
My all to Thee resign;
Gracious Redeemer take, O take
And seal me ever Thine.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 17th of November 2023, brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man who knows Franklin College as the alma mater of both the guy who invented the Wheel of Fortune wheel and American vet Richard Winters, of Band of Brothers fame- he is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who knows that the record books are thrown out the window when the Division III powerhouse Franklin and Marshall Diplomats take on their rivals, the Muhlenberg Mules- I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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