Halle Pastors, German Settlers, and Lutheran Congregations in North America

One of the contributors to our new German History Intersections project brought our attention to this important project, which touches upon many areas of current research at the GHI, including the histories of migration, knowledge, and religion. We thank our colleagues in Halle for this article. — Editorial note, Href

By Wolfgang Splitter

The Francke Foundations in Halle are currently at work on a DFG-funded project entitled Halle Pastors in Pennsylvania, 1743–1825. A Critical Edition of Sources Relating to Their Ministry in North America. The editors are Mark Häberlein, Thomas Müller-Bahlke and Hermann Wellenreuther.

Whereas research on the history of the Lutheran Church in North America up to the early nineteenth century has concentrated so far on the journals and correspondence of Heinrich Melchior Mühlenberg (1711-1787), this project will transcribe and edit the extant curricula vitae, journals, and correspondence of Mühlenberg’s pastoral colleagues – i.e. those Lutheran pastors who were sent from the Francke Foundations in Halle, Prussia, to Pennsylvania between 1744 and 1786. Among other sources, the project will feature letters and reports from the New World sent by these pastors to the directors of the Francke Foundations in Halle and to the Lutheran Court Preacher in London. By moving away from a singular focus on Mühlenberg and considering a larger circle of pastors, this project will substantially expand the base of published documentary materials relating to the Halle pastors’ North American ministry and thereby lay the groundwork for new insights into the history of Pietism in the Atlantic world. The materials shed light on the spread and development of Lutheran congregations in North America, the significance of those congregations to German-speaking immigrants, and the place of the Lutheran Church within the multi-confessional mid-Atlantic region (Pennsylvania and its neighboring colonies or states). They also show how German Protestants in the Old and New Worlds perceived each other.

This project has two principal goals. First, it will produce a critical edition of hitherto unpublished and little-studied journals and correspondence by the Lutheran pastors. These sources are mainly stored in two repositories, the Francke Foundations and the former Lutheran Theological Seminary (now: United Lutheran Seminary) in Philadelphia. Second, on the basis of these newly published sources, the project will explore the relations between the Halle pastors and German-speaking settlers in Pennsylvania and examine the development of Lutheran congregations in the mid-Atlantic region.

The 1742 arrival in Philadelphia of Heinrich Melchior Mühlenberg, who was dispatched by Gotthilf August Francke (1696-1769) at the request of three Lutheran parishes in Pennsylvania, marks a turning point in the Francke Foundations’ relationship to the German Lutheran congregations in Pennsylvania. For the congregations, it was the beginning of a long process of centralization, self-reflection, and institutional emancipation from German (or, for that matter, European) tutelage. This process was unique in Lutheran church history, for it paved the way for a self-sustaining ecclesiastic body that exhibited structures and contours of its own and was thus much less dependent on secular authorities than its European counterparts. These pioneering achievements have hitherto been ascribed first and foremost to Mühlenberg’s able management and diplomatic skills. That his person has been the focus of research to date is largely attributable to the fact that published versions of his journals and letters have been available for decades. They constitute the most readily accessible set of sources on the history of the Lutheran Church in North America. Though in recent years documents concerning his fellow Halle ministers in the Francke archives have been registered for online research, they have not yet been edited and therefore are widely unknown to researchers.

From the early eighteenth century on, loose contacts existed between German-speaking Lutherans in Pennsylvania and the Francke Foundations, a renowned stronghold of German pietism and a center of worldwide missionary activity and pietist networks. In 1699, August Hermann Francke (1663-1727), having established the Foundations five years earlier, registered his interest in Pennsylvania by forwarding an elaborate questionnaire to German Lutheran preacher Daniel Falckner (1666-1742) in that colony. Falckner’s answers directed Francke’s attention to the spiritual wellbeing of his German coreligionists in America, in general, and Pennsylvania, in particular. In the early 1730s, Francke’s son and successor Gotthilf August, together with Samuel Urlsperger (1685–1772), senior pastor of the Lutheran Church in the imperial city of Augsburg, helped to finance and organize the relocation to Georgia of about 350 Lutherans who were exiled from the Catholic bishopric of Salzburg, in present-day Austria. Spiritual care for these religious exiles was entrusted to the Halle pastors, whose reports on this Lutheran outpost on the Savannah River heavily influenced Old World perceptions of this tiny settlement in the fledgling colony of Georgia.

Excerpt from Francke’s 1699 questionnaire for Falckner, reprinted in Falckner’s Curieuse nachricht von Pennsylvania (by Daniel Falckner). Edited and translated by Julius Friedrich Sachse. Philadelphia: Printed for the Author, 1905. Collection: Library of Congress. Available online at Archive.org.

Starting in the 1710s, increasing German immigration to North America aggravated the already problematic shortage of pastors in Lutheran congregations in Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey, where most of the new German immigrants chose to settle. From 1700 to 1740, the number of Lutheran parishes skyrocketed from three to ninety-five. The number of pastors, however, did not rise proportionally: in 1740, there were only seven, some of whose qualifications were questionable at best. Besides the shortage of properly educated and regularly ordained ministers, there was another reason for Gotthilf August Francke to dispatch Heinrich Melchior Mühlenberg to Pennsylvania in 1742: the North American voyage of Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700-1760), the founder of the Moravian Brethren. In 1742, Zinzendorf visited several colonies in an attempt to expand the missionary outreach of his Protestant community in the New World. Zinzendorf reached out not only to European settlers, but also to indigenous peoples and African slaves. Once a student at the Francke Foundations, Zinzendorf by then had come to embrace an irenic ecumenism, clinging to a brand of piety and devotional practice that was strongly opposed by the Lutheran and Reformed Churches in Germany. Having torn apart many a Lutheran parish, the lingering conflict between Hallensians and Moravians was an ongoing preoccupation of Mühlenberg and his fellow pastors. It had the negative effect of directing their energies away from spiritual care and the pressing need to consolidate existing congregations, whose membership continued to fluctuate enormously throughout the 1740s and early 1750s.

Halle’s engagement in Pennsylvania resulted from remarkable progress in ecclesiastic organization. As early as 1748, a mere handful of ordained pastors inspired by Halle Pietism gathered around Mühlenberg to unite in a college of pastors commonly known as “Lutheran Ministerium of Pennsylvania.” Yet the Hallensians’ quest for leadership on this board proved to be a constant bone of contention with those freelance preachers who were itinerants but could nevertheless produce verifiable credentials from European universities and consistories. In their effort to standardize the liturgy, the catechism, and the prayer books used in the parishes, and to determine the requirements of future candidates for membership in the ministerium, the Halle pastors tried to implement their own views, doctrines, and principles, thereby alienating ordained ministers who refused to acknowledge their supremacy. This problem proved especially delicate and divisive, as the vast majority of German-speaking immigrants originated from the German Southwest, and from Alsace and Switzerland, whereas the Hallensians were from North and Central Germany. Most immigrants worshipped according to the Württemberg Lutheran tradition, which in some respects differed from Halle Pietistic devotional practice and liturgy. For its part, Württemberg Pietism, as shaped by Johann Albrecht Bengel (1687-1752), failed to attract sizeable numbers of followers in America.

Gotthilf August Francke’s decision to send Halle pastors to a British province in America, where German-speaking Lutherans were predominantly raised in the tradition of Württemberg Lutheranism prepared the ground for considerable tensions in local parishes because two religious cultures claiming to be the true heirs to Luther’s reformation confronted each other, with the Hallensians forming a minority among Lutheran clergy in North America between 1733 and 1775. While this conflict has already been studied in the context of Heinrich Melchior Mühlenberg’s life and work, it has yet to be examined in the context of his fellow Lutheran pastors in North America.

This new critical edition of the journals and correspondence of Mühlenberg’s circle of Lutheran pastors will expand the material basis not only for studies of German Lutheranism in North America but also for research on early American Lutheranism as a whole. Moreover, it will provide new access to crucial sources that will enable researchers to reconsider and reevaluate the settlement and acculturation of German-speakers in eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century North America, especially the young United States. Up until 1820, approximately forty percent of all German immigrants to North America identified as Lutheran. Moreover, Lutherans were one of the two largest denominations represented by all transatlantic migrants from Central Europe. The Halle pastors’ journals and correspondence constitute rich sources for studying this significant piece of the early American cultural and religious mosaic.

Wolfgang Splitter studied history, social science, and education at Bielefeld University, Germany, and history at Johns Hopkins University, receiving his Ph.D. from the latter institution in 1993. For several years, he worked as an independent researcher, presenting conference papers and publishing his dissertation, book chapters, and journal articles on Pennsylvania German history and early American Lutheranism. In 1999/2000 he was a visiting scholar in the Johns Hopkins history department. In 2007 he was co-opted as an adjunct research associate to the Center for U.S. Studies at Halle University, Germany, before serving there as an assistant professor from 2009 to 2012. Since 2013 he has been project director at the Francke Foundations in Halle, collaborating with a team of scholars and students in preparing an eight-volume edition of journals and letters of Lutheran pastors sent by the Francke Foundations to minister to German Lutheran congregations in eighteenth-century Pennsylvania. He was awarded numerous grants and fellowships in Germany and America.