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A German Lutheran Serves the Virginia Cause

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A German Lutheran Serves the Virginia Cause

German bridal chest, 1764

A 1764 painted wooden chest on exhibit at the Yorktown Victory Center is representative of the culture of German immigrants to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

“To find a person . . . in the Clergy of the Church of England, who is capable of Preaching both in the English and German Languages.”  The vestrymen of Beckford Parish in Woodstock, Virginia, established these guidelines in 1771.  These peaceful, German-speaking farmers who had moved south from Pennsylvania into Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley sought a minister who could speak their language and help them in dealing with Virginia’s state church, the Church of England.  When Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, the distinguished Lutheran pastor in Pennsylvania, heard Virginia’s call, he prepared his son, John Peter, to fill the slot.

Born in Pennsylvania, Peter began studies in Germany but eventually joined a British regiment going to America.  Back in Pennsylvania, he left the regiment, studied and was ordained in the Lutheran church.  When Virginia called, he sought ordination in the Anglican Church in order to assist the Virginia Germans in accommodating to the state church requirements.  Muhlenberg led Anglican services in both English and German and informed his German parishioners of revolutionary events stirring in the eastern part of the colony. 

Muhlenberg became increasingly involved in Valley politics, seeing it as his duty.  By 1775 he was selected to chair the local Committee of Safety.  He wrote, “I am a Clergyman it is true, but I am a Member of Society as well as the poorest Layman, & my Liberty is as dear to me as to any Man.”  He served in the House of Burgesses and, in January 1776 when the Virginia Convention created the Eighth (or German) Regiment it named Muhlenberg as colonel.    Muhlenberg rose to the rank of major general and served at Charleston, Brandywine, Germantown, Valley Forge and Yorktown.  After the war he entered public service in the new nation, including several terms in Congress from Pennsylvania.

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