Rev. William Augustus Muhlenberg

The Rev. William Augustus Muhlenberg was the co-rector of St. James Episcopal Church in Lancaster from 1820-1826. He authored the first official Thanksgiving hymn.

This Scribbler column was originally published on Nov. 24, 1992

Many Scribbler readers will know that Lancaster educator John Piersol McCaskey wrote "Jolly Old St. Nicholas" and that Millersville educator Eliphalet Oram Lyte created "Row, Row, Row Your Boat."

Many probably will not know that another sometime Lancastrian, the Rev. William Augustus Muhlenberg, authored the first official Thanksgiving hymn.

Muhlenberg, of the famous family that included the first speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and the first president of Lancaster’s Franklin College, served as co-rector of St. James Episcopal Church from 1820-1826. He was 24 when he began the ministry.

Muhlenberg moved on to New York from here, establishing St. Paul’s College at Flushing, Long Island, and the Church of the Holy Communion and St. Luke’s Hospital in New York City. He also founded St. Johnland, a community caring for senior citizens and homeless children, before his death in 1877.

One of W.A. Muhlenberg’s many interests was hymnody. He assembled the first authorized hymnal of the Episcopal Church (1833) and wrote many hymns himself. One of these was the "President’s Hymn" at Thanksgiving of 1863.

Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Nov. 26, 1863, as the first official Thanksgiving in America. Muhlenberg turned Lincoln’s proclamation into poetry and set it to music.

His hymn was published in the New York Tribune, reprinted throughout the nation and sung in a number of Lancaster and other churches on Thanksgiving Day.

Here is the first of the hymn’s nine verses:

Give thanks, all ye people, give thanks to the Lord,

Alleluias of freedom, with joyful accord;

Let the East and the West, North and South, roll along,

Sea, mountain and prairie, one thanksgiving song.

Muhlenberg had published his first book of hymns in 1823, for use at St. James. He also established the church’s first Sunday school and developed the City of Lancaster’s public school system, the second in the state after Philadelphia.

A youthful dynamo of activity in church and community, Muhlenberg ran afoul of a powerful member of both, the iron master Robert Coleman. Coleman ultimately affected Muhlenberg’s ministry and personal life in negative ways.

The falling out began when Muhlenberg decided to hold an evening church service. Coleman opposed the service and the struggle escalated from there. Muhlenberg won the battle; Coleman won the war.

W.A. Muhlenberg fancied Coleman’s younger daughter, Sarah, just as James Buchanan had taken to the older, Ann. Coleman opposed both relationships.

The story of Buchanan’s ill-fated romance with Ann Coleman is well known. The Scribbler recently mentioned it in a review of John Updike’s new novel, Memories of the Ford Administration. Days after Ann broke off her engagement with Buchanan and left for Philadelphia in the late autumn of 1819, she died. She was 24.

In refusing to yield to Coleman on the church matter, Muhlenberg knew that he could be forging a permanent obstacle between himself and Sarah Coleman.

He wrote in his diary: "But for no earthly consideration whatever, not even the attainment of the dear object of my heart, will I sacrifice what I believe to be the interests of my church. O Lord, Help me!"

The obstinate elder Coleman eventually forbade Muhlenberg ever to enter his house.

Coincidentally, Sarah Hand Coleman, like her older sister, died suddenly while on a visit to Philadelphia. That was in the autumn of 1825, nearly six years after sister Ann had died. Sarah also was 24.

The graves of the sisters are in the Coleman plot of St. James’ Cemetery.

W.A. Muhlenberg is said to have visited Sarah’s grave after he was driven from his Lancaster charge by the Coleman family shortly after her death. Dr. H.M.J. Klein in his 1944 history of St. James said Muhlenberg "always took away with him a spray of the sweetbrier that grew there."

Muhlenberg died a bachelor, as did Buchanan. The minister is buried in the cemetery of St. Johnland, far from the sweetbrier that grew by the grave of his sweetheart.

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