I have been a John Prine fan for decades. Several years ago, I took a look at the statue in a small park catty corner from Politics & Prose and saw that it was John Muhlenberg, a Revolutionary War general from Pennsylvania. I was quite surprised to learn recently that this same cat is the namesake of Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, which is in Prine’s song “Paradise.” (“Oh, daddy won’t you take me to Muhlenberg County, down by the Green River where paradise lay; Well I’m sorry, my son, but you’re too late in asking, Mr. Peabody’s coal train done hauled it away.”) I still can’t figure out why Muhlenberg ended up having a Kentucky county named after him and why this statue ended up on Connecticut Avenue.
— Paul Matulic, Washington
John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg (1746-1807) was a Lutheran pastor who is most famous for the dramatic way in which he announced that he had decided to fight the British with more than just scripture. From the pulpit of his church in Woodstock, Va., Muhlenberg ended his final sermon with these words: “In the language of Holy Writ there is a time for all things . . . there is a time to pray and a time to fight . . . and that time has now come.”
Then came the big reveal: Muhlenberg opened his clerical robe. Underneath was a uniform.
As Muhlenberg’s biographer wrote: “He entered the church, doubtless, with as sincere and honest purposes as any of her ministry, but the agony of his country called him from the altar with a voice that touched every chord of his soul.”
After descending from the pulpit, Muhlenberg instructed that drums be struck to summon recruits. Some 300 parishioners joined up.
Muhlenberg came from a storied Lutheran family. His father, Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, founded the Lutheran church in this country after immigrating from Germany, the land of Martin Luther. (Pennsylvania’s Muhlenberg College is named after Henry.)
Muhlenberg commanded a Virginia regiment during the Revolution, first seeing action at Sullivan’s Island in South Carolina. He led his men in further engagements, worked closely with George Washington and before the war’s end rose to the rank of brigadier general. After the war, he served in the U.S. House and Senate, representing Pennsylvania.
Muhlenberg made two trips to Kentucky to oversee the distribution of lands that had been granted to himself and other officers. He never set foot in the part of the state that would bear his name.
Muhlenberg County was created in 1798, carved from parts of two existing counties, Logan and Christian. Christian County was named for another Virginia officer who fought in the Revolution, William Christian. In was not uncommon, in the glow of the British defeat, to honor veterans in such a way. Think of Montgomery County in Maryland.
In 1928, Congress authorized the erection of a monument to Muhlenberg — at no expense to the government — in a park bounded by Ellicott Street, Connecticut Avenue and 36th Street NW.
Why that particular spot? It was across from land slated to become a Lutheran cathedral. The Depression made fundraising for both the cathedral and the monument difficult. Plans for a cathedral were replaced by something more modest. Even so, construction of the church stalled at the lower level.
“For many years, people would come and worship in our basement, and we were called the basement church,” said Pastor Thomas Omholt, who has led what became St. Paul’s Lutheran Church since 1984. “It’s a story of humility.”
The church’s upper structure wasn’t dedicated until 1958. A year later, a committee was named to raise funds for the Muhlenberg monument across the street. That was slow going, too, but on Oct. 26, 1980, Reformation Sunday, the memorial was dedicated. The West German ambassador was in attendance.
The Muhlenberg memorial consists of a bronze bust of John Muhlenberg atop a limestone pedestal flanked on three sides by a low wall. Three plaques recount Muhlenberg’s tripartite life as a clergyman, soldier and statesman.
The architect was John F. Harbeson. The statue is the work of a local artist named Caroline Hufford-Anderson. Her maiden name? Muhlenberg. She’s a descendant of the “fighting parson.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/people/john-kelly.