A Brief Survey of Views on the Martin Stephan and the Saxon Emigration, Part I

A survey of some major works on the SE will show how the Saxon story has been viewed over the last 170 years. We begin with Attorney Carl Vehse’s The Stephanite Emigrations, written during his return voyage to Germany in December of 1839. Vehse, a man who once had reported Stephan to have “exceptional and sure understanding of human nature,” a “perceptive tact in dealing with people,” and “glorious sermons,” quickly parried those qualities into claiming it facilitated Stephan’s dominance over others. Vehse wanted to be the alpha in the pack.
Tail between his legs, Vehse continued his hateful and turncoat verbiage on his return to Germany. In a diatribe-driven tract, Vehse seized the opportunity for a final jealous blast on Martin Stephan’s theology, person, and character in writing. (For more information, see Philip G. Stephan’s book In Pursuit of Religious Freedom: Bishop Martin Stephan’s Journey in the bibliography section).
Details of Stephan’s fate made their way back to Dresden via other returnees, letters from colony members, and most important, from the German and German-American press. From the outset, at least a half dozen Saxon newspapers had followed the emigration closely. In America, St. Louis had German and English language newspapers. Forster lists over twenty of them. News of Stephan’s expulsion reached his wife Julia, based on her letter to her son, in July of 1839.
Franz Delitzsch, a renowned professor of Theology in Leipzig, found Stephan’s treatment repugnant, and for that reason, refused an invitation to emigrate. Delitzsch knew Martin Stephan well from Martin’s student days in Leipzig and subsequent ministry in Dresden, where he attended Stephan’s church. The professor defended Martin, and had no problem with female members going in the evening to Bible Study, a common practice in the Moravian Brethren movement which included Stramberg. In fact, Delitzsch praised Stephan extensively. For more on the professor’s assessment of Martin, see Philip’s aforementioned book.
In 1847, colony members and other groups who had joined them, founded an official church body, the LCMS. From the pulpit, in church publications, conferences, lecture halls, and members gossip, “Fathers” of the church wasted no time in displaying their distaste of exiled Bishop Stephan alive or dead.
Such unfounded (and decidedly unchristian) biases continued for more than a century, capped by Walter Forster’s Zion on the Mississippi in 1953. Forster’s 600 page book enjoyed almost Biblical acclaim as the sine qua non of the truth about Bishop Martin Stephan. The author fills Zion with shoddy scholarship, unsupported assumptions, unsubstantiated conclusions, frequent use of the subjunctive and passive voice, words or phrases such as “seem,” “likely,” “possible,” “apparently,” “it may be fairy surmised,” or ” it is doubtful,” and hundreds of “howevers.” (These from underlined passages in my father’s annotated copy of Zion.)
By 1953, my father, Curtis Stephan an LCMS pastor, had completed all his coursework for a PhD in History at Indiana University. A stickler for grammar and language usage, he earned an MA in English Literature and commanded five languages. Curtis served on the Concordia Publishing House (CPH) literature board of the LCMS. Despite his protests, CPH rubber-stamped Forster’s book.
My favorite quote from Zion:
“The allegedly authoritative opinion of the unnamed individual was that even if Stephan were fully absolved of the charges still lodged against him, his exoneration would by no means lead to his reinstatement in office.”
Forster, professor of History at Purdue University, lived one hundred miles north of my father, an LCMS campus Pastor at Indiana University. As far as I know, their paths never crossed.
Recently, I opened my father’s copy of Zion and discovered a handwritten note by a Fulbright scholar from Germany inserted near the end of the book:

“Zion on the Mississippi. Words, words, words. To me - an objective reader -the author (Forster) seems to bear (?) off the same old petty slander that was typical for German “Biedermeier” mentality. Quite a prejudiced point of view, obvious after the lecture of several pages (to say nothing about the whole book). Full of “it is likely, probably, is said to, apparently.” What a near-sighted petit-bourgeois person - and a professor of history upon the bargain. Oh my, oh my!”


Edith Wollner August 30th, 1982

Dad must have loaned her his copy. By then very ill, I’m sure Curtis never noticed the insertion. I discovered it in 2017.

Other like-minded books followed. In 1961, Lewis W. Spitz penned a bloated paean: The Life of Dr. C.F.W. Walther, (first President of the LCMS). A professor at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Spitz sharpened his already pointed clan rhetoric.

“Martin Stephan died in 1846 as the Pastor of a Lutheran congregation and his body is resting in God’s acre, at Horse Prairie, Illinois, awaiting the day when all men (sic) must appear before the judgment seat of Jesus Christ. May he then also appear in Jesus’ blood and righteousness as his beauty and glorious dress. Whatever the sad and confused facts about the Saxons and their leader at that time may have been, God there too, made good come out of evil.”

Given Spitz’s preemptory pipeline to the almighty and as definitive insider about of the nature of good and evil, is there any doubt what opinion his students would form about Bishop Martin Stephan?
Next in line was “Summary of Stephan’s Errors,” written by Concordia Seminary Professor Ottomar Fuerbringer during the 1970’s. Although unpublished, it is well-known in LCMS circles. Fuerbringer, a good example of the now popular framing technique, described Stephan with unscholarly words such as “cult-like dependency”, “trampled teachings of Luther”, and of course the title itself.

According to the Internet, Stella Wuerffel’s Two Rivers to Freedom (1980) portrayed

“an historical-romantic (!) novel about courageous Saxon Christians emigrating to America in the 1800’s. Up the Elbe River in Germany to the sea, across the wide ocean in small ships, then up the Mississippi to Altenburg and St. Louis.“

Zu Gast am Mississippi, an amateurish novel by Ingerose Paust, followed in 1985. Aided by funding from the LCMS, Paust based her information on interviews with some of their congregations, using information from discussions with Fuerbringer, Zion and Two Rivers, as well. One hand washes the other. Like Fuerbringer, Paust refers to my great grandfather as simply “Stephan” while all the others are called Pastors Walther, Keyl, Loeber and so forth. “Stephan” so Paust, promised the colonists a “City of God” when in reality he swindled them out of all their money which they had entrusted to him. She continues the fable proclaimed in the Lutheran Witness (an LCMS publication) about a “Polish Countess” who had presented the synod with a silver chalice. This unsupported assertion stemmed, as usual, from the canon folks of LCMS. Fake news is nothing new. Julia Stephan’s letter to her son Martin mentions the real owner of the Chalice: herself.

Except the Corn Die by Robert Koenig (paperback 1995), covers such salient talking points:
“Bishop Martin Stephan was accused of mismanaging money, making poor decisions regarding land and property for the people in the Emigration Society, and having adulterous affairs with some of the women! What would the future of the Perry County, Missouri, group be? Should they go back to Germany? Should they press on and make America their home? Who would be their new leader once Stephan was forced out of the settlement?”

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