Life of Bishop Martin Stephan, Part 2

Postlude to my Introduction
It would be simple to end my introduction with Martin Stephan’s death. But a blog is akin to a plant. It sprouts forth when new information sheds light on existing material, and promotes insight and pruning.
With this piece, I want to expand on Martin’ odyssey within the complex political, religious, and confessional times in which he lived–particularly in Moravia, Bohemia, Saxony, and thereafter, North America.
Martin Stephan lived during complex political, religious, and confessional times–particularly in Moravia, Bohemia, Saxony–and thereafter, America. The choices Martin made prior to his departure for America will help enlighten us about his character.
Let us return to Stramberg, Martin’s parents were beset by ill health, fear, and religious oppression. In 1624 Moravia had turned Catholic at the decree of King Ferdinand II, who ordered all protestants to leave the country. Ten years after Martin’s birth, the ban was lifted in 1787. However, prejudice and discrimination towards protestants persisted. The two youngsters were in danger of being killed by Jesuits. Martin’s parents were officially baptized in the local Catholic church, and held confessional Lutheran services and bible study at home in secret with the children. What does it mean to honor a faith even under fear of death? We shall see the consequences both with his parents, and later in Martin’s life.
His mother Zuzana died from tuberculosis at age 34. Three years later, in 1793, his father, too passed away the same disease at 38. Both parents were laid to rest in a neighboring village. Stramberg didn’t permit protestant burials. Living in a place where you are not wanted or appreciated surely had its effects on him.
My Uncle Theo writes that Martin’ father, on his deathbed, declined to will Martin, his eldest son, the parental home. “Der Martin braucht es nicht, der wird einmal weit fortkommen.” (He won’t need it. At some point, Martin will make his path far away from Stramberg). The father knew.
Without parents, home, nor an safe way to express their faith, and the Jesuits in hot pursuit, the two youngsters fled Stramberg immediately after the father’s death. Forsaking their brother Jan, Martin and another sister, Martin became caretaker of his younger sister Wilhelmina at age 16.
Making their way towards Breslau, Silesia, they passed through regions with Slavic dialects that differed from Stramberg’s familiar rhythm, accents and sounds. Language for many people signifies home (Heimat). In Silesia the language used was the largely German. Martin’s first language was Czech.
Later in Dresden the Saxons would ridicule his German. They didn’t like Bohemians with a Czech accent. Later, the English language in America would pose another hurdle for Martin, while his betrayers sequestered themselves amongst fellow Saxons.
Then there was the linguistic/cultural/church practice issue. Martin Stephan was called to St. John’s Lutheran Church in Dresden because he could preach in Czech. Like Martin, the members were descendants of exiles (Exulanten), and were granted the right to hold their Lutheran service in the Bohemian i.e., Czech language.
Martin would juggle the stricter Doctrine of Dresden Lutherans against his fellow Moravian ancestry members who adopted more unencumbered Brüder (Brethren) practices: holding of hands in a circle, evening walks with parishioners, midweek bible classes, including women, and an emphasis on social work.
The Lutheran/Moravian hue of Martin’s pietist youth remained with him to his death, and would prove to be a would prove to be a sore point with the German Lutherans in Radeberg, just outside Dresden
In short, two congregations with the same Lutheran confession with differing approaches, languages and ethnic backgrounds was a pot waiting to boil over. For some disgruntled German Lutherans, it signified a crack in the seam of their mighty fortress.
Further difficulties arose after the third and forth generation exiles–no longer conversant in Czech–had integrated into Saxon society. Attendance in the early service dwindled as more Czechs joined the ever flourishing German service, now grown due to Stephan’s charismatic preaching as well. In fact, Stephan met his future wife Julia in the German service there.
Over a period of Martin Stephan’s 28 years in office, the Czech congregation dwindled to 300 while the German grew to over 700. The Czech faction was unhappy about Martin Stephan’s perceived neglect of their needs. In 1831, when it became clear that all protestants would be combined into one unified protestant church, discussions started about emigration abroad.
The complexities of these political, confessional and ethnic differences would tug at the heartstrings of Martin’s soul. Which group do you side with: emigrate to save the confessional faith with attendant loss of homeland, or stay with a dwindling Czech congregational style and no salary? Because wife Julia Stephan declined to leave, a further emotional problem arose. How did history view her decision? I will address this gnarly problem late. Moreover, how did these events affect the life of Martin Stephan’s descendents? Forster says little about this.

One Response to “Life of Bishop Martin Stephan, Part 2”

  1. Anonymous Says:

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