Life of Bishop Martin Stephan, Part 2

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. 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, but held 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
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.
On his deathbed, my Uncle Theo writes that Martin’ father declined to will him the parental home and said, “Der Martin braucht es nicht, der wird einmal weit fortkommen.” He won’t need it, this child will find his path far away (from Stramberg).
Without parents, home, nor an organized way to express their faith, and the Jesuits in hot pursuit, the two youngsters were forced to leave Stramberg immediately. At 16, Martin became caretaker of his younger sister Wilhelmina. Forsaking his brother Jan, Martin and his sister fled their home.
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 confessional/cultural 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.
For Martin Stephan the stricter Doctrine of Dresden Lutherans would be juggled against the 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.
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 Exulanten joined the ever flourishing German service, in part due to Stephan’s charismatic preaching as well. In fact, Stephan met his future wife Julia in the German service there.
The Lutheran/Moravian hue of Martin’s pietist youth remained with him to his death, and would prove to be a problem in Dresden. Two congregations with the same Lutheran confession but a differing approach, language and ethnic background was a pot waiting to boil over. For some disgruntled German Lutherans, it signified a crack in the seam of their mighty fortress.
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? How did these events affect the life of Martin Stephan’s descendents? Forster says little about this.

Leave a Reply

Logged in as . Logout »