Martin Stephan Family and Emigration

Historically the Stephan family, traceable back to the middle ages in Austria, was always fleeing from something–most of all religious strife and oppression.
The young orphaned Martin left his boyhood home of Stramberg, situated close to the Eastern border of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. With its rolling hills and citizens with flat Czech intonation, Stramberg was best known for its craggy caves. They would provide a hiding place for Martin and his sister, While all the family had been baptized in the local Catholic church, the parents were devout Lutherans, making for a crazy and confusing situation. Even after the ban on compulsory Catholicism was lifted, the parents were not going to take any chances. Jesuits were still roaming the countryside looking for protestants. So the parents practiced and taught their Lutheran faith at home in secret, much like Christians in the Middle East experience in Muslim areas. Any wonder he did not wish to turn Catholic?
Martin’s odyssey continued with an apprenticeship as wandering weaver in the tradition of his father. In Breslau, Silesia, a group of Christians took Martin under his wing, and at age 21,(1798) he was admitted to the Elisabeth College Gymnasium (advanced High School), followed by theological studies in Leipzig (page 32) and ordination in Halle. Martin accepted his first call in 1809 as a Lutheran Pastor to the small town of Haber in North Bohemia, after which he moved to Dresden a year later called as a Czech and German-speaking pastor to the Bohemian Congregation of St. John’s for 28 years.
The migrations of the early Stephans from Austria to Moravia, combined with Martin’s flight from Moravia to Silesia, then south to Bohemia and back to Saxony would help him emotionally to manage yet another move to the New World. He would need that strength. This was going to be anything but an ordinary passage from Germany.
The two Martins were not alone in their journey. They were part of a wave of 670 staunch Lutherans. Fueled by a zeal like the heat of a lava flow bursting its fissures, crafts and tradesmen, clergy, lawyers, farmers, teachers, professionals, laborers, women and children from surrounding villages and towns–predominantly in Saxony –were joining him in an exodus that came to be known as the Saxon Emigration (SE). These emigrants hoped to find a land where police, politics and pursuit would be replaced by faith, freedom and future to freely express the Lutheran Augsburg Confession, as they knew and understood it. No tears of pleading could hold these God-fearing men and women back, as one contemporary commented.
The SE’s mission tore participants from their loved ones, means of livelihood, farms, towns, landscapes, language and congregations, drawing whole families and individuals to a place far different than imagined. For Martin Sr. to remain behind without them was unthinkable. After all the years of work he spent to conceptualize, spearhead, set up a treasury, make travel arrangements, hire ships, iron out details of the arrival in New Orleans, book steamers for travel on to St. Louis, finding quarters for the organizers and colony in that city and Perry County, about 80-100 miles south of St Louis on the Mississippi, was there any turning back? Is it any wonder that Martin had little time to devote to his family? Was that his role, anyway at that time, you might ask? Have you ever had an all consuming mission that might have left a few people hanging for a while?
Originally, the plan was for Julia to join her husband and son after they were settled. In the meantime, Julia’s relatives would provide resources. Provisions had been made by agreement between Martin and Julia for her financial security. But was it realistic at the very least, to bring three hearing and speech impaired daughters to the wilds of Missouri, where no one had set foot, no one spoke the language, where Indians, it was feared, might be ready to attack at any moment, unfounded as this faulty and terrible notion proved to be?
Even if all the daughters had been well and hearty, could a woman smarting from feelings of rejection and abandonment have managed the trip with six daughters–three of them handicapped and live in the wilderness? Who would take care of them? In fact, all three daughters would end up in official homes for the deaf. That would be impossible in a remote area of America at that time.
It is unlikely that the Knöbel family (Julia’s maiden name) would have supported the move of their daughter. Moreover, on an emotional level, parting from Dresden would not be the same for her as her husband. Dresden meant home and family. Born and bred there, Julia had the luxury of architects as father and grandfather, aristocrats, really. Both served the Saxon Courts in Poland and Saxony. Although they both spoke Polish, their ears preferred the softer German accent of Dresden, and their souls drew them back to that noble city, where both were buried.
Finally, Julia would have had to part from her very first grandchild. It would mean never seeing her brother and birth family again. Julia came to the conclusion that the Promised Land was an untenable situation. For their individual choices, therefore, Julia, like Martin Sr, were prepared to lead separate lives on different continents.
But a further complication cannot be overlooked: Within the mélange of factors for Julia’s decision there was another woman–and Martin’s physical condition at the time. Nearly 61 when he left for Missouri, Martin was suffering from painful eczema for which he needed help. Martin wanted someone who was willing to stand at his side and minister to him. Julia’s place in the emigration would be assumed by a much younger woman, and a nurse at that, who replaced bandages from the sores on his legs, and offered comfort and solace. Yes, Martin wanted her by his side. And tongues have wagged unto the fourth generation about this ever since.

Understandably hurt and crushed by her husband’s distance and aloofness, she elected to remain loyal to her daughters and stayed behind to live just six more years, dying of exhaustion in 1854.

Oh, how tasty a subject for the numbers of people (most LCMS) just waiting to pin something on Stephan–which often the happened with leaders of an emigration: stealing money and sexual impropriety. A reason surely justified making Stephan ancestors’ heads hang in humiliation, as if it were God’s truth that the sharks circling him were ipso facto correct. It is not my purpose in this blog to suppose guilt or innocence of Martin Stephan. But for the record, this feminist believes he did not commit what his accusers claimed. My goal is to present the facts as I know them.

The Saxon Emigration sounded messianic on the surface. They wanted to “shake the dust from their feet . . . and hasten from a land in which the Church had been carried to its grave.”(48) But, like all immigrations, it had its dark side as well. Granted these were evangelic enthusiasts but not necessarily angelic.
Emigrants had a myriad of reasons for getting out of Dodge, not all of them above board. Instances of skeletons in the heritage closet is true for many Americans. My ex boy friend’s father murdered a man. A friend’s ancestor escaped after bedding down with a person of another color. On my mother’s side, one man left to avoid military conscription. Martin Stephan, found. via the SE, a way to solve a difficult marriage that divorce, still not allowed, could not.
SE leaders, on the other hand, broke Commandments and participated in broken deals. Some leaders used and abused money in the name of a higher cause. Others made use of physical and verbal violence or misused the wave of fervor, to break the law. Pastor C. F. W. Walther, a clergyman member of the colony, kidnapped his own niece and nephew staying under the legal guardianship of Walther’s very own parents. And then, he, evaded a warrant for arrest by jumping from one ship to another. But no matter. He justified his actions by rescuing the two children from the “fleshpots of Egypt.” This particular unsavory part of Walther has been downplayed, as well as his hounding of Martin Stephan Jr. (See my website for Martin’s letter and others). Only Martin was singled out for transgressions which he did not commit.

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