Martin Stephan: Voyage on the Olbers

The voyage on the Olbers, lasted over 9 weeks, and the trip besieged by storms. Pastor Stephan was one of the eldest on board, and suffered almost three weeks from severe sea sickness. Other passengers were as well, adding to the general misery.
The passengers enjoyed a few calm days, notably on Advent Sunday and Christmas morning. On board were several men who played a major role: the Attorneys Marbach, Vehse, and O.H. Walther, the brother of Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm “Billy the Kid” Walther. O.H. had written The Songs of Exiles upon the Sea, which he “dedicated to Martin Stephan, fleeing for the sake of truth ….from Saxony to North America.” Exile was not new to Martin, nor to his congregation of exiles in Dresden.
Sadly, Marbach’s boy had to be buried at sea, and another child as well. A youngster (the son of the ship’s doctor) was caught stealing three watches and throwing them into the sea. A public flogging followed.
Stephan refused to intervene. His duties were to preach on upper deck, conduct bible study, and ensure that school was conducted. He preached twice, stopping once while everyone repaired to the middle deck. Walter Forster , in his book Zion on the Mississippi, claims Stephan was lazy. (H.O. Walther preached also when weather permitted. His sermon “Why Have We Emigrated?” was abruptly halted by a sudden storm).
As if the protracted bad weather were not enough, ugly moods arose on the ship. Exhausted by his trip to Bremen and then Bremerhaven, Martin was unable to defend against his hurt feelings over growing complaints. It was not the fairy tale Saxons imagined–gliding on calm seas into balmy Caribbean sunshine. In a tearful sermon, Stephan admonished his congregation that he had sacrificed enough for them, they had better get a grip. Why was there not more brotherly love on the ship, he thundered. Stern delivery.
Now 61, he was at the end of his rope: “Are you with me or not? “Examine the mission you are on, is it for the devil or Christ?” Stephan obviously needed to impart discipline. After all, he bore major responsibly for the emigration. And now these unjust accusations by ingrates! Time to reign things in. No one could have foreseen what would go wrong: inclement weather, a longer voyage than planned, deaths at sea, grousing about the emigration. Once the complainers reached shore, rebellion might follow.
In consultation with others, Stephan decided that he should be elected Bishop to consolidate the loose governance assigned to one pastor on each of the four ships. That had already been agreed upon in Dresden. Especially Vehse, an aforementioned foe of Stephan, concurred. The bishop would govern over all secular and sacred matters, the secular part to be relinquished at a stated time. The qualified elders needed to elect Stephan earlier than planned, namely on the Olbers.
Martin Stephan was well suited for leadership. He had years of experience shepherding a dual congregation, the necessary temperament, and exile. Martin knew how such misfortune can affect the soul.
January 16, the Olbers lay anchored in the bay of New Orleans waiting four days to debark at New Orleans. During this time, a select group of twelve men voted to elect Stephan as Bishop of the entire emigration. It was a call Martin initially wanted to turn down. Who steps forward and braves the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune? Or the responsibility? In the end, he agreed. You do what needs doing–a Stephan trait. The Pastor declared he would assume office only if he managed it with an iron fist. Given the unruly nature of the passengers, it was a wise decision. Take it or leave it, Martin said. They took it, subject to confirmation by the communities now landed in St. Louis. Perhaps God gave the Olber’s group time and serenity to take this action.

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