Stephan, Martin

Stephan, Martin, founder of the Stephanists, a community of separatists in the Lutheran Church of Saxony towards the end of the last century and in the early decades of the present. Stephan was born at Stramberg, Moravia, Aug. 13, 1777. His parents were poor but pious persons, who had originally belonged to the Roman Catholic communion, but had been converted through the reading of the Bible, and who diligently trained their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. They died, however, while Martin was yet young, and the consequence was that his mental culture was irreparably neglected, though he resisted all the persuasive influence of the Austrian "Edicts of Toleration," and remained true to the faith in which he had been reared. Indeed, an inflexible will distinguished him during the whole of his life, and contributed not a little towards the troubles in which he was from time to time involved. After having learned the business of a weaver, he went to Breslau in his twenty-first year to escape from Romish persecutions, and in that city he connected himself with a company of pietists, whose religious meetings afforded opportunity for developing his natural aptitudes for the pulpit. In 1802 he entered the gymnasium at Breslau, and, after having acquired a bare modicum of Latin and Greek, he matriculated at Halle in 1804, where he remained until 1806, and in 1809 he entered at Leipsic. As a student he manifested an exceedingly narrow spirit, rejecting learned studies as "carnal," and scenting unbelief or heresy in all forms of doctrine which had not been transmitted from "ancient times." His very narrowness, however, rendered him more completely master of such material as he was able to accumulate, and contributed not a little towards his later effectiveness as a pulpit speaker. He was first called to minister to a Church at Haber, in Bohemia, and then, in 1810, to preside over the congregation of Bohemian exiles in Dresden. In this post he was especially successful in gathering about him a large German congregation. His sermons were highly applauded, being characterized by great clearness, simplicity, and power, and likewise by great fidelity to the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confession. He was also conspicuously efficient as an organizer. The result was that numerous awakenings and conversions followed, and that the pastor's zeal was blessed to the good of an extended community. His authority gradually assumed larger proportions, and his teachings came to rank as of symbolical importance with many of his followers. This is especially true of a volume of sermons of the year 1824. The very successes he achieved, however, became instrumental in bringing about his downfall. He had already excited opposition on the part of the clergy of Dresden by ministering to a, German, congregation while called only to take charge of the Bohemian Church; and the hostility against him became more general as prosperity developed his naturally self-reliant and, arbitrary disposition. Every time he denounced those as heretics and unbelievers who were not prepared to subscribe to all his views he added to the number of his enemies and he finally placed himself in their power by persisting in an unfortunate custom which he had developed in his youth. He was in the habit of strolling about in the evening until a late hour, and the habit caused much unfavorable criticism; but it became ruinous to him. when he persisted in visiting a workingman's social club, originated by himself and composed of his own people, after ten o'clock at night,. The occasions of his visits were seasons of high festivity, in which the wives and daughters of the members participated, and they were invariably protracted until after midnight. Sometimes summer parties were connected with these meetings. Eventually the police were compelled to take notice of the offense thus given, but at first without discovering anything to warrant interference. On Nov. 8, 1837, however, they discovered Stephan, accompanied by a woman and a number of his followers, assembled long after midnight, and under circumstances which warranted their apprehension. They denied that their gathering was of the nature of a "conventicle; " but Stephan was nevertheless directed to report himself at Dresden by nine o'clock on the following morning, and immediately afterwards was suspended from the ministry. He had in the meantime secured a large number of followers throughout Saxony, insomuch that he had "stations" in every part, and held regular visitations among them. He. also held correspondence and friendly relations with the dissenters of Würtemberg and Baden, but severed his .relations with the Moravian Brotherhood, whose members had been among the first to strengthen his hands in Dresden, and also renounced the friendship of the regular Lutheran clergy. A numerous band of youthful clergymen whom he had trained was blindly devoted to him, and his influence was felt in many parishes where the minister was not in harmony with his views. Disputes, and even open violence, broke out in many churches, and the government was ultimately induced to interfere. The Bohemian Church over which he had been installed now entered a complaint against him, dated April 17, 1838, and supplemented July 5, 1838, in which the pastor was charged, first, with immodest and unchaste conduct (the specifications being too definite for rehearsal here); second, with dishonest administration of the finances of his Church; and, third, with frequent neglect of his official duties, especially with regard to Church, school, and the sick and dying; and these charges gave a more serious character to an investigation which had promised to result in his favor. Stephan now gave the word to his followers to prepare for emigration; but while getting ready he resumed his former nocturnal practices, and again came under police surveillance. At midnight of Oct. 27-28 he secretly, and without bidding adieu to his family, left the city and repaired to Bremen, where a body of his adherents had assembled to the number of 700 souls, including six clergymen, ten candidates, and four teachers. He sailed for America on Nov. 18. During the passage he was noticeably luxurious, idle, and arbitrary, though faint hearted in moments of danger. Five days before the arrival at New Orleans he caused himself to be elected bishop, and before arriving at St. Louis he had a document prepared by which the whole body pledged themselves to be subject to him "in ecclesiastical, and also in communal matters," only one person refusing to subscribe to its terms. His power had been established by the fact that he had obtained control of the emigration fund, amounting in the aggregate to about 125,000 thalers. He allowed more than two months to pass unimproved at St. Louis, to the great financial injury of the colony, while procuring the insignia of a bishop's office and leading a life of pleasure. In April, 1839, however, a portion of the colony, including the bishop, removed to Wittenberg, Perry Co., Mo., where a tract of land had been purchased. On May 5 and afterwards a number of young girls revealed to pastor Liber that Stephan had made improper advances to them while at sea and after the arrival, using as a cloak his sacred position and office. These statements were established by affidavits. Stephan was consequently deprived of his rank, and was excommunicated and expelled the community. He went to Illinois, followed by his faithful concubine, and died in Randolph County, of that state, in February, 1846. His deceived followers experienced grave difficulties because of unfavorable outward circumstances, and also because of internal dissensions. Their pastors were not able at once to lay aside that tendency to hierarchical pretensions which they had imbibed from Stephan's example; but eventual prosperity came to them under the guidance of the Rev. O. H. Walther, pastor of the St. Louis congregation.

Stephan was evidently a chosen instrument of God, endowed with extraordinary charisms, which he employed for the blessing and abused to the misery of souls. He was of imposing physical stature, over six feet in height, and possessed of rugged earnestness and intense determination. He was as shrewd as he was bold. His early ministerial life was that of a hero. Extraordinary success and the unbounded adoration of his people excited his vanity, and opened the way to sin and immorality. In his later days he was, no doubt, an abandoned hypocrite, who used his high position for the gratification of his fleshly lusts. See Stephan, Predigten, two sermons delivered in the Church of St. John, in Dresden, on the day of commemorating the Reformation, and on the first Sunday in Advent, 1823 (Durr, Dresden and Leipsic); id. Der christl. Glaube, sermons of the year 1824 (Dresden, 1825, 2 pts.); Poschel, Glaubensbekenntn. d. Gemeinde zu St. Joh. in Dresden, etc. (1833); Stephan, Gaben fur Unsere Zeit (2d ed. Nuremb. 1834); Von Uckermann, Sendschr. an Prof. Krug, etc. (Sondershausen, 1837); Delitzsch, Wissenschaft, Kunst, Judenthum (Grimma, 1838); Lutkemuller, Lehren u. Unitriebe d. Stephanisten (Altenburg, 1838), violent; Exulanten-Lieder (Bremen, 1838), five hymns composed by the emigrating colony of Stephanists, in which exaggerated adulation of the pastor, Stephan, is intermixed with devotional sentiment; Francke, Two Sermons on Ephesians 3:14-4:6, delivered in the royal chapel at Dresden, 1838; Steinert, Three Sermons on the Stephanists (Dresden, 1838); Siebenhaar, Discourses relating to the Stephanist Movement (Penig, 1839); Wildenham, A Sermon (ibid. 1839); Pleissner, Die kirchl. Fanatiker im Muldenthale (Altenburg, 1839), rationalistic; Warner, Die neuest. sckhs. Auswanderer nach Amerika (Leipsic, 1839), shallow, and not important; Schicksale u. Abenteuer d.... Stephanianer (Dresden, 1839), based on reports from Gunther, a returned emigrant Stephanist; Fischer, Das falsche Martyrerthum, etc. (Leipsic, 1839), the most complete presentation of the subject; Von Polenz, D. offentl.

Meinung u. d. Pastor Stephan (Dresden and Leipsic, 1840), the most important treatise for reaching a true estimate of Stephan; Vehse, D. Stephan'sche Ausw. in. Amerika, etc. (Dresden, 1840), held by returned members of the Stephanist colony to be the most accurate statement of the facts as they occurred; Walther, Sermon delivered before the Lutheran Congregation in St. Louis, Nov. 22, 1840 (ibid. 1841). Comp. also the acts of the Saxon Diet in regard to the case of Stephan, etc.; and see Guericke, Handb. d. Kirchengesch. 3d ed. 2, 995, 1096 sq., 1100, and numerous articles in the periodicals of the time.

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