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Martin Stephan was born August 13, 1777 in Stramberg, Moravia, presently the Czech Republic, of Austrian, German, and Czech parents. Martin attended St. Elizabeth's Gymnasium in Breslau, sponsored by local pietist and pastor Johann Ephraim Scheibel, rector of the Gymnasium und father of Johann Gottfried Scheibel, a professor at the University of Breslau. He attended the University of Halle and the University of Leipzig from 1804-1809.
Stephan became pastor in Haber, Bohemia in 1809. In 1810, Martin became the pastor of St. John's in Dresden, a specially chartered church that had its origins in those who had fled from Moravia and Bohemia in 1650 and were befriended by Count Nicolaus Ludwig Zinzendorf, a pietistic bishop and missionary. He preached in Czech and German. For the next 30 years Martin was known for his teaching, preaching, and compassionate counseling. He led the protest of oppressive practices by the Saxon State Consistory in the state-governed Evangelical Lutheran State Church of Saxony. He came under attack by the rationalist pastors for his confessional and orthodox stand. Pastor Stephan continued to uphold biblical and sacramental practices in his church.
In 1824, Martin Stephan began to explore America as a place to practice the faith without harassment. Martin and ten other men formed a "Gesellschaft" or Society for emigration from Dresden to St. Louis, Missouri. He helped organize 700 people and five ships for passage to America in November 1838. When the ships landed at the Port of New Orleans, Martin Stephan was elected Bishop of this small band of Lutherans according to the travel regulations of the Emigration Society. Forster indicates that Stephan was made Bishop initially only by the passengers and clergy on board the Olbers. This occurred around the time this ship entered the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Forster states, "On January 14, 1839...they made Stephan their bishop and endowed him with a liberal grant of power to carry out the functions of his office." Additionally, only four of the five immigrant ships arrived safely in New Orleans (the Amalia never arrived) and the ships arrived at varying times over the course of a couple of weeks. Of note, after his appointment, it was Stephan who originated the practice of kissing the bishop's hand.
After two months, the Saxon immigrants purchased land in Perry County, Missouri at the confluence of the Brazeau and Mississippi Rivers. Here they built homes, towns, schools, and churches. The organization of the community was disrupted when Martin was accused of sexual misconduct. Pastors G. H. Loeber and C. F. W. Walther told lay leaders of this confession. Walther made two trips to Perry County to prepare the Bishop’s deposition.
Stephan soon became embroiled in allegations of corruption and sexual misconduct, and was ejected from the settlement, leaving C. F. W. Walther as the senior clergyman. On May 30, 1839, Bishop Martin Stephan was deposed and excommunicated from the community on the grounds of sexual misconduct and embezzlement. He was put across the river to Kaskaskia, Illinois. Though the women who initially accused Stephan of sexual misconduct later recanted, he was never restored to his position. Following his removal from the colony, he served another congregation, Trinity Lutheran Church, at Horse Prairie near Red Bud, Illinois.
Stephan continued to hold worship in the county court house in Kaskaskia every two weeks. He taught German and guest preached in other Protestant churches until called as a pastor to Trinity Lutheran Church in Horse Prairie, a rural church a few miles east of Red Bud, Illinois. Martin was pastor there for four months until his death on February 21, 1846. According to the custom Pastor Stephan's coffin was carried around the church three times before he was interred in Trinity's cemetery. A fence was placed around the grave and a wooden 10 foot cross was erected. A memorial marker was erected by the congregation in 1988.
- Walter O. Forester, Zion on the Mississippi: The Settlement of the Saxon Lutherans in Missouri 1839-1841 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1953), 27.
- Forester, 28.
- Lawrence R. Rast, Jr., "Demagoguery or Democracy? The Saxon Emigration and American Culture" Concordia Theological Quarterly 63 (1999) No. 4:253.
- Rast, 254.
- Forster, Zion on the Mississippi, Concordia, 1953, p. 215
- Christian Cyclopedia, s.v. "Stephan, Martin, Sr." (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2000).
- Trinity Lutheran Church 150th Anniversary, 1992.
- Forster, W.O. Zion on the Mississippi. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1953)
- Meyer, Carl S. (ed). Moving Frontiers: Readings in the History of the Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1964)
- Rast, Lawrence R. Jr. Demagoguery or Democracy? The Saxon Emigration and American Culture [online] (Concordia Theological Quarterly) 63.4 (1999), 247-268. Available from <http://www.ctsfw.edu/library/files/pb/1767>
- Stephan, Martin. The Christian Faith. (Dresden: The Royal Printers, 1825)
- Todd, Mary. Authority Vested. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000)
- Stephan, Philip G. In Pursuit of Religious Freedom: Bishop Martin Stephan's Journey. (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008)
- Wolf, Edmund Jacob. The Lutherans in America; a story of struggle, progress, influence and marvelous growth. New York: J.A. Hill. 1889.
- Graebner, August Lawrence. Half a Century of Sound Lutheranism in America: A Brief Sketch of the History of the Missouri Synod. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1893.
- Kriegbaum-Hanks, Susan: A Brief History of the Old Lutheran Immigrants and the Buffalo Synod: 1838 - 1867