Monday, September 26, 2011

What We Can Learn from the Confessions of a Stephanite

In 1838 five Saxon ships set sail for America, filled with the hopes of a new life and a new land where they could practice their Lutheran faith free from secular interference. (Among them was C.F.W. Walther, the future president of what would become the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod). While still at sea, Pastor Martin Stephan was elected Bishop of these 500 Saxons. Not long after settling in America their peace was shattered, as Bishop Stephan was deposed in disgrace in 1839 due to financial and sexual misconduct. The chaos which followed led this small band of Lutherans to question whether they could rightfully call themselves “church.” From the rubble arose what would eventually become the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.

Pastor Ernst Gerhard Wilhelm Keyl was one of those immigrants. He, like the others, was caught up in the aura of Bishop Stephan, a mistake that would later become known as Stephanism. In August of 1841 Pastor Keyl made a public confession of the sins he had committed by following Bishop Stephan. The manuscript of his confession has been translated by Pastor Joel R. Basely of Mark V Publications, and is titled “Public Confessions of a Stephanite.” There are several things we can learn from Pastor Keyl’s confession.

While you couldn’t call the Stephanites a cult in the sense that following Bishop Stephan’s teachings would necessarily lead to the loss of your salvation, it was certainly a cult of personality. Many cult-like marks can be seen in Pastor Keyl’s descriptions of their life in the new land, and should be warning posts for all of us in our own lives. Some of the Stephanite cult characteristics include the dictatorial rule of one man, lip service being paid to Scripture and the Confessions with ultimate authority coming from Stephan, favoritism to those of means, an elitism in which the Stephanites understood themselves as the remnant of the true Lutheran Church, lies cleverly hidden within the truth, derogation of the Church as found outside of the group, the pledging of unconditional obedience to Stephan in every churchly and communal matter, isolationism, a disdain for outsiders, a neglect of vocation in favor of the group, and shunning of those who don’t follow the groups tenets. These types of attributes are signposts, warning that Christian freedom is waning and that the Gospel itself is threatened.

Pastor Keyl notes that he initially came into conflict with then Pastor Stephan while still in Germany over the issue of authority. It is here that the chain of enslavement could have been broken, but wasn’t. Rather than, in good Christian charity, attempting to resolve the issue through brotherly discourse, or establish that Pastor Stephan was a false prophet to be marked and avoided, Pastor Keyl “once again tied the knot to restore my former bond with Stephan without ever coming to clarification over the former point of conflict.” This is a mistake that we sinners all tend to make, letting things fester, or taking the path of least resistance rather than working towards true reconciliation. For the sake of the Gospel and for the sake of our fellow Christians, this should never be done.

Pastor Keyl requested release from the congregation to which he had been called in Germany, as he recalls:
I requested release from my office – not with fear and trembling, not with inner turmoil, oh no, but rather in a steadfast, horrifying delusion that overwhelmed all thinking. I imagined I was thereby doing God a service, convincing myself that this was my own free, well-intentioned decision.
This was a grave error. God calls His servants of the Word to particular locations, where He expects them to serve faithfully until the day He calls them elsewhere. We see the Office of the Holy Ministry today being treated in a similar fashion – as though it were merely a job that can be tossed aside like a used Coke can and recycled for a new one. This happens when pastors leave their parishes for reasons other than another valid call, when congregations view their pastor as an expendable “at will” employee, and when congregations depose pastors for reasons other than those found in Scripture. It also happens when District Presidents obstruct the call process and when they wrongfully place pastors on restricted status. We, like Pastor Keyl, should come to our senses and repent of all such actions.

Lest someone think that only pastors were at fault in the Stephanite debacle, Pastor Keyl relates how his parishioners confessed “how they, for their part, had sinned deeply, primarily by forgoing the necessary testing of their teacher.” All of us laymen need to be thoroughly grounded in the basic articles of faith, and be ready to gently help our pastors should they err.

The sweetest lesson of Pastor Keyl’s confession is the one of repentance and forgiveness. In the midst of what was formerly crushing guilt and shame, Pastor Keyl can yet rejoice:
Thanks and praise be to our faithful, merciful God, that he has born me in such patience and long suffering and has not let me die in my sins. He awakened me out of the deep sleep of my sins and opened my eyes, that I might learn to know the great power of my sins as well as the greater power of his grace. Yes, it is dear to me that he has humbled me that I may learn of his justice. This bitter but salutary remembrance of my sins will, indeed, accompany me until my end. But my comfort shall be the Word of the LORD. “I will forgive you your trespasses and shall remember your sins no more.”
Praise God for His grace. He ever blesses His Church, and restores His undershepherds and His sheep when they fall, for Jesus’ sake.

photo credit: paulwb


Anonymous said...

Stephanism may be dead at the Synod level, but it is alive and well in the LCMS District offices.

Es lebe Stephanismus!

Carl Vehse said...

"In 1838 five Saxon ships set sail for America, filled with the hopes of a new life and a new land where they could practice their Lutheran faith free from secular interference."

This notion comes from various LCMS fairy tales about the Stephanite emigration, and is simply erroneous. According to Ernst Gerhard Wilhelm Keyl's Public Confession of a Stephanite":

"What an impudent lie it was to assert that the Lutheran Church was doomed, not only in Saxony but in all of Germany, yes even in Europe, since there were undeniable facts revealing just the opposite. Through this assertion so many would be rejected, so many teachers and congregational members who were still clinging steadfast to their churchly confession! – What a pharisaical, selfish boast to call this bunch of Stephanites the remnant of the true Lutheran Church, since even at this time so much that was utterly un-Lutheran was being practiced among us, as was now being revealed to all the world...

"I also made myself a participant in these great sins, in that, following the lead of Stephan, I compared the emigration with Noah’s entrance into the ark, with Lot’s flight from Sodom, with the exodus of Israel from the Egyptian house of slavery...

"Those who wanted to join the emigration, according to Stephan’s explicit command, would be admonished to a most careful consideration of this step. But what these people were to consider at length was their need to be purged by the flames of God’s justice from the impending danger of believing, through the emigration, they would be forever secure, yes, to hope they would receive true well-being for body and soul. Their resolve must rather be to risk everything if only to remain with the true visible church! If they now had definitely decided to join the emigration, then they would be martyred all over again to follow the commands of Stephan to the letter...

"That’s when I and those who decided to emigrate would start a whole new list of manifold and even greater sins, whereby believers and unbelievers alike would be caused indescribable offense."

In his "The European Background" (Moving Frontiers: Reading in the History of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Carl S. Meyer, editor, CPH, 1964, pp. 84-85) Robert C. Schultz noted that there was no imminent religious threat by the Prussian Union to the Lutheran Saxons that necessitated their emigration. In his Zion on the Mississippi (CPH, 1953) Walter Forster discusses over several pages (pp.105-112) why the Saxons emigrated. Forster concluded: "The basic reason for the departure of the Stephanites from Germany was not a principle, it was a person -- Stephan." Forster also noted other Lutherans from that time, e.g., C.F.W. Walther (Zion, p. 515), H.E.F. Guericke (Zion, p.77), and G.H. Loeber (Zion, p.513), expressed (eventually) similar views.

"While still at sea, Pastor Martin Stephan was elected Bishop of these 500 Saxons."

According to the Stephanite Emigration to America (C.E., Vehse, Dresden, 1840, pp. 9-10), when the Olbers sailed into the Gulf of Mexico on January 14, 1839, Martin Stephan instructed his assistant to prepare a document by which, in the name of his assistants on the Olbers and on the other ships containing the Saxon emigrants, the office of bishop was conferred upon him. The following afternoon that document was delivered to the people on the Olbers. Later, while on the Steamer Selma, the Saxons were required to sign a "Pledge of Obedience" to Stephan, under the threat of being banished without funds. All but Heinrich Ferdinand Fischer signed.

Scott Diekmann said...

Written from the perspective of the Saxons at the time, the first sentence is accurate. Yes, I agree Carl that they exaggerated the oppression they underwent - at the same time there was some secular interference due to the Prussian Union and its aftermath. Stephan basically blew the persecution angle way out of proportion for his own gain. Thanks for elaborating.