If you are a member of a church like the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod that uses a traditional church year, then you probably know that today was Transfiguration Sunday. The story for the day was the one where Jesus, along with Peter, James, and John, went to the top of a mountain where Moses and Elijah showed up. It was a time and place where Jesus was strengthened for the tough times which were in His near future. His Father spoke from heaven and told Jesus that he was His Son and that He was proud of Him.
While up on that mountaintop, Peter, who was often very spontaneous, suggested that they build some booths up there so they could stay for a while. He didn’t want the experience to end. However, that was not to be the case. Jesus knew that He had a mission to accomplish. So down the mountain they came, and Jesus proceeded on the way to the cross.
Here in Perry County, probably the closest thing we come to having a mountain is a hill that has become known as Stephansberg. When Martin Stephan arrived in Perry County, he must have seen this hill and made plans to build his palatial home on the top.
This photo shows Stephansberg as it looks today. One home can be found on top. If you stand on top of the hill, you get a pretty commanding view of this part of Perry County. Here is a panoramic photo taken by our friend, Ken Steinhoff, who has graciously allowed us to use his photograph today. This was taken from the top of the hill where the house is located.
This photo also gives a good idea of what the area called Seelitz looks like.
The church organization used in Germany back in the days of the immigration can be described as an episcopal type. Decisions in a church were made almost exclusively by the clergy. Pastors exerted quite a bit of power over their congregations. There are still church bodies that use this style today. The Roman Catholics, with the ultimate power being in the Pope at the Vatican, is an example. The pastors who came to America were used to that style of leadership. Rev. Stephan certainly was a proponent of this style of organization. However, it did not take long for the immigrants to have the American form of federalism to rub off on them. Eventually, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod would adopt a style of organization that would leave the decision-making in the area of theological doctrine and practice in the hands of the clergy, but put the day to day operations of the church into the hands of the laypeople.
When Martin Stephan looked out over the Seelitz valley, he was probably thinking about being the enlightened potentate of this new colony in America. He probably thought that he knew what was best for this new community. He had plans for building what might today be called a mansion on the top of Stephansberg where he would “rule” his people.
By the time he had arrived in Perry County, he had even already had himself declared the Bishop. I guess you could say that Bishop Stephan was like the apostle Peter who wanted to stay on top of the hill and make a home there. That was not to be. Not long after the immigrants’ arrival in Perry County, Rev. Stephan was accused of mishandling funds and having inappropriate relationships with some young ladies. He was banished from the community.
Now Stephansberg stands as a reminder to this community that they should not put too much faith in a charismatic leader. Once these people devised a new Americanized way of church organization, they flourished. That process would take a while and it would require the people to endure quite a bit of suffering. It should be remembered that Jesus, too, had to come down the hill and go through considerable suffering before His mission was accomplished.