May 30th and May 31st are infamous days in the history of the German immigration to Perry County which took place in 1838-1839. These are the days when the leader of the Gesellschaft, Rev. Martin Stephan, was found guilty of several charges and then sent into exile in Illinois. It is a story that is not without its controversy. I will attempt to tell this tale today by sticking mostly to the facts and stating some opinions that some have had about this event over the years.
Rev. Martin Stephan was 61 years old when he arrived in America in 1839. We have this image of him.
He left his wife and several children in Germany and came to this country with only his son, Martin Stephan, Jr. who was 16 years old. It has been documented that while he was still in Germany, local law enforcement officials in and around Dresden, where he was the pastor of a congregation, were targeting Rev. Stephan for being involved in behaviors which were considered inappropriate. Some accusations were made against him regarding his habit of spending time with young ladies on evening walks. Such pursuit by local authorities must have influenced his decision to leave Germany.
Rev. Stephan must have been a charismatic person to be able to convince about 700 people to leave their homeland, travel across the Atlantic Ocean, and settle in America. Scholars who have read his sermons have described them as being very sound in their doctrine which is in accordance with the beliefs of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. His influence over the people of the immigration was so powerful, however, that he was able to convince them to give him the title of bishop.
Bishop Stephan’s leadership was short-lived. After arriving in New Orleans in January of 1839 and then proceeding by steamboat to St. Louis and arriving in February, under his leadership, the Gesellschaft managed to buy some property in Perry County. In April, he led an expedition of some of the immigrants to their newly-acquired land to get it ready for the rest to follow later. It was during his absence from St. Louis that events took place that would lead to his downfall. Rev. Gotthold Loeber preached a Sunday sermon on the topic of repentance. It must have been a powerful message because it led several people to come to him later confessing their sinfulness. The confessors were all young ladies who admitted to having inappropriate relationships with Bishop Stephan. Now the Gesellschaft had a scandal that needed to be handled.
Rev. C.F.W. Walther was chosen to travel to Perry County with two main tasks. One was to confront Bishop Stephan with the charges against him. The other was to convince the other immigrants who were already there to abandon following him. On May 15th, he traveled to Perry County and attempted to do that. He was rather successful at convincing the others to no longer give Bishop Stephan their allegiance, but he was not successful at getting the bishop to admit guilt. He returned to St. Louis on May 22nd or 23rd. The immigrants in St. Louis then decided it was time to move to Perry County, which was not part of Rev. Stephan’s plan. He wanted to make the decision when that move was to be made.
On May 29th, two steamboats carried these immigrants downriver. When they arrived, they found that another group of a little over 100 people had traveled from New York City wanting to join this immigration, and had already arrived at this location. It must have been quite the chaotic scene. The ones coming from St. Louis could probably be described as being as mad as hornets.
Justice was rather swift in the case of Bishop Stephan. Some would say too swift. By the next day, May 30, 1839, a decision was made by both the clergy and the laity to remove Bishop Stephan from their midst. The bishop felt this group had no authority to remove him, but his feelings were ignored. A document was written and signed which officially pronounced that he should be deposed. All the pastors signed this document, including the pastor that arrived from New York City. The laymen who signed the document were Dr. Carl Edward Vehse, Johann George Gube, Christian Gottfried Schlimpert, Johann Gottlieb Palisch, and Johann Friedrich Sproede (who was part of the New York Group).
It is reported that Rev. Stephan was given three choices. He could return to Germany, appear before the local court system in Missouri, or be rowed across the Mississippi River to Illinois, never to return. It is said that he agreed to the latter. However, there was too much debris floating down the river at that time, and it was decided that Pastor Stephan would be taken to Illinois on the next day, May 31st.
However, before that occurred, there were two documents signed by Martin Stephan before he left. One was this document called a “renunciation of claims”.
His signature is on the lower right. It is not very legible, but that may have been because of his stress level at the time he signed. One could also conclude that he was coerced into signing this document. Another document is called a “list of effects” that he was allowed to keep.
Once again, his signature is on the lower right. It is even less legible on this document.
Rev. Stephan made a request. He asked that there not be a big crowd present when he was banished from their midst. That request was granted. The next morning, at approximately 10:30 a.m., Henry Bimpage and Teacher Mueller rowed the disgraced and deposed leader across the river to Illinois. Not many were there to witness this event. He was dropped off at a rock formation that had been named even before this event as “The Devil’s Bake Oven”.
Henry Bimpage was a newspaper publisher and real estate dealer from St. Louis who was involved in the Gesellschaft’s purchase of land in Perry County. Teacher Mueller is a real mystery. We do not even know what his first name was. He came to Perry County with the New York Group, and he left the immigration society not long after this event occurred. It is unlikely that we will ever figure out where he went or who he was.
Below is a rather old photograph of the Devil’s Bake Oven in Grand Tower, Illinois. It shows a house built on its top which was located there in the late 1800’s and is said to have housed the superintendent of the iron foundry that was once located in Grand Tower. That house is no longer there.
Stories are also told that in the early 1800’s before the arrival of the German Lutherans across the river, pirates operated in this area, using the rock formation as a hiding place. By the time of the immigration in Perry County, that activity had ended.
The link below takes you to an article that describes more of the history of the Devil’s Bake Oven along with speculation that is a haunted place now.
If you look at the story of Bishop Stephan’s exile from today’s legal perspective, you would probably conclude that he was not granted his rights to a lawyer and a trial. However, that was a different time and a different set of circumstances. The German Lutheran immigrants were still learning what it meant to be living in a free country like the United States. It was also a very primitive area at that time.
In my own opinion, I would rather look at the long-term results. I think that sometimes God does amazing things despite the sinful actions of human beings. After all, God doesn’t have a choice. He must perform His acts by using sinners because that is all He has to work with. The Bible is full of stories with God performing His great acts by using sinful people. In this case, we see that despite the sinful actions which may have been committed during the time period of this immigration, God has been able to perform one of His miracles by using the people in this group to help establish one of the largest church bodies in existence which now spreads its influence all over this globe.