Lutherans in Peril on the Sea
by Rebekah Curtis
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from LF Winter 2016
The category “Lutheran immigrant maritime disasters” is mercifully small, but the category is a limited method of accounting. Three shipwrecks could mean some missing timber or a thousand lives, pathetic mishaps or tragic crimes, inspiration or smothering sadness, goofy hijinks or wrenching laments. In the category at hand, we find some of each.
Three shipwrecks stand out in the history of Lutheran immigration to the United States: those of the Famous Dove in 1831, the Amalia in 1838, and the General Slocum in 1904. Formal historians have dealt with them in understandable proportion to their human impact. The loss of the General Slocum was catastrophic and occurred on the broad stage of New York City, so it received wide coverage in the press. There was also a resurgence of attention after the events of September 11,2001—which took the General Slocum’s place as the greatest human tragedy to strike NewYork—and at the hundredth anniversary of the disaster. The Amalia is of more specific interest: this smallest ship in the fleet of the Saxon migration sank in the Atlantic without witnesses and left a smaller group of stricken families and neighbors. The Famous Dove also sank, but her passengers did not. This story of rescue and providence has been remembered on mostly a parochial or familial basis rather than a public one.
Familiarity with each of these events is worthwhile in itself, but their spiritual heirs naturally have a greater inheritance to claim. While history is concerned with facts and causes, we who share an affinity of belief have an interest in how our predecessors responded to the history they lived. Additionally, the contours of contemporary Lutheranism are better understood in relation to the sharper angles in the past that built us, by both deep losses and providential heights.
Who can speak of the General Slocum? For her passengers were cut out of the land of the living in an ineffable horror. The facts are easy to come by, having been of recent interest to The New Yorker, the History Channel, Smithsonian, and The New York Times. On June 15, 1904, an unknowable number of human beings boarded the General Slocum for a Sunday School excursion hosted by St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, a congregation of the General Council. The boarders were mostly immigrants to the U.S. from Germany who lived in lower Manhattan’s Kleindeutschland neighborhood. They were also mostly moms and kids looking for a day of dancing and fun on the East River, since it was a Wednesday and the dads were at work. The “unknowable” number of passengers is due to the fact that the General Slocum was, like a crate of bananas, packed by weight rather than unit. Children were reckoned to tickets by twos or maybe more, depending on their size. Not long into the river trip, the General Slocum ignited below decks and the re grew out of control. By the official count, 1,021 people died by fire or water. The life jackets were full of crumbling, rotten cork that soaked up water; lifeboats that were supposed to be freely suspended from ropes were instead painted and wired to the wooden ship; untested canvas hoses blew out when water was pumped through them. People were trapped by the re, trampled by panicking neighbors, forced to choose between the re and the water, or drowned by desperate people falling or hanging on them in the river. If there were ever a reason for wanting a divine sanction on prayers for the dead, the General Slocum is it.
St. Mark’s had a pastor who was not above showing up for a Sunday School boat trip packed with ladies and babies. As a result, George C. F. Haas felt his own body fed upon by the fire, watched his beloved parishioners consumed by it or the water below, and lost his wife and daughter in the East River. His share in the horror and loss was equal to that endured by his congregation, and never was a pastor better and worse suited to shepherd his flock in the days and years that followed.
The idea of a thousand people from a single parish showing up for a Sunday School event held on a Wednesday is well removed from the contemporary Lutheran experience. By Lutheran standards, St. Mark’s was a megachurch. Families at St. Mark’s were large until that tragic day, when a host of men found themselves widowed and bereft of some or all of their children. “To see one streamer [of crape, the symbol of mourning] was uncommon; on most of the houses appeared four or five.” The gutted congregation eventually joined Zion Lutheran Church on the Upper East Side (which parish, Zion-St. Mark’s, still holds German-language services and events).
But the impact went beyond St. Mark’s. Business Insider recently invoked the General Slocum to explain “The crazy story of why there are almost no Germans in New York’s East Village anymore.” This is probably overstating the case a bit. Kleindeutschland was indeed where many German immigrants landed, but it’s not where most of them stayed once they became financially stable. Those who wanted to remain in New York favored the Upper East Side, while many others headed for the American West. Nevertheless, it’s a rare congregation, immigrant group, or local community that makes a full recovery from the loss of over a thousand people.
If the General Slocum was mass carnage, the Amalia was a secret miscarriage: an ordinary but happy expectation known as a loss only after the fact, terrible to the injured but injurious only to a few. The Saxons launched their fifth ship pointed toward American shores with dutiful hope. Edward T. O’Donnell notes that “most Germans arrived with the two things that distinguished them from the Irish: capital and skills.” The manifest of the Amalia reflects this, and thus the loss was both a human tragedy and a huge blow to the viability of the entire migrant group.
The Saxon emigration of 1838–1839 was infamously characterized by nearly as much “trainwreck” as shipwreck, due to the failed episcopacy of its leader, Martin Stephan. Gotthold Günther’s firsthand account of the emigration addresses both aspects of the wreckage in evocative detail. He concludes his bitter history by describing the defrauded immigrants living under trees, incapable of performing the necessary work for settlement. Finally, he reports a “sad duty to inform the reader of the worst tragedy of this entire disasterous [sic] enterprise. It is the unfortunate fate of the ship Amalia, whose end we can scarcely doubt.” Günther published the Amalia’s manifest by heads of household. He accounts for fifty-eight passengers, identified as cabinetmakers, carpenters, millers, farmers, shoemakers, widows, teachers, and seminarians or candidates. There were also fifteen children.
Walter O. Forster cites passengers of the Amalia as the migration’s greatest numerical loss. Additionally: The vessel had carried 3,000 thaler specie, the baggage of some of the immigrants, who were on other ships, and much of the most valuable equipment purchased by the Gesellschaft, such as the entire musical equipment, which alone was valued at 962 thaler. The insurance was far from adequate to cover the financial loss sustained, and the conflicting claims of the Gesellschaft, of individuals whose property had been on the Amalia, and the heirs of those who had perished in its sinking created a serious problem.
Forster also notes that “most of the unnecessary supplies bought in Germany, many of which were for the benefit of ‘the church,’ had been loaded on the Amalia, and these became a total loss.” The impact of these losses was a tremendous tax on morale, skill, physical assets, and public worship for the founders of the Missouri Synod.
The Saxons made it, even after the devastation of losing their dear ones and otherwise dear things on the Amalia. Günther wrote out of largely righteous anger, especially large and righteous because his sister Louise was both the material and the efficient cause of Stephan’s ousting. But this anger also blinded him to the pain felt by his story’s villains, the pastors. C. F. W. Walther, in whom doctrine and emotion showed the same spiritual rigor, wrote in an oft-quoted letter to his brother Otto Herman that he felt himself “a murderer of those buried at sea.” O. H. Walther’s own preoccupation with the tragedy came out in a poem, presented as a dialogue between the grieving and the Lord. The lament of the mourners makes a moving transition from prayers for the Amalia to return to prayers for Jesus to return.
The Amalia was an open wound for the early generations of Saxons. Suspicions about the fancier variety of pastor after the tragedy-inflected emigration is manifest in Walther’s later dealings with J. A. A. Grabau, who took a higher view of the ministry than the Saxons would accept. Even now, the Amalia remains an active memory. The 1975 novel Except the Corn Die by Saxon descendent Robert J. Koenig tells the story of his ancestor, whose family sailed on the Amalia. The book was republished in 1995 by the Perry County Lutheran Historical Society. Missouri Synod Lutherans are still naming daughters Amalia and are generally more inclined to upgrade the narthex than buy another chasuble.
The story of the Famous Dove is preserved in the contemporary version of the oral tradition: by conscientious keepers of their own genealogies and in publications on church websites. Not a story of lost humanity, it has remained the story of a family, full of warmth and charm. Formal engagement of the history was taken up by a son of the migration, Donald L. Huber.
Huber’s ancestor Johann Adam Tracht organized an emigrant group from Odenwald, Germany, in 1830. Tracht was tired of being prevented from shooting rabbits on his own land; clearly, America was the place to go. His fellow travelers boarded the James Beacham and a smaller ship in July, 1831, but the Beacham’s passengers renamed their ship the Famous Dove in celebration of their anticipated freedom.
Near the end of the voyage, a storm threatened the Famous Dove. A girl named Margaret Arras (age thirteen, by Huber’s account) exhorted her fellow travelers to pray: “[S]ince Christ had stilled the waves and saved the disciples from drowning, ‘maybe He will save us also.’” A sailor scorned this piety, and the captain and crew began covertly seeing to their own rescue in lifeboats. But with Tracht’s equipment and leadership, the emigrants held the crew at gunpoint. The Famous Dove ran aground off the coast of Virginia, and the emigrants were helped to shore by people who saw them from the beach. Huber and informal church histories record that these Good Samaritans were the first people with black skin that the Germans had ever seen. The company continued their travel over land for a number of years until most of them settled in Ohio, their original destination.
Out of this beginning grew a microcosm of Lutheranism in America. The mother churches flourished with the zeal of people starting over. Then came schisms over unionizing with Reformed neighbors, or questions of personal piety like drinking and dancing, thanks to the usual suspects on all sides. Daughter congregations were founded alongside mission plants from various synods. Descendants of the Famous Dove are now represented in ELCA, LCMS, and WELS parishes, some of whom still observe Shipwreck Sunday around September 17 every year.
What, then, shall we say to these things, aware as we are of the Lord’s warning, “Who is this that darkeneth counsel with words without knowledge?” (Job 38:2). Aside from the Lord, those closest to the General Slocum, the Amalia, and the Famous Dove have the best right to pass comment.
Pastor Haas of St. Mark’s and the General Slocum preached in his first sermon after the tragedy:
It was not God who was responsible for this long list of our dead. It was the negligence of men and the greed of a corporation… This accident shows that God’s laws cannot be violated by men. Common, everyday precautions would have been enough to have saved us all. Yet still in this darkest hour, and with all the burden of affliction that has come upon us, I still look up to God. He strikes a silence at our murmurs.
Haas raises the question of cause again, locating blame in the material realm by means of the familiar Lutheran ground of vocation. The Lutheran Witness of July 14, 1904, also denounced human negligence in its article on the Slocum disaster but concluded, “No doubt these and similar statements are well founded and true, but be it also remembered that without the will of God nothing can happen.” Lest this be dismissed as simplistic or fundamentalist, we might call upon Kierkegaard, who observed, with reference to Job, “And yet how weak, indeed almost childishly so, is not the wild fury of the storm, when it thinks it causes a man to tremble for himself by wresting away everything from him, and he answers, ‘It is not you who do this, it is the Lord who takes!’” Only if God is God of all things is there comfort to be found in Him.
Fundamentalism is as damaging in private comfort as it is in public dogma, which the Amalia’s lyricist knew. O. H. Walther dealt frankly with the persistence of sorrow, praying, “Lord Jesus, Lord Jesus, oh, do not be grieved / That we are still crying and weeping.” Neither were the mourners for the General Slocum forced into pieties bloated to the point of dishonesty. Rev. Dr. Holstein of Brooklyn, who conducted the memorial service at St. Mark’s, selected the bald anguish of Psalm 39 for the people’s prayer. Der Lutheraner commented on July 5, 1904, “The entire horrible disaster reminds us, nevertheless, that there is only a step between us and death (1 Sam 20:3), and it admonishes us that death is always present, and that even with acceptable trips and recreation, to walk in such a way that at any moment we are able to appear before the face of God.”
Memento mori, certainly, but there is still more to be remembered. Steven Edmiston, current pastor of St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jenera, Ohio, notes that the Famous Dove’s survivors knelt on that Virginia beach in thanks to God and promised to give thanks to the third and fourth generation for His deliverance. “We’re now at eight or nine generations of remembering not just the storm, but the rescue,” he says. Trinity Evangelical Lutheran, also in Jenera, observes Shipwreck Sunday annually and reports at least one very young ninth-generation member descended from the Famous Dove. Both parishes traditionally review the story of the shipwreck, read Scriptures, and sing hymns visiting the theme of “those in peril on the sea.” A non-negotiable feature of St. Paul’s annual commemoration is Mary Ann Baker’s “Master, the Tempest Is Raging.” Although outside the typical Lutheran repertoire, the hymn’s maritime-miracle motif is a good fit for people thankful to have been shipwrecked in Ohio for almost two centuries.
Whether the wrath of the storm-tossed sea,
Or demons or men, or whatever it be
No waters can swallow the ship where lies
The Master of ocean, and earth, and skies;
They all shall sweetly obey Thy will,
Peace, be still! Peace, be still!
The place of the Famous Dove with the Amalia and the General Slocum is not one of catharsis but of completeness. That rescue is not the counterweight to those tragedies; rather, each is a testimony that God’s will is done when He strengthens and keeps us firm in His Word and faith until we die, as Luther teaches in the Small Catechism. We can be tempted to be more faithful to grief than gratitude and quick to question God for sorrows while dismissing providence as coincidence. For the sweetest of reproaches, we may look to nine generations of baptisms in Ohio and a people bound to history by grace and gratitude. Well past the vow of their ancestors have they returned thanks.
All of this is to say nothing new: God is God of the General Slocum and the Amalia, God of the ark and her famous dove, God of them that weep and God of them that rejoice, God of God and very God of very God. The baptized are a nautical people, born through water to life on the holy ark of the church catholic. At every boarding we remember that any voyage may take us not where we intended but to fair Canaan’s side.
Rebekah Curtis is a writer living in Worden, Illinois.
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1. J. S. Ogilvie, History of the General Slocum Disaster (New York: J. S. Ogilvie, 1904), 162.
2. Sophie-Claire Hoeller, "The Crazy Story of Why There Are Almost No Germans in New York's East Village Anymore," Business Insider (August 20, 2015).
3. Edward T. O’Donnell, Ship Ablaze (New York: Broadway, 2003), 28.
4. Gotthold Günther, Die Schicksale und Abenteuer der aus Sachsen nach Amerika ausgewanderten Stephanianer (C. Heinrich: Dresden, 1839). Translated as “The Destinies and Adventures of the Stephanists Who Emigrated from Saxony to America” by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks.
5. Walter O. Forster, Zion on the Mississippi (St. Louis: Concordia, 1953), 362.
6. Ibid., 498.
7. Ibid., 368.
8. C. F. W. Walther to Otto Herman Walther, May 4, 1840, in Letters of C. F. W. Walther: A Selection, ed. Carl S. Meyer (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969), 35.
9. O. H. Walther in August R. Suelflow, Servant of the Word: The Life and Ministry of C. F. W. Walther (St. Louis: Concordia, 2000), 46, as quoted from Concordia Junior Messenger 17 (March 1939), trans. W. M. Czamanske.
10. Donald J. Huber, “The Wreck of the Famous Dove,” Timeline 19/2 (2003): 32.
11. Mark Panning, “Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church Jenera Ohio,” unpublished essay (1992).
12. Nina Boerger, “Neuendettelsau Nostalgia."
13. Lutheran Observer 72/28 (1904): 13.
14. John Schiller, “The General Slocum Disaster,” Lutheran Witness 23/15 (1904): 115.
15. Søren Kierkegaard, Edifying Discourses, ed. Paul L. Holmer, trans. David F. and Lillian Marvin Swenson (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1958), 82.
16. O. H. Walther in Suelflow, 46.
17. Ogilvie, 194.
18. “Aus Welt und Zeit,” Der Lutheraner 60/14 (1904): 218. Translation provided by James A. Lee.
19. Steven Edmiston, personal interview with author, September 21, 2016.
20. Esther Spaeth, personal interview with author, September 25, 2016.
21. Mary Ann Baker, “Master, the Tempest is Raging."