Michael J. Steck: A Biographical Sketch

As a pastor he was faithful and zealous. His whole time seemed consecrated to the spiritual improvement of his people. During the thirty-two years of his ministry, it is supposed he preached upwards of eight thousand sermons, baptized five thousand persons, and received into the church, by the rite of confirmation, more than two thousand.

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Michael J. Steck.

 We gaze around,
We read their monuments: we sigh; and while
We sigh, we sink; and are what we deplor’d;
Lamenting, or lamented, all our lot!"

Among the good whom the year 1848 numbered with the dead, the name of Michael J. Steck will long be affectionately remembered and pronounced with reverence and love. Many years must elapse, before his beloved memory and blessed labors will be forgotten, especially by those who acknowledge him as their spiritual father, and who first learned from his lips the way of eternal life. As long as exalted worth and devoted piety awaken admiration, so long will his virtues be held in regard, and his example commended for imitation!

The subject of our sketch was born in Greensburg, Pa., May 1st, 1793. He was the son of Rev. John M. and Esther Steck, who early dedicated their child to God in the Sacrament of Baptism, and faithfully endeavored to bring him up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

His father, Rev. John M. Steck, was a pastor of the Lutheran church for a period of nearly fifty years, the last thirty-eight of which he had charge of the congregations of Greensburg and its vicinity. He died July 14th, 1830, in the seventy-fourth year of his age.

Their efforts were accompanied with the reward promised by Him, who is presented in his word as “keeping covenant and mercy with them that love Him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations.” “From a child” Michael “knew the holy Scriptures,” and seemed to love God and every thing good. At an early age he renewed the vows, assumed for him in infancy, by the rite of Confirmation, according to the practice of the Lutheran church, and to this solemn period of his life he often referred, as an occasion of peculiar interest, and rich spiritual blessing to his soul. As he advanced in years he grew in piety, and “increased in favor with God and man.” He was regarded as a youth of unusual promise, and the same excellencies which distinguished his subsequent career, shone forth in his life at this early period. He was remarkably steady in his habits, and entirely free from the waywardness and folly, so prevalent at this critical age. He was always most careful in the selection of his companions, keeping himself aloof from the vicious and the corrupt, and thus he escaped the pernicious rock upon which the bark of many, that bade fair, has stranded. He also seemed fond of books, and early evinced a taste for literary pursuits. His father therefore determined to furnish him with the facilities for acquiring an education, and accordingly sent him to the Greensburg Academy, where he continued for several years, in the prosecution of his studies. Having passed over the usual curriculum, he now, in reliance upon Divine aid, resolves to devote himself to the ministry of reconciliation, and to labor for the salvation of souls. He begins at once the study of Theology, under the direction of his father, who was, at the time, pastor of the United Lutheran churches of Greensburg and the vicinity, and who for nearly forty years ministered to congregations scattered over a large region of the country. His time was, however, so completely occupied with his pastoral duties, as to afford little leisure for giving instruction to his son, who consequently removed to Pittsburg, and continued his studies with Rev. Jacob Schnee, then pastor of the German church in that city. He here applied himself with great diligence and zeal to the work assigned him, and also by experience and observation, acquired knowledge which proved invaluable to him in subsequent life.

In the Spring of 1816 he presented himself as an applicant for licensure before the Synod of Pennsylvania, then assembled in Philadelphia, and after sustaining the usual examination, was invested with the sacred office. On his return home, he immediately commenced to preach the Gospel, and, for a season, voluntarily aided his father, whose pastoral charge covered so Targe space of territory, by performing services in the most remote parts of his diocese. Whilst he was engaged in this work, it was that he received and accepted a call to Lancaster, Ohio, which was, at the time, considered one of the most important fields of labor in our western church. He entered upon his duties December 10th, 1816, with fear and trembling, so low an estimate did he place upon his own qualifications for the work, so deep was his sense of the responsible vocation which was to claim his attention. His introductory sermon he preached from the words:

“Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God.”

The choice of his theme on this occasion, may serve to give us some idea of the views he entertained in reference to the work to which he had consecrated himself, and of the evangelical spirit which marked his labors from the very beginning. He always seemed to keep before him the great object of the ministry, and continually strove to bring souls “unto the knowledge of the truth as it is in Jesus.” In this sphere of usefulness, Mr. Steck labored for twelve years indefatigably, and with the most gratifying evidences of success. He was the pastor, not only of the congregation in Lancaster, in which he officiated in English as well as German, but also of several churches in the neighborhood. Such was the difficulty at that day of procuring the services of a minister of the Gospel, that often a charge included more than a dozen congregations. In addition to the regular labors devolving upon him, Mr. Stock frequently, by appointment of Synod, performed itinerant missionary service, making extensive tours, and sometimes even to the very frontiers of civilization, gathering together our scattered members, and dispensing to them the word and the ordinances. Many who had wandered from the fold, and become remiss in the discharge of their religious duties, were reclaimed, and restored to the communion of the church, whilst others who had long been deprived of the means of grace, were cheered and strengthened in their Christian course. Churches were planted in the wilderness; they were watered by his care; the solitary place was gladdened, and the desert made to blossom, and he rejoiced that his labors were not in vain. Greatly beloved by his own people, and enjoying the regard of the whole community, he wielded an influence as extended as it was deserving. He cordially reciprocated the attachment, and it was one of the severest trials of his life to separate from those, among whom he had so pleasantly labored for the space of twelve years. Nothing could have prompted his decision, but an imperative obligation to a beloved parent, whose declining years he felt bound to relieve of their onerous duties. In allusion to his removal from the endeared scenes of his early labors, he thus speaks:

“Here my official acts in Lancaster, and the congregations connected with it, cease! These last days were to me days of mourning, for it caused me the greatest pain to leave these churches! While life lasts, I shall never forget my separation from this people. I feel grateful that they are provided with a faithful pastor, who I hope will labor among them with greater success than I did. O that God would richly bless him and them, and grant them abundant grace.”

The remainder of Mr. Steck’s life was passed at Greensburg. On the death of his father, in 1830, he assumed the duties of the whole charge, and continued them without interruption, until the termination of his active and useful life. Some idea may be gathered of his labors, when it is stated that he ministered regularly to eleven churches, besides preaching at three or four stations, some of which were distant thirty miles from his place of residence. His Journal, for the space of nineteen years, exhibits a succession of pastoral duty in his numerous congregations, scarcely credible to one unacquainted with his active ministry. Earnestly and faithfully devoted to the flock entrusted to his care, he was ever ready to labor for their good.

The Rev. William A. Passavant, to whom we are indebted for many of the facts presented in this sketch, says the following:

“Though blessed with a strong constitution and vigorous health, the duties of his widely extended parish were so excessive, that at times he often sank under their burden. This was especially the case the last few years of his life, when the long rides on horseback were peculiarly trying, and the infirmities of age were beginning to be felt. Returning from his distant churches, exhausted with frequent preaching and fatigue, and hoping to find a little rest in the bosom of his family, messengers from remote congregations were often in waiting, to accompany him to the bed of sickness or the house of mourning. And nowhere was the kindness of his nature, or his high sense of ministerial fidelity, more strikingly displayed, than on occasions like these. Weary and exhausted as he might be, he never refused the calls of mercy, and taking a fresh horse, he would at once turn away from home and all its sweet attractions. Venerated man! No wonder that the widow’s heart leaped for joy, and the sorrowful felt a sweet relief, and the dying saint revived again, as thy feet entered the abode of suffering. Thy tender sympathy was too real, not to shed its balsam on the bruised heart, and the consolations of thy lips were as life to the departing soul.”

When the subject of our narrative was finally arrested in his course, by the hand of malignant disease, he was actively engaged in the discharge of his ministerial labors, attending to the spiritual wants of the sick and dying, and furnishing them with the comforts of the Gospel. lie was himself attacked with typhoid fever, during the prevalence of the epidemic, and after lingering on his sick couch for several weeks, and often enduring the most acute suffering, he was released from his tenement of clay, and entered into his eternal rest.

How The Christian Dies

It is an interesting spectacle to see how the Christian dies, to witness in his last moments, the influence of the principles he professed in life. Then, as the individual stands upon the threshold of eternity, there is usually no concealment of character — no disposition manifested to practice deception, or to disguise one’s real sentiments,

“A death-bed’s a detector of the heart,”

Then is seen the power of the Gospel, in sustaining and strengthening the individual for his last conflict, in taking away the sting of death, and robbing the grave of its victory. It enables him triumphantly to exclaim in apostolic language:

“Thanks be to God, who giveth me the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Mr. Steck approached his end without any feeling of trepidation. He knew in whom he had believed, and he was assured that his confidence had not been misplaced. On one occasion he inquired of the attending physician in reference to his condition, and finding him unwilling to reply, he said:

“Do not think it will alarm me — I am not afraid to die!”

Although for the sake of his family, and for the church, he at times expressed a wish to live, yet he would often break forth into strong desires to depart. His words were,

“How long, dear Savior—O! how long must I stay here? Come, come quickly — do come.”

Animated by a bright and cheering hope, he spoke of the peace, the perfect peace that reigned in his soul, of the joy that was set before him, and on which he was so soon to enter. He calmly closed his eyes on earth, and went to sit down with the glorified Redeemer on his own throne, even as he, when he had overcome, sat down with the Father on his throne.

On the day following, he was borne from his home to the grave, and immense multitudes flocked together, to mingle their common grief, and testify their warm affection for one whom they had loved whilst living, and whose departure from the world they greatly lamented. Religious exercises, solemn and appropriate to the occasion, were conducted by Rev. N. P. Hacke, of the German Reformed church, and Rev. Messrs. W. S. Emery, J. Mechling, W. A. Passavant and J. Rugan, of the Lutheran church. Funeral sermons were also subsequently preached by several of the brethren in the country churches, formerly under the care of the deceased, and the occasion was still further improved, by Rev. W. A. Passavant, of Pittsburg, delivering a discourse in Greensburg, from the words:

“And devout men carried Stephen to his grave, and made great lamentation over him.”

In the Lutheran burial ground of Greensburg, is to be seen a plain, simple, upright stone, set in a stone block, with the following inscription:

“Here sleeps in Jesus the body of the Rev. Michael J. Steck, for nineteen years the faithful pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran churches in Greensburg and its vicinity; Born May 1, 1793—Died September 1, 1848; Aged 55 years and 4 months. He was a good man and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith: and much people were added unto the Lord.’ Yet he might with justice have adopted the lamentation of the prophet: ‘All the day long have I stretched out my hands unto a disobedient and gainsaying people; yet surely my judgment is with the Lord, and my work with my God.’ This stone is erected to his memory by the Pittsburg Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.”

In the year 1818 the subject of our memoir was united in marriage to Catharine Elizabeth, daughter of William Penn and Elizabeth Cope, who, with a large family, survives to mourn the loss of a most affectionate husband, whose memory is still fondly cherished by a large circle of most devoted friends. The fruits of this marriage were eleven children, four sons and seven daughters. Two of the daughters are the wives of Lutheran ministers, the one of Rev. J. Rugan, and the other of Rev. A. H. Waters.

Obituary Notices in Church Papers

In gathering material for our present sketch, we have been deeply interested in its subject. We have seen much to admire in his beautiful character, and the important services he rendered — much that calls for gratitude to Almighty God for furnishing the church with such a standard-bearer, who labored so faithfully for the advancement of its interests, and then left a name untarnished, as a rich legacy to posterity. We are not surprised at the laudatory language employed by the church papers at the time of his decease. Says one:

“Long has he labored as a minister of Jesus Christ, and labored, too, with great fidelity and success. His departure to his eternal home, will be a loss to his late charge, and to the Lutheran church in general, which it will be difficult to supply.”

Says another:

“In the death of this brother, the church has lost one of its brightest ornaments and best ministers. We have known him long, and loved him as a father. Long will his memory be cherished by the older members of the Lutheran church in this city, to whom he broke the bread of life more than thirty years ago, as a missionary. Their tears will mingle with those of his family, for the loss of a dear friend and a benefactor. But we feel that our and their loss is his gain.”

Mr. Steck was a man of unsullied private character, with a good report among those that were without, as well as among those that were within. He was distinguished for the kindness of his heart and the gentleness of his nature. His cheerful visage, his mild and winning virtues, his engaging manners and popular address, secured for him the warm and unfeigned regard of all who came within the reach of his personal influence. In his intercourse with others, he was modest and unostentatious, evincing a low estimate of himself and his abilities. He was frank, honest and sincere, and his simplicity threw a lustre over his whole character. He was patient and forgiving, willing to suffer wrong rather than resent an injury, that peace might be promoted. He seemed to act upon the principle of “giving no offense in anything, that the ministry be not blamed.”

His Character

As a Christian, his character was rendered still more attractive. His piety was deep, sincere and consistent. It was seen in his private walk and conversation, it was manifest in his public ministrations, in his daily intercourse with the world. He adorned “the doctrine of God, our Savior in all things.” He confided in God, trusted in his promises, depended not on his own strength, but on the strength of the arm of God. He was “steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord.” He seemed to grow in grace from day to day, and to ripen for heaven. His path was “as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day.”

Pastoral Qualifications

Mr. Steck united the qualifications of a good preacher and a successful pastor in more than a common degree. His appearance in the pulpit was very prepossessing. His enunciation was distinct, his voice melodious, his manner natural, animated and impressive. His style was simple and practical, his matter deeply evangelical, and his appeals to the sinner most affectionate and earnest. He meekly but faithfully preached Christ and him crucified. The last discourse he delivered was based on the text:

“Likewise I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God, over one sinner that repenteth.”

The services of the sanctuary he conducted with the greatest solemnity. He was never irreverent — he never introduced anything into the pulpit, unbecoming the place or the occasion.

Mr. Steck, in his preparations for the pulpit, is said to have been careful and laborious. He was a diligent student of the Bible. The views of divine truth he presented, were clear and discriminating. The large number of manuscript sketches and sermons, which are still in the possession of his friends, affords ample proof of his unwearied and successful efforts to instruct and edify those over whom he had been set as a watchman in Zion.

As a pastor he was faithful and zealous. His whole time seemed consecrated to the spiritual improvement of his people. During the thirty-two years of his ministry, it is supposed he preached upwards of eight thousand sermons, baptized five thousand persons, and received into the church, by the rite of confirmation, more than two thousand.

“Although almost constantly overwhelmed with labor,” (says one who knew him well,) “never was a single call of duty neglected. He was always ready to wend his way to his distant congregations, or convey the peace of the Gospel to the abodes of disease and poverty. By day and by night, even when oppressed with the infirmities of age, or weighed down by sickness, or worn out by constant mental and physical exertion, he would forsake the comforts of home, and fly to the post of duty, preaching the Gospel, instructing the young, and administering the consolations of religion to the sick and the dying, burying the dead, and comforting the widow and the fatherless in their affliction.”

All his duties were discharged with the most conscientious fidelity. His great regret was, that the results of his labors were not more satisfactory. The field which he was required to cultivate was so extensive, owing to the system which at that time prevailed, and which often made it necessary for a man to take charge of as many congregations as are now connected with a single Synod, that he was not able to give to his people that amount of attention which he desired, and their interests demanded. Still he did under the circumstances, what he could, and we have seen that his labors were owned and blessed by the Great Head of the church, to the salvation of souls and the advancement of His kingdom.

Reminiscences of Lutheran Ministers Series

"Among our earlier ministers, the fathers of the American Lutheran Church… we can point to many bright names, which Christians of any denomination might be proud to recognize as their own…

“Men distinguished for high talent, great learning, devoted piety, ardent zeal and noble spirit, who were appreciated by their contemporaries, and labored assiduously for the elevation of the race, and the extension of the Redeemer’s kingdom.” – Charles Krauth

Lutheran Biographical Sketch

Publication Information

  • Author: “Krauth, Charles P.”, Editor.
  • Journal: “The Evangelical Review.”
  • Originally Published: 1856.
  • Lutheran Library Edition: 2019
  • Copyright: CC BY 4.0