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John William Stein – Part 1 – Under the Spell

September 20, 2011

Born in Virginia, USA, John William Stein became a revered Christian pastor, a journalist and president of a college in Illinois, and he died far from fame and family, a solitary homesteader in the Bella Coola valley, on the remote northern coast of British Columbia. For some years in between he had farmed across the Fraser River from New Westminster at Brownsville with a beautiful devoted wife and a young family. The life story of JW Stein reads like a chapter in the good book, or perhaps belongs in the realm of the historical novel, ultimately to be played out on the silver screen. Here, such facts as have come to hand can be laid out only in plain fashion.

Stein’s early years – family – Baptist ordination

John William Stein was born in February, 1842 in Roanoke, Virginia, to Prussian immigrant John Henry Stein. His mother was Mary Ann (Harris) Stein.

Stein served in the Confederate Army in the Civil War and subsequently became a pacifist. Ordained a Baptist minister, he began a career of service to the church.

John Stein was married to Sarah Smith, two years his elder, and in 1871 a daughter was born to them at Byhalia, Marshall County, Mississippi, whom they called Glennie May Stein. A second daughter, Mable, was born in Tennessee in 1873.

Stein’s religious conversion – the Brethren

After serving about nine years as a preacher, John W Stein left the Baptists in 1875 and joined the German fundamentalist Church of the Brethren. These were Tunkers —old German for immersion—, or Dunkards, who were baptized by being three times thrust under water. The Brethren were given to piety of spirit and humility in appearance, emphasized by their plain dress. The men were distinguished by unshaven faces, short hair, white shirt and cutaway frock coat with a standing collar, heavy boots, and black broad brim hat similar to that worn by the Quakers. The ladies wore plain dresses with heavy shoes and stockings, their long hair covered with a white cap and plain bonnet. Both sexes eschewed jewellery.

As only Christ was deserving of reverence in the Brethren fellowship, henceforth the Rev. Stein would be known as “Bro. Stein” and Sarah, with other female members, was addressed as Sister.

Stein’s church at Newtonia – Stein’s family – the Tombaugh family

In 1876, the Stein family resided at Newtonia, Newton County, Missouri, where Brother Stein had charge of the Shoal Creek Church of the Brethren.

Shoal Creek Love Feast 1876    

Also living at Newtonia was Jane Tombaugh, recently widowed and the mother of six girls and two boys. The Tombaughs became friendly with the Stein family, and one daughter, 16-year old Delila (“Lillie”), would soon form a close attachment with the Steins, and eventually move in with them.

A third child was born to John William Stein and Sarah Stein in 1878, in Missouri: a son whom they called John William Stein, junior.

Stein’s burgeoning career – writings – debate

John Stein had began an active public life of proselytizing, expounding on matters of faith and devotion at the pulpit and in press. In addition to serving his congregation at Shoal Creek, he was called upon to speak far and wide, and when the periodical The Brethren at Work began in 1876, Stein was on board as Associate Editor.

Outside of periodical articles, Stein’s published work from 1875 to 1881 included these titles:

True Evangelical Obedience

Christianity Utterly Incompatible With War and Retaliation

Non-Conformity to the World as Taught and Practiced by the Brethren or German Baptists

The Stein and Ray Debate: A Church Discussion Between the Brethren and Baptists.

This last title arose out of a public debate with DB Ray, editor of the Baptist Battle Flag, held at Newtonia, MO over a seven-day period beginning March 6, 1878. Both men were formidable and convincing orators. The debate was published also in a series of articles lasting many months in the Baptist Battle Flag and in The Primitive Christian and The Pilgrim, a Brethren periodical.

Primitive-Christian-and-Pilgrim-mast Stein---Ray-Debate clipping

The publication of the debate did not meet with universal acclaim among Brethren readers. To some, Ray’s arguments were controversial, objectionable and unsuitable for publication in a Brethren paper , lowering the tone of the periodical to the extent that they refused to read it. Stein persevered—he and others believing it was important to face challenges to their beliefs head-on—while forgoing payment for his contributions.

Founding of Mount Morris College – the optimism of a new venture

In 1879, at age 37, Stein was persuaded by JH Moore, publisher of the periodical Brethren at Work, and Melchor S Newcomer, prominent Brethren minister and businessman, to join in the establishment of a Brethren institute of higher learning in Illinois. With MS Newcomer and DL Miller, JW Stein invested in the purchase of a former Methodist college, the Rock River Seminary, at Mt. Morris, Illinois.

The Primitive Christian & Pilgrim informed its readers in April 1879—

"Bro JW Stein and his family are now at Mt Morris, Ill, preparing we presume to open the school of which he is to be the principal."

Mt Morris Seminary And Collegiate Institute  

The Mount Morris Seminary and Collegiate Institute opened in August 1879 with John William Stein as President. A faculty of eight instructed an initial enrolment of sixty, and by the end of September Stein reported 93 students in attendance.

The local newspaper, Ogle County Democrat, heralded the opening of College with especially high praise for its founding President.

“The Seminary at this place is renewing its youth. There is now every promise of substantial and permanent success, a numerous attendance of students, excellent and ample accommodations, and an energetic and popular administration of the school under the able guidance of the new principal, Elder Stein, who now takes charge. He is a distinguished man, whose high attainments, purity of character, singleness of purpose and fitness as a leader in a good cause are recognized not only by the Brethren of his church but by everyone. We are glad to welcome such a man to this community, and will cordially aid him in the noble work of education in which he is engaged.” [Quoted in PCP 1879-06-17]

The faculty Stein attracted was distinguished by youth and talent. Science master Fernando Sanford, 25, went on to conduct pioneering work in physics and would later be hired for the first faculty of Stanford University in California, and Jeremiah W Jenks, only 22 years old and teaching classical Greek and Latin at Mount Morris, would later shine in economic theory at Cornell.

DL Miller, who was the financial manager of the Institute, wrote of the personal contribution of JW Stein to the early success of the college, herewith excerpted from Memories of Old Sandstone.

“The president, J. W. Stein, was a remarkable man. He was a fluent, polished speaker, had the power of holding his audiences spellbound, was blessed with the gift of oratory in a marked degree, and his kindness, courtesy, and geniality impressed all who came under the charm of his powerful influence. The students loved him as a father and the faculty as an elder brother.”

Down to work – the first term at Mount Morris College

The Stein family now residing in Mount Morris comprised John and Sarah, with children Glennie, Mabel, and John Jr.

Delila “Lillie” Tombaugh, now 18 years old, also lived with the Stein’s, having accompanied them in the move from Missouri to Illinois. Delila was said to be blessed with great beauty—“strikingly handsome of face and form”—, an affectionate disposition, and a superior intellect.

James Quinter visited Mount Morris in November of 1879, during the first term of the College, and on his leaving for his next stop at Lanark, Stein made him an offer of a private carriage ride to speed his passage, on the promise he return to preach on Sunday night.

"We accepted it, and he obtained a carriage, and he, his wife, a young sister and myself, left here on Saturday morning for Lanark, and had a healthy and pleasant ride, though it was cool as the weather changed."

Quinter, having experience with the travails of starting up a college, observed with concern the work Stein was undertaking.

"Bro Stein the President of the faculty, appreciates his position, and is preparing himself for the great work before him. At this time his labors are very arduous. He has the debate with Mr Ray on hand, and nearly all the ministerial work in the religious services in the chapel, and there is one service every Sunday, and sometimes two to perform, besides a great deal of other work. But we hope he will be strengthened by divine power for the responsible position he is occupying. When we see his labors, we cannot but think of our dear brother Zuck, who, we are fearful, sunk under the weight of the burden which his delicate constitution could not bear. We trust however, the Lord will provide, and when one faithful worker is taken by death from his post, his mantle will fall upon another who can fill his place, and continue the work."

(Jacob M Zuck had been the first Principal of the Brethren’s Normal School at Huntingdon, PA in 1876 and died there in the spring of 1879 at the age of 32.)

MS-Newcomer James-Quinter J-M-Zuck D-L-Miller
MS Newcomer James Quinter JM Zuck DL Miller

As regards Stein as a writer and advocate, Quinter wrote:

"Brother Stein manifests a Christian spirit, while his manner of reasoning is candid and forcible."

Some discouragements

James Quinter was right to feel some concern for his friend’s well-being. John W Stein was doing two jobs, that of Professor and College President, and that of regular preacher in the Brethren church.

The college experienced some growing pains as well. Student enrolment had increased rapidly, but many students attracted to the College came from the general community, and while motivated Christians, they did not readily conform to Brethren forms of dress, deportment and conduct. This led to some gossip amongst the Brethren, with some laying the blame for every departure from proper decorum at the door of Stein’s administration.

JW Stein also found himself being pressured by some Brethren to relinquish his personal investment in the institution—now its success was apparent—by selling some of property he acquired when the College was conceived.

The Abraham Harley Cassel Library –—Triumph and Dissatisfaction

A new college needed buildings, faculty and students, all of which were ready and in place. A fourth essential element was a library. John Stein negotiated with the noted antiquarian Abraham Harley Cassel to purchase 27,000 books from his extensive collection.

AH Cassel’s collection of books was so large it at one time exceeded that of the Library of Congress. A-H-Cassel

AH Cassel

JW Stein put great effort into fundraising for the library, visiting churches in the surrounding districts to presenting the case for supporting Mount Morris College. His welcome was not automatic and he sometimes met with reluctance verging on hostility. He found such dismissals and rejections hard to take personally.

Stein sought other avenues and the money was raised through various sponsorships. The college now had a superb library, yet even so, the purchase aroused criticism from some quarters, with complaints noised that the bulk of the collection was out of date, written in German, or otherwise irrelevant to the needs of a modern school—complaints that fell mainly on the shoulders of Stein, who had promoted the acquisition.

The Second Year of Mount Morris College

JW Stein attended the Annual Meeting of the Brethren Church in 1880. Described by historian ES Moyer as “a prominent leader of the church,” Stein took an active interest in evangelism and served on a committee for foreign missions.

By the start of the second year of Mount Morris College, in the fall of 1880, the College was on a firm footing with enrolment exceeding 200 students.

Three of the Tombaugh sisters were part of the student body. Delila, or Lillie as she was known, had come to Mount Morris to live with the Steins, helping Mrs Stein with the children and household, and attending classes on campus. Delila’s older sister Lavina and her younger sister Fidella also attended the college.

John William Stein’s tenure as President of Mount Morris College was to be all too short and in late spring of 1881, near the end of the second year of the College, he announced he would be taking leave for an extended period.

A Clap of Thunder from a Clear Sky – Leaving Mount Morris

In May of 1881, it was reported that Lillie Tombaugh had bid goodbye to the Stein family and Mount Morris, to be married in Chicago. John W Stein had personally escorted her there, and after attending the wedding, returned soon after to his home.

JW Stein was himself about to depart Mount Morris College on an extended leave of absence. His announcement shook the College community, quite dependent on his leadership and his fellowship. DL Miller, one of the founders, was “physically sick” for a week afterward.

“The desertion of the institution by President Stein and its unfortunate cause was a hard blow on the infant school. The block of ground west of the college campus had been purchased, a new college building planned, a farm of 160 acres was being negotiated for, and the prospects for the success of the school were never brighter. Then came the blow as a clap of thunder from a clear sky.”

The Ogle County Democrat of May 26, 1881, reported brightly on Stein’s travel plans.

“President J. W. Stein left yesterday morning on his European tour, expecting to be absent until sometime next February. In his travels he will make the circuit of the globe, returning home by way of China and Japan through San Francisco. The trip promises to be one of unusual pleasure and importance to Mr Stein. At Berlin he will visit an uncle, present mayor of that city, and also a cousin who is principal of one of the leading colleges of Europe. All the principal countries of the new [sic] world will receive a visit, including an extended tour through the Holy Land. In China he will visit a long absent sister working in the interests of the Baptist Mission. During his absence he will contribute a series of interesting letters to the ‘Brethren at Work,’ the first of which will appear at an early date.”

Stein’s departure was also noticed in the Chicago press.

  JW Stein has started upon a tour around the world. Chicago Daily Inter Ocean – June 2, 1881  

Sarah Stein and the children continued to reside at Mount Morris, in their somewhat depleted household. An item in the Brethren at Work, October 1881, told news of JW Stein and the young woman who was sometimes called a “ward” of the Stein family.

“Sister Delilah Petra, nee Tombaugh and her husband have settled down in the wilds of Oregon beyond the Rocky Mountains. Sister Delilah was brought up by Bro. Stein and was one of the family for many years. About the first of last May she married Mr. Petra, and with him left for the west. Three weeks later Bro. Stein left for Europe. Sister Stein is here, Bro. Stein in Europe or Asia, Sister Delilah out in Oregon—thus those who six months ago were one family, are separated by thousands of miles.”

At a later date a portion of that report was clarified: “Her mother says Sister Delilah was with Bro. Stein only two years, and then married.”

Absent With Leave — The Aftermath

Some months went by without communication from Stein—neither written contributions to the Brethren journals or the College, nor information as to his whereabouts—and anxieties began to build as to the reason for his abrupt departure and what had become of him. His former colleagues took steps to track him down.

JW Stein’s family did not seem so concerned as to his whereabouts. As rumours swirled about, suspicions abounded that someone must know something. Stein’s former partners in the College pursued every line of inquiry, and even asked the United States Secretary of State to investigate Stein’s movements in Europe and elsewhere. There was genuine concern for his well-being, but some, stoked by some troubling gossip, poked into his personal life with a more prurient interest.

Some small notices would appear from time to time in the Brethren press. In December 1881, JH Moore, publisher of The Brethren at Work, of which Stein had been Associate Editor, was quoted as saying—

“Our impression is that one of two things has happened brother Stein. He is either dead or his mind has become impaired.”

That the Journey of Life may be Sweetened

Eventually, John W Stein’s wife, Sarah Stein, penned a letter to the press, in an effort to both allay concern and stifle the chattering. The following, rather majesterial announcement, a perfect model of a public statement, appeared in the Primitive Christian and Pilgrim of January 31, 1882, with the introduction, “Sister Stein gives the following information to the Brethren:”

“Seeing that the Brethren are much concerned about my husband, I have thought it due them to write this for their satisfaction. For several years, my husband was very much over-worked mentally, and so serious had this severe strain upon his vital forces become, that rest and quiet seemed to him the only source of restoration to good health. Before leaving, he remarked that only by quiet and new scenes could he be benefitted. In view of his being relieved, I consented to his going. He requested me not to be uneasy, for the Lord would care for him, and that if anything serious should come upon him, we would be notified. In view of this I think it best to do nothing yet to ascertain his whereabouts. I think he is alive, and will in due time return to us, restored in health, and well prepared for the battles of life. He has been a dutiful and faithful husband, and I am willing still to confide in him and pray for his return. I extend to my dear brethren my sincere thanks for their interest in his behalf, and hope that the journey of life may be sweetened by blessings to all from our heavenly Father.”

The evident dignity of Mrs Stein could only have encouraged and consoled those colleague and friends with a genuine regard for his welfare, but did nothing to placate those who believed they knew better and had a right to know more.

Europe: No Stein Upturned

Communication of the Secretary of State, Washington DC, April 10, 1882

Notwithstanding Sarah Stein’s request to leave well enough alone, the search for JW Stein was already in motion and throughout Europe inquiries, discreet and otherwise, were ongoing. On April 10, 1881, Frederick T Frelinghuysen, United States Secretary of State, wrote to DL Miller at Mount Morris that after “diligent search” no record of Mr Stein could be found at the legation in Austria—one of the countries Stein had intimated he would visit while in Europe. There was hearsay that a Mr Stein had been seen in Vienna, but nothing concrete. Meanwhile, it was apparent the appeal of the Stein story had crossed the Atlantic, Mr Delaplaine, the Charge d’affairs in Vienna reporting:

“I read in one of the local journals of large circulation an item, stating the disappearance of an American named J. W. Stein, and that information in regard to him was desired.”

A break in the case – letter from Bro. Stein

That his disappearance had aroused some speculation and gossip did not disturb JW Stein, wherever he was, but when word reached him that his supportive friends and colleagues were being hounded for news of him, and being unjustly criticized for holding out on knowledge that they were presumed to have about him—then he was compelled to speak out.

In February of 1883, DL Miller and MS Newcomer reported to the public in the pages of the Primitive Christian and Pilgrim, that they had finally received word of John William Stein.

“Bro. Stein’s absence for nearly two years has been no less a mystery to us than to the Brotherhood in general. We have heretofore published, as soon as received, all information concerning him. We also made diligent inquiries in different parts of the world, through the U.S. Government, but were unable to learn anything of his whereabouts, that was at all satisfactory, until on the 6th day of March, sister Stein, who resides in this place, handed us a letter, in Bro. Stein’s own familiar hand-writing, dated at San Francisco, California, Feb. 1st 1883. This letter lifts the veil and solves the mystery that has so long hung like a dark pall over the fate of the writer.”

In the letter, Stein writes that he had experienced a crisis of faith, had needed time to settle his mind, and had concluded his beliefs were no longer compatible with those of the church.

“This statement I hope will be a sufficient excuse for not preparing the series of article which I had desired to contribute to your paper. My family, to whom I commit the settlement of my business, will join me somewhere in the West, after I decide where to locate. Please dismiss me kindly from your membership. While with you I tried to perform what I considered my duty in sincerity and love. I love you still. The memory of many of the Brethren will ever be dear to my heart, for they are worthy of any one’s affection. If I have wronged any, forgive me, for I did not intend it. If mention is ever made of my position and separation from the church to the public, please publish the simple letter in your paper without modification, as my last apology in retiring from public life. In the love and peace of God I am sincerely and affectionately yours, J. W. Stein.”

Miller and Newcomer, in publishing Stein’s letter, stated that they did so with the knowledge and approval of the Elders of their Brethren congregation.

“As to where Bro Stein has been, or what he has been doing, we know absolutely nothing, save what is in the letter as given above. We give these facts so that the painful anxiety of many may be relieved in regard to his fate. It is a bitter and painful task indeed, thus to part form one, whom, on account of his kind and lovable disposition, and his good words and work among us, we had learned to love. However much we are pained at the course he has taken, which cannot but bring sorrow to many hearts, yet we must say that, in retiring from the church and school, he did so in such a manner as to do as little harm to either as possible.

In conclusion may we express the hope that the Holy Spirit, the Searcher of all hearts may not forsake him, even in this dark hour, but may gently lead him back to the truth as it is in Christ Jesus, and to the people that prized his former teaching and defense of our doctrine so highly! We give this to the church hoping that it will satisfy many anxious minds, and put to rest forever the many painful rumors and surmises as to Bro. Stein.”

J W Stein – The whole secret of his downfall

Putting to rest “the many painful rumors and surmises as to Bro Stein,” was a vain hope. In July 1883 some more personal and suppressed elements of Stein’s story—heretofore known only to the families involved— broke in sensational style onto the pages of the local newspaper.

From the Mount Morris paper of July 26, 1883, we have the following editorial (transcript courtesy Grover Thomas):

“So much has been conjectured and written about Pres. J. W. Stein’s case, that the public no doubt has grown weary of their recital. Recent revelations however give a clearer index to his hitherto unexplained prank. The whole secret of his downfall and withdrawal from the church is a woman. Her name is Delilah Tombaugh and who was taken by the family to raise when quite girlish. When womanhood was reached her petite form with pretty face and the blackest eyes that ere graced a woman were quite too much for the good brother.

It is not certain whether the first overt act was due to his overtures or to the temptations extended by Delilah. One fact, however, is now plain. These liaisons date back long before the good man assumed the presidency of the school. When there was a fear of their intimacy becoming public, Bro. Stein conjured up his European tour.

Of course this was only a ruse to disconcert his friends and family. The dust of the college campus was scarcely shaken from his feet before in company with Delilah, he was speeding his way to the Pacific coast. Away up in the state of Oregon the guilty pair sought seclusion, and no great time elapsed before an heir was presented and now even number two is said to be enjoying the light of this very, very wicked world.

The family during these months, to the public, of painful silence as to his whereabouts, may have been fully posted, at least there has been a deal of mystery connected with it. Even high church officials are said to have know and even now know more than they care to divulge. This due to a foolish church tenet which foreswears them from the courts and law. Of one thing, however the public may be assured, Prof. Stein has deserted his wife and three children at Mt. Morris and is at present cohabiting with the above-named woman with the results as stated. That he deserves to be arrested and punished in his bigamous course is none the less true, but unless those outside the church step in and demand justice he will probably be allowed to escape. He has proved himself to be a wily old coon, but at heart was a deep dyed villain. Very much additional light can be thrown upon the subject by an investigation by grand jury at the next term of court. “

The scandalous details of Stein’s story were quickly propelled across the continent, hitting news sheets nationwide. The Chicago Times ran the story under the headline “An Amorous Pastor.” In the Tribune appeared the headline—

“WHERE IS STEIN? — Report that a Rural Clergyman Has Left His Family and Taken Up a Residence in Oregon with a Former Pupil.

This quiet village is excited over developments in a scandal culminating in the alleged elopement of the Rev. J. W. Stein with Miss Delilah Tambaugh. He was from Bedford County. Virginia. was formerly in the Confederate army, and four years ago accepted the Presidency of the Mount Morris College of the German Baptist or Dunkard . . .”

In the Atlanta Constitution the same story ran as “A College President Elopes – How the Reverent J. W. Contrived to Disappear With a Pretty Pupil.” The facts reported were not altogether accurate in every respect—leaving aside nuances so as not to spoil a good story—but the gist of the scandal was readily supped up by readers. A lengthy and highly sensational account appeared August 5th 1883 in the Sunday Morning Star, of Wilmington, Delaware, beginning—

How a Clergyman and President of a College Deceived His Family and Indulged in Forbidden Fruit

A correspondent writing from Mount Morris, Ill., says: Rev. J. W. Stein, president of the Mount Morris College, the wealthiest Dunkard institution of learning in America, was given leave of absence for foreign travel two years ago. . . .

Reaction of Stein’s friends and colleagues

If DL Miller had been “sick for a week” after the sensational details of the elopement of Stein and Tombaugh were made public, in the long run, for Miller and others who had known John William Stein, the bonds of friendship, fellowship and respect would never weaken.

Fernando Sanford: Testimonial to John William Stein
"No one who ever came under the spell of that wonderful man, John W Stein, can forget the impression which he made. I speak of him reverently, not attempting to excuse in any manner his fatal weakness, the result of I know not what heredity, but without which he would have seemed to us more than common man. I have met many noble men and women, but not one in whose innate nobleness of character or upright intentions I have had, or still have, more faith: or for whose fatal weakness I could more easily weep. No experience of my life has influenced me more toward charity for the weaknesses of my fellow-men than the sad example of him whom we all loved as a father." — Fernando Sanford

Those without

"Stein, J. W. – Elder – Expelled for infidelity." Silver Creek Church, Official Records

In an effort to put things right for herself, her family and her husband, Sarah Stein sought permission from the Brethren Church to seek a legal divorce from John William Stein. It was denied.

“On motion it was decided not to grant Sis. Stein the privilege to procure a divorce from her husband, J. W. Stein.” — Silver Creek Church, Official Records, October 6, 1883.

The church did not sanction such civil and legal remedies to marital infidelity, believing the couple should honor their vows. Sarah was held captive by her faith, caught between a forgiving a forgiving heart and an immovable doctrine.

Now experiencing fame to an unwanted degree—his personal tribulations and his relations with loved ones splayed out in the columns of jaundiced journals nationwide—John W Stein had to abandon his hopes of settling quietly in the west, where he had purchased land with the expectation of reuniting his family. Seeking sanctuary, Stein moved on, this time taking leave of the land of his birth.


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