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St. Stephen, a hero of The Grateful Dead?

The band’s 1969 song highlights Church’s first martyr, deacon

Published: December 23, 2021   
St. Stephen by Carlo Crivelli (Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons)
Depiction of St. Stephen from The Demidoff Altarpiece by Carlo Crivelli (circa 1435 –circa 1495) from the National Gallery in London, England. St. Stephen is venerated as Christianity’s first martyr. He is first mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles as one of seven deacons appointed by the Apostles in Jerusalem. He was accused of blasphemy and stoned to death. The objects around St. Stephen's head and body are depictions of the rocks, which were used to kill him.

In June 1969, the Grateful Dead recorded “St. Stephen,” which opens with the lyrics:

“Saint Stephen with a rose

In and out of the garden he goes

Country garland in the wind and the rain

As he was suffering, Stephen said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” He then fell to his knees and cried out in a loud voice just before he was killed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” – similar to Christ’s last words on the cross.

Wherever he goes, the people all complain.”

The song references the first Christian martyr, whose feast day is Dec. 26. 

Stephen first appears in the sixth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. It opens with the need for the 12 apostles to add assistants to their ranks to help distribute daily alms to the poor among the early believers of the new religion. The apostles called their disciples together and charged them with selecting “seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom, whom we shall appoint to this task.” Stephen was the first selected, along with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicholas of Antioch (Acts 6:3-5). These seven are considered the first deacons of the Church, and they must have been effective. Acts 6:7, says, “The word of God continued to spread, and the number of the disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly; even a large group of priests were becoming obedient to the faith.”

Stephen’s story picks up halfway through chapter 6 and concludes by the end of chapter 7. He is described in Acts 6:8 as being “filled with grace and power” and “working great wonders and signs among the people.”

As non-believers tried to debate him to limit his preaching, “they could not withstand the wisdom and the spirit with which he spoke,” so they accused him of blasphemy, stirred up the people and brought him before the Sanhedrin to be questioned, complaining, “This man never stops saying things against [this] holy place and the law. For we have heard him claim that this Jesus the Nazorean will destroy this place and change the customs that Moses handed down to us.” 

Chapter 6 closes with Stephen before the Sanhedrin, who “saw that his face was like the face of an angel.”

When the high priest asked Stephen about his preaching, Stephen responded with a lengthy answer outlining the many times ancient Jews had fallen away from the word of God in the Old Testament, specifically citingJoseph’s brothers selling him into slavery in Egypt and the Israelites disobeying Moses and worshiping the golden calf. He closed his argument, saying “You always oppose the holy Spirit; you are just like your ancestors. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They put to death those who foretold the coming of the righteous one, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become. You received the law as transmitted by angels, but you did not observe it.”

Thinking him insolent, the Sanhedrin became infuriated. Acts 7:55-57 says Stephen “filled with the holy Spirit, looked up intently to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God,” and said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God,” just as Jesus said in Matthew 26:64, Mark 14:62 and Luke 22:69

His accusers then cried out, covered their ears, rushed upon him, threw him out of Jerusalem and began to stone him.

As he was suffering (Acts 7:59-60), Stephen said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” He then fell to his knees and cried out in a loud voice just before he was killed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” – similar to Christ’s last words on the cross.

When pictured, St. Stephen is usually depicted with a deacon’s dalmatic, censer, miniature church, Gospel book, martyr’s palm frond and the stones used to kill him. He is the patron saint of altar servers, casket makers, deacons and those with headaches.

Many Deadheads think the song also references Stephen Gaskin, an American counterculture icon in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco in the 1960s and co-founder of “The Farm,” a spiritual commune he opened in 1970 in Summertown, Tenn. However, in an interview with Relix magazine lyricist Robert Hunter said the song wasn’t about Gaskin, “It was just St. Stephen.” 

Hunter muddied the waters a bit though; in another interview with the magazine, he said, “I didn’t know who the real St. Stephen was until after I wrote it.”

Fittingly, when band leader Jerry Garcia passed away in 1995, his memorial service was held at St. Stephen Episcopal Church on Belvedere Island, Calif.

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