A New Testament Awakening in Russia

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century a movement began, at first among Russian nobility in St. Petersburg, to focus on simple, early Christianity. Although government officials in collaboration with the Russian Orthodox hierarchy inflicted intermittent sanctions against the blossoming movement it entered upon a golden age from 1918 to 1928. At its peak these churches claimed above 300,000 adherents. After the revolution of 1917 the Bolsheviks launched their attacks against the Orthodox Church and permitted other religious groups to flourish. As Stalin became more powerful in 1928 he initiated severe restrictions against these evangelicals. American Christians of a restorationist disposition became aware of these efforts in Russia early in the second decade of the twentieth century. [1]

Lord Radstock

A key figure early in the movement was Lord Radstock (1833-1913 Granville Waldegrave, the third Lord Radstock) of England. A Bible reading awakening occurred among the St. Petersburg nobility in the 1870s. Lady Chertkoy was especially affected by the awakening. In order to seek additional instruction she traveled to Paris where she met Lord Radstock and was converted. [2] Radstock, though raised an Anglican was to a degree influenced by the Plymouth Brethren, a group in which John Nelson Darby was a key leader. The Plymouth Brethren set out to launch purified churches through a study of the Scriptures. Lady Chertkoy invited Lord Radstock to St. Petersburg where he arrived in 1874. Radstock first preached at Lady Chertkoy’s mansion then those of other nobility and later in a church building. His remarks were explicitly based upon the Scriptures. He was both praised and criticized, but his efforts took a turn when he was invited to speak at the palace of Lady Alexandra Pashkov. Her husband was a retired Colonel of the Tsar’s army, Vasili A. Pashkov. At first the Colonel was not interested, but as a good host he listened and was soon captivated by Radstock’s message. From that time on, Pashkov became an aggressive leader of the movement and his palace the focal point for its activities. Others converted who soon became involved were Count Modest M. Korff, the Lord Chamberlain and Count Aleksey P. Bobrisky, chief of transportation. Those of the literary circles in St. Petersburg knew of the preaching of Radstock. Among others he met Dosteovsky who was like Pashkov, but was not influenced  by him.

Radstock gave special emphasis to a love for Christ and the Scriptures. He focused upon salvation and personal holiness, one faith, and the church. He baptized those he influenced, but did not assign baptism special priority. He stressed an allegiance to Bible only and advocated that one be just a Christian. Opposition against the awakening soon arose. Russian Orthodox officials and others labeled it a blasphemous sect. Tolstoy, who himself advocated a purified Christianity, criticized its adherents. Radstock left St. Petersburg for Moscow but was forced to return to England in 1876.

Vasili A. Pashkov (1831-1902)

Pashkov, the first Russian leader of the evangelical awakening was from a wealthy family. He owned lands, factories and mines in Moscow, Nizhegorod and Orenburg. His wife’s sisters, also of considerable means, supported his efforts. He was past forty when converted, but he soon became passionately evangelistic and dedicated to organizational detail. He held open meetings at his palace, the results of which were published in the newspapers, in order to attract new members. He also preached among the non-nobility in courtyards, factories and workshops. He and his adherents recognized the merits of addressing needs of various sorts as a means of attracting dedicated adherents. He opened a public cafeteria in a poorer section of St. Petersburg and offered meals for reasonable prices. He provided free eating-houses for workers and tea-houses for laborers who came into the city from the farms in the winter. When the farm laborers returned home in the spring he pressed upon them an abundance of printed materials to distribute. He founded a religious paper, The Russian Worker in 1875 under the editorship of M. G. Peiker. In 1876 he founded a “Society for the Encouragement of Spiritual-Moral Reading,” by which tracts and books were distributed throughout Russia at low costs.

In the first two years the Pashkovites encountered little opposition because Pashkov sympathizers were in positions of power including A. P. Bobrihski who was Minister of Education, and A. E. Timashey, Minister of National Affairs. But in 1878 the Russian government prohibited the Pashkov evangelicals from meeting and admonished them to move from dissent into the Russian Orthodox churches. The Pashkovites, however, managed to continue various activities throughout Russia, and Pashkov himself traveled to different regions visiting with and giving assistance to Baptists, Molokans, Mennonite Brethren and Stundists. In 1884 Pashkov arranged for a meeting in St. Petersburg of leaders from all these groups providing lavish accommodations and meals. Government officials were aware of the gatherings and soon dispersed those who attended and arrested several of the delegates. In May of 1884 the “Society for the Encouragement of Spiritual-Moral Reading,” was closed down. Pashkov and his associate Count Korf were told either to desist from distributing literature or face exile. Because of Pashkov’s refusal to discontinue from distributing Bibles he was exiled and moved to Paris. He also lived some of his remaining years in London, Basel and Rome. He continued to support the preaching of the evangelicals in various countries.

Evangelical Groups in Russia

By far most Russians were Russian Orthodox ever since Christianity came in 988 B. C.  A few splits had occurred, the most significant ones being the Old Believers (1667), and two factions from them, the Dukhobors and the Molokans early in the Nineteenth century. The word Molokan in Russian may be translated milk and these dissenters were so labeled because they drank milk during Lent. Immigrants from Western Europe also added to the complexion. Peter the Great attempted to make Russia into a secular state and invited various people from the West to settle in the country. Especially Germanic peoples were encouraged to migrate to Russia by Catherine the Great late in the eighteenth century. These groups included Lutherans, Mennonites, and Mennonite Brethren. Revival of interest in the Bible occurred throughout Russia after the freeing of the Serfs in 1861. One such interest developed among the pietistic Lutherans who commenced studying the Bible at stated hours, hence they were designated Stundists this being the German word for hour. Several of these groups sprang up around Odessa. Several of the Stundists later merged with the Baptists. The first Baptist congregation was founded in the Caucasus at Tiflisi (Tbilisi) n 1867. A Baptist Union was formed in the Ukraine in 1884. An awakening also occurred among the Mennonites who were officially recognized in 1863. These various evangelical groups comprised the constituencies that Pashkov tried to bring together, but with little success in 1884. Pashkov, however, was a dedicated believer given to big dreams for the uniting of evangelicals in Russia and focusing upon the New Testament.

Ivan Stephanovitch Prokhanov (1869-1935) 

The next highly effective leader of these evangelicals was I. S. Prokhanov. Prohkanov was born to Molokan parents in Tiflis in the Caucasus. He was baptized in 1886 at age seventeen. He soon began to preach and gave serious attention to how he would spend his life. He was unusually focused upon his goals and decided to take up engineering. When he took qualifying exams he ranked among the top five of those admitted at the Imperial Institute of Technology in St. Petersburg. Because of his religious commitment he soon made his way to a group of Pashkovites who met at the mansion of Princess Lieven. There he met J. B. Karge and William Feltner leaders of the Russian Baptists. He was especially influenced by the views of Vladimir Solov’ev who stressed the unity of all believers and who by most religionists in Russia was considered a heretic. Even before he received his diploma in 1893 Prokhanov started a religious publication which he titled Beseda. He wrote in it under the pseudonym of Zacchaeus. He likely selected this name to emphasize the intensity of his Christian commitment, for he was a large man as compared with Zacchaeus.   

After completing his engineering education Prokhanov returned to the region of his birth. On the way he visited with Leo Tolstoy who in later life embraced a life of servanthood to his workers and the cultivation of a simple gospel and pacificism. He focused on the moral teachings of Jesus. Tolstoy, however, was excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church because of his unorthodox views on the nature of Christ and ministry. Prokhanov was impressed by Tolstoy’s emphasis. Once at home he worked in a sugar factory.  After a time there he took up a position with a ship building firm at Colpino near St. Petersburg. He next established a communal colony in the Crimea near Simferopal. He heard his father was arrested for political activities. When he went to assist him he feared for his own imprisonment so he fled Russia through Finland. For the next several months pursued theological studies in England, Berlin and Paris. 

In 1898 Prokhanov heard of 1,150 Dukhobars being retained in Cyprus. He went to their assistance and worked with them as they made arrangements to move to Canada. Upon hearing that his father might be in Armenia he went there to find him. At the turn of the century he settled in Riga, Latvia, as an assistant railway manager. He was then approached about teaching at the Polytechnical Institute there. In 1901 he married Anne Kazakova and took a position with Westinghouse in St. Petersburg. Westinghouse was especially involved in manufacturing brakes for Russian trains. In order to acquire further skills he was sent by the company to America in 1902 for study.

As his career developed Prokhanov continued his efforts among the Christian groups in St. Petersburg. Envisioning the need for a common hymnal he published 20,000 copies of a collection which he titled Gusli. In 1905 as the result of changes in the Russian government a toleration statute was enacted. Prokhanov and others registered their congregation in St. Petersburg in 1908. Prohkanov encouraged those in his circles to work with the other non-Orthodox groups including the Baptists and the Raduga Mennonites. In 1910 he commenced publishing a religious newspaper, The Morning Star. Prokhanov was even more committed to linking together the dissident church groups than was Pashkov. He was also a highly motivated organizer and arranged for conferences in which union was proposed. He promoted a union of the Evangelicals, that is, his people with the Baptists in 1908. In 1909 he was instrumental in the forming of the All-Russia Union of Evangelical Christians. Several conferences of the Union were held until being banned by the Communists in 1928. That year the various evangelical groups employed 500 missionaries for church plantings outside of Russia mostly in China and India.

In 1910 there were 10,000 Evangelical Christians and 11,000 Baptists in Russia. The Evangelicals did not possess either credal or covenantal documents, but professed to be guided by the New Testament alone. These peoples gave considerable attention to hymn singing unaccompanied as was characteristic of Russian Orthodoxy. In 1912 the Evangelicals approved plans to establish a Bible College. By now they knew of the Christian Churches in America and perceived them to hold similar views of early Christianity and the need to be guided by the scriptures alone. 

That year the Russian leaders Alexander Persianov and Martin Schmidt visited America and made contact with the Christian Churches of the American restoration movement. They attended the Louisville, Kentucky meetings of the American Christian Missionary Society in 1912. As the outcome, Z. T. Sweeney and Louis R. Patmont visited the Russian churches. They found 900 believers in St. Petersburg and 700 in Moscow. They reported above a hundred thousand members throughout Russia. Sweeney set a goal $50,000 for the new Russian Bible School, but was unable to raise that much and eventually the mission society sent $5000. The school was launched February 27, 1912 with 19 students. It was closed down during World War I in 1914. 

The Evangelicals came under attack in 1912 as the result of the influence of Rasputin upon Tsar Nicholas II. Prokhanov’s journal, Christian and Morning Star was prohibited in 1914. Prokhanov stayed in St. Petersburg during the war. Religious persons especially those of Russian Orthodoxy suffered recriminations from the Bolsheviks, but the Bolsheviks became less interested in what was going on within the evangelical groups after 1918. Prokhanov’s journal was revived and in 1927, 15,000 copies of each issue were published. The Russian Orthodox Church was disestablished in 1922 and that same year Prokhanov was invited to preach in an Orthodox cathedral in Moscow. With this new freedom Prokhanov again instituted the annual conferences. In 1923 there were 303 delegates. In 1926 the delegates numbered 503. That year the Union of Russian churches joined the World Baptist Union and Prokhanov obtained Baptist ordination in Prague.

In 1925 and 1926 Prokhanov spent considerable time in America raising money for 60,000 Hymnals and other materials. He was successful in that he collected $100,000. He approached both Disciples and Baptist churches. Prokhanov assessed his status and considered himself neither Baptist nor Disciple, but an evangelical within a Russian Union. Unlike the Disciples he did not consider that baptism was for the remission of sins, nor did he promote weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper. The Prokhanov churches like many Baptists each had a single elder. Prokhanov had ties with emigrant Russian churches in America but in these years they withdrew from affiliation with the Disciples. He spent 1927 back in Russia visiting the evangelical churches that by now claimed above 300,000 members.

In 1928 under the emerging power of Joseph Stalin not just the Russian Orthodox, but all the churches faced downsizing. Stalin forced the closing of schools and publications and in 1929 closed down the union of the Baptists and the Evangelicals. Prokhanov attended the gathering of the World Alliance of Baptists at Toronto in 1928. He was not permitted to return to Russia. He spent his remaining years in North America and Europe and died in Berlin in 1935 at age 65. Thus brought to a close a concentrated effort to live according to the dictates of the New Testament in Russia.

Prokhanov issued a clarion call for restorationism when he wrote in 1928.

It is firmly held by all believers in Christ, apart from any distinction of name or creed, that the church of the first century, the church of Christ and the Apostles, as it is revealed to us in the Acts and in the letters of the Apostles, is in its ideal aspect the model for the Church through all the future centuries and will ever remain so

Only the restoration of a Church which had its origin in the spirit of primitive Christianity, with its all-embracing and creative religious power, will be able to overcome the spirit of unbelief as manifested in atheism, materialism, and free-thinking, and to prevent the further growth among the people of the world…

Take the Old and yet eternally New Gospel as the foundation of your life, to rebuild it in accord with the teaching of Jesus Christ, and then the earth and the heaven will be new. [3]

At various times and places in the history of our world movements have arisen to reestablish ancient moorings. Among these, Christian efforts to restore the first century church have been the most prolific. Movements to this end have taken various forms and embraced differing sets of details, but they have all been premised upon the thesis that such a restoration must depend meticulously and solely upon the writings of the early Christians, that is, the New Testament.

[1] For the most extensive book on the movement see: Geoffrey H. Ellis and L. Wesley Jones, The Other Revolution: Russian Evangelical Awakenings (Abilene: ACU Press, 1996).

[2] David Fountain, Lord Radstock and the Russian Awakening (Southampton: Mayflower Christian Books, 1988).

[3] Ellis and Jones, 177.

A RUSSIAN CHRISTIANS ONLY MOVEMENT

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