Mary Raber’s study of Russian Evangelicals’ engagement with social ills during what is called the Golden Age of the movement is extensively researched, well written, and raises important observations and questions for Christians everywhere who might wonder about the linkage between telling people about Jesus and treating people with Christlike love and compassion. In recovering this unique history, Raber challenges claims that evangelism and social programs have not or should not be mixed, as well as the assumption that Russian Evangelicals simply borrow everything they do and think from the West.
Raber has lived and worked in the former Soviet Union and Ukraine with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and Mennonite Mission Network since the 1990s, mostly in theological education and literature preparation. Her deep understanding of the context, history, lived experience, and commitments of Soviet and post-Soviet evangelicals enables her to explain their unique positions and programs, perhaps first and foremost as an aid to her own students who are taking up the challenge of bringing Christ in word and deed as church leaders in the midst of poverty, social disintegration, and war. The book is based on her dissertation, which she completed at the International Baptist Theological Seminary, formerly Prague, now Amsterdam.
The timeframe of the study is explained by two laws. As part of the revolutionary events in Russia in 1905, Emperor Nicolas II issued a decree on April 17, “On the strengthening of the beginnings of religious toleration.” Non-Orthodox groups were now permitted to enter the public sphere for the first time, although many social and some legal constraints remained. The Soviet government under Stalin issued a law on April 8, 1929, “On religious associations,” that forbade churches from doing anything more than holding worship services in their own buildings, finally banning all public engagement (10-11). In between those two laws, Russian Evangelicals had more freedom than any time before or since until the breakup of the Soviet Union, although some restrictions and regulations have now been re-imposed.
The topic of the study, ministries of compassion, also receives an explanation. “Compassion” translates the Russian word miloserdie and was how Russian Evangelicals described their activities helping people. Compassion contrasts with charity, which in that context implies any kind of philanthropic endeavor, while service or social ministry has connotations of professional or bureaucratic organizations, an approach from which Russian Evangelicals distanced themselves. Since in the Soviet system, social ills were seen as the result of capitalist exploitation, they were not allowed to exist in the Soviet Union, one reason for the ban on such church involvement. As Raber notes, the government went so far as to ban the word for charity from the dictionary during the Soviet era, making evangelical involvement all the more remarkable (6).
A final point of delineation concerns who counts as a Russian Evangelical. Geographically, the boundaries are determined by the extent of the Russian Empire; theologically, by self-identification with Russian Evangelicalism as a movement. This latter assumption rules out German Baptists and German-speaking Mennonites, who did not identify with this Russian movement, although at points a few Mennonites had important influence on the movement as individuals who made new commitments to it. A short introduction to the two main branches of Russian Evangelicalism follows. One is the Russian Baptists who emerged from Bible studies in Ukraine and the Caucasus in the mid-19th century and adopted their understanding of baptism from the Mennonite Brethren. The other branch became known as Evangelical Christian Union and started in St. Petersburg at the same time, with ties to English Evangelicals, but was led at the beginning of the time period treated here by Ivan S. Prokhanov (12-14).
A first chapter examines how Russian Evangelicals engaged in ministries of compassion before 1905. Philanthropic engagement of the wealthy with the poor was allowed, but a new thrust by the poorer evangelicals caring for and evangelizing the poor led to tensions. A second chapter reviews the general trends in Russian society and among evangelicals from 1905 to 1929. The fact that it was now legally possible to leave the Russian Orthodox Church led to dramatic growth, 30 percent from 1905 to 1912 for both groups (67,000 Baptists and 30,000 evangelical Christians by 1912) (56). The First World War, the resulting famine, civil war, the general collapse of society and the economy, and the emergence of Soviet government all provided ample opportunities for evangelicals to help others even as they became much poorer themselves.
The body of the study consists for four chapters, more or less arranged chronologically, that lay out three main responses to the challenge of social engagement. Chapter three looks especially at the Baptist move to create channels of social aid within the evangelical community in support of ministers and local congregations. Their basic assumption was that in addition to the eternal power of the gospel, it was also able to remedy social ills (85). Thus supporting pastors to work with people was for them a form of social ministry. Given the rapid growth of the movement, creating an expectation among members that they should care for their own poor was a daunting and important challenge. Especially important was the Molokan background of the three main Baptist leaders of this era, Dei Mazaev, Vasilii Pavlov, and V. V. Ivanov. The Molokans, a group of Russian dissenters from the Orthodox Church, had faced sharp persecution and created a tight-knit community in order to survive. In addition to the Molokan influence, Mennonite Brethren and the practice of Mennonites caring for their own was also a factor, as Johann Wieler was the first head of the Russian Baptist mission committee. Prokhanov also set up funds to aid evangelical Christians in need. The start of an orphanage for Baptist children would an example of the type of initiatives that arose. Support for members returning from exile after 1905 would be another. Important to notice was the spontaneous start of numerous small efforts. Caring for the poor in one’s own church or in the vicinity was clearly deeply wired into the Russian Evangelical movement.
A second area of focus was urban rescue ministry. This was mostly focused in St. Petersburg and associated above all with the ministry of William Fetler, a Baptist from Latvia. He had trained at Spurgeon’s Pastors’ College in London and founded two large churches, one early on in St. Petersburg and a second later in Riga. Much of the work was modeled on similar efforts by the Salvation Army, and Fetler helped the Army to get registered in pre-revolutionary Russia. Night meetings for drunks and prostitutes led to creating small shelters for both groups and help with transitioning out of those circumstances. The youth of the church were engaged in this work as well, which was seen simultaneously as outreach and compassion. Fetler was exiled for his efforts in 1914 and returned to an independent Latvia in the 1920s.
During the war and the resulting famine, evangelicals faced suspicions for their ties to German Baptists and German-speaking Mennonites, as well as the opportunity to network with foreign agencies to provide relief supplies. The two large evangelical churches in St. Petersburg shrank in membership of around 1,500 each to 200 each due to death by starvation and illness and the departure of many to the countryside to look for food. By 1921, they were cooperating with the American Relief Administration run by Herbert Hoover and other groups to bring in large amounts of relief supplies. Their contacts on the ground were crucial in that effort, since they had congregations in many of the places most impacted. The stress of feeding others in large numbers while mourning those in their own ranks who had starved to death was immense but they rose to the challenge. They also took advantage of new freedoms to evangelize. A former Mennonite medical orderly, Jakob Dik, organized tent meetings and was among those murdered by the Anarchist band of Nestor Makhno in Eichfeld in October 1919 (154). Perhaps the best illustration of the linkage between aid and evangelism is the case of the believers who were touring the Volga famine zone before summer 1922 to do evangelization. When they saw the hunger still present there, they sold their own clothing in order to buy people food (168).
As the Soviet government restricted economic freedoms granted as part of the New Economic Policy in the 1920s, religious freedoms were closed down as well. One innovative approach championed especially by Ivan Prokhanov was to establish Christian communes as a way to maneuver through collectivization and the closing of institutions starting as part of ministries of compassion. The numbers of evangelicals continued to grow, reaching something like 340,000 in total by 1929 (176). Three communes lasted for most of the 1920s. Other efforts included setting up communal factories. All were attempts to keep working at meeting social needs in the face of the closure of more traditional efforts at compassion ministry.
In her conclusion, Raber notes a number of key learnings followed by a complete bibliography and useful index. She notes that Russian Evangelicals’ thinking on ministries of compassion had been strongly influenced by Molokan practices, given the Molokan background of several key leaders. Evangelicals always saw a link between repentance and social improvement both for the individual and society as a whole. That linkage led repeatedly to spontaneous local as well as regionally organized efforts to address social ills. This insistence that the gospel is relevant for the here and now, and that believers must and will reach out to help others materially, suggests for Raber that Russian Evangelicals do not fit into typologies developed in the West by Ernst Troeltsch or others, a key finding for readers in both East and West.
The book as a whole is an encouragement for believers in the former Soviet Union to persist in their approach that links evangelism and care for society, and it represents a challenge to us in the West to be more open-minded in our thinking about evangelism, service, and evangelicals either here or abroad. What would happen if we all began to label our social justice endeavors ministries of compassion?