Fantastic Beginnings

The beginnings of Orthodoxy and the coming of Evangelical Christianity

Prince Vladimir of Kiev summoned his envoys: "It's time to give up our paganism. Our neighbours have adopted monotheism of one kind or another. We too must have a religion that will help us unify the States and help us build a better civilisation. I want you to go to the countries that have the great religions of the world and study them carefully. Look at Christianity, look at Islam, and look at Judaism. Come back and bring me a report on each of them!"

When the envoys returned the Prince listened to their descriptions of each. "No, Islam won't do," he said. "We have enough evil in this land without importing it into our religion as well. And, as for their rule on 'no wine'… we would never survive without it!"

"Judaism? I'm impressed with its high moral and ethical standards, but it's the religion of a dispersed people. That can't help us build a successful nation."

"What about Christianity, my lord?" asked one of his counsellors. "Which one?" asked the Prince. "I don't want Catholicism. That's too closely tied to Rome. Once we are under their control we'll never be our own!"

"And what of Byzantine Orthodoxy?" questioned the Prince. "Oh, my lord," replied one of them, "we have never seen anything like it! We did not know whether we were in heaven or on earth. The churches were magnificent° and wealthy. The robes of the clerics were wonderful. The processions, the incense, the choir singing all lifted us to another world. What's more, the Church and State work very closely together. The Christian emperor is seen as the representative of God, and the Patriarch works closely with him to ensure a Christian commonwealth."

"Ah, this is exactly what we need. This religion will be a good tool to build a great nation and to civilise the people. Byzantine Christianity it will be! I and all Kiev will be baptised in the Dnieper."

So, in 988AD, the Kieven Russian State became officially Christian. While the seeds of a nominally Christian Rus, had been sown, it would take centuries more to develop into the modern Russia we know today. As the State was seen to be headed by God's representative, the Church claimed the structure as a theocracy. It was a view that suited both Prince and future Patriarch. The Tsar could depend on the Church to back his claim to the divine right of kings, while the Church looked to the State to keep her members in order.

Dissent begins

By the time of Tsar Ivan III ("the Great"), 1462, the Church had acquired about 25% of all cultivated land in Russia. Its churches and monasteries had become incredibly wealthy, and they worked in close cooperation with the State most of the time. Not all sections of the church, however, approved of this situation, i.e. the influence of the Church in political affairs, the Tsar's interference in spiritual matters, the inordinate wealth of the Church, and the harsh treatment of those who disagreed with the rulers.

These less than Christian practices aroused protest and debate by monks in the more contemplative orders. The protests, however, never succeeded. All who deviated from official views in any way were labelled heretics. This internal dissent was always dealt with cruelly by the combined power of Church and State.

Light in the darkness

The Orthodox officials were able to suppress internal dissent, but when it came to external influences — that was another matter. In the 18th and 19th centuries, many Germans were invited by Empress Catherine II and subsequent Tsars, to settle in the unpopulated areas of Russia. They were to bring their industries, their initiative, their culture and their hard work to improve the lot of the Russian people. These settled in the Black Sea region, in Bessarabia, around the Crimea and the Caucasus, and along the Volga River. Most of them were Lutherans although others included Mennonites, Hutterites, and Moravian Brethren.

The Bible for everyone

In 1813, the British Bible Society was officially established in St Petersburg and from there colporteurs travelled throughout Russia selling Bibles and reading the Gospels in public places. It brought the Word of God to people in their everyday language for the first time. This was only the beginning of what God had in store.

Home Groups

In 1832, Johannes Bonekemper, a German pastor fresh from Theological School in Basel, Switzerland, was posted to Rohrbach, to work in one of the 15 German Lutheran parishes in the Black Sea region. He began something that was to have an incredible impact upon the Ukraine and Russia in the years to come. When he began his ministry in the strategic Odessa region, Bonekemper saw the need for his people to get back to what the Scriptures taught. He encouraged his congregation to meet in home groups for an hour (German 'stunde') for Bible study, prayer and hymn singing. Before long, these meetings had such a strong impact upon the area that they spread to other areas throughout the Black Sea region and Bessarabia. The Lord brought about a spiritual awakening throughout these areas, subsequently spreading into other parts of Russia and the Ukraine through seasonal workers who had become converted.

There were many such itinerant workers who travelled wherever work was available. Often they came to the Black Sea colonies during harvest and other times. When these workers were touched by the awakening, they returned to their home areas continuing the practice of the 'stunde'. Some years later, under the pastoral leadership of Johannes' son, Karl, the members of this movement became officially recognised as the Stundists. Let's take a glimpse at the affects of this movement through the eyes of Dunaenko in the Ukraine.

A personal story

"My name is Feoktist Dunaenko. From my childhood I was brought up in the Orthodox Church. We revered our saints and prayed to them. Every day when we looked at our calendar we saw the names of so many who had suffered and died for our faith. We were told that Jesus had died for the Orthodox faith, and that we must protect it at all costs. Many times I thought to myself as I was growing up, 'Yes, I too am prepared to lay down my life for it'."

Everyone in the village knew Dunaenko, for he was a reader of the Orthodox Scriptures at the Church. He had a rich sonorous voice that moved the congregation whenever he read. Dunaenko loved reading the Scriptures in the Old Slavonic language, known only to the cultured few. Although it wasn't always clear to him what it meant, there was something about the sound of it that he loved. Most of the people could not understand it at all, but accepted that it was the Sacred Scriptures that were read to them.

One day his wife brought home a copy of the Gospels in the Russian language. It was the first time he had laid eyes on a copy like this. As he read it, things that were not clear before came alive to him, and Dunaenko began to realise that he had had a wrong understanding of salvation.

Dunaenko continued to go to the Orthodox Church. Meanwhile his wife admitted that she had been secretly going to home meetings with Stundist friends. At first he didn't know why these meetings were so secret, but he soon found out! The police kept these people under strict surveillance and even encouraged villagers to break down the windows and doors where these meetings were held.

On one occasion a number of priests turned up in the village. There was going to be a public debate between them and the Stundists. The meeting was crowded. Some of the Stundists were actually brought in by the police. When the Stundists began to ask questions from the Scriptures that the priests could not answer, the police quickly brought the meeting to a close. Dunaenko went away thinking to himself, "How can it be that these priests, with all their preparation, training, and education, could not answer questions from the Bible that ordinary people put to them?"

A new ministry

Dunaenko was so impressed with his new Scriptures that he used to read them wherever he could. When some of the locals heard this, they invited him to come to their home and to read to them and their families. Someone had told them that the Orthodox were idolaters, and they were disturbed by this. They wanted to find out what the Bible had to say about these things for themselves. This ministry was to be at great cost.

"Little did I know that such an ordinary thing as reading the Sacred Scriptures in people's homes would lead to threats, beatings, imprisonment, and finally exile from the land of my birth. All the powers of the State and the Church were used to persuade me to come back to Mother Church. When that failed, their hatred knew no bounds. What angered them so much was that as attendance at the Stundist meetings increased, attendance at the Orthodox Churches declined."

"Despite all the persecution, the Stundist movement spread throughout the country. As the Holy Spirit opened the minds and hearts of the common people, even the youngest believers came to understand and to use the Scriptures to confound the wise and the learned. There was an assurance to their salvation and a joy that they had never known in their Orthodox faith."

Our prayer for Russia, and indeed for our own country, is expressed in the words of the following hymn, quite possibly based on a poem of Derzhavin, the poet-laureate of Catherine II.