The Baptists in Russia
September 19th, 1965 @ 7:30 PM
THE BAPTISTS IN RUSSIA
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1 Peter 1:1-9
9-19-65 7:30 p.m.
Will you turn in your Bible to 1 Peter? Almost the end of the Book, 1 Peter; and we shall read together the first nine verses of 1 Peter. If you share the service with us on radio, turn in your Bible and read aloud with us. You are listening over WRR to the evening services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the evening message entitled Our Baptist People in Russia, The Baptists in Russia. And in keeping with the fiery trial through which they live, we read of a like hardship and oppression suffered by the first century Christians to whom Paul is writing this letter of encouragement. The first nine verses of the first chapter of 1 Peter; now all of us reading it aloud together:
Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.
Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace unto you, and peace, be multiplied. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to His abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,
To an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you,
Who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
Wherein ye greatly rejoice, though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations:
That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honor and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ:
Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see Him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory: Receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls.
[1 Peter 1:1-9]
There was no doubt but that God helped us and God was with us. We brought to Helsinki, Finland, all the Bibles, and little New Testaments, and Gospels of John that our luggage would allow. And we visited with the pastor of our Baptist church in downtown Helsinki, and we asked him about carrying these Bibles into Russia. The pastor of the church and his senior deacon were very emphatic that under no conditions should we attempt it. “For one thing,” he said, “it may cause you trouble about entering the Union. For another thing, they will certainly be confiscated. And for another thing,” he said, “come with me.” And we walked to an adjoining room, and the whole wall of that adjoining room was filled with stacked-up Russian Bibles, clear to the ceiling.
He said, “These are Bibles that have been brought here by people who hoped to get them into the Soviet Union. And there are Bibles sent to us by Bible societies, hoping some way that we could get them in to the Soviet Union. But,” he said, “We have never devised a way yet to escape their discovery. And we advise you to leave your Bibles here where all the rest of them have left them and try to get into the Soviet Union by yourselves.” We had set our hearts on taking those Bibles into Russia. So we traipsed back to the hotel, and we gathered in a prayer meeting, and got down on our knees and said, “Now, Lord, we’ve had it in our souls to take these Bibles into Russia, and we don’t know what to do. The pastor says under no condition should it be allowed. Under no condition should we attempt it, that it will jeopardize our entrance in to the Union, but we’ve got it in our hearts to take these Bibles in. Now, Lord, we want You to help us.” So we kept them in our cases, and we came to Leningrad Saturday night and went through customs.
That was the toughest, one-eyed, customs man I ever saw in my life. He was a bugger. He scared me just to look at him. I did everything I knew how to make him smile. Well, you might as well work on a brass monkey as to work on that guy. He was tough. Well, the first one to go through was Dr. Vought, who is pastor of the Emmanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, who was here in a revival meeting. So his luggage was placed up there first. Now he had two Bibles stashed away in a great big camera case. Then in a briefcase with a whole lot of other stuff, he had two New Testaments. And I stood there to see what would happen when they put him in the clink. But God was with us. That tough-looking, one-eyed custom official made a gesture at the big container of all of his photographic equipment, and he said in what broken English he knew, he said “camera, camera.” And Dr. Vought said, “Yes, indeed camera, camera, camera,” and he never opened the case and those two big Bibles, Russian Bibles, in that camera case.
Then he opened the briefcase that the preacher had. I never saw so many sermon notes, I never saw so much stuff in my life, I don’t know what in the world that fellow planned to do in Russia. He’d taken every sermon that he ever preached, I think, along and stuck it in that briefcase. I want you to know that one-eyed, tough-looking custom official looked in there, and pulled things out, and pulled things out, and the only Bible he pulled out was an English Bible. And he turned through the pages of that English Bible, looking it at it with that one cockeyed. And he thumbed through all the rest of that stuff. And those New Testaments, I don’t know what was the matter with his hands. Maybe his eye couldn’t focus on it. He pulled everything out of that briefcase but those two New Testaments. And finally got all those sermons out, and when he, and when he looked at them, he quit. I told Dr. Vought, “I don’t blame him. If I had to look at all those sermons, I think I’d have stopped too.”
Well, that got him by, there were two Russian Bibles and two New Testaments got by. Well, after the customs official had so carefully gone through all of the baggage of Dr. Vought, why, the rest of us, he sort of, kind of, made an effort just to say to his superior, whoever he might be, that he carefully checked all the baggage of all of our group. And I want you to know when the fifth one got through every one of us had his Bible or his Bibles and no idea on the part of that custom official that we had such things in our baggage. Oh, it was something that I cannot believe to this day that could possibly have happened.
Then when we saw the pastors, oh, dear people; let’s take one of them, Maxim Zorakin in Leningrad. We went into his little study at the church and took out one of those precious, precious Bibles. And with the interpreter, with a word of love and greeting and encouragement, we placed in his hand the Word of God. That pastor took it and he lovingly received it. Then we bowed in prayer on our knees, and the pastor, in language that I couldn’t understand, thanked God for the Bible. Then when we stood up from our knees after his prayer, he hugged us and kissed us. Beard, that guy has the roughest beard of any man I ever saw in my life. I don’t see for the life of me how a woman could love a man with a mustache and with a beard. But when he kissed me I thought of that Word in the New Testament: “Greet the saints with a holy kiss” [2 Corinthians 13:12]. Now I’m in favor of that to some extent, I suppose. God was with us!
After that Saturday night, the next day was the Lord’s Day. We got the address of the Baptist church in Leningrad, and got in taxis, and drove out to the edge of the city where the church is located. Not in my life, not in all of my life put together, if you were to put into one all the Jehu taxi drivers in the earth, you wouldn’t have one equal to the taxi driver that was taking me out to that Baptist church.
The streets of Leningrad are wide boulevards, and there are very few cars. And when we got in that thing and gave him that address a long way out on the edge of town, that guy pushed that accelerator down to the floorboard and away we went through that city. I never saw anything like that! And one time there was a street car joined with another street car, and there was a bus, and they were converging at one point, and that Jehu with all of the speed he could get, he mustered everything in that taxi and just hit that between just as they were coming together. To this day I don’t know how we got through. Oh, I never knew such driving in the earth. God was with us.
Now in some of those cities such as Kiev, couldn’t get an Intourist agent to help us at all. They don’t know anything about our people, about our churches, don’t want to know; they’re atheists and communists. And this is the evening in a big city, and Kiev is one of the most imposing cities I’ve ever looked upon in the world, one of the most ancient, built on the beautiful high hills and cliffs overlooking the Dnieper River.
Well, it was difficult to find the place. I thought we would never find it, difficult, difficult. Can’t talk the language, couldn’t ask anybody the exact place; couldn’t say the word, but we eventually came to the church. And there we are in the church, can’t understand anything, can’t say anything, so we talked to the preacher and the congregation through the Bible.
First of all, we turned to Galatians 1:1 and we pointed out to the preacher “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ,” an apostle, a preacher, a minister, five of us; and yes he understood; an apostle, a preacher of Jesus Christ. Then he turned to us and placed in our hands in his Russian Bible, 1 Corinthians 16:20. And we turned it to our Bible, and it reads, “All the brethren greet you.” Then we turned in our Bible to Philippians 1:3 and made a gesture for him to read it to all the congregation. And he read then in his Bible, Philippians 1:1-3: “Paul and Timothy, servants of Jesus, to all the saints. . .grace unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, in every prayer, making requests for you with joy” [Philippians 1:4]. And when he read that to the congregation, all the congregation stood up and spoke a word of greeting and love in return—talking through the Word of God.
And the finest compliment I think we ever received, or I personally did at least because I’ve come to the place in life where I look upon it as a great compliment. The Intourist agent who met us in Odessa is a Jewess, an atheist, and she’s married to an engineer who is a Jew and an atheist. So she said to her husband, “Tomorrow, I am to conduct five priests through the city.” And so after she’d made her first tour and then returned home, why, that evening she was to go with us to the Baptist church. She never had seen one, had no idea what it was like, and we asked her to go, and she acquiesced. And her young husband came along with her.
So they went to church that night, and the next day when she came to pick us up, why, she laughingly said, “You know, when I told my husband that I had five priests that I was going to conduct through the city of Odessa,” she said, “the only priests that we had ever seen were these Russian Orthodox with their long beards and long hair.” So she said her husband said to her when they went home that night after the Baptist church service, her husband said to her, “You know, those are the most unusual priests I ever saw in my life. Why, they don’t have any beard, and they are not old men, they are young and good-looking!” Yes sir, yes sir. And I’ve been strutting around like a peacock ever since. Every time I pass a mirror I look into it, and I think about that Jewish boy in Odessa; “young and good-looking.”
The services of our Baptist people in Russia; every one of them is jammed, and there are six a week. Tuesday night, Thursday night, Saturday night, Sunday morning at nine o’clock, Sunday afternoon at one o’clock, Sunday evening at six; they are all jammed, and they last three hours, and the people for the most part, standing up. I never saw anything like that in my life. I never did!
And the singing, everybody sings, everybody sings, everybody sings. There’s no exception to it. Everybody sings. Nobody that doesn’t sing, they all sing! And there was no service, and we went to a dozen of them, there was no service but that they had six special choir numbers, six of them in every service, six special choir numbers. And in one of those services they had six specials; solos, duets, trios, quartets, and each of the six specials was followed by a special choir number. There were twelve special numbers in that one service, twelve of them. Well, I debated whether I would mention that to you or not. Oh, but I love to see them sing. I love to hear them sing. They don’t have any hymn books. Once in a while you’ll see somebody with one that is copied out by hand. But they just sing out of their souls.
I was asked by some of these news men, “You say the singing has a plaintive note in it. It sounds forlorn, and sad, and melancholy to you.” And one of the newsmen said, “What makes you think that it sounds that way?” I said, “Well, I just suppose that the oppression, and the sorrow, and the grief, and the trial under which they’ve lived all their lives is found reflected in the songs that they sing.” You can listen to them. By the way, aren’t you going to play one of those songs tonight? Isn’t that right? After this service is done and the appeal is over, those young men have some of the singing of the church in Moscow. And they are going to play so you can hear the plaintiveness of those songs.
The services; they’re not only filled with singing, but they’re filled with praying. All through the service, the thing jammed, and the pastors will be here and the deacons will be there. And in every one of those churches and at every service there will be an elder deacon who will sit there at the communion table, and the people will pass up requests for prayer, and they will read the requests for prayer and then call the people to intercession. Practically all of them will fall on their knees, close their eyes, and raise their faces to heaven. They’ll all be praying at the same time to begin with, softly. Everybody praying at the same time, looking up, eyes of faith to God, and then one or two will be praying above the others, and finally the pastor will close.
And the most moving experience was my first service at Leningrad. I guess it was the first time I was ever introduced to such a thing. I’d never seen people like that. Most of them are old. Most of them are women with a scarf tied over their heads. One part of the service the pastor read letters, and when he read letters the people wept. And that Intourist agent who had never seen a service, never been in a Baptist church, she’s seated there by me, I said to her, “As the pastor reads the letters, why are the people crying?” And she replied, “These are letters from people who have denied the faith and have left the church, and the people are sad, and that’s why there are tears.”
And then as the service continued and the pastor read the letters and spoke, she turned to me and said, “Oh no, no I made a mistake. I didn’t understand,” she said, “I’ve told you wrong.” She said, “These are letters from members who had denied the faith and who had left the church, but they have come back, and they have written letters of repentance. And they’ve asked for forgiveness, and they want the pastor and the church to receive them back again. And,” she said, “these are tears of gladness and of joy for the members that are returning home.” Oh, and the whole service was like that. So many tears, such agony of faith, such intercession to God, I felt as though I were in a first century church. We must hasten.
The Baptists in Russia; what is it like under the heavy oppressive hand of the government? This is what it is like. I will not speak of the fact that they have no Sunday school; the government will not allow it. No revival meetings; the government will not allow it. No invitations; the government will not allow it. No anything by which they can propagate their faith; the government will not allow it. Not even a way to answer the charge of the atheists and the infidel; the government will not allow it.
I speak first of the minister. There’s not any school, there’s not any seminary, there’s not any way to prepare the preacher. Then how do the churches exist? I learned something, I learned something, and I liked what I learned! The way the ministry continues is this. There is no school and no seminary to send the young preacher to; so the seminary is the church, and the teacher is the church, and the guide for the young minister is the pastor. And every Russian pastor in every church has several pastors with him and several young men who are being trained into the ministry. The First Baptist Church in Moscow, for example, has ten pastors. And the First Baptist Church in Moscow has twenty other preachers who are being taught and trained by the pastor of the church. That’s exactly as it was in the New Testament when Paul taught Timothy and Timothy taught the young man who succeeded him [2 Timothy 2:1-2].
Consequently, listen; consequently the churches of Russia are centered around the Bible and the Word of God! I don’t suppose there’s a pastor in Russia who ever heard of neo-orthodoxy, or existentialism, or Reinhold Niebuhr, or Barth, or Tillich, or Brunner, or any of these modern, half-infidel theologians. But the young minister taught by the pastor and encouraged by the congregation learns the Bible! And they preach the Bible, the Word of God, just as they did in the first century!
All right, a second thing. Under the oppression of the government, how is it, the church? It is tragic. The congregation is assigned by the government where their church house will be, and almost always it is a preempted Russian Orthodox Church. And it is located in the most out-of-the-way place, like at Leningrad, located on the edge of town—always—except Moscow, the only exception, and there it was a church that they couldn’t so make; always behind a high wall, and you enter in through a little gate.
When we went to the church in Kharkov, I groaned out loud and didn’t realize it until after my lament. Oh, the location of it, and the dirt, and the filth around, and that high wall, and going through that little bitty gate into the Baptist church. No advertisement, no sign, no anything except thrust away, thrust away; government decree and government regulation, and their salary is paid by the government. The preacher is there by the sufferance of the state. And the poverty of the preacher is indescribable! In Prague, the capital of Czechoslovakia, the pastor’s beginning salary is sixty-five dollars a month. And then every third year his salary can be raised three dollars sixty cents a month until he reaches the maximum of one hundred ten dollars a month. They can barely exist. And that preacher has to receive that salary from the government. And every collection that is taken up in the church is supervised by the state. And the state directs by decree how that money is spent. And the preacher can receive just so much. How is it the Baptists in the communist world? It is an agony.
I learned to my sorrow, and I can understand, I learned to my sorrow of a deep split and cleavage of our Baptist people in the communist world. There are some of them that they call separatists. They call them independents. And those Baptists say, “We had rather starve to death, we had rather be shipped to Siberia, we had rather be placed in prison than to conform to communist law!” So they have separated themselves from the churches that you see, and they worship underground. They worship in forests. They worship in caves. They worship in cellars. They worship clandestinely and secretly as they did in the days of the catacombs.
But the agony of that separation I can see throughout the whole church. I don’t think I have ever looked upon such a sorrowful and pitiful congregation as is at Prague, the capital of communist Czechoslovakia. Their pastor that they loved so much was not quite the corroborating kind, type. So they sent that pastor to a little congregation on the Polish frontier; so far away and so miserable a village that the pastor had to leave his family behind in Prague. Then of course the pastor of the church at Prague is one who is now pleasing to the government. And the congregation sits there and they look at him there in the pulpit, and to every one of them he’s a collaborator with the communists and a half-denier of the faith. As I hear them talk about that and as I sense that among the people, oh, the agony of it is indescribable!
And I asked about the Russian preachers that come to America, and here’s what I found. They are faithful men, and they are godly men, and you can’t be a Baptist and a communist at the same time. I asked that question wherever I went, “Can a Baptist be a communist?” And the answer immediately is a vigorous “Nyet!” And they always emphasize it “Nyet!” Just like that. There’s no such thing as being a Baptist and a communist. But every time you see a Baptist come out of the Soviet Union, he is a Baptist that the communists can trust. None of those independents, or those separatists, or those men who have in their spirit the refusal to obey; not any of those men are ever seen outside of the communist world. And that agony of what to do; and while I was over there, I had a conversation with some of our Baptist people. “What would you do? What would you do?” If you don’t obey this law and if you don’t acquiesce to these governmental decrees, there’s nothing except Siberia or to worship underground in a cellar. Any time you have an open service it has to be in keeping with the communist government, and you can only speak certain things. You have to avoid other things. “What would you do?” I’m just depicting something of the agony through which those Baptists live under the awful communist regime. Now I must conclude.
I want to say one other thing. May I speak now of the poverty of the people? The poverty of the people; look at them, jammed there, standing there, all of them the poorest of the poor. In all of Russia I never saw one car, not one at a church service, not one. The people are very, very poor, very poor. One of the Intourist agents going to a service for the first time said, “Well, there’s no fear of a revolution from people so poor and so ignorant.” In Russia where they have a “classless” society, they look down upon those Baptist people as being poor and ignorant.
And by the way, may I comment here by parenthesis? Standing at the Kremlin, a whistle from the police and we all stood back, and a big, black, sleek limousine passed by and into the gate, into the Kremlin. And Jack Meredith, the military attaché of our American embassy, turned to me and said, “Look. And yet they say this is a classless society. It’s a lie from beginning to end.” If they’ve done anything at all they have just deepened and widened the classes among the people; these who are the aristocratic rulers and the tyrannical magnates who seize power and crush to death the common people! Well anyway, the communists look upon the congregation: “how poor, how poor, and how ignorant.”
And as I looked upon them, I thought in my soul, “These people, these people; could it be that they are the seed of God in the earth? Could it be?” For in the Babylonian captivity, Isaiah began to preach the doctrine of the remnant [Isaiah 10:20-22, 11:11-16]. And who ever heard of a Babylonian king outside of Nebuchadnezzar who is written up in the Word of God? The only reason you ever heard of, or ever study about, ever think of the Babylonian Empire is because of those poor, miserable wretches who were taken into captivity and into slavery! [2 Kings 24-25]. And Sanballat laughed, and Tobiah scoffed, but God was with them! [Nehemiah 2:19-20].
I think of it as I went through Vienna. There are the palaces of the Hapsburgs who ruled Austria for over six hundred years, the most glorious palaces that you ever saw in your life. But we went in Vienna to see mostly where did Beethoven live and write the Fifth and the Ninth Symphonies? Where did Johann Strauss live when he wrote the beautiful “Blue Danube,” and where was Mozart born? And I don’t know anything particularly about the Hapsburgs, and nobody that I know of knows anything particularly about the Hapsburgs, but wherever music is loved in the earth, people remember Vienna, and Beethoven, and Mozart, and Johann Strauss, and others of that immortal group who lived in little humble cottages, not in a palace of a great king. You know God has a way of magnifying, and remembering, and exalting, and glorifying the humble of the earth.
I close with this one observation. As I sat in one of the services, the choir had such a triumphant note, such a triumphant note. I don’t see how they can sing triumphantly, but they had such a triumphant note, and I recognized two words, just two. One of them was Christus, Christus. That is our blessed Jesus. And the other word is the universal word hallelujah. Hallelujah. I recognized Christus and I recognized hallelujah. After the service was over I went to the pastor, and through an interpreter I asked the pastor, I said, “What were they singing about? I recognized two words: Christus, our blessed Jesus, and hallelujah.” I said, “What were they singing about?” And through the interpreter, the pastor said to me, “The choir was singing about the coming again of the Lord.” Christus, hallelujah, hallelujah! I said to the pastor, “Sir, do you preach the second coming of Jesus?” And he said, “Oh, it’s our hope, and our comfort, and our assurance.” What a faith. What a hope. What a persuasion. “If we suffer with Him, we shall reign with Him [2 Timothy 2:12]. If we die with Him, we shall live with Him. Or whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” [Romans 14:8]. Christus, hallelujah, hallelujah! Our fellow Christians of the faith, behind the Iron Curtain in Russia; God bless the saints, here, there, this side of heaven, and in the glory to which someday we shall be gathered into one.
While we sing our hymn, what is it? Number 382; while we sing our hymn number 382, somebody to come to the Lord tonight, make it now [Romans 10:9-10]. A family to come into the fellowship of the church, do it now. In the vast throng of the balcony round about, the press of people on this lower floor, down in Coleman Hall, wherever you listen, if God speaks to your heart, answer now. “Here I come, pastor. I give you my hand. I give my heart to Jesus. Here I come, pastor, my whole family.” Or just one somebody you, as the Spirit shall press the appeal to your heart, make it now. When you stand up, stand up coming into that aisle, down to the front, “Here I am pastor. I make it tonight,” while we stand and while we sing.