August 22, 2017

The First Russian Baptists

Rick Barry

The last decade [pre-2002] has seen almost unprecedented opportunities for Christian ministry in Russia. Today, Russian churches— including Baptist churches—enjoy freedoms that they could scarcely dream of for most of the 20th century as they endured the storms of communistic persecution.

But the question arises, just where did those Russian Baptist churches come from? After all, during the reign of Russia’s czars, the Russian Orthodox Church was the state church and had been since the year 988. In fact, even before the Communist Revolution, Russia’s czars had decreed that the Russian people were intrinsically Russian Orthodox. Preaching any form of Protestant faith was an offense against the czar and his church. So how did the Russian Baptists get there in the first place?

To understand the origin of Russia’s Baptists, we must go back in history and meet another religious group in Russia, the Molokans. Despite the dominant role of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Molokans were descendants of Spiritual Peasants who withdrew from it (these were pacifists who rejected military service and objected to a number of Orthodox practices, including the use of icons in worship). The Orthodox Church had designated specific days of the year as fast days, but because Molokan peasants ignored the fast and drank milk on those days, the Orthodox branded them “Molokans” (“Milk-drinkers,” from the Russian word for milk, moloko).

Molokan families formed their own communities, and lay preachers taught in services. In the 1860s, one Molokan teacher, a merchant named Nikita I. Voronin (1840–1905) gained a reputation in the city of Tiflis (modern- day Tbilisi) for fervently seeking true, pure Christianity. He was also known for his lively disputes with Molokan elders, whom he considered guilty of misinterpreting the Scriptures’ teaching on baptism and other key issues.

Into this scenario the Lord sent a German Baptist named Martin Kalveit (1833–1918). In the late 18th century, Russia’s rulers had offered German settlers free land if they would settle in sparsely populated areas along Russia’s European borders. The German immigrants were promised freedom of religion and were exempt from military service in Russia. However, these German communities were supposed to keep any Protestant views to themselves and abstain from preaching among national Russians.

When Voronin encountered Kalveit, he learned that this German Baptist already preached the same Scriptural interpretations that Voronin himself had been coming to after a long internal struggle and study of God’s Word. Although from different nationalities, the two recognized each other as brothers in the same faith.

Immediately Nikita Voronin expressed his desire to be Biblically baptized upon his profession of faith in Christ. So, on the night of August 27, 1867, Kalveit baptized Nikita Voronin in the River Kura under the cover of darkness. Voronin thus became the first known Russian to adopt the title “Baptist.”

Voronin was extremely vocal in sharing his faith, and in conversations and sermons he regularly shared about salvation by faith in Christ, to be followed by believers’ baptism. It is recorded that his home became a place “of constant fervent discussions and prayers.” As a result of Voronin’s outgoing witness, rumors of his “new” teaching spread throughout the Russian population of that district, and people flocked to listen to him. God blessed Voronin’s zeal and preaching, and the merchant founded the first-ever Russian Baptist congregation, which was established in Tiflis.

One of Voronin’s most notable converts was Vasily Pavlov (1854–1924), who was just 16 years old when Voronin baptized him. Young Vasily became one of the original members of the Tiflis church, and even as a youth showed a gift for preaching and learning foreign languages. After going to Hamburg, Germany, to study theology, Pavlov returned home, where he was ordained. Preaching and discussing the Bible in many different towns, Pavlov was used of God to bring countless souls to Christ. Through his ministry, new churches were established, and from those arose yet other fervent preachers of the gospel.

Years later, Nikita Voronin was involved in another “first.” In 1882, he published Voice of Faith, a collection of 207 hymns in the Russian language.

However, Voronin’s activities did not escape the notice of the Russian Orthodox clergy. When regional Orthodox leaders sent the governor a list of troublemakers whom they recommended be shipped away for isolation, Voronin’s name topped the list. In 1887 Voronin, his family, and Pavlov were ordered to Orenburg, where they lived for four years under police surveillance. After returning home from this first term of exile, Voronin was once again forcibly sent away, this time to Vologda for five years. Those years spent in exile taxed Voronin’s health, and in 1905 he passed into eternity during a congress of Russian Baptists in Rostov-na-Don.

Meanwhile, Martin Kalveit had continued worshiping with and preaching in the Baptist church of Tiflis. Being of foreign nationality, however, was not enough to spare him from the punishment of internal exile, and he was exiled to Gerusy (now Gori, Armenia), where he lived under police supervision and was not allowed to gather with other believers.

Despite repression, Martin Kalveit lived until 1918—long enough to rejoice over the 50th anniversary of the Baptist church in Tiflis, plus the establishment of many similar congregations of born-again Baptist believers and even an organized Russian Baptist Union.

Other factors also played significant roles in the growth of non-Orthodox churches in Russia, including the influence of German Mennonites and a movement in St. Petersburg that led to the formation of the Evangelical Christian denomination (which eventually merged with the Baptists in 1944 after decades of friendly ties). But, strictly speaking, today’s Baptist believers in Russia trace their spiritual heritage back to Nikita Voronin.

Right from the beginning, both under the czarist regime and under the Communists, the Russian brethren have endured discrimination, fines, internal exiles, prisons, labor camps, and even death for their faithfulness to God’s Word. But as the Lord Jesus said in Matthew 16:18, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

Sources:

Kovalenko, Leonid. Oblako svidyetelei Xristovyx dlya narodov Rossii v vekakh. (The Cloud of Christ’s Witnesses for the People of Russia in the XIX—XX Centuries) Sacramento, Calif. 1996.

Savinsky, S. N. Istoriya Evangelskikh Xristian—Baptistov Ukrainy, Rossii, Byelorussii (1867–1917) (History of the Evangelical Christian-Baptists of Ukraine, Russia, and Byelorussia [1867–1917]. St. Petersburg, Russia: Bibliya dlya vsyekh (The Bible for Everybody Press). 1999.

Vins, Georgi Petrovich. Tropoyu vernosti (The Path of Faithfulness). Elkhart, Ind.: Russian Gospel Ministries. 1997.


Rick Barry served as a staff member of Russian Gospel Ministries for fifteen years (1987-2002) and is now a freelance writer and editor living in Indiana.

(Originally published in FrontLine • September/October 2002. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)


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