Methodist Church

United Methodists reclaim rich Russian history

ST PETERSBURG (RUSSIA) – In the midst of a brutal winter in 1921, with a heavy wrap gathered around her slight shoulders, Sister Anna Eklund became a familiar figure standing in the middle of a sleigh loaded with provisions donated by Methodists overseas. At her side was Pastor Oskar Pöeld.

Although they had little to eat themselves, the two Methodists delivered food and pastoral care throughout the city and Sister Anna herself buried 18 among the millions who died of hunger.

This story of devotion to the Wesleyan faith is but one chapter of a Methodist history that is being reclaimed during the centennial of the official birth of Methodism in Russia. Before the church was slowly suffocated in the Soviet era, there was a vital movement that left its mark in Methodist annals.

The anniversary celebration within the Eurasian Area of The United Methodist Church offered historian Dr S. T. Kimbrough an opportunity to discover the “amazing” accomplishments of Methodists during a brief period of freedom a century ago.

Ripe for reform

Although there are indications of Methodist work among Swedish immigrants in St Petersburg as early as 1881, the breakthrough began around the turn of the 20th century. Industrialisation was taking hold in the empire and unrest was brewing among the masses. Citizens were dissatisfied not only with imperialism but also with the Russian Orthodox Church’s perceived alliance with the ruling elite. Thus, when Protestant missionaries from Europe and the United States preached throughout the empire, there was a receptive audience.

Czar Nicholas II answered this general restlessness by issuing the 1905 Edict of Toleration which granted religious minorities the right to exist. Four years later, in 1909, the czar officially recognised the right of the Methodist denomination to exist within his empire.

The Methodist Church was becoming an influential force in Petrograd and the Baltic states. In Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, younger citizens, in particular, hungered for Wesleyan theology, and the Methodist Episcopal Church in Europe and the United States responded. As the need for meeting spaces grew, church members who were barely feeding their own families, offered precious jewellery and watches to help fund places of worship. Some of those buildings still stand today.

Shortly thereafter, on the eastern edge of the empire, the Siberia-Manchuria Mission was launched by the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, which served Russian-Korean farmers and ethnic Koreans who fled from the Japanese invasion of 1910. Large numbers of devotees helped to build churches, schools, clinics and orphanages. Within these pockets of influence, there was great hope for future congregations.

But, the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 changed everything.

Power struggle

In the early days of the revolution, the Methodist Church continued to grow, albeit carefully and quietly as the revolutionaries did not have a unified strategy regarding religion. There was an insistence that the Russian Orthodox Church separate from the government and that personal allegiance be focused on communism. Religious leaders who were considered enemies of the new order were targeted, but there was no initial desire to eradicate religion entirely.

Authorities kept a watchful eye on the Methodists, sending secret police to attend services and report on church people and activities. Nevertheless, the Petrograd Methodists procured a building. A fence around it was constructed from the famine relief boxes sent to Sister Anna. At the same time, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South was developing congregations in Russian Siberia, with 1,000 reported members and an additional 5,000 attending.

Fear and heartbreak
In his book Methodism in Russia and the Baltic States, Dr Kimbrough says the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1922 stood ready to ally with a faction of Russian Orthodox reformists who viewed the Methodist Episcopal Church as a principal provider during the famine and applauded what they read in The Book of Discipline.

But the reformers lost the power play and stronger forces within the revolution extinguished the relationship between the Methodists and the Russian Orthodox Church. The birth of the USSR resulted in the confiscation of church property and the persecution of the Methodist faithful.

The persecution of religious leaders within Russia began in earnest; those who did not evade authorities were either sent to labour camps or faced the firing squad. When the Bolsheviks reached Russian Siberia, those churches migrated to Manchuria.

In 1927, as Stalin was taking full control of the Communist Party, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South decided to focus efforts elsewhere and eliminated mission support in the Siberian region. When the last Methodist missionary pulled away from the train station, a weeping crowd of believers begged him to stay.

In 1940, when Hitler invaded Europe, Soviet forces occupied the Baltic States and the churches suffered quick dissolution in Latvia and Lithuania, with many of the clergy making their way to the United States. In Estonia, a third of Methodist clergy were persecuted in Soviet prisons or Siberian labour camps, but the faithful clung to their Methodist roots.

Finally, when the walls fell, the Estonian Methodists were among the first to lift their heads from the ruins of communism in the late 1980s and early 1990s and reach out to their United Methodist brothers and sisters around the world. Almost a century after Methodism first caught fire in Eurasia, there were once more signs of hope.

When food shortages threatened the population after the collapse of the government in 1991, the United Methodist Committee on Relief was assigned as the lead agency for humanitarian aid by the Russian Government. The relief efforts mirrored the actions of Methodists 70 years earlier when crates of supplies were sent to St Petersburg (Petrograd) for distribution during the devastating famine. The charitable actions caught the attention of the unchurched and, once again, the denomination began to grow.

Because the church had legally existed prior to the revolution, it was granted status in contemporary Russia. In some instances, former properties confiscated by the Soviets were returned to congregations; most churches, however, began as they did originally and met in small rented spaces or private homes.

These seeds of faith have grown into more than 100 vital congregations today. It is a history that speaks of peril, sacrifice, conviction – and resurrection. – United Methodist News Service.

Jan Snider is a producer with United Methodist Communications.