“We must love them, do good to them, and pray for them”: Canadian Baptists in Russia and Russian Baptists in Canada in the 1960s

By Karl Armstrong1

Fifty-nine years ago this past September, Christian leaders in the Soviet Union invited two key Canadian Baptists leaders to visit them for a series of special, celebratory services.

Moscow Baptist Church Sanctuary c. 1960

In response to the invitation, Ralph Frederick “Fred” Bullen (General Secretary of the Baptist Federation of Canada) and L. A. Gregory (Secretary of the Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec) travelled from Canada. They were troubled by the impact the government had on the Russian Christians, but were deeply moved by their experience.

J. Zhidkov President of the Baptist Union of the former USSR

In his personal memoirs, Bullen admits that he was “new and untutored” in his role as General Secretary, but that it was a “great honor to be invited to Russia when the churches were having a difficult time.”2 The broader church was under the supervision of the “Minister of Cults” and, according to Bullen, “censorship was extensive and dangerous.”3 Persecution and displacement was not uncommon for Baptist ministers. At that time, Dr. J. Zhidkov (president of the Baptist Union of Russia) and his son, the Rev. M. Zhidkov, had just returned from Siberia where they were “sent several years before because of their doubtful appreciation of the Communist government.”4 This threat loomed large for many preachers, including one Rev. Melnikov, who “preached to 3–5 thousand people a week,” but faced being sent to Siberia to pastor a smaller church of 12–15 if he “annoyed the authorities.”5 Understandably, this fostered feelings of distrust toward the government. When Bullen was in Kiev, for example, he recalls how a “dozen or more tearful people crowded notes into my hand to take back to the BWA office,” which the authorities ultimately confiscated.6

J. Zhidkov, McMaster Divinity College alumnus and Baptist leader in the USSR

Bullen was “strongly impressed” with the faith of Russian Christians in such a “hostile climate,” which led him to reflect on his concern with “spoiled Canadians.” Indeed, faced with these unfamiliar circumstances, he had a “strong conviction” that believers in his native Canada were “utterly spoiled” and had “no restrictions,” before concluding, “our freedoms have become license.” In stark contrast he found the Russian people to have a “sense of purpose, a willingness to put up with inconveniences for the good of the state . . . for the society they believe they are building.”7

At that time, church growth in the Soviet Union had slowed to a crawl. The Russian Baptists in particular had only 4,500 churches in the entire Soviet Union, within which there were approximately 540,000 members. It was no surprise that Bullen was worried about the faith of the Russian Baptists and the “survival of the church” under Soviet Communism.8 He explained that the Communist policy took issue with the youth in particular, and enacted a “campaign to downgrade Christianity,” which was based on the idea that if they could convince them their faith was based on superstitions, then the “church will die.”9 This “anti-church campaign” was visible in the way museums made sure the displays were “slanted against the church,” where one famous hermitage contained paintings that emphasized how the church played a role in exploiting the people. Also at this time, one could purchase a “scientific” Bible that was “mutilated” by twisting biblical stories with Communist propaganda throughout.10

In spite of the attempted suppression of the faith and active government-led anti-church campaign, Bullen found the Russian Baptist Church Services to be the “most thrilling I ever attended.”11 Gregory went into a little more detail in his account:

And I worshiped. What experiences these were. The Churches—few in number, as I have said—in every case were thronged with people. The services were long, two to three hours each. Hundreds stood the whole time. They sang heartily and very slowly the Russian hymns, which are distinctly their own. The well-trained choirs contributed not one or two, but four or five anthems in each service. There was sincere and audible participation in the prayers. There were tears and nods of assent as the life-changing story of the Gospel of Peace and Redemption was proclaimed.12

Baptism by pastor A. Karpov at Moscow Baptist Church

He noted how whenever they presented greetings from the Canadian Baptists, “all the people immediately rose and said together a hearty ‘Thank You.’ And they bade me carry back to Canada their affectionate Christian greetings.”13

One of the services they attended in Leningrad was packed with 1,500 Russians, during which most of the church stood during the entire three-hour evening service. “The depth of their faith” was moving for Bullen, who reported that their “facial expressions showed it—and you cannot pretend Christianity in a service of worship to the degree that their faces indicated it.” At another service, approximately 2,200 people gathered, among whom 19 came forward for baptism.14 This was even more significant because under Soviet law at that time, one had to reach the “age of reason” where “18 [was] the minimum age for Baptism.” As such, most of them were adults who made a decision to “stand publically” in order to demonstrate the “vitality of the Baptist Church in Russia.”15

Communion at Moscow Baptist Church

Even though the Soviet constitution “guarantees freedom of conscience and religion,” Bullen was convinced that Russian Christians were not given the same equitable treatment.16 While noting the freedoms enjoyed by Canadian Christians, he believed there was a marked contrast for those in Russia. According to Bullen the government wanted to replace Christianity with Communism and “move to a stateless society . . . this is their messiah.”17 While there was some toleration for the church, it was limited in the sense that the state controlled the schools and discussion groups and “any other bodies that lead to the formation of ideas.”18 Since there were no openly religious classes or Sunday schools, everyone must have been dedicated to their faith because all “religious instruction must come from the home.”19

Bullen’s trip took him from Leningrad down to Moscow, then on to the Crimea, Kiev and back to Moscow. He was not sure what to expect, but he remarked how they seemed to be “ordinary people” who were “well adjusted and with no evidence of tension.”20 During his trip he enjoyed learning and experiencing their culture, and visiting their palaces and museums. Furthermore, he did not hesitate to offer some candid reflections of the people he met: “I don’t think I saw a thin Russian anywhere . . . [t]hey’re big eaters.” This may have been a reflection of his own appetite, as he also remarked how the food was “plentiful,” but “clothes were expensive and of poor quality.”21 Their Russian hosts paid “all the expenses for our luxurious sojourn,” and they lived in the best hotels everywhere they went.22 Bullen said they were “well fed except for my request for bacon for breakfast” even though they told him to “Order anything. You can have anything you want!” Eventually, they explained that the reason for the lack of bacon was because the department of agriculture did “not order two year pigs this year.”23 Another amusing tidbit at the hotel was how they “embarrassed the Baptists” because they had to be registered according to their status, which meant they had to be listed as Archbishops. Speaking of which, Bullen recalls how the hotel bill from one of the Orthodox Archbishops was three times higher, which was apparently because he “drank more vodka than we did.”24

Service at Moscow Baptist Church

Moscow Baptist Church Choir

Sometime after Bullen and Gregory arrived home, there was a Russian delegation that visited the Baptists and Mennonites in North America. Bullen remarks how their visit to Canada faced repeated delays, such that they finally arrived “inconveniently in the middle of my holidays.” Canadians did not accept the visitors with open arms, however. Even within the Baptist and Mennonite circles, they faced criticism for “allowing Russian spies to come under the guise of ministers and also to apparently be soft in our view of atheistic communism.” While the mainline churches were openly criticized on TV and radio for not doing anything for the real Christians in Russia who were tortured and jailed for their faith, the Baptists (who actually went there) had been “stupid enough to be fooled by the Communists and now our ignorance allowed these people to come and visit out land so they could go home and report their spying.”25

Bullen recounts a story about a fundamentalist radio preacher, Perry F. Rockwood, he heard while he was driving:

Then a man spoke—he was the famous unfrocked Presbyterian of Truro [Nova Scotia] who had a national program for fundamentalists. He said, [“]I want you all to pray with me that God will further prevent Fred Bullen and the Mennonites from getting these Russians through the customs in Montreal.[”] He went on a tirade about my ignorance and stupidity and unworthy to lead the Baptists of Canada. I nearly drove into the ditch.26

While he may have been discouraged, Bullen found encouragement from the Mennonites, who had faced similar criticisms. On one occasion, as he travelled to Kingston by train, he had the opportunity to talk with Mennonites from Pennsylvania. They had taken comfort in Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:44 to “Love your enemies” and so they agreed “we must love them, do good to them, [and] pray for them.”27

Bullen had a chance to both practice and share this verse (Matt 5:44) with a bit of wit and whim. Their Russian guests shared at a large public service at Yorkminster Church in Toronto—an event where protesters crowded the sidewalks. Today it is difficult to understand the protesters’ mindsets as they marched with placards that called the Russians (and Canadian Baptists) derogatory names; but for their part, the Canadian Baptists “took measures to protect [their] guests all the time they were in Canada.” While he withholds his name, Bullen records that one of the protestors was a famous TV and Radio preacher from the United States. In his own words, Bullen said: “I don’t think it was much value to us or to the Kingdom of God.” The famous preacher did not cause a ruckus during his visit to their national assembly, but while he was there he forgot his “big thick Bible” on a chair and so Bullen had the “privilege of mailing it back to him with the above text [Matt 5:44] clearly marked in Red ink with a polite note that as [General Secretary] of Canada I was happy to be of service in returning his valuable text book. No reply!”28

* * *

Karl Armstrong holds a PhD in New Testament Studies from McMaster Divinity College. Previously, he studied at Acadia Divinity College, where he earned his MDiv and MA in Theology. He has also worked as a Graduate Assistant for the Canadian Baptist Archives.  

Endnotes

  1. The reader may wish to explore the collection of essays in Paul Mojzes, North American Churches and the Cold War (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018) and also Gordon L. Heath and Michael A. G. Haykin, eds. Baptists and War: Essays on Baptists and Military Conflict, 1640s–1990s (Canadian Baptist Historical Society Series 2. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2015).
  2. “Jan and Fred Notes” (hereafter JFN), unpublished memoirs available in the Canadian Baptist Archives, 1. Bullen had a lengthy and productive career and is no stranger to Baptists around the world. He passed away in 2013 at the age of 97. See https://cbwc.ca/sir-frederick-bevan-bullen/
  3. JFN, 1. Both Bullen and Gregory interviewed the minister who represented the Soviet Authorities for the Baptists of the USSR. In a conversation with this individual Gregory made the stark contrast between “Kiev, where there are three Baptist Churches, and Toronto, where there are seventy.” L. A. Gregory, “The General Secretary’s Visit to Russia,” The Canadian Baptist, 15 October 1962, 278 (hereafter Gregory, CB).
  4. In his report, Dr. Gregory says that it was the Rev. Michael Zhidkov and Rev. I. Orlov who acted as their interpreters. Cf. Gregory CB, 278. They were able to bring Michael Zhidikov a few years later to study at McMaster Divinity College and complete his work before returning to Moscow as his father’s successor at the First Baptist Church in Moscow. See JFN, 4.
  5. JFN, 1.
  6. JFN, 1. Bullen thought that they were “simply requests for prayer and for Bibles in Russian” (JNF, 1).
  7. Fred Bullen, “Report from Russia,” The Canadian Baptist, 15 October 1962, 277 (hereafter Bullen, CB).
  8. Bullen, CB, 277.
  9. Bullen, CB, 277.
  10. Bullen, CB, 277.
  11. Bullen, CB, 277.
  12. Gregory, CB, 278.
  13. Gregory, CB, 278.
  14. Bullen, CB, 277. Gregory (CB, 278) recounts a similar experience while noting the “immense communion loaf and the common cup” (that would have been shared with some 2,200 people)!
  15. Bullen, CB, 278. Gregory (CB, 278) noted that newly baptized Christians “had two years of probationary preparation” but after this they were “presented with bouquets and were greeted with a ‘holy kiss.’”
  16. Bullen, CB, 278.
  17. Bullen, CB, 278 (Bold in original).
  18. Bullen, CB, 278.
  19. Bullen, CB, 278
  20. Bullen, CB, 278.
  21. While in Kiev, Gregory (CB, 278) makes the point to observe the “great abundance of food—bread, meat, fruit—and, generally speaking, a people who had partaken of it heartily and often.” One cannot help but wonder if the average Canadian in the 1960s was any different!
  22. Gregory, CB, 278.
  23. JNF, 3. He muses: “Does bacon come only from two year pigs??? I never found out. Anyway I learned to say God bless you in Russian.”
  24. JNF, 3.
  25. JNF, 3–4.
  26. JNF, 4.
  27. JNF, 4.
  28. JNF, 4.

**The views of this Blog represent those of the author, and not necessarily the CBHS.**

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s