|United Methodists reclaim rich Russian history|
Sister Anna Eklund (right) and the Rev. Oscar Pöeld deliver provisions in
St. Petersburg, Russia in 1921. A UMNS photo courtesy of the
United Methodist Commission on Archives and History.
By Jan Snider*
August 11, 2009 | ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (UMNS)
The cries of hunger were deafening during the Russian famine of 1921.
On the city streets of Petrograd, now St. Petersburg, abandoned
children huddled like discarded rags. Past the outskirts of town,
peasants swallowed handfuls of clay to fill their bellies. The dead
were stacked in shallow graves.
In the midst of a brutal winter, 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.
Women and children stand at the steps
of the Ottilie Simons Children’s Home in Handrovo, Russia. A UMNS photo courtesy of the United Methodist Commission
on Archives and History.
Though they had little to eat themselves, the two Methodists delivered
food and pastoral care throughout the city. Eklund herself would bury
18 among the millions who died of hunger.
This story of devotion to 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 by labor camps, murder and other forms of persecution in the
Soviet era, there was a vital movement that left its mark in Methodist
This summer’s anniversary celebration within the Eurasian Area of The
United Methodist Church offers the opportunity to discover what
historian S T Kimbrough calls the “amazing” accomplishments of
Methodists during a brief period of freedom a century ago.
“The period of time is so short. You see this large number of people,
comparatively large for that short period of time, involved,” Kimbrough
says. “It’s a phenomenal story.”
Ripe for reform
There are indications of Methodist work among Swedish immigrants in St.
Petersburg as early as 1881. But the breakthrough began around the turn
of the 20th century. Industrialization was taking hold in the empire
and the working class began thinking beyond the czarist structure of
government. 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.
There was a receptive audience when Protestant missionaries from Europe
and the United States preached throughout the empire.
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 recognized the
right of the Methodist denomination to exist within his empire.
Nicholas II, czar of the
Russian Empire, 1914.
A UMNS photo courtesy of
the Library of Congress.
About the time Henry Ford was rolling out the Model T, the Methodist
Church was becoming an influential force in Petrograd and the Baltic
In Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, younger citizens, in particular,
hungered for Wesleyan theology and the Methodist Episcopal Church in
Europe and the United States reached out. As the need for meeting
spaces grew, church members who were barely feeding their own families
laid precious jewelry and watches on the table to help fund places of
Some of those buildings still stand today, including Sanciai Church in Lithuania.
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.
Methodism grew on the edges of the empire. 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 in 1917, everything changed. The Bolsheviks gave rise to a revolution.
In the early days of the revolution, the Methodist church continued to
grow, albeit carefully and quietly. As the dissidents wrestled power
from the czar and the ruling elite, they 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
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 was
constructed around it from the famine relief boxes sent to Eklund.
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 the book “Methodism in Russia and the Baltic States,” Kimbrough says
the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1922 stood ready to ally with a
faction of Russian Orthodox reformists. These Russian Orthodox
believers viewed the Methodist Episcopal Church as a principal
responder to the famine and they applauded what they read in The Book
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 repressive Union of Soviet
Socialist Republics 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 labor camps or
faced the firing squad. When the Bolsheviks reached Russian Siberia,
those churches migrated to Manchuria.
Russian soldiers line the Liteinyi Prospect in Petrograd (now St.
Petersburg), Russia, in 1917. A UMNS photo courtesy of the Library of
In 1927, as Charles Lindbergh was flying across the Atlantic, 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, as Hitler invaded Europe, Stalin’s 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
Even though the Estonian church operated in the shadows, there are
heartbreaking accounts of the fate of Methodist leadership. By
mid-century, a third of the Estonian Methodist clergy were persecuted
in Soviet prisons or Siberian labor camps.
Estonian faithful, however, clung to their Methodist roots despite
risks and dogged efforts of the Soviet secret police. Kimbrough tells
of Estonia Superintendent Rev. Martin Kuigre, who in 1940 was pressured
to merge his congregation with the Lutherans. Kuigre resisted,
asserting that his congregation would meet in secret, if necessary.
Authorities acquiesced and the church was not liquidated.
And finally the walls fell.
A new revolution
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, United Methodists responded. In 1991, the United Methodist
Committee on Relief was assigned as the lead agency for humanitarian
aid by the Russian government.
Workers stand in front of the Methodist chapel and parsonage in Haitolovo,
Russia. A UMNS photo courtesy of
the United Methodist Commission
on Archives and History.
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 over 100 vital congregations today.
As students gather around a kitchen table to share tea at the Russia
United Methodist Theological Seminary in Moscow, the energy of the
church is evident. These young theologians from all over the former
empire are the future of the church. They exchange ideas, challenge
opinions, and share struggles.
The Rev. Sergei Nikolaev, seminary president, says he would not be
surprised to have a United Methodist Russian president someday. “We are
still in the process of discerning a Russian United Methodist model for
life, for doing church, for Christian living in Russia,” he says, “If
we find that model and truly indigenize the United Methodist Church
then, we have no limits.”
Through the continued efforts of the United Methodist Russia
Initiative, the tenacity of these young leaders and their mentors, the
church continues to expand in Eurasia.
This summer, in St. Petersburg, the church celebrated the 100th
anniversary of Methodism in Russia and 120 years in Eurasia. The Rev.
James Athearn, coordinator of the Russia Initiative, reflected on the
ceremony, “The St. Petersburg observance brought to mind the image of a
great crowd of witnesses from the past and the present.”
Bishop Hans Växby has conducted additional celebrations throughout the
Eurasia Conference this summer, as many in the former Soviet states
learn for the first time that there is, indeed, a legitimate history
between the United Methodist Church and Russian citizenry.
It is a history that speaks of peril, sacrifice, conviction—and resurrection.
*Snider is a producer with United Methodist Communications.
News media contact: Jan Snider, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5474 or email@example.com.
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Russian Mission Initiative
The United Methodist Church in Eurasia
Give to an Advance Project in Russia
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A Pictorial Panorama of Early Russian Methodism, 1889-1931, by S. T. Kimbrough, Jr.
Sister Anna Eklund, A Methodist Saint in Russia, by S. T. Kimbrough, Jr.
Methodism in Russia & The Baltic States, S. T. Kimbrough, Jr.
Russian Praise CD
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