The Adventist message first came to the Russian Empire at the end of the nineteenth century. In July 1886, the first Seventh-day Adventist congregation was formed at Berdebulat in the Crimea.1 This story, interesting in and of itself, reveals the colorful network of God’s providence, which had been set in place many years before.
The Russian Orthodox hegemony
At that time, the political and religious situation in the Russian Empire was complicated. Czars ruled with absolute power. The territory of the state was huge, comprising the lands of the future Soviet Republics, as well as today’s Poland and Finland. The Orthodox Church dominated religious life and strongly persecuted all who tried to convert its parishioners.2 Jewish and Muslim populations and people of other faiths “were accorded the right to practice the religion of their fathers, and the right to leave that religion and join the Greek Church. But woe to the man who should try to leave the Orthodox church and join any other.”3 Missionaries from other religions, as well as their converts, faced exile to Siberia, imprisonment, even torture. Though over the years some liberalization occurred, Orthodox beliefs and practices held a powerful sway over the Russian Empire.
In this context, to imagine how an Adventist church could emerge and survive would be difficult. And yet it did, but only through God’s providential means.
One crucial factor was that the multinational Russian Empire had many foreigners. Due to a great demand for technological progress, professionals flocked in from western Europe. In the sixteenth century, Germans organized a settlement in a Moscow suburb filled with Lutheran and Reformed churches.4
Peter the Great greatly valued the contribution of foreigners. His successor, Empress Catherine the Great, went even further. In 1763, she issued a manifest inviting people from Europe to come and settle where they wanted, promising them not only religious freedom but freedom from taxes and military service.5 In response, Germans from different European countries came and organized settlements, the most famous being in the Volga River area. These people kept their religion; thus, Baptists, Lutheran, and Mennonites were present in the Russian Empire in the nineteenth century.
Louis R. Conradi wrote, “So, around all this large country it is just one continued string of German settlements—about three millions of Germans in all. What have they been placed there for?—In order to receive the light of the precious truth of the last days and to carry it to the Russians; and the government can’t keep it out.”6
In the second part of nineteenth century, facing threats to their privileges, many Germans left for different countries, including North America. Little did they did know at that time what an important part they would play in spreading the Adventist message to Russia.
Many of these Germans who left Russia settled in Minnesota and the Dakotas. Late in the 1870s, the work among German immigrants began with the publishing of Adventist literature in German. L. R. Conradi, an immigrant from Germany, was converted in 1878 and ordained in 1882. He began to work among Russian and German immigrants,7 and some accepted the Adventist message. The first German Seventh-day Adventist church in America was organized in South Dakota.
The converts then began to send tracts to relatives in Russia. One of the examples of the great power of these tracts was the conversion of Gerhard Perk. He shared his story at the General Conference Session in 1909: “In 1882 a tract entitled ‘The Third Angel’s Message,’ came into my hand. . . . This tract had been sent from America to one of our village neighbors, who kept it very secretly. . . . He came to me, and said, ‘For three years I have had some dangerous publications. . . . These publications are so dangerous that even an earnest member . . . might be led astray by them.’ . . . I asked my neighbor to let me have this literature. . . . For a long time he refused, but finally he consented. . . . I took the publication, and went into the haymow, and read it through three times. . . . I was at once convinced that the tract I had read was the truth.”8 Thus, Germans in the United States of America (U.S.A.) became a vessel that carried the Adventist message to their relatives and friends in Russia.
The first missionary
Tracts, however helpful, were not enough. God then sent His first missionary.
The first Adventist missionary who came to the Russian Empire was a layman, Jacob Reiswig. He was a German Russian from South Dakota, about 80 years old, who emigrated from the Crimea to the U.S.A. in 1878 and accepted the Adventist message through a tract. One Sabbath, a letter from Russia was read in the church; it was an appeal to send somebody to Russia to teach them the message. After hearing the appeal, Reiswig decided to go, even at his own expense. Aged and poor, he prepared a good supply of literature and went to the Crimea in 1883, where he even had to sell his boots to pay for his expenses.
In spite of a speech impediment, he became a successful missionary, visiting people at homes, giving out tracts in the marketplace, and witnessing when and where he could. He stayed for two years, came back, and then returned in 1887.9 The result of his devoted ministry was about 30 converts in the Crimea.
Conradi later commented on Reiswig’s work: “His visit only increased the desire of the Sabbath-keepers to have a laborer visit and organize them. They were obliged to wait long for help, and when I came, they gave me a warm welcome.”10
At that time, Conradi was hired by the General Conference to work in Europe. After his arrival in the beginning of 1886, he received appeals from Russia urging him to come and help organize the Adventist Church. Conradi left Basel in June, arrived at Odessa, and was met by G. Perk, who had been already acquainted with his work. They visited several places, preaching for Sabbath keepers as well as for Baptists, Mennonites, and Lutherans. In July of 1886, the first Seventh-day Adventist congregation was formed at Berdebulat, “where our brethren and sisters from different places had appointed to meet because there was sufficient water here for baptism.”11
Nineteen people formed the first congregation, most of whom came from Baptist and Mennonite churches. More wanted baptism, including a native Russian, but Conradi was careful not to break government rules prohibiting the conversion of native Russians from the Orthodox faith. In spite of this, he was imprisoned, along with his translator G. Perk, for 40 days for promoting “Jewish heresy.” They were released only because of the help of an American ambassador from St. Petersburg who explained that this faith was Christian, not Jewish.12
This group of believers in Berdebulat was not the only one in Russia. Conradi said that in 1886 about 80 people had already accepted the Adventist message, and other believers were scattered all over the empire, including the Asian part.13 It is also known that the Adventist message came to Mennonite colonies in the Caucasus Mountains as early as 1885.14
How did the message start spreading so widely?
In 1864, Michael B. Chekhovsky, a former Polish Catholic priest who accepted the Adventist message in 1857 during a visit to the U.S.A., returned to Europe and began to spread the present truth. In 1867, he preached in Chernovtzi and later in Rovno and Volin. Though it took time, his message found followers. The formation of an Seventh-day Adventist group in 1888 in the village of Zharnuvka is traced to his influence.15
Also, a translation of the Bible into the Russian language was completed during the reign of Alexander II, and God used it to bring His message to the Russian Empire long before the Adventist literature arrived. For example, there was an unknown officer of the Russian army who can be called one of the first Russian Adventists in the middle of the nineteenth century. His story became known after his death when his daughter wrote in a response to an Seventh-day Adventist tract in 1893. She stated how glad she was to have found believers of the same faith that she and her father had.
Her father, a Russian Orthodox layman, faithfully studied the Bible. On reading it, he discovered the truth about the Sabbath, and all his family began to keep it. The consequences were harsh: several arrests, persecution, exile, and imprisonment for about 30 years.
He was released in old age only because of intercession by a sympathetic general, and within the next five years he published a journal spreading his views among the Russians. Though facing another exile and imprisonment for his work, he died, but not before asking his children to keep holding onto God’s commandments and the hope of Christ’s second coming.16
Another convert from the Bible was F. Babienko from Tarascha (not far from Kiev, Ukraine). He was educated and helped the Orthodox priest read psalms during the service. He asked permission to take the Bible home and read it there. The result was his discovery of the Ten Commandments. In 1877, he organized a Bible study group. This led to his arrest and exile to Stavropol. But there he found another Bible and continued his studies.17 He became a Seventh-day Adventist even before meeting an Adventist minister for the first time in 1880.18 As a result of Babienko’s witness, Bible studies, and letters, about 13 people were baptized in 1887–1888, a church was organized in Stavropol, and groups of believers were forming in two nearby villages.19
The formation of the first church at Berdebulat was just a start. Gradually, alongside the conversions of Germans, the work among Russians began. In 1889, the printing of Seventh-day Adventist literature in Russian started in Hamburg. The result was the conversion of 35 people that same year.20
However, the work among the native population was not without cost. Conradi told a story about persecution in 1892 that “has removed our only preacher, with about twelve of our members, to a remote place near the Persian border; while others are on the way to regions even unknown to them, and others are awaiting their sentence.”21
The sister of this preacher was working for a Russian prince; after the arrest of her brother, she organized Sabbath meetings in her home. Eventually, she was exiled to a place where people did not speak the Russian language.22 Despite all this, by 1901, there was a small Russian congregation in St. Petersburg.23
In 1905, the Russian government issued the Edict of Toleration, which allowed people to change their faith. This brought great relief to the Seventh-day Adventist Church, although the church faced many hardships in the twentieth century when the Communist regime came to power. Nevertheless, despite all the opposition, the church continued to grow.
In 1890, the Seventh-day Adventist Church in this part of the world had 356 members; in 1900, 1,037 members; in 1916 (a year before the Bolshevik Revolution), there were approximately 6,720 members; in 1926, 12,282 members from 20 different nationalities; in 1929, 13,547 members from 29 nationalities.24
Conradi was right when he wrote in 1886: “The Russian Mission has been opened. Not without cost, it is true. Dangers and difficulties are still in the way. Imprisonment and persecution threaten the laborer. The preacher is not at liberty to present the message. But as it is God’s cause, who can hinder?”25
Whom shall I send?
A small group of 19 people became a great movement of about 150,000 Adventists, who are sharing the good news about Jesus and the hope of His second coming in the huge territory of Euro-Asia Division 125 years later.
The lesson in all this is simple: God continues to use the same methods that can bring profound results in closed areas just as He did in the Russian Empire. In this great work, God uses ordinary men and women who, under His guidance, can become “ ‘streams of life-giving water’ ” (John 7:38, TEV). God’s question to the prophet Isaiah: “ ‘Whom shall I send?’ ” (Isa. 6:8, TEV) remains relevant. And our time to answer has come; soon eternity will show the results of what that answer has been.
1 E. Zaitsev, Istoriya Tzerkvi Adventistov Sedmogo Dnya v Rossi [History of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Russia] (Zaoksky: Source of Life, 2008), 143.
2 L. R. Conradi, “A Visit to Russia,” in Historical Sketches of the Foreign Missions of the Seventh-day Adventists (Basel, Switzerland: Imprimerie Polyglotte, 1886), 253.
3 Arthur Whitefield Spalding, Captains of the Host (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1949), 537.
4 V. O. Kluchevskij, Kurs Russkoj Istorii [Course of Russian history], vol. 3 (Moscow: Misl, 1988), 253, 254.
5 Bob L. Berschauer and Brent Mai, “Immigration to Russia,” accessed August 23, 2011, http://www.berschauer.com/ Genealogy/Accounts/manifesto.html.
6 L. R. Conradi, “The German-Russian Mission Field,” Adventist Review and Sabbath Herald, December 5, 1893, 214.
7 Brian E. Strayer, “The Amazing Life of L. R. Conradi,” Adventist Review, January 18, 1996, 10.
8 G. Perk, “Reports From Russian Union,” in General Conference Bulletin, May 18, 1909, 52, 53.
9 M. Ellsworth Olsen, A History of the Origin and Progress of Seventh-day Adventists (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1925), 471, 472.
10 Conradi, “A Visit to Russia,” 256.
12 Zaitsev, Istoriya Tzerkvi Adventistov Sedmogo, 144.
13 Conradi, “A Visit to Russia,” 271.
14 Zaitsev, Istoriya Tzerkvi Adventistov Sedmogo, 145.
15 S dobroi vestiu k svoim sootechestvennikam [With good news to our fellow countrymen] (Zaoksky: Source of Life, 1996), 8.
16 Conradi, “The German-Russian Mission Field,” 762.
17 V. V. Teppone, Iz Istori Tzerkvi [From history of the church] (Kaliningrad: Yantarnij Skaz, 1993), 8, 10, 11.
18 S dobroi vestiu k svoim sootechestvennikam [With good news to our fellow countrymen], 8.
19 Teppone, Iz Istorii Tzerkvi [From history of the church], 8, 10, 11.
20 Zaitsev, 156-157.
21 L. R. Conradi, “The Present Outlook in the Russian Mission,” Adventist Review and Sabbath Herald,December 6, 1892, 757.
23 William A. Spicer, Our Story of Missions for Coleges and Academies (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1921), 178.
24 Galina I. Stele, “An Analysis of the Growth in the Euro-Asia Division (1985-1995) Leading to a Strategy for Developing Home Churches” (DMin dissertation, Andrews University, 1996), 22, 23.
25 Conradi, “A Visit to Russia,” 271.