Gregory L. Nichols
Russian evangelical leader Johann G. Kargel (1849-1937), later known as Ivan Veniaminovich Kargel, had an enormous influence within the Russian evangelical milieu of his time, particularly through his approach to spirituality. From the 1880s onwards much of his thinking was derived from the Holiness movements that affected evangelicalism in the 1870s, and especially from the spirituality of the Keswick Convention, which began in 1875.
Kargel’s evangelical conversion took place in 1869, and the same year, on 6 October, he was baptized and joined the Baptist congregation in Tiflis, Georgia. Services were in Russian and German, but the stronger influence was German, since by this time the wider German Baptist movement across a number of parts of Europe was well organized and was expanding. It was this movement that gave Kargel his early spiritual nurture. The German Baptist vision, mirroring the wider Baptist vision of the period in Britain and North America, was strongly evangelical, emphasizing conversion, the cross, the Bible, and activism. Each of these emphases was absorbed by Kargel and each was evident in Kargel’s thinking throughout his life. In the early 1870s Kargel also made contacts among another group of Germans—the Mennonite Brethren. Kargel attended a Mennonite Brethren conference in Southern Russia in 1873 at which he received his call into the pastoral ministry. Subsequently, Kargel went to Hamburg to train at the German Baptist Mission School, set up and led by Johann G. Oncken, the powerful leader of German Baptists. Kargel did have some wider links, but his spiritual grounding up to the mid-1870s was firmly within the Baptist camp.
The Influence of Vasily Pashkov
From 1875 to 1880, as the (first) German Baptist minister in Saint Petersburg, the capital of the Russian Empire, Kargel had a high profile within the German Baptist community. A remarkable evangelical movement was taking root and growing in this period among a number of Russians from aristocratic circles. The origins of this movement lay in the influence of the English evangelist Lord Radstock, and through his preaching in Saint Petersburg a number of leading Russian figures were converted to evangelical faith, including Colonel Vasily Pashkov. Kargel’s contacts with this stream of evangelicalism, which owed a great deal, through Radstock, to interdenominational British evangelical thinking and to the Brethren movement, were to challenge Kargel’s strictly Baptist views and also open up new spiritual possibilities.
A major turning point in Kargel’s life was his marriage, in 1880, to Anna Semenova, who was a member of the Pashkovite circle. The Kargels, as a newly married couple, began their life and ministry together in Bulgaria in late 1880. The time in Bulgaria was hard for Anna, who missed the Pashkovite meetings and the close fellowship she had known with Pashkov and his wife. Increasingly she began to pray that her husband would embrace broader evangelical views and would open himself to a deeper work of the Holy Spirit in his life. One issue about which Anna felt strongly was the question of who could be admitted to the Lord’s Table. German Baptists restricted admittance to those baptized as believers while the Pashkovite approach, which Anna followed, was an Open Table. Anna’s hopes for change in her husband were realized. Writing much later, Kargel spoke of how in 1883 he found the sanctification he had been seeking.
The Influence of the Keswick Holiness Movement
The Kargels, now with young daughters, returned to Saint Petersburg in 1884, to take up new work among the Pashkovites. From this point on, Kargel’s ministry was to be primarily among Russian speakers. Pashkov was exiled in 1884 and Ivan Kargel took on major responsibility for the Evangelical Christian community in the capital. Kargel also developed a close association with Freidrich Baedeker, whose own evangelical faith had been shaped by Lord Radstock and who, like Radstock, was associated with the Brethren. Baedeker was involved in Holiness gatherings, and as Kargel worked closely with Baedeker he imbibed more of the Holiness spirituality that was by then being mediated in Britain through the Keswick Convention. Baedeker was granted a unique authorization by the Russian government to visit the prisons of Russia. From the mid-1880s, with this official sanction, Kargel and Baedeker were freely able to travel together, speak, and distribute literature in normally inaccessible areas.
Increasingly, Kargel began to express his emphases in explicitly Holiness terms, using language employed at Keswick. By 1886, with Baedeker, Kargel was holding what can be termed mini-Keswick meetings in different parts of the Russian Empire.
From the beginning of the twentieth century, Kargel began to be acknowledged as the most significant Russian evangelical theologian of his generation. Through his teaching at the Evangelical Christian Bible College in Saint Petersburg, through his preaching in many other places, and through his prolific writings, Kargel had an enormous influence on evangelicals in the Russian-speaking world in the first three decades of the twentieth century and beyond.
Kargel’s Desire for Evangelical Unity
Kargel followed the direction set by Pashkov, which was to seek to bring evangelicals in Russia together under the umbrella of an Evangelical Alliance, with denominational perspectives being played down. This approach can be termed “non-creedal,” in the sense that what was primary was experience of Christ rather than assent to written confessions of faith, although the Evangelical Alliance did have a basis of faith and Kargel penned the longest-lasting Confession of Faith used by Russian Baptists. The nurturing of genuine spiritual experience, regardless of denominational affiliation, became Kargel’s primary goal.
Kargel’s vision was that Russian evangelicals could unite around evangelical distinctives. The idea of broader unity was not accepted by all, however, and was emphatically rejected by Baptists. In the wake of failed attempts at unity, a group was organized that became known as the Evangelical Christian Union, the body of Russian believers with which Kargel identified for the remainder of his life.
Kargel’s Theological Emphasis
In his commentary on Romans, Kargel spoke of the need for Christians to live in the Spirit, not in the flesh. Either believers have full faith, which is demonstrated by new life in Christ, or they have a partial faith, which is demonstrated by the lack of change in their lives. Kargel believed that it was impossible to direct carnal Christians toward a life of submission to God. Christians operating by means of the flesh will, he argued, remain defeated until they are “co-crucified with the resurrected Christ.” This is classic Holiness theology.
While emphasizing the Spirit, Kargel was also determinedly Christological. The “image of the Son” is a critical key to understanding Kargel’s theology. Union with, and conformity to, Christ were central themes in much of Kargel’s writings, and this is indicative of a Keswick perspective.
Yet at the same time Kargel added his own perspectives. He wrote a great deal about suffering as integral to the holiness experience. He was sensitive to the sufferings in his own family, as well as in those around him. Thus, Kargel took the evangelical message and, in particular, a Keswick understanding of holiness, and adjusted it so that it would touch the needs of the Russian soul. He added unique ideas to the classic expressions of Keswick, most notably by placing primary emphasis on the role of suffering in the sanctification process.
After Ivan Kargel died in 1937, Bratsky Vestnik, the official journal of the All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (AUCEC-B), printed material written by him on a regular basis. Nearly 25 percent of all issues of Bratsky Vestnik published between its beginnings in 1945 and 1988 contained an article from or a reference to Kargel. In 1946, Alexander Karev, then General Secretary of the AUCEC-B, acknowledged Kargel as being a major influence in his spiritual formation. In 1955 Karev again acknowledged the spiritual effect of the life, writings, and lectures of Kargel on him and others, stating that Kargel was the central force that shaped Karev’s theological training and his understanding of Scripture.
In 1954, Jakob Zhidkov, then President of the AUCEC-B, spoke about the sermon preached by Ivan Kargel in 1902 that brought about his conversion. In 1972, Alexei M. Bychkov, then General Secretary of the AUCEC-B, stated that the writings of Kargel were some of the first spiritual works he read and were foundational in his understanding of the Christian faith.
In addition to Kargel’s continuing influence among Evangelical Christians-Baptists, the Pentecostal Union of Russia and Ukraine considers the writings and personal ministry of Kargel as an essential factor in the formation of their stream of Christianity. Theologian and missiologist Walter Sawatsky claims that among Reform Baptists in Russia (Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists), who broke away form the AUCEC-B in 1961, Kargel has been the most quoted author.
Ivan Kargel’s unique expression of evangelical spirituality, with a strong tendency toward the tenets of Holiness theology as found in Keswick teaching, shaped in a decisive way the spirituality of Russian-speaking evangelicals. Through the journeys that he undertook across the Russian Empire with Friedrich Baedeker, he became more and more committed to passing on a message about trust in Christ for full salvation—for justification as well as sanctification—and urging consecration to Christ, abiding in Christ, and the necessity of the filling and power of the Holy Spirit. He also underlined suffering as an integral part of the way of Christ-likeness. Here Kargel was taking the wider Holiness expression of spirituality and applying it to the context in which he found himself, involving restrictions on evangelicals, the banning of believers, war, revolution, and death. He concluded that suffering was at the core of authentic spirituality. Through his writings, he provided Russian-speaking evangelicals with a theological and spiritual perspective that was both deeply biblical and robustly experiential, and which allowed them to sustain their Christian communities within the anti-religious climate of a totalitarian state.♦
Edited excerpt reprinted with permission from Gregory L. Nichols, The Development of Russian Evangelical Spirituality: A Study of Ivan V. Kargel (1849-1937). Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications (https://wipfandstock.com/pickwick_publications), 2011.
Gregory L. Nichols teaches at the International Baptist Theological Seminary, Prague, Czech Republic.