Nichols, Gregory L. The Development of Russian Evangelical Spirituality: A Study of Ivan V. Kargel (1849-1937). Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2011. Bibliography. Index. xiv, 382 pp. Paper
This stimulating book traces the roots of a distinctive Russian evangelical spiritual tradition through a study of the life and thought of that tradition’s most important spiritual writer of the early twentieth century, Ivan (Johann) Kargel. Although he is little known abroad, Kargel’s legacy continued to shape Soviet evangelicalism long after his death in 1937: in 1966, the All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists adopted his 1913 Confession of Faith as its official doctrinal statement; moreover, between 1945 and 1988, almost a quarter of all issues of the AUCEC-B’s journal, Bratskii vestnik, included an article by or made reference to Kargel. Gregory Nichols argues that Kargel drew on various influences—the German Baptists, the pietist revival among the Mennonites, and the British Holiness movement—to weave together a spirituality that stressed sanctification through “abiding in Christ”, that emphasized the power of the Holy Spirit, and that called on believers to follow Christ on the pathway of suffering.
Nichols takes a primarily biographical approach, following Kargel from his birth into a German-speaking family in the Caucasus region in 1849, his conversion to the Baptist faith in 1869, his early life as a pastor and brief training at the Hamburg Mission School in 1874, and his move to St. Petersburg to lead the German Baptist congregation there. Kargel’s five years in the capital coincided with the emergence of the “drawing room revival” centered at the home of Colonel Vasilii Pashkov and his wife Anna. They had been influenced by the ideas of the Open Brethren movement, which preached a simple form of worship in which believers met for the Lord’s Supper without clerical leadership and which emphasized “living by faith,” through the influence of British evangelist Lord Radstock. With Pashkov’s moral and financial support, Kargel would spend the next 20 years in mission in Bulgaria, St. Petersburg, and across the Russian Empire.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book is Nichols’s use of letters from Ivan and Anna Kargel to Pashkov and his wife. This voluminous correspondence is an essential source for the history of early evangelicalism in Russia, but one that has been barely utilized—in part because of the challenge of deciphering the old German script that Kargel used. These letters provide us with a vivid sketch of the emerging evangelical movement in Eastern Europe. They also offer insight into Kargel’s spiritual development away from a narrowly Baptist perspective to embrace the non-denominational evangelical vision of Pashkov. Nichols makes especially effective use of Anna Kargel’s letters to reveal this transformation and her critical influence, as an ethnic Russian Pashkovite, in steering Kargel towards a new spirituality and ministry that crossed ethnic and denominational lines. Finally, Nichols’s careful analysis of the language of the letters allows him to demonstrate the increasing influence of the Holiness spirituality of the Brethren and the Keswick movement on Kargel’s thought.
Nichols’s detailed analysis of Kargel’s classic book, Christ—Our Sanctification, and his commentary on chapters five to eight of Romans constitutes the other highlight. In these works, written late in his life, Kargel developed his seminal teaching on sanctification by faith and sanctification as the fulfillment of salvation. Using D. W. Bebbington’s characterization of Keswick spirituality as a framework, Nichols reveals a remarkable congruence with the emphases of the Keswick movement, acquired through reading and contact with the missionary Friedrich Baedeker and others. As a result of this influence, he came to hold premillennial views, which were far from universally accepted within the Russian Baptist and Evangelical Christian milieu. But he also developed distinctive themes that would remain part of Russian evangelical spirituality, most particularly the central place of suffering in the life of the believer and its direct relationship to “Christ-likeness.” Similarly, Nichols shows that Kargel’s approach to the question of election reveals the neither purely Calvinist nor Arminian attitude that has remained typical among Russian evangelicals.
Throughout the book, Kargel remains somewhat elusive as a person. This is especially the case in the later chapters, once the correspondence with Pashkov ended. Where Nichols excels is in the close analysis of texts; the broader historical context is often hurriedly sketched, with details and chronology sometimes confused. Yet, for example, the legal environment in post-1905 Russia, with its registration system for religious groups, would seem important to understanding the failure of the informal Brethren ecclesial model and Kargel’s eventual move into the Evangelical Christian fold. In his conclusion, Nichols suggests that future areas of research include the Orthodox and Molokan influences on evangelical thought. I would certainly encourage him to pursue these avenues, for his evidence leaves the reader curious about precisely these aspects. At present, Nichols’s portrayal of Molokanism, whose potential impact is great given that so many influential ethnic Russian leaders began life as Molokans, is often rather hazy and often inaccurate. And none of the extensive recent research that has been transforming our view of the relationship between the Orthodox Church and the laity and about lay piety and knowledge in the late imperial period is reflected in his references to the broadly Orthodox context in which the evangelical movement operated. Clearly, Kargel had little intimate knowledge of Orthodoxy. Yet Nichols offers suggestive evidence that leads the reader to wonder how his thinking may have developed in dialogue with believers emerging from the Orthodox tradition—for example, the parallels between Orthodox deification and Kargel’s key theme of sanctification as a transformation into the image of Christ (which Nichols acknowledges) or the emphasis on suffering, which seems to reflect an important strain in Russian Orthodox spirituality as well.
These quibbles aside, Nichols has made a major contribution to our knowledge of early evangelicalism in the Russian Empire and the origins of the religious identity and understanding of Christian spirituality that remain current among Russian-speaking evangelicals today.F
Heather J. Coleman, Canada Research Chair and Associate Professor of Imperial Russian History, University of Alberta, Calgary, Alberta