East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 4, No. 3, Summer 1996, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe

Russian Evangelical Roots

Mark Elliott, editor

The nineteenth century Russian writer Nikolai Leskov deserves to be better known in the West, especially among Evangelicals.  His Cathedral Folk (1872) is considered perhaps the most sympathetic portrait of Russian Orthodoxy by a major Russian writer--in a century that witnessed an ever-widening chasm between the intelligentsia and the church.  While his later writings took sharper and sharper jabs at church hierarchs, Leskov continued to draw sympathetic portraits of ordinary Orthodox faithful.  Like no other Russian writer Leskov also explored the world of Russian religious dissent:  both Old Believers and new Evangelicals.

Few today realize what a sensation Evangelical preaching produced among St. Petersburg aristocrats in the 1870s.  Despite severe official persecution the seeds planted in a few brief visits by the English evangelist Lord Radstock grew into one of Russia's largest Protestant denominations, the Evangelical Christians, which merged with the Baptists in 1944.

Leskov wrote extensively and repeatedly about this Protestant phenomenon in fiction and in journalistic reporting.  Nowhere did he go to greater lengths to explain "Radstockism" than in his 1877 work, Schism in High Society, a book-length response to what he considered to be undeserved criticism of Russian Protestantism.

We are in the debt of James Muckle for this first-ever translation into English of Leskov's account of Lord Radstock and his followers.  Former senior lecturer at the University of Nottingham, Professor Muckle is also the author of the most comprehensive treatment of Leskov's complex relationship with Evangelicals:  Nikolai Leskov and the "Spirit of Protestantism" (Birmingham:  Birmingham Slavonic Monographs, 1978).

Paradoxically, while Schism was intended as a defense of Evangelicals, in fact it vacillates constantly between principled toleration and admiration on the one hand, and caustic caricature of Radstock and his disciples on the other.  For Leskov the British lord is at once straightforward, powerful, attractive, and sincere, and narrow, fanatical, ponderous, and dull.  Leskov even manages a compliment and a criticism in a single sentence:  comparing Radstock to Cervantes's well-meaning simpleton:  "This Don Quixote of preaching carries away with him all the sympathy due from a good heart."

But Leskov's ambivalence applies to Orthodoxy as well.  In his closing defense of Radstock's followers, for example, he questions, "How can sinners like us reproach those of our brethren who...have preferred a rather imperfect movement [Evangelicalism] to a fully perfect one in stagnation [Orthodoxy]?"  Both in his Orthodox-like rejection of Protestant justification by faith and in his scathing indictment of Orthodox intolerance and "ecclesiastical decomposition," Leskov strikes chords on both sides of the contemporary Orthodox-Evangelical conflict.

In spite of Leskov's on-again, off-again treatment of his subject, Schism in High Society is still an inspiring account of a dedicated evangelist.  It also is a document of great value for the history of Russian Evangelicalism, including two sermons by Lord Radstock, a wealth of helpful notes, and a useful bibliography by the translator.  This short 117-page book deserves wide reading by those who would understand Russian Evangelicalism, past and present, and the nature of Orthodox-Evangelical tensions today.

Note:  Schism in High Society:  Lord Radstock and His Followers (1995) is available in hardcover ($30) and paper ($19.95) from Bramcote Press, 5804 NE Hassalo St., Portland, OR 97213-3644; tel:  503-287-3093; 800-944-6190; fax:  503-280-8832; e-mail:  jeffk@isbs.com.

Mark Elliott, "Russian Evangelical Roots," East-West Church & Ministry Report, 4 (Summer 1996), 12.

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© 1996 Institute for East-West Christian Studies
ISSN 1069-5664

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