Robert P. Geraci and Michael Khodarkovsky, eds. Of Religion and Empire: Missions, Conversion, and Tolerance in Tsarist Russia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001. 356 pp. Reviewed by Sharyl Corrado
Robert Geraci and Michael Khodarkovsky have done the missions community a service by compiling in one volume 12 sketches on the history of missions and Christian ministry among non-Orthodox peoples of the Russian empire and early Soviet Union. Even more helpful, a common focus of the collected articles is the relationship of missionaries to the state, which remains a key issue today. A quick perusal of this volume, covering missions from Chechnia to Alaska, Buriatia to Uzbekistan, among Muslims, animists, Buddhists, Catholics, Jews, and Orthodox dissenters, will quickly dissolve Westerners' common tendency to proclaim their ministry the first in a region or among a certain people. Yet as well as the diversity of locations and people-groups targeted, even more striking, perhaps, is the range of methodologies applied, including both Russian and native-language education, medical and humanitarian ministries, public and private debates, financial and material rewards, and even occasional imprisonment for refusal to comply.
Of interest to Evangelicals will be the work of Professor Nikolai Il'minskii, of Kazan Theological Academy, and Bishop Ivan Veniaminov, who served nearly 50 years among the Alaskan Aleuts (1821-1867) before becoming Metropolitan of Moscow. Il'minskii, who taught at the Kazan Theological Seminary from 1846 to 1870 and worked with the Russian Ministry of Education until his death in 1891, was a pioneer in the use of native-language education, translation of the Bible and Christian literature into minority languages, Orthodox use of the vernacular rather than literary languages in reaching minorities, and the training of non-Russian clergy and missionary personnel. Taking the unprecedented step of moving into the Tatar quarter of Kazan to improve his language skills, Il'minskii throughout his life treated Christian Tatars as his children, devoting his life to their spiritual wellbeing. His schools for baptized Tatars, training children in the faith from a young age, soon became a model adopted throughout the empire.
Fr. Veniaminov, a charismatic priest, accomplished scholar, and wise politician, was innovative and controversial in his adaptation of Russian Orthodoxy to meet the needs of his non-Russian flock. Combining Orthodox theology with Enlightenment rationalism, Veniaminov strove to first gain the trust of those he served, learning from them about their own religious faith and practices, and only later telling them his story. Only after significant time had elapsed were natives offered the sacrament of baptism. Concerned about the physical health of Native Americans, he refused to enforce the Lenten fast among a people whose diet consisted almost exclusively of meat and refused to criticize too harshly the polygamy prevalent among the small populations of native peoples. His efforts were rewarded when his flock remained faithful after the sale of Alaska to the United States and the influx of large numbers of well-funded Presbyterians.
For those wishing to delve deeper into the methods of Il'minskii and Orthodox missions among Muslims and animists in European Russia, two contributors to this volume have recently published relevant monographs as well. Robert Geraci's Window to the East (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001) examines in detail the ministries of Il'minskii as well as his opponents, working among Christian and Muslim Tatars in the Kazan region. And Paul Werth's At the Margins of Orthodoxy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002) focuses on the obstacles faced by missionaries, including resistance and recurrent apostasy as well as the challenges of success. In addition, selected articles in Russia's Orient, edited by Daniel R.Brower and Edward J. Lazzerini (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), explore the difficult relationship of religion to ethnic identity, attempts (and failures) by the state to use religion for political gain, and methods of resistance by which natives strengthened their old faith despite pressure to convert. For those wishing to learn from the past, familiarity with the issues described in all four works could prove of immense value to those ministering among the native peoples of the former Russian Empire today.
Sharyl Corrado is a doctoral candidate in Russian history at the University of Illinois, Urbana, IL.
Book Review, East-West Church & Ministry Report 11 (Fall 2003), 14.
Written permission is required for reprinting or electronic distribution of any portion of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.
© 2003 East-West Church and Ministry Report