Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » An Apostle’s Testimony in Soviet Russia, 1959
 


An Apostle’s Testimony in Soviet Russia, 1959

By: Grant Salisbury and Warren K. Leffler - July 03, 2008

An office memo from Grant Salisbury and Warren K. Leffler, the writer-photographer team for “U.S. News & World Report” that accompanied Secretary of Agriculture Ezra T. Benson to Russia.

The night we left Moscow to fly down to Kiev, Secretary Benson literally took us to church.

Many of the reporters laughed about it on the way, because Mr. Benson, who is a leading Mormon, had arranged for us earlier to attend a service at the Latter-Day Saints Church in West Berlin, but all the newsmen found one excuse or another for not going. In Moscow, we had no choice because the cars picked us up at the hotel and stopped at the church on the way to the airport. It was around 7:30 o’clock on the chilly, rainy evening of October 1.

As the cavalcade of cars arrived at the Central Baptist Church, on a narrow side street not far from Red Square, somebody wisecracked, “Well, boys, you’re going to get to church whether you like it or not.”

It turned out to be one of the most moving experiences in the lifetime of many of us. One newsman, a former marine, ranked it with the sight of the American flag rising over the old American compound in Tientsin, China, at the end of World War II.The small church was packed, with people standing wherever they could find room.

Secretary Benson and his family were ushered to the rostrum. After a hymn, sung beautifully by the congregation, Mr. Benson began to talk, drawing on his experiences as one of the leaders of the Mormon Church in America. Watching the Russian congregation, you could see tears welling up in the eyes of people as the Secretary’s words were relayed to them through a translator.

“It was very kind of your minister to ask me to extend greetings to you,” Mr. Benson began. “I bring you greetings from the millions and millions of church people in America and around the world.”

A soft, fervent “amen” came from the congregation. The Secretary continued, “Our Heavenly father is not far away. He can be very close to us. I know that God lives. He is our Father. Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of the World, watches over this earth. He will direct all things. Be unafraid, keep His commandments, love one another, pray for peace and all will be well.”

By now there was scarcely a dry eye in the church. Even the few young people were weeping openly.

“This life is only a part of eternity,” Mr. Benson went on. “We lived before we came here as spiritual children of God. We will live again after we leave this life. Christ broke the bonds of death and was resurrected. We will all be resurrected.”

At the mention of the promise of life hereafter, muffled sobs could be heard in the small church. These people, after all, were sacrificing their chances of participating in the gains of the Communist society of Russia. Though worshiping God no longer is forbidden in the Soviet Union, those who do so usually find themselves cut off from advancement.

Communism in Russia remains avowedly atheistic. In Moscow there is one other Baptist church; there are 23 Greek Orthodox churches, two synagogues and one Moslem temple. In a city of 5.4 million people, it’s a comparatively tiny crack in the godless society. The dedicated Communists, when talking to visitors about religion, usually claim that those Russians who do go to the few churches in the city do so out of curiosity – much as they would visit a museum – and not because of their devotion.

“I leave you my witness as a church servant for many years that the truth will endure,” Mr. Benson concluded. “Time is always on our side. God bless you and keep you all the days of your life, I pray in the name of Jesus Christ.”

As the Secretary returned to his seat the congregation broke into the familiar hymn, “God Be With You Till We Meet Again.” They were still singing and waving their handkerchiefs as we followed Mr. Benson out of the church. All the way along the crowded aisle, hands were outstretched to shake our hands.

On the drive to the airport one of the interpreters – a young Russian girl who has never known any life save that under Communism – said, “I felt like crying.”

[“A Church Service in Soviet Russia,” U.S. News & World Report 47:17 (Oct. 26, 1959), p. 76-77]



26 Comments »

  1. There was a branch with Russian members in Moscow in 1959? Who knew?

    Another great find.

    Comment by Last Lemming — July 3, 2008 @ 8:21 am

  2. (This was at the Central *Baptist* Church in Moscow.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 3, 2008 @ 9:19 am

  3. One of things that stands out to me in this account is how much the Christian churches have in common. Sometimes we get caught up in the who’s rightest fight and we can lose sight of the big picture. We’re all God’s children, Jesus is our Savior, and this life is just a blip in eternity.

    The freedom we have to worship is astounding when compared to some societies. I give that freedom lip-service once a year, but it has been a lifelong blessing for me and I don’t think I’m grateful enough.

    Comment by Jami — July 3, 2008 @ 11:18 am

  4. The things we take for granted . . . and turn into arguments . . .

    Thanks for the moment this story gave me, Ardis.

    Comment by Ray — July 3, 2008 @ 3:28 pm

  5. Re: Last Lemming in #1, it wasn’t obvious to me either if it was a LDS group (since very often LDS congregations in developing areas meet in other churches or rented spaces), until Benson said their minister invited him.

    Re: Jami in #3
    Probably the greatest growth from my mission in the bible-belt was the commonality I found with other Christians. I read “Believing Christ” and realized Jesus was the whole point and the best part of the gospel. That was a message people liked to talk about and I learned so much from their faith.

    Comment by Rich JJ — July 3, 2008 @ 4:21 pm

  6. Thanks, Ardis. One mostly hears about extreme or offensive things Benson said while he was in government, but this is beautiful.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — July 3, 2008 @ 11:38 pm

  7. Thank you, all, for reading and taking time to comment. I think the contrast that Jonathan notes is what moved me the most — ETB is so very apostolic here. His few lines are the essence of the gospel, stripped of programs and handbooks and commandments and history and proclamations and guides to righteous living. It is the testimony of an apostle who knows, who has a single moment to leave a blessing in the middle of a 70-year drought. He spoke as a special witness to Christ.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 4, 2008 @ 12:12 am

  8. Okay – clear something up for me (perhaps I didn’t read clearly enough)-

    it was in the Baptist church, but was an LDS branch using the Baptist church for services, or did Benson speak at a Baptist service in Moscow?

    I ask, because I’ve known small, struggling branches of the church to rent/borrow space from other churches until they could build their own buildings, but from the article I couldn’t tell whether this was that or just a Baptist service that was friendly to Benson.

    Comment by Ivan Wolfe — July 4, 2008 @ 1:48 pm

  9. This was a Baptist church service (there were no LDS branches in the Soviet Union in 1959). Some of the confusion may be because the congregation sang “God Be With You Till We Meet Again” — that is a hymn familiar to the wider Christian community, not only to us. I don’t know who arranged the visit, but I suspect the invitation was extended or accepted because ETB was a visiting American government official, not because he was a church figure of some kind, much less an LDS apostle.

    Remember, this is three years before the Cuban Missile Crisis, at the height of the Cold War, where there was a real possibility — an expectation, even — that the US and USSR were going to annihilate each other with nuclear weapons. This is also three years after Nikita Khrushchev declared “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you” (Нравится вам или нет, но история на нашей стороне. Мы вас похороним) — to which ETB alluded in 1959.

    I should perhaps add a prologue to this post explaining the conditions under which the speech was given. It may not be too much of a stretch to say that an apostle speaking to a religious gathering in Moscow in 1959 was as unimaginable as it would have been for Heber J. Grant to go to the Berlin Olympics in 1936 and preach that less than 15 years later, the Jews would be in possession of a recognized nation of Israel. (Let me stress that HJG did no such thing — I mean only that ETB testifying in Moscow was no less extraordinary than that would have been.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 4, 2008 @ 2:14 pm

  10. This timeline concerning LDS activity in the former Soviet Union may help you understand the total absence of LDS members in Russia in 1959. It would be 30 years almost to the day — a full generation later — before the Berlin Wall came down, signalling the glimmer of a possibility of sending missionaries behind the Iron Curtain. Missionaries entered Russia for the first time in January 1990.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 4, 2008 @ 2:23 pm

  11. Okay, that makes sense. I caught the reference to “minister” but thought that might be Salisbury and Leffler’s mistake (paraphrasing Benson’s remarks from memory), as I’ve (on occasion) heard non-members attending church refer to our Bishops and ministers.

    But now I know the rest of the story. Thanks!

    Comment by Ivan Wolfe — July 5, 2008 @ 10:13 am

  12. “It may not be too much of a stretch to say that an apostle speaking to a religious gathering in Moscow in 1959 was as unimaginable as it would have been for Heber J. Grant to go to the Berlin Olympics in 1936 and preach that less than 15 years later, the Jews would be in possession of a recognized nation of Israel. (Let me stress that HJG did no such thing — I mean only that ETB testifying in Moscow was no less extraordinary than that would have been.)”

    Urgh, bad comparison. To the best of my knowledge, Russian Christians in 1990 hadn’t systematically ethnically cleansed 80% of all atheist Russians from the country and declared it God’s will and an act of supreme righteousness.

    But I digress on a tangent. I too found this statement by then-Apostle Benson incredibly moving and a real example of him using his mantle for supreme good.

    Comment by Non-Arab Arab — July 5, 2008 @ 6:24 pm

  13. I don’t know what you mean, NAA — by 1959, atheist Soviets pretty much *had* systematically destroyed religion throughout the USSR, imprisoning Christians, impounding virtually all church property, melting down all but one set of Orthodox bells, confiscating Bibles and prohibiting the importation of others, removing icons, criminalizing the teaching of religion, removing children from religious parents, and doing in every other way everything they could do to annihilate faith.

    (I’m getting very strong indications that many bloggernaclers have zero awareness of what life was like in the Soviet Union insofar as religion was concerned. This is alarming.)

    But I’m glad you appreciated ETB’s statement.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 5, 2008 @ 6:54 pm

  14. “I’m getting very strong indications that many bloggernaclers have zero awareness of what life was like in the Soviet Union insofar as religion was concerned. This is alarming.”

    Ardis, this is true of Americans (and people almost everywhere else) in general. Few people realize how systematically and brutally Christianity was suppressed in Russia.

    Comment by Ray — July 5, 2008 @ 7:54 pm

  15. I think it’s not just the Soviet suppression of religion – quite a few Americans don’t realize just how bad it was in general under the Soviet Union.

    I’m hardly and expert, and doubt I have anywhere near a full picture, but I’ve read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago, as well as a few general histories.

    Yet, when it comes up with my students, they mostly shrug – “I thought all that stuff about the USSR being horrible and repressive was just US propoganda. I’m sure things were probably just fine and most people enjoyed living there” or “I bet Stalin wasn’t so bad. Those rumors about his mass killings are likely government lies to make excuses for military spending.”

    Even among my own peer group (graduate students), I find similar attitudes.

    Comment by Ivan Wolfe — July 6, 2008 @ 10:14 am

  16. Ardis, I was actually talking the other way around as that is what the comparison to Israel suggested. In a hypothetical world where if after the collapse of communism the underground Russian Christian minority had emerged to slaughter and ethnically cleanse the vast majority of Russians who were atheist, would we talk of that approvingly? The evil treatment Christians received under Communism would of course never justify such an evil counter-action. Nothing of the sort happened in Russia of course I know. That is however the founding story of the state of Israel – a group of fanatics who slaughtered and ethnically cleansed the vast majority of the population of the country and then have gone on to demand the world claim it was a righteous action and to claim that their now institutionalized extreme fanaticism is somehow now the acceptable moderate middle ground.

    Per Russia though, don’t worry, I am fully aware of the brutality in the suppression of religion in the Soviet Union. While living in Jerusalem in the mid-90s, I was given a gift of a book of stories of Russia’s “new” martyrs under the Communist reigns of terror by a group of Orthodox nuns (is that the right term in Russian Orthodoxy?) from a White Russian convent. Besides for my own study of history, their vehemence certainly ensured I remain aware of the dire situation Christians behind the Iron Curtain lived and died under.

    Comment by Non-Arab Arab — July 6, 2008 @ 2:56 pm

  17. Non-Arab Arab, I really try to be hospitable here at Keepapitchinin — however, I will not provide a platform for any guest’s off-topic, private political agendas, which is what I consider your comment to be. My comment did not pair Isrealis with Arabs nor express any approval of murder or other non-Christian behavior, or make any statement about Middle Eastern controversies. My comment paired the annihilation of Jews under Nazism with the suppression of Christianity within the Soviet Union — on-topic, and expressive of disapproval of oppression, murder, and everything both regimes stood for.

    You are welcome to read and comment in the spirit of articles posted here, but no further commentary on your pet topic will be permitted.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 6, 2008 @ 3:46 pm

  18. Ardis, thanks for this vignette from the ministry of Apostle Benson. Although my understanding is far from perfect about life behind the Iron Curtain, some of my own experiences have given me perhaps more insight than most people, and on that background, this testimony of ETB was very moving.

    Comment by john f. — July 7, 2008 @ 4:56 am

  19. I add my thanks to the others that appreciated this story of then-Elder Benson. It is also appropriate to remember that the Berlin Wall came down and missionaries entered the Russia during President Benson’s administration as president of the Church.

    Comment by David R — July 8, 2008 @ 1:00 pm

  20. This is a great story. ETB really threw it down.

    Like #15 I have encountered many people in academia who consider negative stories about the defunct Soviet Union to be merely US propoganda aimed at bolstering US civilian support for the Cold War.

    #19 hear hear

    Comment by bbell — July 8, 2008 @ 1:44 pm

  21. [...] At KPI, Elder Benson’s finest hour. [...]

    Pingback by Posts You Might Have Missed 3 | Times & Seasons — January 19, 2009 @ 3:24 pm

  22. Ardis, Thanks for posting this story. I appreciate finding and reading stories like this one that gently remind me there is someone (HF and His Son) in charge and all will be well no matter what earthly business is going on at any time. Focusing on Eternity is so hard to do. These reminders are precious indeed.

    Comment by Cliff — June 11, 2014 @ 11:47 am

  23. I heard this story first hand from Elder Benson’s daughter, Bonnie, who accompanied him on this trip. There is a bit more she told than is here printed, but I know for a certainty that everything written about the experience was true. He also had his wife along with him. Though the reporters were very reluctant to go with him they all had their lives touched for good.

    Comment by Geraldine Walters — June 17, 2014 @ 3:10 pm

  24. Just got off the phone with my 96 year old father who was the author of this article. I was only 7 when he went to Russia and don’t remember him mentioning this incident. When I asked him about it tonight he remembered it and said he could “still see Ezra up in the pulpit.” He also remembered without prompting that Mr Benson was not allowed to speak in West Berlin. He said he thought Benson’s visit to the church was prearranged and that Mr Benson “preached a mini sermon”. My family is delighted you reprinted the article as otherwise we never would have realized its existence.

    Comment by Tod Salisbury — October 6, 2014 @ 6:26 pm

  25. What an absolutely unexpected and wonderful comment, Tod. I’m glad you found this post, and took the time to talk to your father and tell us about it. Your father’s account has been mentioned more than once in the local newspaper, within my memory. He captured something about this speech that is very dear to Mormons and the role of an apostle. Thank you, and thank your father for me, please.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 6, 2014 @ 6:46 pm

  26. In 1959 I was still studying to gain a formal education. I was deeply moved by this event when I first heard of it. High School World Problems classes were reminding us of the art of “pounding shoes on desk-tops in the middle of new conferences.” I felt, even more deeply, that this had powerful and compelling meaning for me. Imagine 52 years later, October 1, 2011, 7:30 PM Moscow time, when a group of Senior Couple Missionaries, my wife, Dori, and I, all assigned to the Russia Moscow Mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, received a tour of this “The Old Baptist” Church and recalled Elder Benson’s visit on 1959. A beautiful stained-glass-window, directly behind and slightly raised above the elevated podium displays the Russian Language words, “GOD IS LOVE!”

    Comment by John Earl Carpenter — October 20, 2014 @ 1:45 pm

Leave a comment

RSS feed for comments on this post.
TrackBack URI