Earlier this month, the LDS Newsroom published a reprint of U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson’s visit to Moscow’s Central Baptist Church in the midst of the cold war. According to an office memo from Grant Salisbury and Warren K. Leffler, the writer-reporter team who reported on this event:
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 chill, 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 worshipping 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.”1
As backdrop to this event, some 21 to 22 years previous, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics sought to eradicate the influence of religion in the country.
During these years [1937-1938] the authorities sought the “complete liquidation” (to use their own expression) of the last remaining members of the clergy. The census of January 1937 revealed that approximately 70 percent of the population, despite the pressures placed on them, still replied in the affirmative when asked “Are you a believer?” Hence Soviet leaders embarked on a third and decisive offensive against the church. In April 1937 Malenkov sent a note to Stalin suggesting that legislation concerning religious organizations was outdated, and he proposed the abrogation of the decree of 8 April 1929. “This decree,” he noted, “gave a legal basis for the most active sections of the churches and cults to create a whole organized network of individuals hostile to the Soviet regime.” He concluded: “The time has come to finish once and for all with all clerical organizations and ecclesiastical hierarchies.” Thousands of priests and nearly all the bishops were sent to camps, and this time the vast majority were executed. Of the 20,000 churches and mosques that were still active in 1936, fewer than 1,000 were still open for services at the beginning of 1941. In early 1941 the number of officially registered clerics of all religions had fallen to 5,665 (more than half of whom came from the Baltic territories, Poland, Moldavia, and western Ukraine, all of which had been incorporated in 1939-1941), from over 24,000 in 1936.2
- “U.S. News & World Report: A Church Service in Soviet Russia – October 26, 1959”. 5 June 2009. LDS Newsroom. 29 June 2009.↩
- Werth, Nicolas. “The Great Terror (1936-1938)”. The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression. Harvard, 1999. 200-201.↩