Ways of Russian Theology

The Russian Bible Society

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The Russian Bible Society.

The second decade of the nineteenth century is the decade of the Bible Society. The Russian Bible Society served as a largely autonomous branch of the British and Foreign Bible Society, founded only in 1804. Agents of the British Society inspired and actively assisted the opening of the Russian branch, and the British design and ideology achieved complete acceptance. 79

The Russian Bible Society's statute received confirmation on 6 December 1812. Its first general meeting took place on 11 January 1813, with Prince Golitsyn, then Over Procurator of the Synod and later minister for the combined ministry, elected as president. In practice, the Russian Bible Society developed into a second, and less official, facet of the department of religious affairs and became the double of the combined ministry. Opened initially as the St. Petersburg Bible Society, its name was changed to the Russian Bible Society in September, 1814. At first the Society limited its work to the distribution of Bibles among foreigners and the non-Orthodox, “leaving inviolable the publication of the Holy Scriptures in Slavic for those who confess the Greco-Russian faith; [such publication] belongs particularly and exclusively to the department of the Holy Synod.” But by 1814, the Society had taken upon itself the publication and distribution of the Slavic Bible, especially the New Testament. Bishops and other clergy, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox, were included in the Bible Society as vice presidents and directors simultaneously with the formation of the Society's advisory board, which had heretofore included only laymen. Even the Roman Catholic Metropolitan Stanislaw Siestrzencewicz-Bohusz joined. 80 At the beginning of 1816, the Society decided to publish a Russian Bible.

All Bible societies (in Russia as much as in Britain) saw as their task the “placing into wider use” of the Word of God, even in older or unfamiliar editions, so that each person might experience its redemptive power and thereby acquire an immediate knowledge of God “as Holy Scripture reveals Him.” Such an aim combined with the strict rule that the sacred books be published “without notes or comments” in order to avoid any human, and therefore partial, interpretation, which might obscure the universal, manifoldly profound, inexhaustible, and infinite Word of God. Underlying such beliefs is the theory of “mute” signs and the “living Teacher, who abides in the heart.” The Society of Friends, that is, the Quakers, constituted the most decisive influence in the formation of the Bible Society's ideology. During the early years, Russian and English proponents of Biblical work maintained intimate and active cooperation. The expeditions by British missionaries into the non-Christian regions of the empire are particularly noteworthy. An English mission traveled to the trans-Baikal region in order to convert the Buriats, while a Scottish missionary colony sent by the Edinburg Missionary Society settled in Karras on the Caucasian frontier.

The Society's activities expanded rapidly and met with considerable success, for a network of branch societies soon extended throughout the empire. Within a decade, the Bible had been published (or acquired) in forty-three languages and dialects, totaling 704, 831 copies. This achievement largely depended on state support and often on state initiative. In contrast to its British counterpart, the Russian Bible Society was not the work of society, nor did it enjoy either society's sympathy or support. Progress came through government support and directives: the “Good News” was frequently transmitted by decree. A zeal for the Word of God and a desire to enlighten those sitting in the shadow of death became manifest everywhere.

Governors began making speeches which perfectly resembled sermons; police commissioners, elected heads of municipalities, and heads of district police ably disseminated Holy Scriptures and reported on their efforts to the state administration in pious letters liberally punctuated with Biblical citations. The entire affair contained a good amount of noisy bureaucratic unctuousness and presented a deceptive bureaucratic facade (a new version of the “Potemkin village”).81 For all practical purposes, the Bible Society became a special government “department” and perfected its own form of sticky, unpleasant bureaucratic-Biblical hypocrisy. However, these darker sides should not be exaggerated, for the constructive results of this Biblical work are no less evident and worthy.

A host of other “philanthropical” enterprises quickly became associated with the Bible Society. Although partially modelled on the English pattern, these charitable works were necessary and vital. The publishing activities of Princess S. S. Meshcherskaia 82 require special mention. She adapted or translated brochures and pamphlets for popular reading printed by the Religious Tract Society, founded in 1799.83 One can question how understandable or appropriate such brochures “composed by a certain devout lady” were for the “simple people” (although some original material did get published, including excerpts from St. Tikhon's writings and from the sermons of Metropolitan Mikhail Desnitskii). 84 But the cardinal importance of this enterprise can hardly be disputed. Much the same can be said for the schools established on the “Lancaster system.” 85 Still more important was the creation of the Imperial Philanthropical Society and work among prisoners, such as that done by John Venning, a member of the London Prison Society, who had founded a similar society in St. Petersburg in 1819. 86

These phenomena all derived from a single impulse coming from England. This wave of Anglo-Saxon Nonconformity mingled with that of German pietism and older mystical freemasonry. Among the former Masonic leaders, Koshelev, Karneev, Labzin, and Lenivtsev now assiduously applied themselves to the work of the Bible Society. This group was represented in the Society's Moscow branch by Bantysh-Kamenskii, 87 that “lay monk and secular bishop” in Vigel's clever definition. His description perhaps even more fully applies to Prince Golitsyn, since Golitsyn considered himself to be a “secular bishop” and hence the more distinguished by that fact. In any case, Labzin's publishing activities harmonized with the work of the Bible Society and frequently his publications were distributed through the usual Bible Society channels, with the result that his books might be accepted readily and naturally as those of the Society itself. The fact that the head of the Postal Department also served as president of the Bible Society and as minister of the combined ministry, and that only a rare bureaucrat in the Postal Department did not belong to (or had not been at least enrolled in) a lodge or branch of the Bible Society, greatly aided the distribution of these books.

The publication of mystical books by prominent members of the Bible Society cast a fatal shadow on the Society's work on the Bible. There were sufficient grounds to regard the Bible Society as something more or other than what it claimed to be. Very many people with extreme views or with scarcely concealed hopes and intentions belonged to the Society, often in leading and responsible positions or roles. By statute and design the Bible Society was to embrace all confessions, so that all “confessions” might be represented in the Society as equally possessed by the sanctity of God's Word. In fact, the Bible Society became something like a new confession or sect (at least psychologically) with the peculiarly esoteric and exalted cast of mind of a “circle.” Sturdza 88 somewhat justifiably called the Bible Society “exotic” and labeled it “the Anglo-Russian sect.” Many of the prominent members of the Bible Society, notably its secretary V. M. Popov, 89 participated in Madame Tatarinova's circle or “spiritual alliance.” 90 Very often religious toleration and the principle of equality of all confessions became metamorphosed as patronage for sectarians, especially for the Dukhobors and Molokans, but even for the Skoptsy. 91 Mystical books, particularly Jung-Stilling and Eckartshausen, found ready acceptance in this milieu. 92 In any case, “formal church life” was very often denounced with the expectation that such “worn out altar cloths” might be cut away, thereby revealing a true and inner Christianity. One can read Jung-Stilling on the “absurd and superstitious blindness of those who profess the Eastern Greek-Catholic confession, which must be driven out with the light of the Divine book.”

One feature of this administrative intrusion into Biblical under takings could not fail to become irritating: government policies did not include open discussion about work on the Bible. Thus, the government had itself to blame if many people formed the impression that the government was preparing a supraconfessional revolution protected by administrative censorship and police sanctions, and that consent to such a revolution would be extorted and made compulsory. The stormy hostility with which the authorities greeted the rare attempts to voice criticism could only deepen suspicions. A typical affair is that involving Innokentii Smirnov (1784-1819), then archimandrite and rector of the St. Petersburg Seminary. Innokentii, who joined the Bible Society and became a director in 1815, served on the translation committee. (Even after his exile to Penza, Innokentii recommended to the Society that the Bible be translated into Moldavian).

A sincere and strong friendship bound him to the Princess Meshcherskaia. A man of warm piety and rigorous spirituality, he loved pilgrims and “fools for Christ's sake” [iurodivye] . The spirit of pretentious equality of all confessions which so greatly animated Labzin and Golitsyn served only to confuse Innokentii. Toward the end of 1818, Innokentii, in his capacity as ecclesiastical censor, approved for publication a book by Evstafii Stanevich, A Conversation on the Immortality of the Soul at the Grave of an Infant [Razgovor o bezsmertii dush nad grobom mladentsa] . A Greek by birth, Stanevich had been educated in Russia and become fully Russified. He also fanatically adhered to Shishkov 93 and belonged to Beseda [Gathering]. 94 At the same time, he admired Edward Young 95 and other English writers. As Sturdza noted, his book was an “ineffectual work, but harmless.” The book's stinging criticism consisted in its frank condemnation of the ideas expressed in such works as Messenger of Zion and in the book's hints about the combined ministry's ulterior aims. Filaret later recalled that Stanevich's book “contained many remarks greatly offensive to the governing authorities and to the spirit of the times in general.” Hence, Filaret cautioned Innokentii against permitting the book's publication. Innokentii ignored him and accepted Filaret's warning as a challenge.

Through an imperial directive hastily obtained by Golitsyn, Stanevich's book was banned and removed from circulation; within twenty-four hours the author was exiled from the capital. Curiously, not only did a second imperial directive free Stanevich from arrest in 1825, but that fact was mentioned in the second edition of his book. Despite Metropolitan Mikhail's 96 intercession, Innokentii was given an honorable exile from St. Petersburg at the first favorable moment. This was done without the knowledge of the Synod through Golitsyn's personal recommendation that Innokentii be appointed to the vacant diocese in Orenburg. Only with great difficulty could this appointment be redesignated to Penza. A few months later, Innokentii died from nervous strain and bitter anxiety. The points Golitsyn enumerates in his condemnation of Stanevich's book are most instructive. “To the discussion of the immortality of the soul is appended a defense of the Eastern Church, before anyone has attacked it, and if such an attack should occur, it is not for a private individual to take that defense upon himself. Lacking a correct understanding, the author does not sense that minds may become uneasy that the Church is in danger.” Of course, Stanevich composed his book precisely in order to awaken such a fear. “He asks who is more correct,” St. John Chrysostom or St. Augustine, and gives preference to Chrysostom only because he belongs to the Eastern Church, although hierarchs, frequently cite Augustine in their sermons and writings.” Even more characteristic is the following: The author denigrates those books which the civil censors has approved; for example, the works of Dutoit, 97 specifically his Philosophie Chretienne, and he even expresses' the fear that the Philosophie divine might be published, when in fact it has been printed in Russian and at Your Majesty's expense.

And finally, “under the pretense of defending the outer church, he attacks the inner one, that is, he wishes to separate body and soul.” Hence the conclusion that, “In a word, this book fully contradicts the principles which guide our Christian government in its civil and ecclesiastical parts.” While affirming Golitsyn's petition, the Emperor expressed the hope “that henceforth the Commission on Ecclesiastical Schools will take measures to ensure that writings which seek to destroy the spirit of the inner teaching of Christianity will not by any means be passed by its censors.”

It is important to note that uneasiness seized even people who wholly sympathized with the Bible Society's work and who shared in that work. Mikhail Desnitskii, then metropolitan of Novgorod, and a man of warm piety, mystical inclination, and a graduate of Novikov' s “seminary,” is one such example. As a parish priest in Moscow, he gained prominence as a preacher for the common people, giving his greatest attention to questions of the inner life and calling upon men to leave the dispersion in Egypt for the “desert of inner solitude.” He spoke with simplicity and warmth; he loved to preach. Golitsyn's dictatorial interference with church administration in the Synod disturbed him most deeply. Of course, he completely disapproved such hysterical sectarian exaltations as those to be found in the sermons of Lindel and Gossner, 98 the writings of the pietists, or even the “knavish sacraments at the Mikhailovskii palace,” as Vigel' wittily termed those exultant performances of the Tatarinova circle which so fascinated Golitsyn. Metropolitan Mikhail died in 1820, weary and exhausted from his struggle with the “blind minister.” Shortly before his death, Mikhail wrote a candid letter to the Emperor, warning him that the church was in danger and the subject of persecution. The Emperor received the letter at Laibach, when the metropolitan was no longer alive. Rumor spread that Golitsyn was the “murderer of the metropolitan.” That such a man as Mikhail opposed Golitsyn and his regime is quite symptomatic. Filaret, formerly Mikhail's vicar, wrote that “the sense of desolation and abandonment he has left is great,” and prayed “that the Lord might grant us a man with the spirit and strength of Elijah, for repentance and judgment must be preached with the love and patience of Christ; for there must be mercy and solace without hope for personal comfort.”

Such anxieties about the violent and dictatorial nature of these “false” mystics served as a prelude to the actual “uprising” against the Bible Society and particularly against the Russian Bible. “But what more can be achieved? Have not the Bible societies already to a certain extent displaced the visible church? . . . Is it difficult to understand that the mixture of all Christian confessions in their meetings is but a model for that universal religion which they are devising?” Many people regarded this “united Bible stratum” as an anti-Church. The Bible Society greatly resembles “secret societies,” and “it is just the same among Methodists and Illuminati 99 as it is in the freemason lodges.” Archimandrite Fotii expressed this idea even more emphatically: “Enemies prepared to establish a peculiar Bible religion and make an amalgam of faiths, thereby reducing the Orthodox faith of Christ.” He thought the “new” faith to be an outright fraud. In our time, many books express, and many societies and private individuals herald, some new form of religion, supposedly preordained for the last days. This new religion is preached in various forms: as a new light, a new doctrine, a coming of Christ in the Spirit, a reunification of the churches, a renewal in the form of the Thousand Year Reign of Christ; or else it is propagated as a new truth which is an apostasy from the Divine, Apostolic, Patristic and Orthodox faith. This new religion is the belief in the approach of the Antichrist, who foments revolutions, thirsts for bloodshed, and is filled with the spirit of Satan. The false prophets and apostles of this new religion are Jung-Stilling, Eckartshausen, Guyon, Boehme, Labzin, Gossner, Fessler, the Methodists, and the Herrhutters. All such frightened conjectures did not lack foundations. There were more than ample grounds for anxiety. In any case, the spiritual atmosphere was unhealthy. As it turned out, this partially justified “uprising” degenerated into a sordid court intrigue and the anxiety resulted in a fit of hysterics. All sense of proportion and judicious perspective was lost. In the ensuing polemic and struggle each side possessed only half of the truth and both sides shared the blame.

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