Near Easter in 1905, Christian leaders, who were in St. Petersburg for a conference, received an invitation to the palace of Princess Lievan. An announcement was to be made, they were told--an announcement that would bring them great joy. They were given no hint of its content.
"What are we here for? What is happening?" asked the small group of invited men who appeared at the palace early the next morning. No one knew. Which was just how Tsar Nicholas II wanted it. He wanted to spring a little surprise.
The surprise was a manifesto of religious tolerance. Jakob Kroeker, who was there on this day, April 16, 1905, left an account of the emotional scene. "When all the guests arrived, one of the big folding doors opened and our beloved princess came into the room, deeply moved, holding a copy of the Manifesto in her hand. She could hardly read the glad news for inner excitement and joy. When she had finished, those present joined in thanks and worship to the Lord. Not an eye remained dry and not a mouth dumb."
And little wonder. Evangelical Christians in the Russian empire had suffered cruelly for two hundred years. Despite this, their numbers had grown steadily. Tsars from Peter the Great onward had found it expedient to offer some concessions to the emerging religious force. But as is almost always the case when there is a state religion, the established church pressed hard to retain its monopoly and was often guilty of persecution.
Religious tolerance was also incorporated in the October Manifesto of 1905, which took its final shape under Finance Minister Sergei Yulievich Witte, an Orthodox Russian, who candidly acknowledged that he would have preferred to establish a military dictatorship.
As good as the news was, it soon soured. Nicholas II was a weak man who began to take back his concessions almost as soon as he made them. This was unfortunate and helped play into the hands of the revolutionaries who eventually toppled him, the last Tsar, from power.
Western evangelical ideas were not the only thoughts spreading through Russia in those days. Freethinking, agnosticism, rationalism and other God-hating ideologies flourished in the troubled land. Had the evangelical church been free to carry out its mission, with the social uplift that usually follows the Gospel, perhaps the Marxist regime that took power in 1917 would never have emerged to crush the Russian people (not to mention the rest of the world) under a heavy boot of oppression for seventy years.
- Brandenburg, Hans.The Meek and the Mighty. New York: Oxford University, 1977.
- Various encyclopedia and internet articles on Nicholas II and Witte.
Last updated May, 2007.