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Spring 2013 · Vol. 42 No. 1 · pp. 107–109 

Book Review

The Development of Russian Evangelical Spirituality: A Study of Ivan V. Kargel (1849–1937)

Gregory L. Nichols. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2011. 311 pages.

Reviewed by Bruce L. Guenther

This book offers a fascinating window into German Baptist activities in Russia and other eastern European countries. It does so by featuring the life and influence of Johann G. Kargel, also known as Ivan Veniaminovich Kargel, a highly revered and influential German Baptist pastor and leader. Kargel played a seminal role in the attempt to connect several Free Church movements to form a broader interdenominational evangelical movement within the Russian empire, and in adapting Keswick holiness ideas for evangelical Protestants within Russia. His influence continued long after his death, in large part through the republication of his writings. {108} This scholarly work makes an important contribution to Baptist and evangelical Protestant studies.

Like many biographical studies, this one is organized chronologically. Details are sparse about Kargel’s family and early childhood. He was converted and baptized in the newly organized Tiflis Baptist church in 1869 at twenty years of age. His work as a pastor began in a German Baptist congregation in Sorotschin several years later, but it was time spent at the Hamburg Mission School that solidified his German Baptist theological identity.

A move to St. Petersburg in 1875 increased his familiarity with the emerging German Baptist movement. Here he encountered Colonel Vasily Pashkov, a leader among evangelicals in the region. After five years in St. Petersburg, Kargel and his family moved to Bulgaria to establish a Baptist work, but a spiritual crisis prompted him to search for a spirituality that transcended the narrowness and divisiveness that he was experiencing among the Baptists. Upon his return to St. Petersburg in 1884, Kargel joined the Pashkovites and began working towards a vision for creating a greater sense of common identity and collaboration among the various evangelical Protestant groups.

His acceptance of Keswick expressions of spirituality coincided with the advent of a frenetically paced period of itinerant preaching and teaching. For more than a decade (1887–1898), he traveled widely throughout the Russian empire. He frequently engaged in difficult negotiations on behalf of “exiled believers” who were trying to leave Russia because of persecution. In addition, he developed an extensive ministry among those imprisoned for their religious convictions, and often contributed to humanitarian causes. In the early twentieth century, Kargel’s longstanding vision for creating a Russian Evangelical Alliance finally came to fruition. However, tensions created by theological disagreements made it difficult to maintain unity among the participants in the Alliance.

The emergence of the Baptist movement in Russia coincides almost exactly with the birth of the Mennonite Brethren. Although the book does not offer fresh insights into Mennonite Brethren origins, of particular interest to readers of Direction is the prominence given to Kargel’s interaction with early Mennonite Brethren church leaders, which illuminates the close fraternal links between the Mennonite Brethren and German Baptists. Especially important was Kargel’s friendship with Johann Wieler whom he first met in 1872. Wieler, a leader within the Mennonite Brethren movement, carried a particular passion for evangelizing Russians, an activity that was explicitly prohibited by the Russian government. Mennonite Brethren leaders rejected Wieler’s suggestions that they organize missionary activities among their Russian neighbors. Undeterred, Wieler {109} set out as an independent evangelist: his persistence eventually forced him to flee to Germany, where he joined the Baptists until his untimely death in a construction accident in 1889. Kargel worked closely with Wieler in organizing interdenominational events among evangelical Protestant groups in Russia.

According to the author, Kargel’s interdenominational interests can be attributed in part to the role played by Wieler during the 1870s in introducing him to a network of church leaders from different evangelical Protestant streams. In 1873, Kargel attended a Mennonite Brethren conference in Klippenfeld (Molotschna colony), an event that was instrumental in confirming his own sense of call to pastoral work and increasing his awareness of different evangelical streams in Russia. For the next three decades, Kargel was a frequent visitor to the Mennonite colonies, attending conferences, preaching in congregations, conducting seminars, and teaching in training schools. His teaching helped to instill an understanding of Keswick holiness themes into a generation of Mennonite Brethren leaders. Beginning in 1895, his work was regularly published in the Zionsbote, extending his influence into North America.

The author gives considerable attention to an analysis of Kargel’s acceptance and adaptation of Keswick holiness spirituality to suit the Russian context. He follows closely Ian Randall and other scholars of evangelical Protestantism in arguing that “evangelical conceptions of holy living achieved through sustained struggle were replaced, in the spirituality purveyed at Keswick, by the idea that sanctification, like justification, was attained through faith, not works.” Particularly notable is his emphasis on the role of suffering in the sanctification process.

The book is a revised doctoral dissertation, and as such contains some dissertation-like features. Particularly commendable, and unlike some dissertations, are the author’s repeated efforts to connect the subject of his research to larger nineteenth- and early twentieth-century religious trends both within Russia and within the broader evangelical Protestant movement. Laudable also is the careful and extensive use of primary sources in several languages, many of which were not available to earlier biographers and scholars. Also notable is the author’s extensive use of the letters of Johann Kargel and his wife Anna. Readers will encounter occasional detail-saturated paragraphs that contain valuable information, but probably should have been presented as a footnote. The book contains several valuable appendices along with an extensive bibliography that will be principally useful to scholars.

Bruce L. Guenther
President, and Associate Professor of Church History & Mennonite Studies
Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary Canada, Langley, B.C.

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