February 18 Book Reviews

The Gates of Hell: An Untold Story of Faith and Perseverance in the Early Soviet Union

The Gates of Hell: An Untold Story of Faith and Perseverance in the Early Soviet Union

Matthew Heise

Reviewed by: Calvin R. Goligher

The Gates of Hell: An Untold Story of Faith and Perseverance in the Early Soviet Union, by Matthew Heise. Lexham, 2022. Hardcover, 520 pages, $29.99 (Amazon). Reviewed by OP pastor Calvin R. Goligher.

In 1917, more than 3.5 million Lutherans in Russia were preparing to celebrate the Reformation’s 400th anniversary. The Lutheran Church in Russia had large congregations, historic buildings, and venerable educational institutions. Within twenty-five years, all of this would be lost to revolution and persecution. The story of that tragedy is the subject of this book.

The Bolshevik Revolution was the first tumultuous episode of this long tragedy. After a brief reprieve, forced collectivization brought famine. Amid these hardships, Russian Lutherans were supported by an enormous mercy ministry, led by figures like the heroic American churchman Dr. John Morehead. The Soviets eventually shut down this ministry, even though the needs were only growing.

During this difficult time, a significant number of men were training for ministry at Leningrad Lutheran Seminary. This ministry too was soon closed in the face of relentless government opposition. The small band of graduates entered into the enormous task of caring for churches across Russia. The work only grew as more pastors retired, died, or made the difficult decision to emigrate.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, ethnically German Lutherans in Russia faced even greater hostility. Pastors suffered terribly at the hands of secret police. Newspapers slandered Christians as “gangs of wreckers, diversionists, terrorists and spies which had been organized by the agents of foreign intelligence services with the assistance of the Orthodox, the Catholic, the Lutheran and the Mohamedan [sic] clergy” (366).

The government took church buildings and then “rented” them back to congregations. Church schools were subject to government regulation and staffing. Religious classes for youth were outlawed, so pastors organized informal “coffee evenings” and an unofficial network of Sunday school classes. Many of the Sunday school teachers ended up in a work camp. Some were executed.

Heise recounts some genuine blessings amid all this trouble. There were happy Christian marriages that held up under tragedy. Many youths from those Sunday school classes and coffee evenings boldly maintained their Christian faith. Ordinary Christians showed bravery in countless ways. If I had one complaint about the book, it is that the detail is sometimes overwhelming. The details are beautiful, though, to all who savor the memory of saints whose faithfulness and courage have so adorned the gospel.

It is not easy to draw lessons from this history. With hindsight, one can easily imagine how these Christians could have been better prepared or how they might have acted more decisively at certain points. But Heise shows that they were facing unprecedented financial, legal, and social pressures. Perhaps their greatest accomplishment was to simply persevere through profound exhaustion. The importance of worldwide diaconal ministry is another lesson worth contemplating.

The best lesson may come in the form of a powerful portrait of courage. Heroic ministers spent their “golden years” working and suffering. Young men counted the “cost” of seminary not in tuition, but in personal danger. The networks of Sunday school classes were bold expressions of hope for future renewal.

Eventually, there were glimpses of renewal. St. Peter’s Lutheran Church reopened on Reformation Day 1992 in Leningrad (renamed St. Petersburg). One woman present remembered the church from her childhood. In 1929, she had been part of the church’s last confirmation class. The pastor who confirmed her was later martyred. A whole generation had spent themselves in service to Christ, and now, some sixty years later, their spiritual children were seeing the first glimpses of God’s faithfulness to preserve the church and to renew it at the appointed time.



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