February 28, 2010

Influence of the Russian Liturgy (1904)

Notes by G. Frederick Wright

In a journey across Asia three years ago, occupying several months, I was deeply impressed by the many evidences of the leavening power of Christianity throughout the Russian Empire. In Japan, one of the most successful and influential Christian missions is that of the Russian Church, under the leadership of Bishop Nicolai, at Tokyo. My first attendance upon a Russian church service was at Port Arthur, where I found myself crowding for standing room with an indiscriminate company of Cossacks of the rank and officers of every grade, including Admiral Alexieff, and hearing, as ever afterwards in the Russian service, the crying of infants in arms, who are regularly brought by their parents to the church service, to receive the communion. Later, while journeying upon the construction train which penetrated Manchuria, I spent some days in the company of a benevolent-hearted inferior church official who was collecting money for alms to be administered by the church. Everywhere his reception was most cordial by all classes.

In all the villages and cities of Siberia and Turkestan, the priest, with his family, evidently occupied a position of great respect and influence, and was looked to with unfailing confidence by the poorer classes for sympathy and help. Repeatedly fairs of the Red Cross Society were encountered, engaged in raising money to provide nurses and assistance, not only for the hospitals in the army, but for those which are erected at the prominent points frequented by emigrants and exiles. In all the post-houses throughout a fourteen-hundred-mile drive through Turkestan, copies of the New Testament, furnished by the Imperial Bible Society at St. Petersburg, and bearing the imprint of the British and Foreign Bible Society, were found in the waiting-rooms.

In the wilds of Transbaikalia, as well as in the deserts of Turkestan, penetrated by the railroad, cars were met, provided with priests, and singers, and all the paraphernalia necessary for a church service. At one place in Transbaikalia, where a church car was sidetracked for a few days to meet the wants of the locality, our train stopped long enough for such a service. The third and fourth-class passengers immediately surrounded it, and participated with the greatest reverence. In the larger churches in Irkutsk and Krasnoyarsk, we encountered beautiful young women of good estate, conducting classes of untrained boys to the services, and watching over them with all the interest displayed by those connected with the " settlements " in our own country. In fact, everywhere we were surrounded by that indefinable atmosphere which we characterize as Christian civilization, and which is in as striking contrast with heathen civilization as light is with darkness.

In broader lines, also, the influence of this leavening power of Christianity is seen everywhere throughout the Empire. It was the Tsar of Russia who summoned the peace congress through which the Tribunal of the Hague was established. It was the Tsar of Russia who initiated, and pushed to completion, the emancipation of the serfs,?a work far greater and far more successfully accomplished than that of the emancipation of the slaves of America. Russia, indeed, is full of philanthropists and those engaged in promoting social reforms, of wliom Tolstoy is one of the most extreme and unpractical examples.

All this, and much more, can be said illustrating the leavening power of Christianity in the Empire, without abating our condemnation of the many great evils still inherent in the church polity and in the body politic. For, there can be no question that in some way the main facts of Christianity are held up before the Russian people of all classes, and that these facts have a most powerful, controlling force in the lives of the masses of the people.

The manner of the dissemination of this Christian truth is an interesting object of study. Preaching occupies but a small place in the Russian church services. Though the Bible is freely disseminated, the illiteracy of the people interferes with its general reading. But it is read extensively in the church service; while pictures of Bible scenes fairly cover the walls of the churches, and every one learns their meaning. Russian pilgrims to Palestine are far more numerous than from any other country, and are mostly from the peasant class. These make the rounds of the sacred places with apparent discrimination and intelligence. In the appropriate season of the year crowds of them may be found wending their way on foot from Jerusalem to the Jordan, to Bethlehem and Hebron, and to the well of Sychar. Dense crowds may be seen gathering about the sacred places, listening to addresses from well-informed guides with far more interest and with closer attention than is shown in a personally conducted Cook's tour of visitors. The information which these pilgrims, on their return, scatter throughout Russia, can hardly be overestimated.

But most prominent of all must be mentioned the liturgy of the Russian Church as it is artistically set to music by composers of the highest rank, and most effectively and beautifully rendered by trained choirs.

The favorite liturgy is that written by the "goldenmouthed" St. John Chrysostom, the most famous of the fathers of the Greek Church of the fourth century. This, like all the Russian church services, is translated into the language of the people. The dialect, indeed, is archaic, which has led many to suppose that it is unintelligible to the common people. The same might be said with some degree of truth concerning the English Prayer Book, though it is by no means so archaic as is the Russian liturgy. Still, in both cases, by reason of frequent repetition, the language evidently becomes comprehensible to all; so that it cannot be doubted that every peasant in the Empire becomes from his earliest years familiar with this noble embodiment of the great facts and doctrines of Christianity.

The mere reading of the words can but be a means of grace; while to have it given, as it is in all the Russian churches, by well-trained choirs in the effective setting of the music of the greatest masters, is impressive beyond expression, and is in striking contrast to the diluted sentimentalism characterizing so much of the popular Sunday-school music of America, and to the musical compositions which are current so largely in Protestant services, but which are adapted rather for the concert-hall than for worshiping congregations.

Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) was the ranking genius among Russian musical composers of the last half century, and was scarcely inferior to any, except Wagner in Western Europe. His operas, symphonies, sonatas, and shorter pieces for the piano are everywhere popular among the highest class of musicians ; but it is not generally known that he devoted a considerable portion of his strength and genius to the perfecting of the Russian sacred music. Several volumes of Bortniansky's compositions, which are most widely used in the Russian Church, have been harmonized by him in accordance with modern ideas. One of his own principal works, also, is an original composition adapted to the entire liturgy.

I have stood in the Russian churches, great and small, in Siberia and Turkestan, and in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and have been not only entranced myself by this service, but filled with wonder and delight while seeing horny-handed peasants, with careworn faces, listening with streaming eyes to these profound, inspiring, comforting, and most beautiful conceptions of Christian truth as they were wafted to our ears upon the dignified, appropriate, and tender strains of music of the great Russian composer. Who could help being moved to better things as he is led thus to adore "the Maker of all things, who for us sinful men, and our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Spirit and the Virgin Mary; and became like unto men, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried, but rose on the third day according to the Word, and ascended into heaven most high, and now sitteth on the right hand of God, and who shall come again to judge the quick and dead"! To see, as I often did in these services, men and women, both of low and of high estate, advance to kneel and kiss the gilded feet of the painting of the Man of sorrows, was to witness something far more than a mere formality.

Excerpts from The Bibliotheca Sacra, Volume 61, pp 166-170 (January, 1904).