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Beginnings in Russia
WE have seen, in an earlier chapter, how the Adventist truths were accepted by a company of Germans in Milltown, S. Dak., who were organized into the first German Seventhday Adventist church. The members of this church had come to America from the Crimea, where they still had relatives and friends. To these, accordingly, they began to send Adventist tracts and papers, and in 1883 one of them, Jacob Reiswig by name, resolved to return to the homeland and follow up with personal labor the interest aroused by the printed page. He had come to America with his family in 1878, and had begun to observe the Sabbath as a result of reading a tract left at his house by a colporteur. He was uneducated and stuttered badly, yet from the time when he first became an Adventist, he was a successful personal worker, distributing a large amount of literature from door to door, and talking with the people as he had opportunity.
When he decided to return to Russia that he might communicate to his friends and acquaintances the message so dear to his own heart, he was acting solely on his own responsibility.
He neither asked nor received the aid of church or conference. His method of labor was much the same as it had been in America. He knew the power of the printed word. His trunk was well stocked with tracts, and though he was so poor that he had to sell his boots in order to procure money to complete the journey, his supply of literature was intact when he reached his destination.
He began work without delay. It was not lawful to teach the Adventist doctrines in public, but the old man went from village to village, seeking out the people in the market places, and in various ways calling their attention to the advent truths. He would hand a tract to any likely-looking person, and ask him, in his stuttering way, if he would kindly read a few paragraphs aloud for him. Then he would ask the reader what he thought of it. The outcome would usually be a quiet talk on Scriptural truths. He also called on people in their homes, and on the pastors themselves as well as on the members of the flock. And although the contents of the tracts came to be pretty well known in certain quarters, and considerable opposition was aroused, not even the pastors could find it in their hearts to molest the kindly old man who merely asked people to read for him, and then invited them to give their opinion of what they had read.
After a stay of two years, Jacob Reiswig returned to the States to acquire a fuller knowledge of the faith, and in other ways prepare himself for more effective service. In 1887 he packed his trunk with tracts and books the second time, resolved to devote his remaining years to spreading a knowledge of Adventism in the Crimea. During his second stay in America he had learned from his grandchildren to sing a number of advent songs, and he found his new acquirement a great help in gathering little companies of interested listeners at the market places, where he could distribute his tracts among them, and discuss Bible subjects.
After several additional years of patient, persistent labor for the Master, he was finally laid to rest. When he died, his son, with whom he was staying, carefully packed in the old man's coffin what remained of the precious tracts and pamphlets, to be buried with him. At the funeral service the pastor said: "If every one lived as this old man did, they surely would all go to heaven." This testimonial from the pastor set the people to thinking still more deeply over the ideas contained in the tracts. Some had already begun to observe the Sabbath, and others soon joined them.
The persons thus brought to a knowledge of the Adventist views were all German-speaking descendants of German colonists, settled in southern Russia. The first Russian-born German to embrace the Adventist views was Gerhardt Perk. At conversion he became a member of the church of the Brethren, but in 1882 there came into his hands a tract entitled, "The Third Angel's Message," which made him acquainted with the belief of Seventh-day Adventists. The tract had been sent from America three years before to a neighbor, who kept it very secretly. Finally he came to Mr. Perk and said: "For three years I have had some very dangerous publications in my house. I have never given them to any one to read. Indeed, these publications are so dangerous that even an earnest member of the Brethren Church might be led astray by them."
Naturally Mr. Perk began to be curious. "Possibly," he thought, "these publications have some connection with the great falling away at the revealing of Antichrist." He asked his neighbor to let him have the publications, that he also might read them in secret. For a long time the man was unwilling; but finally he consented to lend a tract, on condition that its contents be not divulged. Mr. Perk took it out into the haymow, and read it through three times, after which he copied the address of the publishers. He was convinced then and there that what he had read was the truth; but he dared not say anything to his neighbors.
In the same year he became a colporteur for the British and Foreign Bible Society, who sent him first to Moscow and afterward to Siberia. He had written meanwhile to the publishers of the tract in America, and had received a further supply of Adventist publications, which had confirmed the impression made by the first tract; but he lacked courage to obey what he believed to be the truth.
While trying to sell Bibles in Siberia, he passed through an experience that taught him to trust God implicitly. He started for a Siberian city by the name of Irbit, where there is held annually a fair that brings large numbers of people from the region round about. On the way to this place, he lost his entire stock of Bibles, worth about a thousand dollars. For four weeks he sought the lost property in vain. Meanwhile the fair had been held, and with it had passed the opportunity to sell the books. He had been working for the society only a short time, and was fearful of losing his position. Finally he resorted to fasting and prayer, which he continued for three days. On the third day his prayer was answered, and he found his books.
A further providence enabled him to dispose of the entire lot in a single day. Near the place where he had been staying was a large railway shop employing thousands of hands. He asked the director if he might sell his books in the factory, urging that the Bible had in it power to make men better. Not only did the director give him permission to sell the Bibles, but he sent a man along with him, who practically told the men
that they were to buy the book. Thus the books were disposed of, and at the close of the day there were only a few damaged copies left.
This experience gave Brother Perk courage to come out boldly and become the first Seventhday Adventist in Russia. When later he received a letter from L. R. Conradi, suggesting that he take up the sale of Adventist publications, he was glad to resign his position with the Bible Society. Not long afterward he accompanied Elder Conradi on the latter's first trip through Russia, which was to mark the beginning of our organized work in that empire.
The tour was made in the summer of 1886. On July 12 the two men left Odessa by steamer for the Crimea. In Eupatoria, they found some German Baptists, who invited them to their village, some thirtyfive miles north. The invitation was accepted, and the brethren remained with these Baptists two days, holding several meetings, and convincing some of the truth of the advent message. The Baptists then took them to Demir-bulat, where a Mennonite brother had been keeping the Sabbath for four years.
Resuming their journey, they arrived on Friday evening, July 16, at Japontschi, where a small company of believers had been holding Sabbath meetings. There were twelve in the company, and as many more within a circuit of fifty miles. It being harvest time and the mails slow, several weeks were required to allow of all the believers' being notified. But as the people were anxious to hear, meetings were begun at once,
the attendance steadily increasing. On Friday evening the subject of the Sabbath was taken up, and then opposition began. The windows were smashed the following night.
The next week Elders Conradi and Perk traveled thirty miles south to Avell, where several Sabbath keepers were living, and after holding two meetings there, drove forty miles to Berdebulat, where an appointment had been made for the believers to assemble from various quarters because there was water for baptism. Here nineteen signed the covenant to keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus, thus laying the foundation for the first Seventh-day Adventist church in Russia. An elder and a deacon were chosen and ordained, and baptism was administered to two sisters in a backwater of the Black Sea, many of the inhabitants in the near-by Russian village looking on from the housetops.
Returning from the baptism, the members celebrated the ordinance of humility, and were preparing to partake of the Lord's Supper when Elder Conradi was called out to appear before a sheriff, Brother Perk accompanying him to act as interpreter. On their appearance before the sheriff, their passports were forthwith demanded, and they were confronted with an accusation of teaching Jewish heresy, and of baptizing two women into this faith. A Russian brother was also called, and likewise the two women who had been baptized, and many questions were asked them. Finally two of the brethren became responsible for the appearance of Elders Conradi and Perk at Perekop the following day. This done, the meeting which had been so rudely interrupted, proceeded, and the following morning, after a short parting meeting, the men were on their way to Perekop, where they arrived at two in the afternoon of the same day, and reported to the authorities.
On presenting themselves before the isprafnik, the highest officer of the district, and delivering to him the sealed letter from the sheriff, they were promptly placed in confinement, and in the evening were conveyed to the district prison, which was to be their home for forty days. Mr. Conradi was allowed to write letters to the American consuls at Odessa and St. Petersburg, and send a dispatch to B. L. Whitney at Basel; but these must first be sent to Simferopol, and not till more than a week later were they returned to be sent to their proper destinations. Even then a blunder was made in conveying the telegram, so that not till nearly two weeks after the arrest did the word get to B. L. Whitney, who promptly laid the case before the American minister at St. Petersburg.