TRUE STORIES OF WORLD CHANGERS WHO STARTED ALONE: This month we share stories of individual Christians who couldn’t wait for others to tell them when to help the hurting and share the gospel. Their clear vision of a pressing need pushed them to do what they could as soon as they could.
IVAN S. PROKHANOV
By Victor Knowles
He was born April 17, 1869, in the Russian city of Vladikavkas, nestled in the snow-clad Caucasus. The highest peaks in the Caucasus are taller than the fabled Alps. It was perhaps fitting that Ivan S. Prokhanov should be born here because he, like King Saul, literally stood head and shoulders above others. He was also a spiritual giant in the history of Evangelical Christianity in Russia. “He almost single-handedly led the Evangelical Christians to remarkable heights during the first quarter of the twentieth century.”1 By the time he died in 1935, this extraordinary man could report more than 4 million baptized believers in Russia.
Prokhanov was born into a family of dissenters from the Russian Orthodox Church known as the Molokans. Persecution drove them into the Caucasus. When little Ivan was only 10 days old, he appeared to have died. He was prepared for burial and placed in a coffin. When one of the elders came to perform the funeral, the child opened his eyes and began to cry. Many believed God had granted him life for a special purpose.
As a youth, the writings of Fyodor Dostoevski captivated his mind and awakened in his heart a great pity, love, and admiration for every sufferer in Russia. One winter day he saw a man in rags begging for money. The next day he saw his frozen body on the street.
But as he grew older, other writers—pessimistic and nihilistic—like Arthur Schopenhauer and Eduard von Hartmann, affected his thinking. When he was 17 he considered “overcoming life by death.” He planned to use his rifle on himself, but his father—acting on some “inner prompting”—had moved his rifle. On the table was a small slip of paper with the words, “Do you love Jesus Christ?” This incident totally changed his life.
On January 17, 1887, Prokhanov was immersed in the Terek River at Vladikavkas. He created a motto for himself: “Life for Christ!” The next year he was accepted at the Institute of Technology in St. Petersburg. He chose mechanical engineering in the hopes it would bring him in contact with the masses of working people. He also preached his first sermon, “Blessed Are the Meek,” from Matthew 5:5.
Live for Christ!
One day, Prokhanov came up with the idea of a periodical, Beseda (“conversation”), that could be sent surreptitiously to scattered believers, including some in exile. He wrote under the name “Zacchaeus” (which was quite humorous since he was a giant of a man). In 1893 he passed his final exams at the institute. By day he worked at the Ijorsky Admiralty Works; by night he preached, visited, and edited Beseda.
Prokhanov was an optimist at heart. His autobiography, In the Cauldron of Russia, was subtitled, The Life of an Optimist in a Land of Pessimism. He had an audience with the Russian philosopher Leo Tolstoy, was called to visit Vladimer Lenin when he was dying, and predicted that some day the “Gospel Christians” would preach in the cathedrals of the Russian Orthodox Church—which he himself did some 30 years later.
After Prokhanov received several visits from the Cheka (secret police), an American connected with Westinghouse made it possible for him to travel to Finland, where he was hidden in a castle for 10 weeks. He wrote many hymns, which became very popular with Evangelicals. He traveled to Sweden, Germany, France, and London.
While studying for a year in Berlin and Paris, he examined the doctrines of different denominations and concluded a return to “primitive Christianity” was the key to Christian unity. He raised financial help for the persecuted in Russia and finally decided to return to his native land, where he was promptly arrested and placed under house arrest.
But Prokhanov was possessed with a great missionary vision for Russia. With brimming confidence he declared, “The Russian people will rise: there will be a sublime Easter of spiritual regeneration and reformation.” In 1901 he was allowed to return to St. Petersburg, where he worked by day as an engineer with Westinghouse Electric Company. By night he attended secret meetings, preached in churches, wrote letters seeking religious tolerance, edited several more religious papers, and composed more than 1,000 hymns. I have heard some of these hymns sung by Evangelical Christians in Russia today.
One of his journals, The Christian, was published from 1906 to 1928. It was the first major Christian publication in Russia. The slogan of the magazine was: “In essential things, unity. In secondary things, freedom. In all things, charity.” Prokhanov also produced many leaflets, booklets, and papers for young people. He launched Morning Star, a weekly Christian newspaper, in 1910. Peace on Earth Ministries (POEM) “resurrected” that paper in 1993.
His zeal for Christian unity led him to form the All-Russian Evangelical Christian Union in St. Petersburg in 1909. Ten congresses managed to meet before the Communists banned the union in 1928. The Union sent its first missionary to Siberia. Prokhanov proclaimed, “We have now only one missionary, but the day will come when we shall have more than 500.” Within 20 years it had 600 missionaries!
Thousands of new churches were started in each of Russia’s 70 provinces. Prokhanov believed each church should be autonomous and recognize the New Testament as its only guide of faith and spiritual life. He testified, “We began to spiritually conquer the whole of Russia, and would have covered the whole territory but for the interference of atheism.” He established the College of the Bible in St. Petersburg to train 100 preachers a year. His work ethic was staggering. “Very often I was compelled to work through the night, and the morning found me still at my study table.”
Prokhanov called the Bolshevik Revolution, which began in February 1917, “an appalling reign of terror.” Millions died of starvation or were executed. He sent his wife and two sons back to Vladikavkas. He remained in St. Petersburg, working night and day to minister to believers. His beloved Anne died of typhus in 1919, and he nearly starved to death, surviving on dry bread sent to him by believers.
He was arrested several times and spent months in prison, where he preached to prisoners night and day. He was released from prison in 1923, and by 1924 could report 1.5 million “Gospel Christians” in Russia. In 1925 he visited America to raise funds for the work. By the time Stalin took control in the late 1920s, there were as many as 4 million baptized believers in Russia. In 1928, while Prokhanov was raising funds for Russia in Canada, the Stalinist regime declared him “a conspirator in counter-revolution.” He was never again allowed to return to his beloved homeland.
In 1933, Prokhanov wrote his autobiography, In the Cauldron of Russia.2 On October 6, 1935, Prokhanov lay dying in Berlin, Germany. A friend was reading to him from Romans 11. When he got to verse 36, Prokhanov broke in, “And for him, are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.” Then the man who rarely slept, fell asleep in Jesus.
1Geoff Ellis and Wesley Jones, The Other Revolution: Russian Evangelical Awakenings (Abilene: ACU Press, 1996).
2In the Cauldron of Russia, available in either English or Russian, from Peace on Earth Ministries, www.poeministries.org.
Victor Knowles is founder and president of POEM (Peace on Earth Ministries), Joplin, Missouri. www.poeministries.org. Adapted from “The Man Who Never Slept,” CHRISTIAN STANDARD, March 10, 2002, and June 9, 2002.