Review: History of Slavic-American Pentecostal Immigration to America

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The Pentecostal Heritage of Slavic-Americans (Пятидесятнические истоки Славян-Американцев), by Anton Goroshko. [English and Russian language versions both in one volume]  Renton, WA: National Slavic District Council, 2009.

What is the future of Christianity? Demographers predict that it will look more Pentecostal and less Western. While Western Europe and North America long viewed themselves as the center of the Christian world, cultural and religious decline among people of Western European origin, combined with the robust growth of Christianity (and in particular Pentecostalism) among non-Westerners, portend a significant shift in the religious landscape.

American observers do not have to travel overseas to witness these changes. Most U.S. cities are now home to large immigrant communities, and these immigrants have added their own languages, churches, and values to America’s cultural mix.

Slavic immigrants from the former Soviet Union are among those who have been growing in visibility and influence in the United States. Since the 1980s when Mikhail Gorbachev began to allow Pentecostals – who long suffered persecution in the Soviet Union – to leave, many put down roots in America. For the most part, these Slavic Pentecostals initially kept to themselves and did not integrate into the broader American society. They grappled with their newfound freedoms and cultural challenges, reasserting their cultural boundary markers as a means to retain their religious and familial values. Many of these immigrants are now well-established in their communities, and their children who were born and raised in America often feel just as home in America as they do in their ancestral communities.

An estimated 300,000 Slavic Pentecostals now live in the U.S., mostly in congregations that are either independent or loosely affiliated with one of several Slavic Pentecostal unions. Increasing numbers of Slavic Pentecostal leaders are recognizing the value of being in fellowship with non-Slavic Pentecostals in America. In 2002, several Slavic Pentecostal churches in California joined the Assemblies of God and formed the Slavic Fellowship, which provided both a structure for Slavs to organize themselves within the Assemblies of God and also representation on the Fellowship’s General Presbytery. In September 2008, the leaders of the Slavic Fellowship, in addition to other Slavic Pentecostals interested in affiliating with the Assemblies of God, came together in Renton, Washington, and organized the National Slavic District. This new district gives greater strength and visibility to Slavic Pentecostals, both within the Assemblies of God and within the broader society.

Slavic Pentecostals have an important story to tell. American evangelicalism is at a crossroads – its close identification with declining American cultural and political themes has led some to question evangelicalism’s identity and future. However, the character of Slavic Pentecostalism has developed along a quite different trajectory. This story has been largely inaccessible to English-speakers. To help remedy this, Anton Goroshko, a Slavic Pentecostal minister and historian who emigrated from the Ukraine to America in 1990, has written a small book, The Pentecostal Heritage of Slavic-Americans, published by the National Slavic District, in conjunction with the Intercultural Ministries Department of Assemblies of God US Missions and the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center.

The Pentecostal Heritage of Slavic-Americans includes Goroshko’s account in Russian and translated into English, written “at the request of the many Slavic Pentecostals in North America who have expressed a desire to learn about the origins of the faith and ministry of their forefathers” (p. 5). Goroshko begins by placing Pentecostalism within the context of Christian history in the Ukraine. He proceeds to tell the stories of two heroes of the faith – Gustav Herbert Schmidt and Ivan Efimovich Voronaeff.  Both men were born in Slavic lands, immigrated to America about 100 years ago, and returned to Europe as Assemblies of God missionaries. Schmidt helped to organize the Russian and Eastern European Mission and formed a Bible school in Danzig that trained many of the earliest Pentecostal ministers in Eastern Europe. Voronaeff, revered by Slavs, was the most prominent early Pentecostal Slavic leader and ultimately was martyred for his faith by the Soviet government.

Goroshko’s account of Voronaeff is particularly important, because he provides details not included in other English-language histories. For instance, he writes that Voronaeff was actually an assumed name (Nikita Petrovich Cherkasov was his given name), taken to escape a military trial. Influenced by his newfound evangelical faith, Voronaeff felt that he could no longer serve in the military:

“…young officer Cherkasov declared to his superiors that he had become a Christian and could no longer carry arms. His weapon from then on, he said, would be the Word of God – the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Nikita was brought to trial. In order to protect Nikita and to help him avoid the military court tribunal, a Christian brother in the Tashkent Baptist church, Ivan Efimovich Voronaeff, gave his citizenship pass­port to Cherkasov. It was under this new name that Nikita went into the history books.” (p. 9)

Voronaeff arrived in San Francisco, entered the Baptist ministry, switched his allegiances to the Assemblies of God, and in 1920 received a prophetic word: “Go back to Russia.” With the support of the Assemblies of God, he engaged in energetic missionary work and helped to organize the first Slavic Pentecostal unions, consisting of several hundred congregations. Partly because of his steadfast opposition to any compromise of the faith by working with the communist government, Voronaeff was imprisoned. According to Goroshko, unverified rumors report “that Voronaeff was torn to pieces by prison dogs in the forests outside of Leningrad.”

Following the biographical sketches of Schmidt and Voronaeff, Goroshko outlines the development of Pentecostalism in the Soviet Union and among the new Slavic immigrants to America.

In addition to providing an important pedagogical tool for teaching new generations of Slavic-American Pentecostals about their heritage, Goroshko’s book aims to accomplish several other tasks. First, Goroshko demonstrates the historical connections between the American Assemblies of God and the development of Pentecostalism in the former Soviet Union. He even goes so far as to claim, “The Assemblies of God is the spiritual father for the Slavic people” (p. 15). Second, Goroshko is concerned about the future of Slavic-American Pentecostals and believes it would be advantageous to affiliate with American Pentecostals. He notes, “The immigrant churches are undergoing an irreversible process of assimilating to the American social environment…It is important to place our children and grandchildren on the correct spiritual path, so that they will not disperse among American churches of other faiths” (p. 15). Third, Goroshko sees an opportunity for Slavic Pentecostals to help renew American Christianity. He states, “Assemblies of God pastors have told us, ‘Have an influence upon us, work for the awakening of America’” (p. 15).

What kind of influence can Slavic Pentecostals have on American Pentecostals?

While Goroshko does not provide a detailed answer to this question, two areas where contemporary Slavic and American Pentecostals often differ might provide fertile soil for reflection: 1) spiritual discipline and devotion; and 2) conflation of faith with nationalism/patriotism.

The character of Slavic Pentecostalism has been shaped by believers’ great dedication, which resulted in great suffering and persecution. This is in contrast to American Pentecostalism, which in some ways has accommodated the materialism, selfishness, and hyper-individualism of the surrounding culture. Where the American church has become like the world, it also ceases to provide a meaningful critique to the evils of western society. Early Pentecostals, in the U.S. and in Slavic lands, encouraged all believers toward full devotion to Christ. This meant a rejection of sinful or unwise activities that were likely to compromise one’s faith and witness. In many American congregations, it is increasingly difficult to see a difference between the church and the world. Younger American Pentecostals have largely rejected what they view as legalism, but in the process some have embraced an equally-dangerous heresy — antinomianism (the rejection of rules that are based on either specific or general revelation). Slavic Pentecostal churches have tended to be more intentional in maintaining clear ethical codes for members than have American Pentecostal churches. Exploring the differences between Slavic and American practices could challenge Pentecostals to think more carefully about the importance of spiritual discipline and devotion.

Interestingly, one of the primary concerns of Slavic Pentecostals about the Assemblies of God is the perception that the Assemblies of God is too pro-militaristic. Most Slavic Pentecostals have maintained their historic opposition to killing in war, a belief they had in common with other Slavic evangelicals. Voronaeff and numerous other Pentecostal believers suffered at the hands of the Soviet government and maintained their pacifist stance to the point of death. Now in America, many Slavic Pentecostals are uncomfortable with what they perceive as a conflation of faith with nationalism and patriotism.

Slavic Pentecostals, importantly, can show American Pentecostals that critiquing the structures of one’s own society is not the exclusive domain of sixties radicals and political leftists.  Slavic Pentecostals’ critique of American nationalism was not birthed out of the sexual revolution and the drug culture. Rather, Slavic Pentecostals have been faithful to an early Pentecostal teaching that American Pentecostals have largely forgotten. As Paul Alexander demonstrated in his recent book, Peace to War: Shifting Allegiances in the Assemblies of God (Cascadia, 2009), the American Assemblies of God also maintained official opposition to war and killing in war until 1967.  The Assemblies of God now supports “the right of each member to choose whether to declare their position as a combatant, a noncombatant, or a conscientious objector” (Article XVII, Bylaws of the General Council of the Assemblies of God).

Slavic Pentecostals’ pacifism and concern for the separation of church and state comes out of an experience of intense persecution by the state, while American Pentecostals grew perhaps too cozy with the state. American Pentecostals often affirmed the American civil religion (a Christless religion which serves nationalistic purposes, while using Christian language, and which is not necessarily accompanied by personal faith). However, Slavic Pentecostals were often forced to choose either their faith or societal affirmation. As Americans seemingly enter into a post-Christian era, they may no longer have the luxury of being able to affirm both Christ and society/state. The resilience and lessons of sturdy Slavic Pentecostals may prove an invaluable resource to American Pentecostals as America becomes less friendly toward biblical Christianity.

Anton Goroshko wrote The Pentecostal Heritage of Slavic-Americans for a Slavic-American Pentecostal audience, but the lives, sacrifices, and lessons of these believers merit attention far beyond their own communities. This book, hopefully, will encourage Slavic-American Pentecostals to better appreciate their own legacy and to reflect about how they can share that legacy with the broader Pentecostal movement.

Reviewed by Darrin J. Rodgers

Softcover, 70 pages, illustrated. $5.00 ($4.00 each on orders of 5 or more), plus shipping. Available from: Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center. To order, call toll free (877-840-5200) or email (archives@ag.org).

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