This Week in AG History — July 22, 1916
By Darrin J. Rodgers
Originally published on AG News, 25 July 2019
St. Petersburg, the capital of the Russian Empire, was in the midst of social turmoil in the 1910s. A decade of civil unrest and strikes, followed by the communist revolution, toppled the ruling czar. Political assassinations and mass uprisings became commonplace. Compounding these problems, the First World War led to high prices and a scarcity of food and other consumer goods. It was into this chaotic situation that William Fetler, a Latvian Baptist pastor, became a Pentecostal pioneer in the Russian capital city.
William Fetler (1883-1957), born in Latvia, was the son of a Baptist pastor. As a young man he worked as an interpreter and bookkeeper in the Latvian capital of Riga. He was quite sharp and had mastered seven languages, four of which he could speak fluently. He felt a call to the ministry and enrolled at Spurgeon’s College, the ministerial training school in London founded by noted Baptist Calvinist Charles H. Spurgeon.
Fetler was profoundly touched by the Welsh Revival (1904-1905) during his time at Spurgeon’s College. The Welsh Revival, which lasted only for about a year, resulted in over 100,000 converts to Christ. The revival, which included enthusiastic worship and miracles, left a lasting imprint on the religious landscape of Wales. Evan Roberts, the primary leader in the Welsh Revival, was asked by the Spurgeon’s College principal if he had a message for the students. Roberts replied, “Tell them to live near to God. That is the best life — near to God.”
William Fetler took that message to heart and was never the same. He felt a great burden to see revival in Russia and Latvia. He would spend the rest of his life working to see Latvians and Russians come to Christ. After graduating with honors in 1907, he moved to St. Petersburg. He found a ready audience with nobility who were already believers, including Princess Lieven, Baron Nicolay, Madam Tchertkoff, and others. His impassioned preaching in multiple languages attracted large audiences. He raised money for the construction of a large “Gospel House” in St. Petersburg.
The Welsh Revival fed into the Azusa Street Revival (1906-1909), which was a focal point of the emerging Pentecostal movement. Fetler rejoiced at the news of this latest spiritual outpouring. What had been somewhat localized in the Welsh Revival became a worldwide movement in Pentecostalism. Fetler maintained his Baptist identity and also worked within the Pentecostal movement and became a regular speaker at Pentecostal conferences across Europe.
Events in Russia overtook Fetler’s St. Petersburg ministry. Government officials viewed him with suspicion and kicked him out of Russia in 1912. Fetler recounted persecution in Russia, as well as healings, visions, and miracles he witnessed in an article published in 1916 in the Weekly Evangel. He moved back to his native Latvia, where he led a thriving congregation. Fetler, possibly the best-known Latvian pastor in the West, wrote a book about his life experiences under the pen name Basil Malof. Fetler, along with his wife and their 13 musically-gifted children, became legendary figures in Latvian church history. Sensing that war was imminent, Fetler gathered his family and moved to America in 1939. He founded the Russian Bible Society in 1944 and spent the rest of his life advocating on behalf of Eastern European Christians, raising money for Bibles, missions, and relief.
The testimony of William Fetler is a reminder that Pentecostalism has deep roots in Europe. Fetler melded his training at Spurgeon’s College in London with the Welsh Revival and became a noted advocate of the emerging Pentecostal movement, all while retaining his Baptist identity. He set the stage for the development of evangelical and Pentecostal churches in St. Petersburg, Russia, and in Latvia, and became a prominent voice in the West on behalf of Eastern Europeans.
Fetler experienced many disappointments and much persecution over his decades of ministry. But when one door would shut, it always seemed that God would open another. Fetler lived out his belief that the best life was to live close to God, and as a result he changed the course of history for countless thousands of Christians in Russia and Latvia.
Read Fetler’s article, “Pentecostal Power in Russia,” on pages 4 and 5 of the July 22, 1916, issue of the Weekly Evangel.
Also featured in this issue:
• “Tithing,” by E. L. Banta
• “Daily Portion from the King’s Bounty,” by Alice Reynolds Flower
And many more!
Weekly Evangel archived editions courtesy of the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center.
Do you have Pentecostal historical materials that should be preserved? Please consider depositing these materials at the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center (FPHC). The FPHC, located in the Assemblies of God national offices, is the largest Pentecostal archive in the world. We would like to preserve and make your treasures accessible to those who write the history books.
Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center
1445 North Boonville Avenue
Springfield, Missouri 65802 USA
Phone: 417.862.1447 ext. 4400
Toll Free: 877.840.5200