Baedeker in Russia

It was 1875. In those days Russia stood like a fortress walled up to heaven, with bars and gates. For a limited time, at a crucial period, God opened a door for evangelism. While the dawdlers were getting ready, Frederick Baedeker saw that door open and entered. His story reads like a commentary on Ephesians 5:16: “Redeeming the time, because the days are evil.”

This mission field was not an easy one. In the West we have enjoyed centuries of virtually unlimited opportunities to preach the gospel, but Russia has known sustained periods of stern persecution. Intolerance of evangelical Christianity predates communism there. Even before Nikita Khrushchev and Joseph Stalin, during the time of the Czars, thousands of believers were displaced, exiled or imprisoned for their faith. But when the night is dark, the stars shine all the brighter. Frederick Baedeker (1823-1906) was one of those stars.

Baedeker was born at Witten, Germany. His first marriage ended in tragedy, as his wife died only three months after the wedding. Although Frederick himself suffered with what appears to have been tuberculosis, he began a far-flung wandering which brought him to England in 1859. There he settled and married a widow named Harriet Ormsby. Together they entered heart-and-soul into the world and its pleasures — music and dancing were their greatest delight.

In 1866 Lord Radstock held a series of gospel meetings, and Baedeker was in attendance. While Frederick was trying to exit the crowded auditorium, Radstock approached the pale man, put his hand on his shoulder, and said “My man, God has a message through me for you tonight.” The two left the crowd to talk and then pray. Baedeker later said, “I went in a proud German infidel, and came out a humble, believing disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ. Praise God!” Soon Harriet followed the Saviour’s call. The change was remarkable. Now they were heart and soul for Christ. The man of delicate health, whom his friends thought was doomed to an early grave, “flung aside his medicine bottles, forgot that he suffered ominous pains, and stepped out to serve Christ without serious illness for forty years.”

With his close friend and countryman, George Muller, Frederick visited Germany to preach Christ. Lord Radstock also introduced Dr. Baedeker to believers in high social positions in Russia in 1875. These connections would later be used of God to open the way into Russia’s prisons. Preaching in German, English, and French, he and his wife went to Russia. The peculiarity of this foreign itinerant who held aristocratic gospel meetings at the residence of Princess Lieven was indeed a phenomenon. Leo Tolstoy once called it “a mere fashionable craze.” But Baedeker’s life has silenced the gainsayers. If this servant had only been a hireling, it is doubtful he would have ventured too far from the mansions of St. Peters- burg. The temptations of luxury are temptations indeed. But it appears that brother Baedeker had “learned how to abound” for he did not forget his mission or lose his habits of self-denial. Those were treacherous waters littered with shipwrecks, but he steered a straight course. He did not shrug off the warnings of our Lord and His apostles concerning the love of money.

Having begun prison work in Finland, in 1887 he made an appeal to a friend of the Empress (grandmother of Czar Nicholas II) for permission to evangelize in Russian prisons. From the Director of the Prisons Department in St. Petersburg Baedeker received a permit to visit every one of the three hundred Russian prisons. That door to the most wretched offscouring of earth would remain open to Frederick Baedeker for eighteen years.

In those prisons Baedeker looked into the crater of lurid human misery, agony and despair. When he crossed the Urals in 1889, and saw Siberia he wrote home, “The prisons of Tomsk are simply horrible beyond description or imagination. . . It is a sight to make one’s heart bleed, to see little children fondly embracing their father who is heavily chained; and mothers who have three or four children with them, all looking sickly from exposure and privation. The atmosphere. . . is simply poison.” In 1890 he traversed Siberia completely for his first time, reaching Nikolayevsk-na-Amure, the Lands End of great Russia, visiting all the prisons enroute. In six months he proclaimed the gospel of Christ to upwards to forty thousand prisoners and distributed twelve thousand copies of the Word of God, often traveling vast distances in vehicles little improved from the days of the Apostle Paul. Saying he “never found an opening so cheering” he would descend among the stench of virulent pestilence and there preach Christ to desperate and dying men. These squalid creatures called him “Dedouchka” meaning “dear grandfather.” Leo Tolstoy said of Baedeker that “he speaks in such a way that the most hardened criminals sink on their knees and repent.” The last of Leo Tolstoy’s great novels, Resurrection, a work which describes Russian prison life, features two characters, Kiezewetter and the “Englishman.” The one is a German who preaches in English on salvation in “the stately ballrooms and drawing rooms of the nobility in St. Petersburg; the other is an amazing traveler, who evangelizes in the loathsome kameras of the Siberian prisons.” Kiezewetter and the “Englishman” are manifestly sketches of Dr. Frederick Baedeker, for he was the only English-speaking German who combined the two widely different ministries of evangelizing in the palaces and in the prisons of Russia.

Further reading:

Chief Men Among the Brethren, Loizeaux Brothers p. 142-146

Dr. Baedeker and his Apostolic Work in Russia, by R. Sloan Latimer

That the World May Know by Frederick Tatford Vol.9

Heroes of the Cross, Series Six, Marshal, Morgan & Scott.

The Stundists, Bible Truth Publishers

The Pilgrim Church, by E. H. Broadbent, Marshal Pickering, p. 318-346.