Growth of Church in 'that vast empire'

The emergence of the Church in "that vast empire of Russia" was the topic of the BYU campus devotional address delivered Nov. 2 by Gary L. Browning, a former mission president in Russia. He is now a professor of Russian language and literature at BYU.

Campus devotionals, a new series to include five lectures by BYU faculty members through April, began with Brother Browning's talk in the deJong Concert Hall.At the beginning of his address, Brother Browning quoted from a historical account in which the Prophet Joseph Smith, in June 1843, announced the appointment of Apostle Orson Hyde and George J. Adams to serve as missionaries "in that vast empire of Russia," with which, the Prophet continued, "are connected some of the most important things concerning the advancement and building up of the Kingdom of God in the last days, which cannot be explained at this time." Brother Browning said that although months of preparation followed the announcement, Elders Hyde and Adams never served in Russia.

Quoting further from historical records, Brother Browning said that the land of Russia was dedicated for missionary work in 1903 by Elder Francis M. Lyman, an apostle who offered dedicatory prayers in St. Petersburg and Moscow. "Subsequently, many Church leaders and members, professional men and women, statesmen, educators, and, significantly, BYU performing groups helped prepare the way for the introduction of the restored gospel to Russia," Brother Browning said.

"It was especially during Gorbachev's era of glasnost, beginning in 1985, that conditions gradually became favorable for establishing a mission in the country. In particular, Elder Russell M. Nelson [of the Council of the TwelveT, assisted by European Area Pres. Hans B. Ringger [of the SeventyT, Austria Vienna East Mission Pres. Dennis B. Neuenschwander [now a member of the SeventyT, and Finland Helsinki Mission Pres. Steven R. Mecham, established vital contacts, opened doors long closed, and commenced the missionary effort."

Brother Browning said by the time he arrived with his family to begin missionary service in 1990 in what was originally the Finland Helsinki East Mission, three young but already flourishing branches of the Church existed in what was then the USSR. The largest was in Leningrad, with nearly 100 members; then Tallinn, Estonia, with almost 50 members; and Vyborg, Russia, with approximately 25 members.

Many of the earliest Russian and Estonian members joined the Church while visiting abroad in Europe, especially in Finland, he said.

Brother Browning said Pres. Mecham received permission to send the first full-time missionaries from the Finland Helsinki Mission into Russia. The missionaries were mainly Americans who had previously studied Russian. They and some members from Finland were allowed to go into Russia for a few days at a time to conduct home teaching and fellowshiping visits in apartments of baptized members.

He spoke of factors that inhibited LDS missionary work in Russia. Among them: 1. The millennium-long and rich heritage of the Russian Orthodox Church, which was tightly interwoven into society's cultural, educational and political lives. 2. Seven decades of official atheism, which left many with impaired receptivity. 3. Economic conditions that complicated missionary activity since many Russians worked longer hours and often at more than one job.

"Nevertheless, a golden layer of Russians remained, prepared by the Spirit and receptive to the gospel message," Brother Browning said.

"Our mission began in July 1990 with 16 missionaries transferred from the Finland Helsinki Mission and upwards of 175 Russian and Estonian members. By the time of the first division of our mission in February 1992 into the Russia St. Petersburg and Russia Moscow Missions, there were approximately 70 missionaries and over 750 members. Our family moved to Moscow with 28 of these 70 missionaries to serve with nearly 200 of the 750-plus members.

"By the time of our release almost a year and a half later in July 1993, the Moscow mission included [branches inT Moscow, Nizhnii Novgorod, Samara, Saratov, and Voroenzh; the missionary force had grown to nearly 140; and the membership was approximately 750."

Brother Browning said dissatisfaction of the people with ancient dogmas and ideologies that forbade open inquiry contributed to the growth of the Church. Also, press and television coverage contributed, as did visits of the Tabernacle Choir and several BYU performing groups, General Authority meetings with members and friends of the Church. He added that superb missionaries, dedicated and competent, were crucially important.

In Moscow, the first group of members became a branch with a Russian branch president in March 1991. In March 1992, the Moscow branch was divided into six small branches. Nearly a year later, 15 small Russian-speaking branches were organized in Moscow.

He said rapid growth and relatively inexperienced members meant that timely and intensive leadership training was essential. "In some branches, young missionaries served with simply astonishing skill and wisdom as branch and Relief Society presidents, and as other leaders," he said.

Eventually a Mission Training Council was formed, led by Americans working in Moscow embassies and businesses. Regular training meetings were held for branch leaders and teachers, members preparing for temple or missionary service, and for members of branch social and cultural committees. Members of the Moscow districts are gradually assuming more of the training function, with relatively experienced and remarkably successful Russian leaders training others, he said.

"Challenges abounded in the mission, but so did treasured moments of spiritual refreshment and affirmation," Brother Browning said. "For example, I was deeply moved as I attended Church meetings in Vyborg on the first Sunday of my mission. Since 1963, I had visited Russia fairly frequently. (Before his mission, Brother Browning had been to the Soviet Union 10 times, twice for extended periods while he was researching Russian literature and serving as a guide for an American exhibition on education. During 1977, he was a Russian fellow at Moscow State University. He has published books on the Russian language, literature and culture.)

"In my heart I had felt that the restored gospel would be shared with this deserving people whom I had come to love dearly, but in my mind I could not imagine how our Church could ever be established with that country's government and ruling party so opposed to religion."

He said that on a Sunday in July 1990, he attended Church held in a small music school. "I was greeted by two legendary missionaries and by nearly two dozen recently baptized members of the Church.

"Before my sacrament meeting talk, six little girls, from about 3 to 9 years of age, sang in Russian I Am a Child of God.' The singing was angelic, as were, especially their radiant, broadly smiling faces. As I watched and listened in awe, my heart filled withhosannahs' for the blessing of this long-awaited day.

"Further, I recall with delight the words of a relatively new Saratov member teaching a priesthood lesson on the importance of the family. The lesson was fairly standard, except for a few moments when he soared in spirit as he related experiences from his own family. He spoke of his young, grade-school son who had returned from school one day with a bruised face. His son had objected when a bully was tormenting a girl classmate. For his trouble, the young member of the Church had been hit very hard. His classmates saw what happened and ran up to him, offering to join him in teaching the tormentor a lesson. But the boy replied that he had been reading the Bible and attending a church where he was taught not to do mean things, even to those who do mean things to you. His friends were dumbfounded, as, especially, was the father, who generally had followed a different, far harsher ethic all his life, and who that day personally experienced Jesus' teachings powerfully and deeply for the first time."

During his address at BYU, Brother Browning related stories of members in Russia and from abroad who have helped the Church grow. (See related stories on pages 5 and 10.)

He then described what he felt was the highlight of his mission. On Feb. 21, 1993, more than 500 members and friends gathered in a conference. Ten new branches had just been organized, bringing the total to 15 in the mission. The new branch presidents were bearing their testimonies. Pres. Browning said that as the eighth or ninth branch president was speaking, he began reviewing in his mind the points of his own talk, which would conclude the conference.

He said he was prepared to speak on the blessings of attending a large, established ward of the Church, as he had done as a boy living in Idaho. He had planned to speak of the full Church program, and lovely meetinghouse facilities, such as the building in Pocatello that had an inspiring mural on the wall behind the podium. The mural, he said, depicted heroic pioneers crossing the plains, struggling and, on occasion, disheartened, but always attended by unseen angels. He said he planned to draw a parallel to the Moscow pioneers crossing to their eagerly anticipated spiritual Zion.

"As I was mentally reviewing these and other points, suddenly and unexpectedly an intimation, a thought, a sensation filled my consciousness and in an instant encompassed my whole being," Brother Browning said. "I no longer thought about my talk or listened to the speaker.

"I had felt a distinct and powerful impression that the spirit of the Prophet Joseph Smith was rejoicing with us in this historic meeting. I believe for a moment my spirit felt his spirit of youthful buoyancy, joyful enthusiasm, and expansive vision.

"As I reflected on this feeling, I realized that in 1993, 150 years had passed from the 1843 appointment of the first missionaries to Russia, and that this day of fulfillment must be an occasion for heavenly rejoicing and grateful recognition of the efforts of so many over 15 decades who made the emergence of the Church out of obscurity a reality in Russia."

Brother Browning closed his address by relating a personal experience, in which he needed surgery while in Russia to halt his deteriorating eyesight. "Before the surgery I desired a priesthood blessing," he recounted. "I was surrounded by many of surpassing spiritual plenitude. I would have been honored to have any two of dozens bless me. . . .

"It was when I was meeting with two members of the two Moscow district presidencies that I recognized I should ask these brethren to be the participants in this ordinance of blessing. After our meeting I invited the two men present, Pres. Martynov from the north and Pres. Petrov from the south, to give me a priesthood blessing. As they laid their hands on my head and spoke with humility and power beautiful words of comfort and blessing in the Russian language, I understood a remarkable truth: in my moment of need I had come to two worthy Moscow priesthood holders, neither of whom had been a member of the Church when our mission was begun in 1990. Further, I had been among those who had had the opportunity to teach them to anoint and bless the sick and disconsolate."

Brother Browning said the operation was successful. Small strips of human donor sclera, the white part of the eye, were carefully placed on the thinned back walls of his eyes.

"Much of my life I have felt or wanted to believe, romantic that I am, that part of my soul, my aspirations and dreams, my cultural preferences, were Russian," he said. "Now I can proudly acknowledge that a portion of my physical being is Russian. Someone gave part of her or himself that I might have the possibility of better health.

"That is what we missionaries around the world hope to do - share something of ourselves, of our faith and conviction, that part of us which is most needed by others to affirm heartening meaning in this often perplexing life, in which we all see as though `through a glass darkly.' "

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