The Status of the Lutheran Church in 1926
As the congregation of Sts. Peter and Paul in Moscow prepared to celebrate its 300th anniversary and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Russia its 350th in 1926, Bishop Meier in a secret report described for foreign Lutherans the status of his own congregation and the Lutheran Church in the Soviet Union.
Likening the Church to the broken tabernacle that the prophet Amos saw, Meier pondered how long it could survive given the oppressive conditions. At the beginning of World War I, Sts. Peter and Paul had numbered 20,000 parishioners, with 300 baptisms, 225 confirmations, 200 marriages, and 350 burials each year. This enormous church held space for 2,500 people while its three secondary schools plus other lower-level schools numbered over 1,500 students. There were three pastors serving the congregation with one part-time pastor. In the words of Meier, though, this congregation was not only badly damaged but “completely ruined.”
The nationalisation of the property led to the church losing about 3 million rubles, or the equivalent of $1.5 million of property and funds. Now only a third of its former parishioners remained, as many had left for the Baltic states. By 1926 it was reduced to 100 baptisms, 75 confirmations, 80 weddings, and 85 deaths a year. Only one pastor served the congregation, and at times he was even forced to fill in at St. Michaels.
Yet despite all the obstacles, the perseverance of the Church and its parishioners was remarkable. For example, in the past the Church had relied on its property and funds to undergird a variety of charitable institutions and its pastors. Now that the Communist state had taken that away from them, there was a reduction in income and the number of parishioners attending church. Yet despite the decline of Sts. Peter and Paul to about a third of its previous level, parishioners tithed more money now than they had previously. People seemed to recognise that they had a treasure in their church and seemed to value it even more than in the past. Many city congregations had even added Saturday evening services, and in the case of Sts. Peter and Paul, they were very well attended.
Looking over the circumstances of the Lutheran Church in the Volga region, Meier saw reason for cautious optimism. Attendance was up and pastors were ministering to larger crowds than they had in the years of war and famine. The sixty-three-year-old Volga District President, Nathaniel Heptner, was kept busy on Sundays and throughout the week, holding services in villages and cities throughout the Volga region. One congregation regularly numbered five hundred to a thousand attendees but could also reach numbers in excess of 1,500! Heptner wore a pedometer during one communion service, calculating that he walked twelve kilometers in the altar space! During the week of Pentecost in 1926, he traversed the Volga River villages, confirming more than 1,500 girls and boys.