Book Reviews

Book Review: The Gates of Hell (Matthew Heise)

Previously in Russion history, the Russian czars respected and appreciate the role that Lutherans played in society. They provided strong school and many served various ways in governing Russia. Though, they were also held at an arm’s length by the administration and considered a “fifth column,” people sympathetic to Russia’s enemies. After a revolution, a provisional government led by Alexander Kerensky seemed promising to the German Lutherans living in Russia. Lutheran pastors previously banned were allowed to return. However, in October of 1917, “the Provisional Government was usurped by a new group of anti-government rebels, communists known as the Bolsheviks… intent on eradicating all traces of religion from Russian society” (12). The Bolshevik Revolution overthrew the czarist rule and would later become the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. 

The fallout from this for the Lutheran church was enormous. The Decree on Separation of Church from State and School from Church would prevent religious oaths and Christian symbols from being used in state buildings. Christian school were outlawed. Some other Lutheran schools could no longer teach religion. Congregations, or “Religious groups,” had their property confiscated. Even if they could still use the buildings and premises, the government owned these buildings and could use them for whatever they wanted.  A civil war brought about three million deaths, with two million people, including many pastors, fleeing the country.

This is a superb book that almost brings you back into time to see firsthand how life was for these German Lutherans. They fought starvation and plague, experienced the generosity of American Lutherans to send money for food that these spiritual siblings might live, had hopes of a new seminary (Leningrad Lutheran seminary) that would teach future pastors,  but they lived in a country where “a powerful, invisible hand from the dark” could come at any moment. Then pastors were sentenced to years (Pastor Johannes Grasmück recieved twenty-five) of hard labor in the gulag camps far to the north. Stalin was going to crush religion to move forward into the atheistic future. Though Christians were an enemy to the state, in prison they were siblings in Christ.

The book is not a bright, sunshine-y book that you read when you want a pick-me-up. It’s gritty and gloomy. Yet when the USSR disintegrated in 1911, churches began to open their doors. Now, most Russians were embarrassed over their Communist past. With churches opening their doors, survivors told the new generation of believers “that despite the long years of suffering under communism, God had never abandoned his people” (391). It was clear that the gates of hell did not prevail, though as one said, “they did have their ‘little season'” (391). John Morehead, and American Lutheran, worked tirelessly to help his spiritual siblings could live and glorify Jesus. Though I haven’t written about him until now, his name runs through the entire book. He and others who worked to the point of exhaustion new that God’s word was eternal and it would outlast the “man-made sandcastles of Soviet utopianism” (393).

There are sixteen pages of photographs of the seminary staff, of normal church folks—pastors and Sunday School teachers—who were sent to the Gulag for their faith, of a funeral, of John Morehead on his journey for famine relief throughout Volga, and of the Lutheran World Convention. These were real, ordinary people, who suffered terribly for their faith, and who now live in the glory of the eternal one.

Matthew Heise is director of the Lutheran Heritage Foundation. He was formerly a missionary for the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod for over a decade, serving in countries such as Russia, Ukraine, and Georgia.

Recommended?

I am no history buff. With many books, including this one, I get a bit lost in all the names and dates. Heise jumps around a bit because he is focused on a particular topic, but that topic and the people involved stretch into different years and places. There are many names, organizations, places, and events that are taking place throughout the book. Yet I would still highly recommend this book due to the intense level of persecution the church underwent while still staying faithful to Jesus. They lived for him and no other, no matter how intensely difficult life became. It was eye-opening and motivating to see their living faith in the midst of so many daily fears and struggles. To read about their lives is a reminder that God’s work outlasts any and all “man-made sandcastles” (393).

Lagniappe

  • Author: Matthew Heise
  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Lexham Press (May 11, 2022)

Buy it on Amazon or from Lexham Press

Disclosure: I received this book free from Lexham Press. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

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