Tarzier Memoirs

Part III Two Decades of Freedom



So that is how four aspiring Latvian ministers arrived at All Nations’ Bible School in London, dirty and tired from the long train journey, in the fall of 1924. Everything was new to us—currency, language, customs, geography. When we dove into classes taught in English, we found out to our dismay how little of the language we knew. Fortunately one of our classmates, a Christian Jew from Ukraine, met with us after class to translate into Russian what we did not understand. He even offered to interpret whole lectures, but we turned him down. We wanted to learn the language as fast as possible, which wouldn’t happen if he translated everything for us.

We spent our Christmas break on the now-deserted campus. Latvia was too far away, two days by train, and we could not afford the luxury of the trip even if time permitted. To pay for room and board, we worked in the park and on the campus grounds, along with a few remaining Brits on work-study. We mowed the grass, cut down old trees, and built a drainage ditch. The English students considered this grunt work nothing short of slavery, but we Latvian farmers actually enjoyed it. Moreover, we were good at it, and they were not. They could not make an even, straight cut with the cross saw, and when they tried to use the scythe the end always got stuck in the ground, much to our merriment. The most difficult job was excavating the ditch. The sticky clay of the English soil was very different from our soft Latvian dirt. I hurt my back on that job and had to stay in bed for a week. Afterwards, it was never quite the same.

I witnessed a huge demonstration against the Modernist trend in churches during our soujourn in England. The demonstration began in downtown London and the crowd marched south, ending in the famous Crystal Palace, a meeting hall that could accommodate thirty thousand people. The theme of the demonstration was inspired by Isaiah 8:20: “To the law and to the testimony; if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.” Every speaker used this verse as text for their sermons. I don’t believe England ever experienced another such spontaneous religious demonstration. I must add that the Crystal Palace was destroyed by fire, German bombing leveled the Metropolitan Tabernacle, and neither was ever rebuilt. Our British classmates bragged that “the sun never sets on the Union Jack,” but in a mere sixty years the British Empire went to the junkyard of history. They did not even care enough to reconstruct their historical buildings.

Baptist theological education was carried out at two colleges: Bristol Theological College supported by the Baptist Union, and the Spurgeon’s Pastors’ College in London, which was affiliated with the Metropolitan Tabernacle. The Bristol school educated formal pastors, while Spurgeon turned out charismatic preachers, more popular with the local churches.

Seemingly unimportant events stick in one’s mind forever. I remember one from our first Christmas in England. We usually gathered around the fireplace in the lounge after work. A young Englishman called Lesley, who worked in the kitchen, was probably curious about the four Latvians transplants. He once lingered with us around the fireplace, asking all sorts of questions. But suddenly the door flew open and the principal’s wife burst into the room. She yelled at Lesley for the whole world to hear, “What are you doing here? The lounge is for the students only. Get back in the kitchen.” He got up and left without a word. This one time I restrained myself and said nothing. After all, we were new to the school, and foreigners at that. But her arrogance rankled me. I felt relieved when the principal was replaced shortly thereafter, and the family left town. Later, I caught sight of the woman at a Pentecostal meeting in downtown London. Her husband had died and I guess the Church of England offered little solace. She looked haggard and worn. I thought, “Sic transit gloria mundi” —how transitory is the glory of the world. However, I must confess that I was not beyond arrogance myself. The Pentecostal pastor, a fiery man called Jeffrey, greeted after a service and asked, “Have you spoken in tongues yet?” I replied, “Yes, I am speaking in tongues right now. I am speaking English, which is not my native tongue.” He pivoted on his heels and never spoke to us again.

Most Sundays I attended the Metropolitan Tabernacle in downtown London, the famous Spurgeon’s Tabernacle. In the evening we worshipped with the Salvation Army. I enjoyed those services. They began with an open air meeting, a service out in the street, with a band and “soldiers” in uniform giving witness. After the open air service, we all filed into their hall to the sound of the marching band. Their worshipping was informal and full of energy, unlike the services at the college chapel. In England, even Baptists were stiff and formal.

We had a peculiar classmate, a Ukrainian called Rogozin, who hardly ever attended church on Sundays. He stayed in the dormitory or studied in the lounge. He became a legend in his own way. If one of us missed a service, we simply said, “I went to Rogozin’s church this morning.”

When the school reopened for the winter semester, we met our new principal, a fine scholar back from Canada, where he had been teaching Hebrew at the university level. He taught two classes at the College, Old Testament and Greek language. Greek is closer to Russian than to English, and he liked to preface the Greek language classes by addressing those of us who spoke Russian: “Gentlemen, you have no idea how easy it is for the Apostle Paul to speak Russian, and how difficult it is for him to speak English!”

One incident puzzles me still. A man who pastored a small Baptist church in London worked as gardener in the college. He participated in some of the lectures but left for Canada within a year or so of our arrival. A year later he returned with a degree in theology. He no longer attended classes, though he still worked as gardener. We asked the principal how it was possible for this uneducated man to earn a degree in theology in such a short time—after all, we studied full time for two years. He hesitated a little, then just said, “Gentlemen, gentlemen, in America they have many gods and many lords.” With this uninformative remark, he dropped the matter, leaving us to mull it over forever after.

Besides academic work, life in England offered other opportunities. As we became more fluent in English, various churches and organizations invited us to address their meetings and to tell of life under Bolshevik rule. We received no payment, only a modest love offering, but the experience was useful. My musical training came to good use too. I became the college organist for the morning devotions. We did not have a pipe organ, only a harmonium, so every morning I got some exercise pumping pedals. I was also able to build up a substantial library quite inexpensively by frequenting second hand bookstores. Fortunately there was no import duty on second hand books, and when I left I packed my books in wooden crates and freighted them by ship to Riga.

The two years passed quickly. We graduated in 1926. Not everybody left—Karlis Grikmans opted to stay at the College for another year, and Osvalds Blumits was accepted at the Spurgeon’s Pastors’ College. Before returning home, I traveled by special train to the Scottish Highlands to a small town called Keswick, graced by the falls of Lake Ladoor. About eight thousand people came to hear famous Bible teachers and interpreters of the Gospel from all over the world. This was a fitting end to my sojourn in England. It was with some nostalgia that I left Keswick for London and boarded the train back to Latvia.

On to Latgale

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