Elder Ezra Taft Benson Speaks at the Central Baptist Church in Communist Russia, October, 1959
“It was the most heart-rending and most inspiring scene I’ve witnessed.” –News reporter
From the time he arrived, Ezra Taft Benson repeatedly requested that he be taken to visit one of the two Protestant churches in Moscow. Finally, as his party was taken to the airport for their departure, he again asked to stop at a church. Reluctantly, his driver swung into a narrow alley behind an old stucco building – the Central Baptist Church. It was raining, but the chill left as the Secretary’s party entered the church which was filled to overflowing with mostly middle-aged and elderly people. Ezra understood that Soviet citizens attended these services at some risk; anyone who looked to a career of any kind avoided the slightest suspicion of belief in Christianity.
The American group caused an immediate stir in the old church. A newsman present described the scene: “Every face in the old sanctuary gaped incredulously as our obviously American group was led down the aisle. They grabbed for our hands as we proceeded to our pews which were gladly vacated…Their wrinkled old faces looked at us pleadingly. They reached out to touch us almost as one would reach out for the last final caress of one’s most-beloved just before the casket is lowered. They were in misery and yet a light shone through the misery. They gripped our hands like frightened children.”
Surprisingly, the minister invited Secretary Benson to speak. Knowing there was some danger, Ezra turned to Flora and asked if she thought he should do it. Without pause she answered, “You bet, T!” And he made his way to the pulpit.
Never had he stood before an audience like this. As he scanned the crowd of anxious faces, it took some moments for him to control his emotions. These were good people, he felt immediately, subjected to a society that deprived them of unrestricted worship. The emotional impact was almost more than he could bear. Then he began to speak about hope and truth and love. As he talked about the Savior and the hope of life after death, tears flowed freely throughout the church.
“Our Heavenly Father is not far away,” the Secretary promised. “He is our Father. Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of the World, watches over this earth…Be unafraid, keep His commandments, love one another, pray for peace, and all will be well.”
Women took out their handkerchiefs and nodded vigorously as they moaned “Ja, ja, ja!” He looked down at one elderly woman, her head covered by a scarf and with a shawl about her shoulders, and spoke as though directly to her: “This life is only a part of eternity. We lived before we cam here…We will live again after we leave this life…I believe very firmly in prayer. I know it is possible to reach out and tap the Unseen Power which gives us strength and such an anchor in time of need.” He concluded, “I leave you my witness as a church servant for many years that the truth will endure. Time is on the side of truth. God bless you and keep you all the days of your life.”
By this time teams were streaming down Ezra’s face. When his entourage finally filed down the aisle, men and women waved handkerchiefs and grasped the visitors’ hands in an action that spoke more than words. Spontaneously they began to sing “God Be With You Till We Meet Again.” The language was foreign, but the tune and meaning were unmistakable. The Americans entered their cars with not a dry eye among them. Finally, a newsman broke the silence, commenting, “I believe they were the only really happy people we saw in Russia.”
“I shall never forget that evening as long as I live,” Elder Benson later wrote. “Seldom, if ever, have I felt the oneness of mankind and the unquenchable yearning of the human heart for freedom.” Others felt similarly. Cynical newsmen who had complained about “going to church with Ezra” (and who had skipped out on LDS services in West Berlin) stood and wept openly.
Tom Anderson, editor of Farm and Ranch magazine, wrote, “Imagine getting your greatest spiritual experience in atheistic Russia!….The Communist plan is that when these ‘last believers’ die off, religion will die with them. What the atheists don’t know is that God can’t be stamped out by legislated atheism….This Methodist backslider who occasionally grumbles about having to go to church, stood crying unashamedly, throat lumped, and chills running from spine to toes. It was the most heart-rending and most inspiring scene I’ve witnessed.”
When they reached the airport, nearly all of the newsmen traveling with Ezra told him it had been the greatest spiritual experience they had ever had.
–“Ezra Taft Benson, A Biography,” by Sheri Dew (Deseret Book, 1987), pp. 342-344