Part III Two Decades
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
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
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.
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