Tikhon (1865–1925) and the Bolsheviks

[Patriarch Tikhon of Moscow near Donskoy Monastery Jul 1923]

In 1917, the Russian Orthodox Church restored the position of Patriarch of Moscow that had been abolished over two hundred years ealier by Peter the Great. Certain Orthodox leaders resisted the restoration, but the success of the Bolsheviks changed the mood. The church was going to need someone to hold it together and speak for it.

The delegates selected three candidates and placed their names in a urn from which one would be drawn. The lot fell to Tikhon who deplored the choice. “How many tears I shall have to swallow and how many groans let out in the patriarchal service that is set before me, and especially at such a terrible time!” By his election, he was forced into conflict with the Communist regime and stands as an example of an Orthodox patriarch who suffered martyrdom for trying to carry out the work of the church in teeth of atheistic harrassment.

Tikhon had been deeply loved wherever he served (including in Alaska), and gained a reputation for kindness and generosity. The Russian people would adore him.

The Bolsheviks passed law after law restricting and plundering the church. Their atheism was and cruelty knew no bounds. Early in 1918 Tikhon pronounced an anathema on them. He called all the Orthodox to enter the ranks of spiritual warriors against the foe.

However, shortly afterward he adopted an apolitical stance and urged clergy to preach Christ only and the gospel, not to take political sides. He also gave regional bishops permission to make decisions that would traditionally have been his, should they be cut off from his leadership. When famine came, he authorized churches to their valuables to feed the poor, except the items used in the divine liturgy. However, the Soviets demanded all valuables without regard to their use, and many priests died defending the sacred utensils.

The Communists placed Tikhon under house arrest. Revisionists seized control of the church. Praising the Communist revolution as a Christian creation, and Lenin as an able leader, they imprisoned Tikhon in Taganka prison. Soon they stripped him of his title, causing him to revert to his birthname, Basil Bellavin. Fed false information in prison, he eventually revoked his anathema and was released. He was shocked to find the true state of the church that had been taken over by those who hated it. He reproached himself for having rescinded his anathema.

The rest of his life he struggled desperately to salvage the church. He died in 1925, apparently poisoned.

Lin Zhao’s (1932-1968) Blood Letters

Detail from cover of Blood Letters

Lin Zhao was raised a Christian in China. She never renounced Christ but, horrified at the atrocities of the governing Nationlists, sided with the Communists, believing their promises of a rosy, peasant-friendly future. Well-educated, she used her knowledge of Chinese literature, especially poetry, to produce idealistic propaganda.

After Mao seized power, delusion began to set in. She found that freedom of speech rapidly eroded. Soon she was in trouble and sent for re-education. Party representatives at the local level used their petty authority to sexually harass her and to topple opponents with lying denunciations. She vacillated between hope and despair for the Communist party, eventually becoming a “reactionary” and resistor. She helped produce underground resistance papers and wrote for them.

Imprisoned, she followed the time-honored Chinese practice of writing protests and letters in her own blood. Some of her productions were elaborate and lengthy, others pithy and to the point. Somehow she managed to survive, despite defiant refusal to conform, and despite her tuberculosis. She found strength in her childhood faith as she experienced denunciations, torturous handcuffing, exposure, hunger, beatings by fellow inmates (sicced on her by prison authorities), and solitary confinement. More than once she tried to commit suicide “as an exclamation point in the epic of the struggle of free humanity.”

Nonetheless, she sang hymns in her cell, held solitary Sunday services, and stood up to defend God when Christians were maligned. She wrestled with Christian concepts of forgiveness in light of the monstrosities of Mao and his henchmen, seeing some sparks of humanity in them, callused though they had become. One of her last writings spoke of her struggle to set aside her self-will under Christ’s lordship.

On 29 April 1968, she was taken from a hospital bed in her hospital gown and shot. As was common in such cases, the government presented her family with a bill for the bullet. By law her writings had to be preserved by the prison authorities. Many pages were released eleven years later during Chairman Deng Xiaopeng’s reforms, which removed the stigma attached to many former “rightists.”

In a way, Lin Zhao’s blood letters spoke for millions who perished in China during the Red takeover and subsequent Cultural Revolution. The millions did not have her classical eloquence to record their resistance against the Maoist regime but, like Lin, they gave their blood.

The following excerpts are from Blood Letters, the Untold Story of Lin Zhao, a Martyr in Mao’s China, by Lian Xi. (New York: Basic Books, 2018.) The first two are from her “Letter to the editorial board of the People’s Daily,” 1965. The third is from her last blood letter to her mother.

As a Christian, my life belongs to my God…In order to stick to my path, or rather my line, the line of a servant of God, the political line of Christ, this young person paid a grievous price…. I have come to see more clearly and deeply the many terrifying and shocking evils committed by your demonic party. I grieved and wept for them! Yet even when I touched the darkest, the bloodiest, and the most savage center of your power–the core evil–I still glimpses, I did not completely overlook, the occasional sparks of humanity in you…. Then I cried in even greater anguish! I cried for your blood-smeared souls, which are unable to rid themselves of evil and are dragged by its terrifying weight ever deeper into the swamp of death…. Gentlemen, those who enslave others can never be free. What a merciless but certain truth in your case!


Grind me into powder if you wish. Every bit of my broken bone will be the seed of a resister.


Generally speaking, I tend to be overconfident in handling various problems! This is a serious problem especially for a Christian! There is too much of “me”; as a result there is too little, or almost nothing, of the Lord!….I affirm myself too much! And I forget my Lord! I forget that in my proper station, I am but a servant!….Alas, dear Mama, how hard it is for faith to come from the flesh!

Noble Alexander (1934–2002) Faced Trumped up Charges

Noble Alexander spent twenty-three years in Cuban prisons. Map courtesy of the CIA Factbook.

Noble Alexander (1934–2002) was a Seventh Day Adventist religious leader in Cuba. In an interview with Ronald Geraty, he described Castro’s coming as a tragedy.

Castro arrested many Christians and political opponents whom he held for long years in his prisons. Alexander was one of them. Among the accusations against him was that he preached a sermon describing Satan’s rebellion in heaven as demanding equality with God. Authorities said it was an allusion to Castro and the communist claims of equality.

History of Christianity is a six part survey designed to stimulate your curiosity by providing glimpses of pivotal events and persons in the spread of the church.

history of christianity dvd

In prison, Alexander was ordained by the president of the Seventh Day Adventists. He established churches and pastored fellow prisoners during his twenty-year sentence and through two additional years that he was held after his sentence expired. At various times, he was thrown into solitary, once for two years for refusing to turn over a hidden Bible to prison guards.

Anyone who refused re-education (communist indoctrination) faced especially severe treatment. He refused it and was often tortured. Once he was dunked in an icy lake until he passed out. Another time he was hit by a bullet when angry guards fired into his prayer group. With other prisoners he ate appaling food but, in spite of near starvation, refused pork. Like the rest, he endured rats, cockroaches, and lizards in his cell.

Eventually he was one of twenty-six political prisoners whose release Jesse Jackson helped negotiate. After coming to America, he wrote a biography, I Will Die Free. Here is a segment describing his kangaroo trial.

Excerpt from I Will Die Free

“According to our records you conspired to place a bomb in President Fidel Castro’s plane in 1963.”

“In 1963?” I asked. “I admit to being a spiritual and a physical being, but as of yet have never managed to be in two different places at the same time.”

The prosecutor scowled. “Explain yourself.”

“If you check your prison records, sir,” I said, “you will see I have been detained by the military since February of last year, 1962. And you say that this year, 1963, I plotted to put a bomb in Castro’s plane?”

In spite of the impossibility of the alleged attempt, the show trial went on. Alexander was even struck across the mouth when he responded to a racial slur. Afterward, his court appointed attorney, completely in league with the authorities, rose to speak in his behalf.

“Sir,” he addressed the judge, “Seeing that my client is obviously guilty of all charges made against him by the state, be merciful. He well deserves to sacrifice his life for what he did. Instead, as a member of this merciful court, I am going to request that he receive only twenty years of hard labor for his crimes against the state.”

The judge nodded in agreement. “So be it. Humberto Noble Alexander, you have been tried and convicted of conspiring to assasinate President Fidel Castro and of aiding and abetting the flight of counter-revolutionaries, and the most serious crime of all, distributing opium to the Cuban people…” [Opium was a reference to his religious teaching, the so-called “opiate of the masses.” The judge then sentenced Alexander to twenty years of severe punishment.]

[A] wellspring of joy rose up inside me. God had blessed me with a secret privilege far beyond any I could have imagined….I was not suffering unjustly for mistakes I was falsely accused of making, but for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918–1988) Blesses Prison

Russian writer and Nobel prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn looks out from a train, in Vladivostok, summer 1994, before departing on a journey across Russia. Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia after nearly twenty years in exile. Photo by Mikhail Evstafiev. I, Evstafiev [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Imprisonment has sometimes been the means of causing individuals to question their purpose in life with the result that they open up to God. Such was the case with Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Hurled into the infamous Gulag Archipelago (Russia’s prison “islands”) for criticizing Stalin, he came to recognize that he had been on a course which was turning him into an inhuman monster. He changed direction.

Great Souls: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Hailed as the greatest Russian writer of the 20th century, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn went from avowed Communist to Gulag prisoner and outspoken advocate for the destruction of the Soviet empire. This is his historic and prophetic address at Harvard.

solzhenitsyn dvd

While in the prison, he observed the system around him and collected stories of fellow prisoners which he later recorded in his massive and intense work, The Gulag Archipelago. This short excerpt is from Book II Part IV The Soul and Barbed Wire, Chapter 1 “The Ascent.”

Excerpt from The Gulag Archipelago

It was granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a muderer and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts…

…It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.

And since that time I have come to understand the falsehood of all the revolutions of history: They destroy only those carriers of evil contemporary with them (and also fail, out of haste to discriminate the carriers of good as well). And they then take to themselves as their heritage the actual evil itself, magnified still more.


And that is why I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me: “Bless you, prison!”

Richard Wurmbrand (1909–2001) Survives Torture for Christ

Richard Wurmbrand, courtesy of Voice of the Martyrs, against CIA Factbook image of Romania.

Rumania’s Communists threw Richard Wurmbrand into prison in retaliation for his refusal to endorse them. Christ is Lord, and no government set up on principles utterly contrary to Christ’s word can be acceptable to the true Christian.

In prison, Wurmbrand was repeatedly tortured. To get at him mentally, the Communists also imprisoned and tortured his wife and persecuted his son.

Born in Romania, Richard and Sabina Wurmbrand became Christians. They shared the Gospel, although it was prohibited. In 1945, Richard publicly proclaimed Christ while speaking out against communism. This bold move led to the Wurmbrand’s imprisonment by the communists. Richard and Sabina endured unthinkable horror, but their witness was only strengthened.

wurmbrand dvd

After eight years, Wurmbrand was released. He was soon returned to prison for another three years until churches in the west ransomed him.

In the United States, Wurmbrand testified before the Senate and showed his scars. This testimony gave him the exposure he needed to found an organization, now known as the Voice of the Martyrs, which assists the persecuted church throughout the world.

Wurmbrand’s most famous writing was Tortured for Christ, a book which has sold millions of copies, been translated into numerous languages, and encouraged people worldwide to stand under torture. Here is a short excerpt.

Excerpt from Richard Wurmbrand’s Tortured for Christ.

It was strictly forbidden to preach to other prisoners. It was understood that whoever was caught doing this received a severe beating. A number of us decided to pay the price for the privilege of preaching, so we accepted their terms. It was a deal; we preached and they beat us. We were happy preaching. They were happy beating us, so everyone was happy.

The following scene happened more times than I can remember: A brother was preaching to the other prisoners when the guards suddenly burst in, surprising him halfway through a phrase. They hauled him down the corridor to their “beating room.” After what seemed like an endless beating, they brought him back and threw him—bloody and bruised—on the prison floor. Slowly he picked his battered body up, painfully straightened his clothing and said, “Now, brethren, where did I leave off when I was interrupted?” He continued his gospel message.

I have seen beautiful things!

John Sung (1901–1944) Imprisoned in an Insane Asylum for His Faith

Union Theological Seminary in 1883. A History of Real Estate, Building and Architecture in New York City During the Last Quarter of a Century with image of John Sung superimposed (from Trinity Church as it appears at alchetron.com)

John Sung was the son of a Chinese Methodist preacher. As a teen, he was known as “The Little Preacher” because he assisted his father. He traveled to the United States to study science and theology and shone in his classes. Although he organized student religious groups, he neglected the Bible and prayer and lost interest in Christianity.

Cross: Jesus in China. For the first time in history, Christianity in China, especially the House-Church, is given an honest and comprehensive account. The film answers the question raised by many people outside China: how did the number of Chinese Christians increase from 700,000 in 1949 to approximately 70 million today, despite Communist control?

sandfloor cathedral

To appease his father, he enrolled at Union Theological Seminary in New York. The school’s president, Henry Sloane Coffin, openly scoffed at miraculous elements in the Bible. Like the modernist Henry Emerson Fosdick, he denied the bodily resurrection of Christ and other teachings of the Bible, while advocating a social gospel. Sung felt a hunger for true spirituality and turned to Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.

The testimony of a fifteen-year-old girl in a fundamentalist church impressed him deeply. He recognized himself as a sinner and longed to be freed of his sins. He could not get rid of Christ’s question, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?” In February 1927, he read the story of the Crucifixion and imagined himself at the foot of the cross, pleading for forgiveness. He heard Christ say, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Immediately joy flooded his soul. He ran through the dorm, shouting “Hallelujah!”

However, his writings and statements during that time were often incoherent, conflicting, and suggestive of schizophrenia and paranoia. Henry Sloane Coffin brought in experts to examine Sung. They felt he had experienced a breakdown and urged him to commit himself to Bloomingdale Hospital at White Plains, an asylum for mentally ill people. Although at first he resisted, Sung finally agreed. However, he soon attempted to escape, which led the hospital to become more restrictive toward him. For much of his time at the hospital, Union paid the considerable cost of his care.

During the six months Sung spent in a cell in the asylum—as truly a prisoner as if he had been in jail—he said that he read the Bible cover to cover three times (later he claimed forty times “but not word for word”). Working with the Chinese consulate, Wilbur Fowler, a missionary friend, got Sung released. Sung returned to China, flinging away all his awards and diplomas, except his doctorate, which he kept for his father’s sake.

He spent the next fifteen years preaching throughout China and Southeast Asia. For the first three years, Sung had a relatively powerless ministry, involved principally in social causes. Eventually he learned to preach a gospel of repentance that spoke to Chinese hearts. It is estimated that over a hundred thousand people converted to Christianity under his preaching. He died at the age of forty-three.

In one of Sung’s letters to a colleague, he summarized his days in hospital with these words:

The Lord gave me a long-term rest and allowed me to go through many trials and suffering. During that period of time I could not help but be downcast. But as I look back now, it was all the grace of God. Thanks be to God. He put me in a cold hospital, a solitary place, where I led a lifeless and lonely life, so that I would draw nearer to God. Because of His great love He put me in a situation where I would gain many precious insights I would not have been able to gain otherwise. Though the sufferings of my trials is beyond the description of words, my advancement in the spirit during this period of time is also beyond the description of words. Therefore, brothers and sisters be prepared for suffering and follow the example of our Lord. He came to this world and left the footsteps of suffering, so that all who desire His revelation will follow in His steps willingly and happily.

In his testimony, Sung also described his hospital experience.

On the second day, a panel of scientists gathered to study the root of my sickness. They asked, “Are your father and mother affected by mental sickness? Are your mother’s parents also affected?” I said, “Do you think me mad? Please examine my brain and see who is more lucid.” Though they discarded me, God was with me. He taught me the Scriptures. The Holy Spirit led me to write down notes. I saw in the creation a revelation. I saw God as my loving Father. He gave me spiritual eyes. He taught me things of the Spirit. At this time … Satan came to tempt me. After the devil of conceit left the devil of jealousy came. Every day, a devil came. Thanks be to God, I won against the Devil through prayer. Though I was like a fish in the sea, I could rise like a bird in the sky.
At this time I was in the company of an inmate of 13 years. How could I stand it? I waited for a chance to escape. But they caught me within half a mile. Now they really regarded me a madman. I was bound hand and foot. I was put into an inner ward. My companions wailed day and night. How could I get any consolation? From sanity to insanity! I could only pray. God came to comfort me, “Fear not, I am with you. This is your cross!” I stayed in this wilderness for 193 days. This reminded me of the Lord Jesus who had borne our sins for 1930 years. So, I must bear this sin-load for 193 days. After 193 days, God said to me, “Today is your day of release.” True enough, a friend just returned from Europe to America became my guarantor. It fulfilled what God revealed to me.

The following quote is also attributed to Sung, but may not be original with him.

“Faith is watching God work while you are on your knees.”

Corrie ten Boom (1892–1983) Survives a Nazi Death Camp

Concentration Camp Ravensbrück Memorial Site — Prisoner labor station on the area of the former womens camp by Norbert Radtke (Photographer/ self) (Privatarchiv Norbert Radtke) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Adapted from Kaylena Radcliffe’s “A war story: ‘There is no pit so deep God’s love is not deeper still’” that appeared in Christian History issue 121.

Cornelia (Corrie) ten Boom was the child of a poor but generous Dutch Reformed couple, Casper and Cornelia ten Boom. After her birth the family moved to Haarlem in the Netherlands, where Casper took over his family watchmaking business. Their meandering home often overflowed with extended family, customers, and visitors. After 1918 the ten Booms housed displaced German families and fostered missionary children; this hospitality continued after the deaths of Corrie’s aunts and mother. These children were dear to Corrie, who called them her “Red Cap Club.” She later founded Christian girls’ clubs in Haarlem.

Like her elder sister Betsie, Corrie never married. The two worked diligently in the family home and business. Unlike her father, Corrie was business-minded, and her pragmatic management actually turned a profit. Her gifts led to an apprenticeship, and in 1924 she became Holland’s first licensed female watchmaker.

When Hitler rose to power in Germany, his anti-Semitism became public policy. Corrie’s brother Willem, a concerned pastor working with Jews in Germany, brought the news of Jewish persecution home. Corrie later wrote:

When Willem was visiting and would not let us forget, or when letters to Jewish suppliers in Germany came back marked “Address Unknown,” we still managed to believe that it was primarily a German problem. “How long are they going to stand for it?” we said. “They won’t put up with that man for long.”

But put up with Hitler the Germans did.

As a result, Holland’s safety was precarious because Germany eyed its neighbors’ territory and invaded Poland in 1939. Neutral in World War I, Holland again claimed neutrality. With German affirmation that Dutch borders would be respected, Holland’s prime minister took to the radio on the evening of May 10, 1940, to reassure his people. But the war for Holland began only hours later with furious airstrikes throughout the country.

Awakened by the bombings Corrie and Betsie ten Boom were praying earnestly when Corrie experienced a premonition—she, her family, and friends carried on an old wagon out of Haarlem to an inescapable fate. The shooting war in the Netherlands ended within days. Following the flight of Holland’s Queen Wilhelmina and the devastating bombing of Rotterdam, Dutch forces surrendered. German occupation began.

Nazism gained traction and power with every passing month of the occupation, leading to Holland’s National Socialist Bond (NSB). A fascist organization sympathetic to the German agenda, the NSB endorsed Nazi anti-Semitism and recruited members aggressively. Just as in Germany, terrorizing Jews became public policy. Jewish-owned businesses were vandalized, synagogues burned, and those who wore the yellow star vanished daily, their vacant homes filled with NSB families eager to supplant them.

The ten Booms faced a own terrible choice: to watch passively as their Jewish neighbors were deported or to risk losing their lives to save them. Corrie was fifty years old when she joined the Dutch Resistance and offered the ten Boom home as a safe-house for Jews and Resistance workers.

For two years the ten Booms housed, fed, and relocated Jews and others passing through, miraculously obtaining enough ration cards and other supplies despite the watchful eyes of the SS headquarters nearby. The resistance built a secret room with a sliding panel in Corrie’s bedroom.

But they could not evade trouble. On February 28, 1944, the Gestapo raided the ten Boom home. Six people living illegally in the house survived in the hiding place, but Corrie, her siblings, father, and nephews were arrested and transferred to Scheveningen. There Casper ten Boom died. Corrie and Betsie were sent first to Vught, Holland, and later to Ravensbrück in Germany.

Despite brutal conditions, abuse from guards, and the murder of prisoners around them, Betsie and Corrie ministered to women in the camp, sharing the Gospel from a small smuggled Bible. Even as many fellow prisoners turned to Christ, Betsie fell ill and died on December 16, 1944. However, on Christmas Day Corrie received orders of release, later discovered to have been a clerical error.

By the time the war ended, some 110,000 Dutch Jews had been deported to concentration camps, along with many members of the Dutch Resistance.

Afterward, Corrie ten Boom forgave the guards who had held her captive. She touched millions of lives through books and speaking tours before dying on her ninety-first birthday. She often recalled Betsie’s hope-filled words: “There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.”

Corrie’s prison experiences resulted in several books. One could excerpt with profit almost any page. Here we have chosen, almost at random, three excerpts relating to three places where she was imprisoned.

At Scheveningen Prison,from A Prisoner, and Yet p. 22, 23

Hardest to bear was my constant worry about Father. He too was lying on a mattress as hard as mine, he with his frail body. Would anyone help him? Betsie and I had always surrounded him with the tenderest of care. And now he was in prison. A prayer welled up in my heart: “O Lord, take him home to Thee in heaven. It will be so good for him!”…

It was now the second week of my imprisonment. I had been very ill for three days. Finally, the door opened wide and I was told to get dressed and to put on a coat and hat.

A hat might never be worn in prison, so I understood that I was going outside. I asked the orderly who came to fetch me where we were going.

“To the consultation bureau.”

A beautiful car was waiting outside. With two other prisoners, an officer and the orderly, I stepped in. Then we rode through the Hague. How natural everything looked and yet how unnatural to us. People were walking freely on the streets, street cars were running, there was a bakery wagon, a garbage truck. The sun was shining brightly; the weather was a delight.

In the consultation bureau I asked a nurse if I might wash my hands. She went with me, closed the door behind us and impulsively put her arms around me.

“Can I help you in any way?” she asked.

“Oh, yes, please; do you have a Bible for me? Mine was taken away on entering the prison. And do you have a pencil, a toothbrush, safety pins?” I asked for a number of useful things. Her cordiality did me much good. In appearance she was not an unusually attractive woman, but love radiated from her.

What a contrast to the evil women in the prison! Does she realize, I wondered, how she has warmed my heart by her friendliness? I shall always remember this encounter with gratitude.

From Vught Prison, Prison Letters p. 89

Does it look like the war will be over soon?

When it’s cold we don’t have enough clothing. Send sweaters or something. We are only allowed to wear it under our overalls and most importantly send new shoes. Mine are completely worn out.…

We are able to witness here and there, but not nearly as much as we had expected. There is so much bitterness and communism, cynicism, and deep sorrow. The worst for us is not that which we suffer ourselves, but the suffering which we see around us. We also are learning to put the worst in the hands of the Saviour. We are very tranquil, in rather good spirits, but not cheerful.

At Ravensbrük concentration camp, from A Prisoner and Yet, p. 113,114.

One day news reached us that a young woman in hospital Barracks 8 had lost courage completely. That was really alarming, for we had often observed that when the will to live was gone the body soon gave up the battle also. We decided to make an effort to get through to her somehow.

Visiting in the hospital was strictly forbidden. But five of us went over there. In a corner near the barracks we held a simple prayer meeting. Then I set out. I knew which window was nearest her bed, but saw at once that the shutters were closed.

I went back and we prayed together: “Lord, wilt Thou cause the shutters to be opened?” A Lagerpolizei passed the barracks and opened the shutters. Again I went over and stood next to her window, but now there was a new difficulty-the window could not be opened from the outside.

So once more I went back to my friends and we prayed together that the window might be opened. Before I got back a Polish woman had opened the window from the inside.

Then I began my conversation: “Willy, can you hear me?”

“Oh, yes, how wonderful that you have come! I am so discouraged. I have such dreadful pain, and everything is equally depressing.”

Whack! A Lagerpolizei slapped me. “Move on!” she snarled.

Back to my friends I went. “Lord wilt Thou keep the Lagerpolizei away from me and give me comforting words for Willy,” I prayed. Then I went back and stood a bit farther from the window. The Lagerpolizei was nowhere to be seen.

“Willy, remember that the Lord Jesus loves you. When you have pain, think about His sufferings, which He bore for your sins and to direct you on the road to heaven. That is why the suffering of this present time is not to be measured against the glory which is to come. If you take hold of the Saviour’s hand He will keep you close to Him and help you through, and then this tribulation will work for you an eternal weight of glory.” I continued speaking quietly to her in this manner for a little while, until she finally called out: “Now I see things clearly again. It is all gloriously true, and my courage has come back. You have comforted me. Thank you very much.”

Whack! Another slap from the Lagerpolizei! She banged down the window and closed the shutters. Further conversation was impossible, but I knew that Jesus had again conquered and that Willy was comforted. Back in our corner near the barbed-wire fence we thanked God that evil had not won.

Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992) Composes a Masterpiece in Nazi Concentration Camp

Prince Bernhard awarded Erasmus Prize to Olivier Messiaen in Concertgebouw Amsterdam, photo by Rob Mieremet / Anefo; (Edited version of Nationaal Archief) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Olivier Messiaen is an example of a prisoner who focused his attention not on his grim outward circumstances but on his inner artistic vision. He was staunchly Catholic, and, with the exception of some months during World War II, was organist of the Church of La Trinité in Paris from 1931 until his death in 1992.

Sandfloor Cathedral. In this unusual video journey, viewers become deep sea divers from the comfort of their own living rooms as we explore ocean depths, sea life, and the extraordinary interplay of motion, color and aquatic creatures. All of this is accompanied by the original and award-winning music version of Lee Johnson’s Symphony No. 5, “Sandfloor Cathedral,” which like Messiaen’s music goes to nature for inspiration.

sandfloor cathedral

Like most other able-bodied men, he was conscripted to fight the Germans during World War II, but because of his poor eyesight he served as a medical auxiliary rather than as an infantryman. Captured in May, 1940, Olivier Messiaen was transported to Stalag VIII-A where he spent about a year until his release. On the way to Stalag VIII-A, he showed some musical sketches to a fellow prisoner, the Jewish clarinetist Henri Akoka. Akoka was interested and Messiaen developed these ideas for him. After he arrived in the camp, Messiaen discovered a violinist and a cellist among his fellow prisoners: Jean le Boulaire and Étienne Pasquier. Building on earlier ideas and the piece he had done for Akoka, Messiaen developed an eight-movement quartet for piano, clarinet, violin, and cello.

The quartet dispensed with traditional timing, and demanded difficult techniques from the players. Akoka, for example, was asked to hold notes longer than was humanly possible. In the quartet, Messiaen also indulged his fascination with bird songs, transcribing and adapting several for the first movement. He described the movement with these words,

“Between three and four in the morning, the awakening of birds: a solo blackbird or nightingale improvises, surrounded by a shimmer of sound, by a halo of trills lost very high in the trees. Transpose this onto a religious plane and you have the harmonious silence of Heaven.”

Movement V (my favorite) is titled “Praise to the Eternity of Jesus” and the final movement “Praise to the Immortality of Jesus.”

Messiaen took as his inspiration words from the tenth chapter of the Book of Revelation:

“And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire…and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth.… And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and swore by him that liveth for ever and ever…that there should be time no longer: But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished…”

Messiaen named the work For the End of Time—a deliberate pun. Not only did it refer to the end of time in our physical universe (“there should be time no longer”) but to the abolition of traditional time-signatures throughout the piece.

A German officer named Brüll who loved art music allowed Messiaen time to compose and to practice the work with his friends. Messiaen himself played the camp’s beat up piano. They premiered the difficult, fifty-minute piece, on January 15, 1941, in front of about 400 prisoners—all who could squeeze into the barracks hall. The weather was bitterly cold, and the hall poorly heated. Indeed, much of its warmth was derived from the bodies crowded within it. According to Messiaen, despite the adverse conditions and the unlikely audience, his music was never listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension.

For the End of Time remains a 20th-century masterpiece. Although it is extremely difficult to play, many recordings have been made of it. View Messiaen’s Quartet on YouTube

The spiritual dimension of Messiaen’s work was not without effect, either. The violinist, Le Bouilaire described himself as an unbeliever; yet Messiaen’s music, his love of birdsong, his kindness, and his unwavering faith combined to force this atheist to consider the possibility of God, and brought him consolation. “But all of a sudden Messiaen would begin to sing. That’s what made me really stumble over the question of the divine.” Thus, as a prisoner, both by his art and his conduct, Messaien made a mark for the kingdom of Christ.

Edith Cavell (1865–1915) Reflects in Prison Before Meeting the Firing Squad

Edith Cavell relief, photo by Paul Drieghe (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

At the start of World War I, Edith Cavell, a British nurse, cared for German soldiers alongside Allied, and saved their lives. She was about 50 when arrested as a traitor by the German occupiers of Belgium. In her capacity as a nurse, she had helped Allied soldiers escape from the Germans, who had ruthlessly killed Allied captives.

Great Women In Christian History. Christian history abounds with the names of other women who had a tremendous influence on the spread of Christianity and on the tone of civilization. Great Women in Christian History tells the stories of 37 of these notable women — women who have served God’s kingdom as missionaries, martyrs, educators, charitable workers, wives, mother and instruments of justice.

Great Women

At her trial she was not allowed adequate counsel, and, did not know the language or laws under which she was tried. She was forthright and open in her replies, and convicted herself by her honesty.

Had she helped only Englishmen escape to neutral Holland, she might have been spared death. But because she helped Belgians and Frenchmen, and because some of the Englishmen were able to return to England where they rejoined the war, no mercy was shown her, for all that she was a woman—and helping her own cause. Sentence of death was pronounced at 4:30 in the afternoon of October 11th, 1915, to be carried out in about ten hours, at 2 am the following morning. (She was actually executed out around 5 a.m.).

In Edith’s case, we have only one goodbye letter she wrote to her nurses from prison (all other personal letters were held by the German authorities, who feared they would be used for propaganda), and a few notes she made in her copy of The Imitation of Christ. What we do have is a chaplain’s report of her last recorded words. Rev. H. Stirling T. Gahan, rector of the English church in Brussels, was allowed to visit her on her final night. According to his account, she rose wearily and drew her gown around her thin neck.

She told him that she had been grateful for her ten-week’s imprisonment, for in a life much hurried with duties and cares, she had had little time to reflect. Her imprisonment had amounted to a rest for her; and the German chaplain had been kind. For the last few weeks she had read her Bible, prayer book, and The Imitation of Christ. Before taking the sacrement a last time, she assured the pastor that she had no hatred for anyone. “Patriotism is not enough,’she said. “I must have no hatred and no bitterness toward anyone.”

These words were highly influential in her day, and widely quoted. Her death aroused international horror, and led to lighter sentences on several prisoners who had been accused alongside her.

Many books have been written about Edith Cavell.

Sundar Singh (1889–c. 1929) Mysteriously Rescued from a Death Pit

Friedrich Heiler, Sadhu Sundar Singh Ein Apostel des Ostens und Westens (Munchen: Verlag von Ernst Reinhardt, 1925).

When Sundar Singh’s mom died, the boy raged against the God of the Christians for, although a Sikh, he was being educated at a Christian school. Just fourteen years old, he formed a gang which harassed and persecuted believers. He burned a Bible to show his contempt for Jesus.

Children’s Heroes From Christian History: Vol. II includes stories on four heroes: William Carey, Robert Raikes, Hans Egede and Sundar Singh. Recommended for ages 5–10.

Posts navigation