Paul B. Anderson was one of the few Western Protestant leaders who made multiple enduring contributions to the flourishing of Orthodox Christianity.
The heartbreaking tragedy unfolding in Ukraine is leading believers to pray for an end to violence, practise hospitality to those in need, provide resources and learn more about the roots of the conflict.
Many are also reflecting on how peacemakers have responded to similar crises in the past. Remembering simple acts of human kindness builds hope in times of hostility, displacement and grief, and can awaken our own work to be reconcilers in an unreconciled world.
Professor Matthew Lee Miller shares the story of the inspiring life of Paul Anderson.
The sincere and thoughtful service of Paul B. Anderson (1894–1985) can be an encouraging example for us today.
For many years, this Protestant from the midwestern United States focused on supporting the young people of the Orthodox Christian communities of Europe during the challenging years of the First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Second World War and the Cold War.
His work with the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), the Episcopal Church and other organizations helped in four significant ways:
building bridges of communication and relationship among Eastern and Western Christians,
supporting educational and publishing opportunities for Orthodox believers,
speaking out for the protection of human rights in the USSR, and
providing reliable information on religion in the Soviet Union.
His career of advocacy for Slavic Christians during the Soviet era provides examples of effective intercultural service among believers in crisis. His work in honest reflection, strategic partnerships and thoughtful advocacy led to enduring accomplishments.
In today’s era of strained ties between Russia and the West, many Orthodox leaders continue to praise his work.
Reflecting on Anderson’s life expands understanding of connections between the West and the Russian world and demonstrates their complexity.
The rise of political conflicts cuts off many cultural connections – as in the 20th century and again today – but also opens new possibilities.
Anderson’s faith-based service helped to facilitate a new wave of global interpersonal exchanges. His work with the YMCA played a key role in expanding the engagement of this influential organization and creating bridges of relationships and understanding between Protestants and Orthodox Christians.
Paul B. Anderson worked to serve the people of Russia and the USSR from his first trip in 1917 until the end of his life.
He had a long-term, in-depth involvement with Slavic life and made a serious attempt to understand language, history and culture as he supported almost every aspect of YMCA ministry.
He grew up in Iowa and after graduation became a YMCA staff member, serving four years in China. In 1917 he was invited to serve as personal assistant to John R. Mott for a United States diplomatic mission to Russia. Mott, the leader of the American YMCA’s global ministry, served as a mentor to Anderson throughout his life.
Anderson arrived in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) in June 1917 and remained in the city after the diplomats returned to North America.
Initially he focused on service to prisoners of war, and though the 1917 Bolshevik uprising disrupted this work he continued with his duties until September 1918, when he was arrested in Moscow.
Suspected of “counter-revolutionary” activity, he was taken by a government security officer to the Lubyanka prison. He was released, but shortly thereafter the YMCA ended its full-scale service in this region.
Undaunted, he settled in Berlin from 1920 to 1924 where he served as director of the Russian Correspondence School, a study program designed to assist uprooted émigrés, and became director of the YMCA’s Russian-language publishing program.
He participated in the 1922 formation of the Religious-Philosophical Academy, a lecture series which featured several exiled Orthodox intellectuals, including Simeon Frank and Nikolai Berdyaev.
Anderson also supported the development of the Russian Student Christian Movement (RSCM), an association of Orthodox fellowship groups which were meeting at universities throughout Europe.
As the economy of Germany declined, many émigrés pressed on to France. By 1924 about 60,000 refugees had settled in Paris, so Anderson and his YMCA colleagues transported their services to the French capital.
Anderson emerged as the Association’s most influential leader during its ministry to Russians in Paris.
He continued to administer the growing correspondence school and to assist both the RSCM and the YMCA Press, which published multiple works by several of the most significant Russian writers of the 20th century, including Georges Florovsky, Sergei Bulgakov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Anderson also contributed to the new Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris (renamed St. Sergius Theological Academy in 1940), which prepared priests and theologians for service.
When the Second World War overtook Europe, he played a leading role coordinating aid from the United States for émigrés from the USSR and other refugees in France.
After the war, Anderson took on global leadership posts for the YMCA and the Episcopal Church. In 1948 he began serving as a trustee of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in New York, and he played a key role in the 1956 exchange trips of Russian and US church leaders.
Throughout this period, Anderson stood out as a leading Western advocate for millions of Christians in the USSR, especially those facing discrimination and isolation.
He developed close relationships with a wide range of Slavic, European and North American church leaders and spoke on the challenges faced by believers.
His actions were based on knowledge of Orthodox history, analysis of Soviet politics and fluency in the Russian language.
He took a moderate, balanced and diplomatic approach, avoiding both an uncritical, romantic celebration of Orthodoxy and a rigid condemnation of bishops who were required to co-operate with the Soviet government.
Anderson’s lifetime of experience and study enabled him to produce a variety of widely read books and articles which provided reliable assessments of the challenges faced by believers in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
This service began with People, Church and State in Modern Russia in 1944, and continued with an article in the journal Foreign Affairs in 1961. Positive responses led to the creation of the journal Religion in Communist Dominated Areas. His final contribution was the insightful memoir No East or West (1985).
As one of the few Western Protestant leaders who made multiple enduring contributions to the flourishing of Orthodox Christianity, Paul B. Anderson’s reconciling life shines brightly.
He supported a long line of prestigious leaders, but nearly every recorded observation of his life has described him as a quiet advocate who avoided personal attention as he promoted thoughtful reflection, honest reconciliation and the defense of human rights during a turbulent era.
The current crisis for the people of Ukraine has multiplied the need for women and men from around the globe to set aside their own agendas and promote humanitarian responses based on wisdom and humility.
I look forward to reading their stories in the days and years to come.
Matthew Lee Miller serves as professor of history at the University of Northwestern–St. Paul in Minnesota.
He is the author of The American YMCA and Russian Culture: The Preservation and Expansion of Orthodox Christianity, 1900–1940 (Lexington Books, 2012) and the editor of John R. Mott, the American YMCA, and Revolutionary Russia (Slavica Publishers/Indiana University, 2020).
This article first appeared in Faith Today, a publication of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, and it is re-published with permission.