About Belarus


The Heavenly Fire. A study of the origins of the Byelorussian New Testament and Psalms

Guy Picarda

"In the White Russian people a fire is burning, which can become very perilous; let us put out a hellish fire by means of the heavenly .fire of Our Lord Jesus. Let us give the White Russian people the New Testament with Psalms in the White Russian language!"
Pastor S. Loppe (1927)

Five years ago, on the 14th August 1970, at Leominster in Herefordshire, there died a retired officer of the British and Foreign Bible Society, Wilfrid James Wiseman. For eleven years he had served as the Society's Secretary for North Eastern Europe first in Riga, then in Helsinki and for twenty-one years as Secretary for Russia. Thanks to the solicitude of his widow, his carefully preserved archives were deposited quite recently in the Society's library in London. It is from these documents, and from the Society's other records kept at their headquarters that the material for the present study has been drawn.

Born in 1891, Wiseman was brought up in Wales, and had as a child acquired a knowledge of and a liking for the Welsh language. It is safe to assume that this knowledge predisposed him somewhat in favour of minority languages, and indeed he appears to have devoted his life to them.

When in 1925 he was appointed to the Secretaryship for North-Eastern Europe and Russia, he inherited from his predecessor Walter Davidson a daunting task. The area was relatively little known, and with independence from Russia, the demand for Bibles in a variety of Baltic, Ugro-Finnish and Slavonic dialects was brisk. It was his duty to make the Scriptures available to these people, and to deal also with a flood of enquiries, sometimes bizarre, ranging from the possibility of supplying a Russian Bible in Braille to a blind reader in Moscow, to a request from an enlightened Ukrainian Canadian who has "seen visions and dreamed dreams - sheaves of corn falling from the sky which made him fall to the earth, to print the details of these visions in every language and send to all the nations of the earth".

During his tenure of office he was called upon to investigate the need for a Bible in what, in the West, appeared to be a somewhat shadowy language - Byelorussian or "White Russian". and having done this, to cope with the complex, not to say delicate problems relating to translation and publication.

There was indeed a desperate need for spiritual literature, and in particular for a Bible in the vernacular, the more so since at least two and a half centuries had elapsed since any Biblical texts had been printed in Byelorussian. Of course, versions of Biblical books in Church Slavonic and Middle Byelorussian had circulated in manuscript since the 15th century, and the texts published by Francis Skaryna (1517-1519 and 1525), Vasil Ciapinski (1570-1580) and those of the 'Ucytelnaja Evanhelija' (1616), had achieved great popularity in their day. But the decline of the Byelorussian language under Polish and Russian domination, and the destruction or loss of many of the older editions, had left the Byelorussian people at the beginning of the 20th century with virtually no Scriptural texts in their own language.

And yet, as Wiseman observed after a visit to Vilna: "The White Russians were one of the first nations to have the Scriptures printed in their own language. This was in 1517, eight years before the first published edition in English. Who could tell what White Russian might have been today, had not the persecution and oppression of the Jesuits in the 16th century, succeeded by subsequent oppressions, brought the people into the very low state in which they find themselves today. The proportion of illiteracy is very high, and exact figures are not obtainable. Their forefathers had the Bible four hundred years ago, and only two copies of that remain. With the prohibition and destruction of the Book there came an extinction of light and hope".

The familiar and facile tilt at the Jesuits was a little unfair; both Catholic and Orthodox ecclesiastics had, as has been mentioned, been involved in the publication of parts of the Gospels and Psalms into Middle Byelorussian, and there is persuasive evidence that Skaryna himself, to whose work Wiseman refers, professed the Catholic faith. Nor were the Protestants, apart from Tiapinski, much concerned with publications in the vernacular, Biblical or otherwise. It is now know that the first steps in recent times to promote the use of Byelorussian in the Church and in religious publications were taken by Catholic hierarchs, such as Bishop Albin Symon (1841-1918), Archbishop Edvard Ropp (1851-1939) and Bishop Sciapan Danisevic (1836-1913). Indeed this latter prelate gave his imprimatur to an interesting little translation, published in St. Petersburg in 1914, of Fr. I. Shusters abbreviated 'biblia pauperum' entitled 'Karotkaja Historyja swiataja', which was reprinted a second time in Vilna in 1917. Again after the first World War, a Catholic priest from Dziedzinka, Fr Ildefons Bobic (1890-1943) published in 1922 a Byelorussian version of the Lessons and Gospels appointed to be read during Mass on Sundays and feastdays.

The collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917, and the emergence of a number of independent successor states on the former Western territories of the Tsars - Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia - opened the gates of these lands to a growing number of Protestant missionaries from Germany, England and the United States. They came, earnestly intent on evangelising what the Lutheran pastor of Vilna, S. Loppe, described as "the poor, blinded White Russian people [who] are in erroneous ways". Ignorance there was aplenty in Byelorussia, and this went hand in hand with a sense of social injustice and national frustration. Neighbouring peoples were enjoying the fruits of land reform and national independence, whereas political expediency and the Treaty of Riga (1921) had deprived the people of Western Byelorussia of their aspirations to self-government, and their leaders felt they had been cheated. Moreover, the feeling was abroad that no sympathy could be expected for the Byelorussian language from the established religions. "There is, wrote one Byelorussian teacher from Latvia, no hope that in the near future the Byelorussians will succeed in undertaking the publication of the Bible by their own means, for the Byelorussian Orthodox and Catholic clergy, in their mutual struggle for the dominating influence upon the Byelorussians, are accustomed to look for assistance to the neighbouring peoples, the Orthodox to the Russians, the Catholics to the Poles; as to their nationality, the greatest part of the clergy is not even Byelorussian, and the Byelorussian clergy is not yet sufficiently provided with means to undertake such a large publication".

Another more immediate and perilous threat to the spiritual welfare of the Byelorussian peasantry was accurately pin-pointed by Emil Susemihl: "The fifteen million Byelorussians unfortunately possess to date no Christian books in their language. Without Christian literature, they are in danger of becoming victims to the anti-church, atheistic propaganda of the bolsheviks. The bolshevicising of the Byelorussians makes daily progress, especially among the young".

Abandoned and frustrated, it is hardly surprising to learn of the growing success of the foreign evangelical missions among the Byelorussian population. As one correspondent in the London 'Times' observed, after a visit to Western Byelorussia in 1926,: "Thousands of peasants are turning from the customary services of the Russian Orthodox Church, and are holding meetings of an evangelistic kind familiar in Great Britain and America during the last half century. Revival hymns are great favourites, and at a touch of the tuning fork, a congregation would burst forth into harmonious song. These services among the 'believers', the designation by which these groups are known, are so popular that in one village where I addressed a large gathering, the parish church is almost deserted".

A Methodist missionary writing from Vilna two years later, bears witness to the proliferation of protestant missions there: "The Lutherans are here too, and the Evangelical Reformed or Calvinists, the Methodists, the Baptists and some Holiness sects, including the pre-milinarianists". The Baptists had, of course, been active in the Russian Empire well before the Revolution, and had established the headquarters of their Polish mission in Lodz under a Mr Gregory. One of their most valuable helpers among the Byelorussians was destined to play a leading role in the promotion and translation of the Byelorussian New Testament.

Lukas Dziekuc-Malej (1888-1955) was a native of the Slonim region, who became a Baptist in 1910. Having received a sound training as a teacher and attended Bible course in St. Petersburg for two years, he was well equipped to assist his foreign co-religionaries in their missionary work. Already in 1920 he was collaborating with Gregory, setting his pen to the service of the Baptist church, and, as he wrote: "I translated some pamphlets published by the Kompas publishing house in Lodz. From 1920 to 1924 I... also translated alone 17 booklets from the Polish and Russian to the White Russian language". He had set himself the ideal of "striving for a full Bible in White Russian that could be offered at low price to the poor White Russian people ruined by the War". A well-known Byelorussian patriot, he settled down in Brest-Litovsk and in due course became a Baptist minister.

The American Methodists, whose Polish mission was centred in Warsaw, were also increasingly active among the Byelorussian population, and were to play a significant part in the publication of the Byelorussian New Testament. One of their pioneer ministers was a pastor of Swedish descent, John Witt, who came to Byelorussia by way of Riga in 1925. He was particularly active in the setting up of schools and boarding houses for Byelorussian students in Vilna, Radaskavicy and Slonim. The Methodists, like the Baptists, quickly appreciated the importance of the Byelorussian language in reaching the local populace, and in 1925 they published a small brochure in the vernacular with the title 'Halounyja Asnovy Metadismu', setting out the basic tenets of the Methodist Church.

The British and Foreign Bible Society had been active in the Russian Empire since the early years of the 19th century. They had published a Russian language Bible in 1838, and a Ukrainian version in 1887. When in 1920 the dissemination of Bibles was permitted in Poland, the Society set about distributing Russian versions to the Byelorussian population in the Vilna region, as well as in the Baltic states. Traditionally the Society's evangelical work had been of the discreetest kind, and its policy was, where possible, to obtain the cooperation of the local churches, including the Orthodox church, in the distribution of the Scriptures to the people. On the other hand, it willingly supplied facilities and Bibles to any evangelical mission which sought the Society's assistance. To conform to the new political order in Eastern Europe, Poland was attached to the Central European agency under its own local secretary, a Polish protestant. Alexander Enholc, who was appointed in 1920. The Baltic states, Finland and the Soviet Union formed the North East European and Russian agency with its headquarters first in Riga, and after 1926, in Helsinki. Inevitably the existence of the Byelorussian language, and of the possible need for a Byelorussian Bible, came to the attention of the Society's Editorial Committee in London through both these agencies.

In the latter part of 1924, the Society was approached through Vilna and Warsaw with offers to translate the Bible into Byelorussian. Davidson, the Society's agent in Riga reported that he was asking his contact, a Mr Wasilievsky, "to supply me with some information". This is where the matter seems to have rested, for nothing more was heard about the Byelorussian language until December 1925. In the meantime, Wiseman had suceeded Davidson as secretary of the agency, and it was he who reported to the editorial committee in London that "A Methodist Minister going to Vilna, Poland from Riga, asked us for White Russian New Testaments, but we supplied Ruthenian on his special request, as he thought he would have some of the White Russian expressions from that". There seems every probability that this was none other than Pastor John Witt of the American Methodist Episcopal Church (South), which had set up a mission among the Byelorussians the previous year. Witt was concerned with the Methodist Episcopal Child welfare work in Riga, of which he was the Director under Bishop Darlington, and there is every likelihood that he had come into contact with the energetic and articulate Byelorussian minority in Latvia. In any event, he was by 1926 devoting himself entirely to work among the Byelorussians. Wiseman voiced doubts to his committee in London as to whether Byelorussian was full literary language or a dialect, and questioned whether a translation of the Bible was really necessary. Having just arrived from a term of office in Turkey, Greece and Albania, he must have had some difficulty in appreciating the subtleties involved. His somewhat cool report to London was followed by an appeal from Emil Susemihl, a former Imperial Russian schoolteacher, describing himself as the "Organiser of the White Russian Church Movement" in Konigsberg, East Prussia. This document, dated 15th December 1925, reached the Society through the local British Vice-consul, and is couched in emphatic terms. Obviously very concerned at the advance of Bolshevik ideology, the author had turned his talents to translating a number of Church books into Byelorussian, which he found himself unable to print through lack of funds. Anticipating the difficulties involved in printing a whole Bible, we suggests that "we should be satisfied, at least for the present, to produce a shortened Bible (biblia pauperum)", an idea he may have got from the Catholic version published and again in 1917.

At first the Society, mindful perhaps of Wiseman's views on the subject, was a little dubious over the precise status of the Byelorussian language, and the editorial superintendant, Dr Robert Kilgour, wrote in reply to Susemihl, that the Society could not in any circumstances consider publishing a shortened version of the Bible. If anything was to be produced, it would be "complete books of the Bible, for example, a complete Gospel". He added, however, "I am told that any White Russian who can read, can understand the Scriptures as printed in Russia". This reticent reply appears to have dampened Herr Susemihl's enthusiasm, and it is unfortunate that he did not proceed with his initiative.

Some seven weeks later, a second appeal reached the Society through the good offices of Edmund Chambers, Superintendant of the Methodist Church in Poland. This took the form of a petition dated 10th March 1926 in Vilna, and signed by a number of Byelorussian notables. It was couched in the following terms: "We the undersigned, representatives of the White Russian people, wish to draw your attention to the great and immediate need of our nation in obtaining the Scriptures in our own tongue... The White Russian people in Poland and Russia numbers about twelve million souls. A great desire has awakened among them to know the truths of the Gospel. We therefore ask the British and Foreign Bible Society to undertake this great work, the work of translating the whole Bible into the White Russian language". The petition also revealed an interesting new fact: Four Gospels of the New Testament had already been translated, but a shortage of funds prevented the work from proceeding.

The signatories, insofar as it is possible to decipher their handwriting, appear to have been Methodist converts or sympathisers from Slonim and Radaskavicy. They included the poet Haljas Leucyk-Leukovic (1880-1943), the former editor of the literary journal 'Nasa Niva', Aliaksandar Ulasau (1874-1941), at that time a Byelorussian nationalist member of the Polish Senate, and F. Steckievic, the Director of the Byelorussian High School in Radaskavicy. The signatures of a professor and an editor, appended to the appeal, are unfortunately illegible. There is no doubt that Pastor Witt was somehow involved with the formulation of this petition. In the autumn of 1924 the Methodists had opened a boarding school for boys "in connection with the White Russian Gymnasium in Radoszkowice, in response to a request made by a delegation of White Russians ... In the fall of 1925, a second internat was opened to accommodate girls, and later Vilna was made the headquarters for work for White Russians". Obviously a Methodist school for Byelorussians must have a Byelorussian Bible. Faced with a shortage of funds, what was more logical than to turn for assistance to a Society which had sufficient ressources to finance the publication of the Bible in such rarified languages as Chuvash Cheremiss, Bashkir, Votiak and Yakut-Turkish?

One also senses a good measure of political coordination in the attitude of some of the Byelorussian prominenti towards an evangelical work which might promote a third alternative church, of neither 'russkaja viera' nor 'polskaja viera', but Byelorussian and Protestant. For, barely two weeks after the Vilna petition, another appeal reached the Society in London, this time from Riga, and issuing from the Administration of the Society of Byelorussian Teachers in Latvia. Dated 27th March 1926, it calls upon the Riga agency of the "British Bible Society" to "cater favourably for the spiritual needs of the Byelorussian people and ... publish for it the Bible in the Byelorussian language". After an almost ritual reference to the Bible of Francis Skaryna, and to the suppression of the Byelorussian language by the Tsars, the appeal goes on to criticise the pro-Polish and pro-Russian leanings of the Catholic and Orthodox churches, and requests the Bible Society to "publish a Bible for Byelorussians in their mother tongue". The authors of this letter were none other than that indefatigable campaigner for Byelorussian independence, Colonel Kastus Jezavitau (1894-1945), and the equally well-known Secretary of the Society of Byelorussian Teachers in Latvia, S. Krasnievic.

The reaction of the British and Foreign Bible Society to these appeals was, naturally enough, somewhat cautious. Already in December 1925 Wiseman, who had just arrived in Riga, was expressing doubts as to whether Byelorussian was a language at all: "There is a difference in pronunciation from Russian, and certain words are slightly different also, so that it is really a dialect only". He did however add that the Methodist minister going to Vilna "although speaking Russian ... told me there was a very considerable difference in White Russian, and that it would take him some months to get hold of it".

This cautious interest was to be stimulated from a totally unexpected quarter, for in June 1926, shortly after the spate of appeals from Konigsberg, Vilna and Riga, an eminent and respectable translator and evangelist, a Mr F. W. Kingston, who claimed to be an old friend and associate of the head of the Baptist mission and publishing house in Lodz, Gregory, wrote, and then called at the Society's headquarters at Bible House in London. With him he brought a recently published copy of the Gospel of St. Luke in the Byelorussian language, together with the news that the Gospel according to St. John was being printed, and that there were plans to publish a version of the entire New Testament. "His visits to Poland, and information he received from many of his friends on the continent, spoke of the necessity of Scriptures in this particular language", (i.e. Byelorussian). From his interview with the Society's editorial superintendant, Dr Robert Kilgour, it appeared that a Byelorussian student in Vilna, as well as "several professors and scientific men", had for some time been at work revising an earlier Bible, presumably Skaryna's, deposited in the University Library of Vilna, "bringing the orthography and use of words up to date".

In fact, work on this venture had begun as early as 1920, and had involved a number of distinguished personalities. The guiding spirit in the initial stage appears to have been Lukas Dziekuc-Malej, the Baptist preacher from Brest who, in addition to translating evangelical pamphlets into Byelorussian, had embarked upon the task of rendering the four Gospels into his native tongue between the years 1920 - 1924. Although something of a scholar in his own right, claiming to know "somewhat Greek", as he put it, the main burden of checking and revising the translations fell upon none other than the great Byelorussian statesman and writer, Anton Navina Luckievic. This dedicated patriot emerges as one of the leading, and certainly one of the most interesting figures of the Byelorussian national revival.

Anton Luckievic was the son of a Byelorussian nobleman, Ivan Boleslau Luckievic of the 'herb' Navina, a former captain in the Russian Imperial army, and Zofija nee Lyckouskaja his wife. He was born on 18 January 1884 in Sauli, Kaunas district, and baptised into the Roman Catholic Church. After attending the classical High School in Minsk, he and his brother Ivan Luckievic (1881-1919) studied in St. Petersburg, where they came into contact with the Byelorussian student circle of Professor Branislau Epimach-Sypila (1859 - 1934). There in 1902 he became, together with his brother, a founder member of the first Byelorussian political party, the Bielaruskaja Sacyjalistycnaja Hramada (Byelorussian Socialist Union). The Luckievic brothers were also involved either as editors or contributors at the publications of the first Byelorussian journal 'Nasa Niva' (1906 - 1915), 'Maladaja Bielarus', and the publishing house 'Zahlanie sonce i u nase vakonce'. During the First World War, Anton Luckievic was instrumental in the establishment of the Byelorussian National Council which, on 25th March 1918, proclaimed Byelorussia to be an independent sovereign state. Twice Prime-Minister of the ill-fated republic (1918, 1920), his attempts to obtain international recognition for his country at the Paris peace conference (1919) were finally thwarted by Polish and Soviet territorial ambitions. With the partition of Byelorussia after the treaty of Riga (1921), Luckievic wholeheartedly implemented the precept which guided his later activity, and which he recommended to his pupils shortly before his arrest in 1940: "Cling desperately to our schools; become teachers!" Between the two wars, he devoted his life and energies to the advancement of Byelorussian scholarship and education, as Chairman of the Byelorussian Scientific Society and as head of the department of history in the Byelorussian Gymnasium in Vilna.

A learned, kind and loveable man, he continued to write for a number of academic publications. He did not have a great reputation as a churchman; nominally a Catholic, he had many contacts with the Orthodox, but seems to have inclined, if at all, towards the Protestant religion, in which faith his son Jury was brought up. In 1940 he was arrested and deported almost as soon as the Soviet authorities occupied Vilna.

By virtue of his classical education and his undoubted literary talents, Luckievic was just the man to revise, correct and polish the draft translations of Dziekuc-Malej, and this he appears to have been called upon to do almost from the very start of the venture. It was important that he had a knowledge of Greek, which enabled him to collate the translation with the sources.

There were others, however, who seem to have been involved in these early stages of the work, including a Mme Rosenberg, a Jewish lady from Vilna, (she had made a version of the Psalms into Byelorussian shortly before she died in 1926), and also, as Wiseman reported, "one of the leaders of the White Russian community in Riga ... had been working on a translation of the Gospel of St. John".

Details of these activities of the Baptist Kompas Press were duly imparted by Dr Kilgour to Wiseman in Riga and, ever circumspect in their ways, the Society made discreet enquiries concerning the enterprising Mr Kingston. The response to these enquiries was reassuring. Professionally, Kingston was the principal of a highly respectable Translations Institute and Academy of languages in the City of London, which he conducted in association with a well-qualified Serbian teacher, W. Petrovich. His religious affiliations were, however, a little more involved, and of him it was pleasantly said that, although "somewhat restricted and exclusive in his views as to the fellowship in the Supper of Our Lord, he was nevertheless very broad and large-hearted in his efforts to help the needy world".

Meanwhile in Riga, Wiseman had also heard of the work of the Kompas Press, and had already been in contact with the Bible Society's secretary for Poland, Alexander Enholc, to enquire as to the possibility of a "takeover" of the Press's biblical publications by the Society. He was, however, becoming increasingly concerned with the obvious political implications of the whole project, - and for good reason, as will be seen presently. "The more I get into this White Russian question the more it appears to assume a political aspect. We shall do well to go very cautiously".

In fact, little more was done by the Bible Society during 1926 in connection with the Byelorussian Gospels, though the Kompas Press in Lodz brought out two further Gospels of St Mathew and St John, translated by Dziekuc-Malej, and corrected and polished by Luckievic. In the first place the Society was anxious to find out more about the Byelorussian language, and in particular to check the quality of the Kompas Press translation from an authoritative and independent source Enquiries were made in July 1926 through a Professor of Ukrainian History at Bratislava University, Eugene Perfeckij, and "one of the leaders" of the Byelorussian community in Vilna. Once again, the replies were reassuring Professor Perfeckij considered that the Byelorussian Gospel of St Luke had been prepared with great pains. Then, on 15th November 1926, another name, familiar in the field of Anglo-Byelorussian affairs, emerges in connection with the venture. Alexander McCallum Scott (1874-1928), a barrister of the Middle Temple, former Liberal Member of Parliament for Bridgeton, Glasgow, and sometime Parliamentary Private Secretary to none other than Winston Churchill, was coopted onto the editorial sub-committee of the British and Foreign Bible Society. The reasons for this appointment were not hard to ascertain: a delicate problem of a political nature had arisen in connection with the Society's activity over the Byelorussian Gospels. McCallum Scott, described in the Times as "an energetic Scotsman with a passion for politics and travel in Northern Europe", had written a number of books on the subject, including one "Beyond the Baltic", published the previous year, in which he devoted a whole chapter to a sympathetic discussion of the Byelorussian question.

He was, moreover, personally acquainted with two of the Byelorussian national leaders whom he had met in Lithuania, Claude Dus-Duseuski and Vaclau Lastouski (1883-1938). Here was a man who would clearly be an invaluable consultant for the Society on Byelorussian affairs. On hearing of his appointment, Wiseman at once asked: "Is the Mr A. McCallum Scott who has recently joined the editorial sub-committee the author of "Beyond the Baltic"? If so, he will be able to give you considerable information about the White Russians".

Dr Kilgour had wasted no time, and had already written to McCallum Scott on the 29th December with regard to the increasingly thorny Byelorussian question. McCallum Scott's reply shows his informed and realistic approach to the problem, and coming from a particularly distinguished politician, is worth quoting in extenso. "I do not, he writes, understand White Russian' (or Ruthenian) myself, but I heard a good deal about it when I was in Lithuania.

The White Russians themselves hotly claim that it is a separate language, and the translation of Luke which you have sent me seems to be as different from Russian as broad Scots from modern English. My impression is that, as a language, 'White Russian' is still somewhat in the making. It is entirely a peasant language, and many words have to be invented or borrowed to express modern ideas. The same might be said about any language which has practically no literature up to the present.

"There are many dialects of 'White Russian', for those who speak the language are to be found in Russia, Lithuania, Poland, and Czekho-slovakia. I imagine that in the present stage there will still be a great deal of politics in the matter of which dialect is to predominate and which versions are allowed to circulate in which countries. I should think no version printed in Poland would be allowed 10 circulate in Lithuania.

"I am told that the first book to be published in White Russian was a translation of the Bible by Doctor Francisk Skaryna 'of the Glorious Town of Polatzk', which was published in Prague (Praga) in the years 1517-25. Perhaps you have a copy of this translation, or could obtain a sight of it.

"I have given a very full description of White Russia on first hand authority in my book "Beyond the Baltic", together with a map. I have no doubt I could put you in touch with persons who speak the language, if you so desire".

McCallum Scott's warnings on the possible political repercussions were self-evident to Wiseman, who had prudently taken the matter up on an official level with the Polish authorities in Warsaw, through Alexander Enholc. In January 1927 he was already able to report back to London on Enholc's efforts in this direction. "I have been at several various departments with regard to the White Russian Gospel, and at last was received by the Minister of Culture and Religious affairs, to whom I went with Revd. Carpenter. Today the Minister told us that he had nothing whatever against our publishing the Holy Scripture in the White Russian language".

Armed with an official "nihil obstat" from the Polish authorities for a Byelorussian New Testament, Wiseman felt a little freer in defining the political implications which had been involved. "The White Russian question has always assumed a rather political aspect in these parts, as those outside Russia had fondly hoped to have a republic of their own, similar to the small Baltic Republics. Knowing so much political is wrapped up in their aims, we have gone carefully, as we do not want the B.F.B.S. to be thought to be giving countenance to, or bolstering up, an affair which is more political than spiritual. The White Russians number about 12.000.000, the majority of whom are in the White Russian Soviet Republic, which adjoins Poland. The largest number of those outside Sovietdom are in Poland, and we have obtained the assurance of the Polish Minister of Culture that he has no objection to our printing White Russian Scriptures. Poland has always kept a sharp eye on White Russian affairs; the other little republics to the north would not question our printing this dialect. There is a great call for this language in Northern Poland. The pronunciation is different to Russian, and Russians call the dialect "ochen plocho parusski", i.e. 'very bad Russian'. But so many White Russians ask for it, that I think we might try an edition of the Gospels".

It is to the credit of the Bible Society that, with characteristic disregard in the last resort for any political obstacles to the spreading of the Scriptures, they had already decided to go ahead with plans for a Byelorussian New Testament. As early as 7th January 1927, i.e. prior to receiving confirmation of the approval of the Polish authorities, the editorial subcommittee was able to affirm: "We are deeply interested in the production of a version in this language". They accordingly placed an order with the Kompas Press agent in London, Mr Kingston, specifying that "there are some White Russians in Canada, and I think it would be a great help if we had quite a number, say 100 copies of St. John from you, so that we could send them out to those who are interested in God's work among the people speaking this language". The purpose of this was, of course, to 'test' the Kompas Pressversion. As the Society pointed out to Wiseman: "If you find that the version meets a real need, and is approved by those capable of judging its quality, then we can negotiate for a printing of an edition with the Bible Society's name on the title page".

During the latter part of 1927, the Kompas Press Gospels continued to be disseminated amongst the Byelorussian population, largely through the efforts of Byelorussian workers such as Dziekuc-Malej in Poland, and Krasnievic in Latvia. But something of a turning point in the story of the Byelorussian New Testament came during an overdue, on-the-spot visit by Wiseman to Vilna and Western Byelorussia, in the summer of 1928. This event seems to have had a profound effect, not only on the Society's representative, but also on many of the local Byelorussians who, to this day, remember his stay. In his report to Dr Ritson on his contacts, he records that "after a few days it became quite apparent to me that these people were deeply in earnest". He was particularly impressed with the testimony of foreign missionaries on the urgent need for "at least the New Testament and Psalms", if not the whole Bible, particularly from the Methodist Pastor Witt and the Lutheran Pastor Loppe. He was also able to meet Anton Luckievic, together with Witt, and discuss a reprinting of the Four Gospels, together with the rest of the New Testament, under the auspices of the British and Foreign Bible Society. As the Baptists had agreed an honorarium of $200 for the translation work of Dziekuc-Malej and Luckievic, it was left to Luckievic to make a proposal to the Society for completing the New Testament at the same rate. A figure in the neighbourhood of $300 was mentioned. For, as Wiseman remarked: "These men find it very difficult to live at present, and payment is necessary. Very few White Russians have the qualifications to undertake this work, and it would be almost impossible to find others, as a knowledge of Greek is most rare. Mr Luckievic is translating from the Greek, Mr Malej from the Slavonic".

Formerly unpersuaded that the Byelorussian language was not some kind of variant of Russian, Wiseman's views now appeared to have altered radically. "From hearing the language spoken during those days in Wilno, one realised there is quite a difference between Russian and White Russian, and on reading the White Russian Gospels, one finds many words not in the Russian. The Russian generally refers to White Russian as merely 'ochen plocho po-russki', that is 'very bad Russian', but this is quite misleading, as the difference is far greater than that. It is very evident that the dialect is quite distinct. These people cling desperately to their particular form of speech, in spite of much opposition, and they tenaciously cling to the idea of being separate and distinct from the Russians and Poles".

After reminding his committee that although the Byelorussians "had been one of the first nations to have the Scripture printed in their own language" in 1517, "subsequent oppression brought the people into the very low state in which they find themselves today". In support of his assertions, Wiseman enclosed with his report "some notes concerning Dr. Franciscus Skaryna, the White Russian translator of the early 16th century", and ended his account with a vigourous appeal. "May I now plead that for these 12.000.000 people living in Europe (Wiseman's italics. G. P.) without the New Testament in their own tongue, the Society would undertake to produce the New Testament and Psalms. Who can tell what a lever this may be in the uplift of these millions who, in the intervening centuries have sunk so low. Yes. they themselves recognise that they are so much lower culturally than those other nations around them, who in these later centuries, have had the privilege of reading the Word of God in their own mother tongue". Colonel Jezavitau himself could not have advocated the cause of the Byelorussian people in more passionate terms than this initially sceptical English official.

Pastor S. Loppe, whose appeal was annexed to Wiseman's report, waxed almost prophetic in his enthusiasm: "It is also a fault of Evangelical Christendom that the Word of God is not yet available in the White Russian language. Christ said: 'I am come to send fire on the earth, and what will I, if it be already kindled?' (Luke: 12, 49). In the White Russian people a fire is burning, which can become very perilous; let us put out a hellish fire by means of the heavenly fire of our Lord Jesus. Let us give the White Russian people the New Testament with Psalms in the White Russian language! As an Evangelical Lutheran Pastor of Vilna, who not only knows the situation, but also follows its, development, I pray God and His servants: Give us the New Testament with Psalms in White Russian Language! 'Let the Word of Christ dwell in 'you richly, in all wisdom' (Col: 3, 16)".

From now on, Wiseman was able to communicate direct with Luckievic, who seems to have taken over the editorial work from the Byelorussian end. In December 1928 he wrote to Wiseman in Helsinki to inform him that he had come to "a perfect understanding" with the Baptist Kompas Press in Lodz regarding the lake-over of the Byelorussian New Testament and Psalms by the Bible Society. The translation work in respect of the other books of the New Testament would be undertaken as to the 'Acts' and 'Revelation' by Anton Luckievic, who would also revise Mme. Rosenbergs translation of the Psalms. "The other works will depend on Mr Malej". Wiseman duly passed this information back to London, with this intriguing, but somewhat inconsequential footnote; "It was the view of Dr. Harold Williams (late of The Times, who formerly lived in Russia, and was reputed to have a knowledge of 26 languages) that the White Russians more nearly represent the original Slavonic type than any other people".

The taking over of the Kompas Press venture by the Bible Society was accepted with characteristic selflessness by Kingston and his friends. "He is, as Dr Kilgour wrote to Wiseman, only too delighted to give us the use of his Gospels". There is some evidence that the Baptist mission in Poland had been finding the work beyond their financial ressources, and were well content to see a specialised society assuming the responsibility. Much work still remained to be done. Luckievic had hoped to be able to make use of Skaryna's version of the New Testament. He was, however, disappointed in his hopes, for only a portion of 70 pages was available in Vilna, and "beyond these pages Mr Luckievic has to rely on his Greek New Testament, comparing with the Russian, Polish and other translations". One surmises that the portion of Skaryna's version which he was able to consult, was of small use to him, being written as it was in Old Slavonic with a sprinkling of Middle-Byelorussian elements. In the same way Mme. Rosenberg's work was not of any great assistance. The Bible Society had inquired about this lady's qualifications, and on 14th December 1928 Wiseman reported that she had in 1925 been approached "by the committee of White Russians to undertake the translation of the Bible, and she had completed certain books of the Old Testament. This lady had a knowledge of several languages", and he added "there will be no difficulty about Hebrew in Vilna, as many educated Jews live there. I was told that first-class men are available for the Old Testament when that comes up for consideration, and probably one of these will be collaborating in the revision of the Psalms".

Unfortunately Mme. Rosenberg's translation was not at all satisfactory. Her version of the Psalms, left with Pastor Witt, had to be "totally rewritten by Mr. Luckievic". Similarly Pastor Dziekuc-Malej's translation of the Epistles had to be verified by Luckievic and compared with the original Greek, as he had done previously with the good pastor's version of the Gospels. All this additional work he had done prior to the official statement by the Bible Society that Wiseman "could take it that the Committee will cordially approve" the arrangements to produce the New Testament and Psalms in Byelorussian.

In anticipation of this reply, Wiseman had thoughtfully made arrangements "with Mr. Haig and Warsaw, so that [Luckievic] may have some money to go on with this very cold weather".

Naturally both Luckievic and Malej were asked by the Society to state their qualifications, which they duly did by filling in the Society's customary questionnaire in March 1929. Luckievic had, as he declared, "graduated from a classic state gymnasium in Russia in 1902, from the Faculty of Physics and Mathematics at St. Petersberg, and ... also studied law at Dorpat University".

As a highly respected Byelorussian intellectual, national leader, and former Prime Minister of the Byelorussian National Republic, Anton Luckievic was occasionally referred to by his admirers as "Dr." Luckievic, although he himself never adopted any such style. Wiseman, ever prudent, - not to say suspicious, - made discreet inquiries about him in Vilna, and reported to the Society: "He was always called Dr. in letters to me, but when I asked in Vilno what sort of doctorate he possessed, they told me his wife is a doctor of medicine, so they gave him the title also for courtesy!".

The confirmation of the British and Foreign Bible Society decision to produce the whole New Testament and Psalms reached Wiseman shortly after the 8th February, 1929, and approval was given to the payment of $300 to Luckievic and Malej.

The translation work on the New Testament had, like the appeals for a Byelorussian Bible over the previous nine years, involved a large number of individuals, and became almost a national "thing". The publishing of a Bible, or even the New Testament in Byelorussian, was in a sense, an act of national self-assertion, - a kind of acknowledgement that the 'chlopskaja mova', the "gutter talk" despised by the Russians and Poles, was a real language, capable not only of expressing the thoughts of a poetic genius such as Kupala or Kolas, but also of worthily conveying the message of the Word of God to the population of rural Byelorussia, and to the world.

As the leading national figure in Western Byelorussia during the 20's and 30's, Luckievic was fully conscious of the political aspects of the work which he had undertaken. As J. Roe stated in his 'History of the British and Foreign Bible Society 1905-1954': "It would be an exaggeration to say that the favour shown by ... governments towards the assimilation and use of the vernacular Bible was in deliberate support of these aims [of recovering or establishing their national identity] but there is little doubt that the incidental value of the Bible in this respect was recognized".

Yet Luckievic, as a statesman sympathetic to the evangelical aims of this third religion, - neither Catholic nor Orthodox, neither Polish nor Russian, - saw in this foreign biblical venture a means not only of asserting the status of the Byelorussian language as an internationally recognised idiom, but also of reawakening national pride and of reaffirming the basic unity of the Byelorussian Nation. No matter that these foreign evangelists, and Luckievic himself, inclined towards the Protestant faith. What was important was to make this venture a genuine, widely based and popular act of faith in the Byelorussian National movement.

Luckievic himself defined his own personal approach in relation to the books of the New Testament.: "I am elaborating them from the standpoint of literature and controlling them correctness with the Greek text". The manuscript of the translations he made are all in his own hand writing, meticulously corrected and revised. Yet, man of letters as he was, he did not disdain to seek counsel and assistance in his task, not merely from those such as the grammaticians Branislau Taraskievic (1892-1941) and Radaslau Astrouski (b. 1887), or the great Catholic Churchman Fr. Adam Stankievic (1891-1955), - not merely from that other significant patriot and activist Symon Rak-Michailouski who devoted so much time to advising on the final version, - but also from the simple scholars in the Byelorussian Lycee in Vilna where he taught. Hopeful of capturing some lively vernacular idioms, he distributed sections of the New Testament to his students for translation as an exercise. Inevitably, certain of these schoolboy attempts at translation provoked some merriment, and it is not known to what extent the venture profited from these excursions into linguistic field-work. One thing seems certain, however: thanks to the labours of devoted patriots such as Luckievic, Malej and Rak-Michailouski amongst many others, the Bible Society's Publication became, and remains to this day, not only the best available version of the New Testament, but also something of a symbol of popular and national endeavour.

Misfortune, too, beset the whole venture in its final stages. In June 1929 Wiseman, reported back to London that he had received a letter from Pastor Witt, who notified him that "Mr. Luckievic has had a very hard experience". In a word, he had been arrested by the Polish authorities in or about April 1929, in connexion with certain criminal charges. These were related, of course to the famous Hramada Trials of 1928, when the Polish Authorities sought to suppress the Byelorussian National Movement in Eastern Poland. The British and Foreign Bible .Society, fearing to be involved in some political scandal, wired their Polish agent Enholc to cease all negotiations with Luckievic, who was then in prison. However, the same month Luckievic was set at liberty, as "the charges against him could not be substantiated". Later, in June, Wiseman elaborated on this by reporting back to Dr. Kilgour: "His case came before the Court and he was totally freed. But some days before that he found his wife hanging dead in his appartment, committed suicide. Probably she did not stand the nervous strain, and did it in a fit of abnormality. But he, poor man, was nearly totally broken down". It is of course, all to the credit of this admirable man, that he surmounted this tragic family misfortune, and was able to report to Wiseman, at the end of June 1929, "I already have completed the revision of the translation of Epistles made by Mr. Dziekuc-Malej. The translation is re-written already, and I am reading it through. Thus the whole of the material for the New Testament is ready".

The manuscript of the translation, now deposited in the archives of Bible House, London, bears witness to the magnitude of Luckievic's work on the New Testament and Psalms. His own translation was meticulously polished and repolished, with the accented syllables in the more complex words painstakingly indicated. Dziekuc-Malej's work appears to be in another hand - the good pastor's penmanship veered towards large, round letters - and shows signs of having been copiously corrected in Luckievic's hand.

It was not until 14th July 1930, that Pastor Witt, who seems to have taken over the administrative work of the venture in Vilna, handed over the Manuscripts to the Bible Society's secretary for Central Europe A. L. Kaig in Berlin. The printing work had already started on the Gospel of St. Mark, on the initiative of Mr. Kingston, through the Kompas Printing house in Lodz. Having obtained an improved set of type from London, the Kompas Press had produced in 1929-30 a version of this Gospel virtually identical to the Society's, and which may have been in the nature of a "pilot", as well as a completion of the series of four Gospels produced by the Baptists. By January 1931 the proofs of the New Testament had been corrected, and the completed work appeared later in the year. The title page gave the place of publication as Helsinki, although the work was actually printed in Lodz, Poland, since Helsinki was the headquarters of the North East European Region of the Society, dealing with the Byelorussian New Testament. Since the majority of the Byelorussian population lived in what was then Eastern Poland, and all the translation work on the Testament had been done in Vilna or Brest, it would have been natural for the Central European Secretariate of the Bible Society, responsible for Germany, Hungary, Czecho-slovakia and Poland, to have seen the work published from Warsaw or Berlin. It was no doubt considered as a minor diplomatic success by Luckievic and his friends, that at least for the Society's purposes, Byelorussia was included in the separate North Eastern Region, along with the Baltic States and Finland.

Once printed, the New Testament appears to have sold like hot cakes, and achieved rapid popularity. One copy, autographed by Anton Luckievic himself, is to be found on the shelves of the Francis Skaryna Library in London. Its black cover, similar to that of the full 25.000 copies making up the first edition, bears the three-barred cross, the lowest bar inclined, commonly used by the Orthodox Church among the Eastern Slavs, - and thereby hangs a story.

During his visit to Vilna in the summer of 1928, Wiseman, mindful of the Society's policy of seeking the support of the local Churches in its work, made overtures to the Synod of the Orthodox Church in Poland. "I also consulted with the representative of the Orthodox Church, which is separate from that in Russia. Most White Russians belong to the Orthodox Church. By their laws, the Synod is unable to give its blessing or approval to any book not issued under their authority, and they have power to prohibit the use of any book issued without their imprimatur. Once they have placed their seal upon a book, that can be used in all subsequent editions. This is the same as with the Holy Synod in Russia.

"At first the good man seemed to seize upon the idea of the issue of a Testament in White Russian as a means for helping the Synod in its financial difficulties. He requested that the whole work should be prepared entirely at the Bible Society's expense and completed according to the Synod's directions, and corrections, and that an edition of 10.000 copies should be handed over unconditionally to them in the first instance with their name alone, and the name of the British and Foreign Bible Society must not appear anywhere in the Book. I thanked him most cordially for his offer, but expressed the fear that by the regulations of the B.F.B.S. this might not be entirely possible. On the other hand, would it be possible for the Synod, if the Book fully meets with their approval, and for the privilege of having their name on the title page, to pay actual cost plus 5/o charges on the first edition of 10.000. The realisation of the cost of production and that books printed must be immediately paid for (in hard cash generally) rather seemed to take away his breath and he replied that the Synod had no money.

"In this case I said it should surely be possible to come to an amicable arrangement and possibly our committee might produce for them much below cost say 500 copies at one zloty (5d.) each as a first impression with their name in it so as to meet the requirements of their canonical law and so obtain their imprimatur for further editions. He was afraid that the Synod had not the 500 zloty (?11) for the purpose, and suggested that they should receive at least 1000 copies gratis. I said I was unable to promise but would put forward the suggestion. He thought it very probable that the Synod would give its authority if we would do this and I assured him we would do all we reasonably could to meet their wishes, and he seemed very pleased. It was understood that these 1.000 copies would be sent to the priests of the churches within the area of the Synod's control, which number nearly a thousand. At the same time the Synod would affirm that their authority had been given to the Book and this would prevent prohibitions or misunderstandings locally".

It was subsequently agreed between the Society and the Synod that a Revision committee should be set up by the Orthodox to examine, and if possible approve, the Society's version of the New Testament. However, one year later, in July 1929, Luckievic, who was involved in the discussions with the Synod, wrote that "the question is as to how soon the Metropolitan will officially confirm the list of members of the committee that would confirm the translation". Another year passed, but in April 1930 little progress seems to have been made. A despairing Haig, writing from Berlin reported: "The translation of the New Testament has been finished for many months, but we have not yet received it, as it was handed over to the Orthodox Church for examination. Owing to difficulties in their Church, the examination has not yet been completed, but I am asking Pastor Witt to do all he can to push them on".

In one of the committee rooms of the General Council of the Bar in London there hangs a small framed notice with the following words: "A committee is a dark passage-way down which good ideas are lured, and then quietly strangled". Mindful, perhaps, of this precept, the good Pastor Witt, after many months, thought it advisable to extract the Society's manuscript from the corridors of the Synod, and hand it over to Haig for the printers. So it was that the Byelorussian New Testament appeared with a cover already embossed with the Orthodox cross, but no synodal imprimatur".

The attitude of the Roman Catholic clergy towards the Society's initiative was equivocal. Whilst suspicious of its potential use as an instrument of "sectarian" propaganda, it provided the more nationally-conscious Catholic priests with a powerful argument against the Poles, and in favour of a wider use of the Byelorussian language in the churches. A memorandum was addressed to Pope Pius XI by a group of Catholic notables complaining that if no provision was made for the use of the vernacular by the clergy in Byelorussia, the people would fall victims to "sectarian" influences.

But at least the appearance of the Byelorussian New Testament in 1931 prompted both the major Churches to publish some biblical texts in the vernacular, for in 1936 the Synodal Press of the Orthodox Church in Warsaw produced its own 'Biblia pauperum' in the Byelorussian language under the title 'Sviascennaja historyja Novaha Zavietu', compiled by Siarhiej Paulovic, a candidate in Theology. Similarly the Byelorussian Catholic clergy, after some initial difficulties with the Polish hierarchy, were able to produce in 1938 a further collection of Gospels and Epistles for the Mass entitled 'Bozaje Slova', compiled by Fr. Adam Stankievic, as well as a version of the 'Four Gospels and Acts', translated and published in 1939 by Fr Vincent Hadleuski (1888-1942), bearing the approbatur of the Catholic Archbishop of Vilna, Romuald Jalbrzykowski. This latter work had been in preparation since 1933, to counteract the success of the "recently published translation of this book [i.e. The New Testament - G. P.] by the Methodists, which contains dogmatic errors, many inaccuracies, and also numerous imperfections as regards the Byelorussian language". In fact Hadleuski's translation, though arguably more precise, falls short of the high literary standard of the Luckievic version; it is however, unquestionably superior to the later New Testaments of Mgr Piotr Tatarynovic (1954, 1974) and Dr Janka Stankievic (1970). None has surpassed the Luckievic version in popular appeal.

When, in the aftermath of the Second World War, several thousand Byelorussian refugees found themselves dispersed throughout Western Europe, there was a substantial demand for the Bible Society's New Testament, though the first edition had for some time been unobtainable. In 1946 Dr Vitaut Tumas, well-known for His work in the field of 'Skaryniana', approached the Society with a request to publish the whole Bible, or at least to produce a second edition of the 'New Testament and Psalms' in Byelorussian. In this -he had the support of a number of Byelorussian Protestant ministers, as well as several Catholic and Orthodox priests. A new edition was duly published in 1948, and is still widely used.

The principal actors of this not undramatic episode in the ecclesiastical history of Byelorussia have almost all passed away. Anton Luckievic perished in a Soviet concentration camp in 1942. Pastor Dziekuc-Malej died in America in 1955, a widely-respected and saintly man. Wilfrid Wiseman, who toiled so devotedly in the Lord's vineyard, departed this life in 1970. Leucyk, Ulasau, Rak-Michailouski, Jezavitau, Taraskievic, have entered into the history of their nation. Their endeavour, their work remains, a monument to the faith of some, the patriotic dedication of others, and a light to the enlightenment of the Byelorussian people.

English version

New Testament and Chants (1931) (in Belarussian)
Katechizis. Niesvizh, 1562
'Spadchina', 2003, 1
The conference 'Reformation and Golden Age of Belarus', 2003
Protestant church and national movement (in Belarussian)

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