Frederick W. Baedeker 1823-1906

While Russia was still being governed by the elite czars, a choice servant of the Lord of German birth, Dr. F. W. Baedeker, heard God’s call to take the gospel to its largely forgotten millions. He reached many members of the aristocracy in the cities to begin with, and then many thousands of miserable prisoners in jails right across that vast country. How he did this is an amazing story of dedication, perseverance and commitment to Christ and the gospel.

The English connection

Fritz Baedeker, as he was known at home, was the second youngest child of F. W. J. Baedeker and his wife Frederika at Witten in Westphalia. When he was sixteen, he was apprenticed to a business in Dortmund, then at twenty-three he enlisted with the German army for two years of military service in Cologne, during which his health gave way and he was discharged, much to his delight. He obtained a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Freiburg, and, in 1851, he married a young lady, Auguste Jacobi, but sadly she died only three months afterwards.

He then began a period of travelling, first across Germany, then to London. From there he set sail for Tasmania on a four-month voyage beset by fierce storms. He became a tutor in a private school, then moved to Melbourne and later to Sydney. In 1858 he returned to France, then briefly to his family, and finally to England to settle and teach in a school in Weston-super-Mare, where he became a British subject.

On 17th June 1862 he married a young widow, Mrs. Ormsby, the mother of a young boy at his school, and theirs became a long and happy marriage. They moved to Bristol to enable him to attend lectures on medicine and surgery, and here he made a lasting friendship with another fellowcountryman, George Muller.

He was converted to Christ at the age of forty-three in Weston-super-Mare, where meetings arranged by the Earl of Cavan were being conducted by Lord Radstock. One evening, Lord Radstock said to him, ‘My man, God has a message through me for you tonight’. On his knees in an anteroom, he trusted Christ and the joy of salvation flooded his soul. Later he would say, ‘I went in a proud German infidel, and came out a humble, believing disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ. Praise God!’ His wife noted the great change in her husband and soon she too was saved and became united with him in a desire to serve the Saviour they had found.

From England to Russia

To begin with he preached in his home area to good effect, while giving time to study the scriptures. In 1874 Lord Radstock was in Berlin where an American evangelist was preaching the gospel. He invited Dr. Baedeker to interpret the messages, which he did so enthusiastically that the German people said, ‘Here is a man of our own race and tongue upon whom the Holy Ghost manifestly rests. We will listen to him!’ He continued for a year and conducted his first gospel campaign in his native land. Many were saved, among them several of the aristocracy, some of whom provided premises for the preaching of the gospel for years to come.

Seeing great opportunities among a people largely deprived of the gospel, he moved to Russia with his wife and daughter for three years, preaching to its German-speaking people. Soon his ministry extended to much of what is now regarded as Eastern Europe, and subsequently to the western, northern, and southern provinces of the Russian empire as it was then.

On arriving in a new city, he would approach its Governor, announce that he had come from England as an evangelist and ask whether he could hold a meeting in his drawing room. Surprisingly to us, such a request was usually granted at once, and in several cities he preached the gospel to capacity crowds and many were truly converted. His audience would often have people of many nationalities, so he employed interpreters to translate his English or German into three or four other languages at the same time!

Sometimes he came up against an impasse, usually from a priest of the Orthodox Church, which was powerful and influential. He spoke about ‘hostile priests and active police’ inhibiting progress in many places. On one occasion in Riga, after he had advertised ‘Christian Services’, he was forbidden because the police said that only the Orthodox Church could hold such services. So, he changed his title to ‘Lectures’ which they could not forbid - the subject was ‘Sin and Salvation’.

Into prisons

In contrast to this early work, his greatest mission was to countless thousands of prisoners languishing in the most appalling conditions in jails across the continent. For eighteen years he had free access to every prison across Russia, including Siberia and the notorious Sakhalin Island. Overcrowding, filth, vermin, lack of sanitation, along with cruelty from prison guards, combined to make convicts’ lives a misery. With heads half shaved, usually shackled by the ankles, they were forced to march long distances from one prison to another. Most would exist in despair until disease or brutality ended their existence. Often wives and children would try to accompany their men into exile, adding to the awful picture of destitution. Many would make a vain attempt to escape, soon to starve and perish in the cold.

In places such as these Dr. Baedeker brought hope and cheer with his kindly attitude and comforting words from the scriptures. Hardened criminals and political prisoners alike (including many Christians and others incarcerated for their religious beliefs) were often reduced to tears, but uplifted and grateful to receive New Testaments. Some requested their visitor to write his name on the books ‘so that they would remember to pray for him’. Prison governors too appreciated his visits and his concerns, for many of them also deplored the conditions in which they worked and longed to see improvements made. This would eventually happen, in some measure due to Baedeker’s influence.

The long journey

From St. Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland across to Russia’s eastern coast on the Pacific is a distance of over 5,000 miles. Dr. Baedeker first made this epic journey at sixty-seven years of age. It began at Berlin in March 1890, by train to St. Petersburg and Moscow, and then by steamboat on the River Volga to Perm. 500 poverty-stricken emigrants accompanied him on the ship. Moved by their plight, he provided a hot meal for them. Another train journey took him across the Ural Mountains into western Siberia, then several days on another steamboat on the River Obi to Tomsk. At each stopping place he made it his business to visit the prisons to leave tracts and New Testaments which had been shipped ahead for his arrival.

The next 1,000 miles or so were by road, at least such roads as existed. He travelled by tarantass, a primitive type of covered wagon pulled by three horses. His cases of books were packed in first, then luggage on top, some food supplies, and finally a mattress and pillows for such comfort as could be had over uneven roads, mudflats and through rivers. His tarantass was ferried across Lake Baikal, to travel another 1, 000 miles through Siberia to Stretensk. He wrote home to say that during his long journey he had preached the gospel to 40,000 prisoners and distributed 12,000 copies of the word of God.

The final leg of the journey was 1,800 miles by steamer on the River Amoor to the coast, and then to Sakhalin Island, a place even more desolate and cruel than much of Siberia. At this destination he continued his task with unabated zeal for the benefit of thousands of others living in hopeless despair. His return homewards was via Tokyo on 23rd September, then Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Colombo, and Port Said, finally arriving in England in early December.

He testified to the goodness of God during the whole of that long, arduous journey across Russia. He had been preserved from attacks by robbers, had always been provided with means of transport, although basic and comfortless, and with suitable clothing for the extreme cold. Despite many visits to the most unsanitary and unhealthy places, he never contracted any serious disease.

Dr. Baedeker’s work continued for many more years. He made a second journey across Russia like the first. He laboured in Finland, Sweden, and Norway, making numerous prison visits again, but also holding meetings in some universities where professors and their students alike were blessed. In Armenia he met with some believers and continued his prison ministries both there and in the Caucasus although by then he was suffering frequent bouts of fever.

His home base was in Weston-super-Mare where he enjoyed fellowship with the believers in the Gospel Hall in Waterloo Street. His contributions to their work and worship were memorable, often preaching in the open air to crowds of holidaymakers.

Dr. Baedeker died after a short illness and his body was buried in Weston cemetery. Lord Radstock preached a fitting tribute and farewell. On his headstone were words frequently on his lips during his last few days:

OCTOBER 9TH, 1906.


Information from Robert S. Latimer, Dr. Baedeker and his Apostolic Work in Russia, 1908 (now out of print), gratefully acknowledged.


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