A modern-day John the Baptist, the voice of the Underground Church, Richard Wurmbrand (1909-2001) was an evangelical minister who spent fourteen years of Communist imprisonment and torture in his homeland of Romania. He was one of Romania’s most widely known Christian leaders, authors, and educators. A symbol of Christ and courage, he was a man who never compromised but was obedient through suffering. Christian leaders have called him “a living martyr” and “the Iron Curtain Paul”.
In TPM, its interpreted that if your superior clergy gives you a tough time, you are partaking in the fellowship of Christ’s suffering. This is a technique by which they ensure that their juniors are always under their control. But is it what Paul writes to the Philippian Church?
“That I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being made conformable unto His death.” Phil 3:10
The Wurmbrand’s’ were brought up in Jewish Orthodox families, but they abandoned their faith of their forefathers and became ‘militant atheists’. Richard was brought up in one of such families in which no religion was recognized. In his childhood, he received no religious education and at the age of fourteen, he was already a convinced, hardened atheist. This was the result of a bitter childhood. He had been an orphan from the first years of life, and he had known poverty in the difficult years of World War – 1. Although he was an atheist, something which was unreasonable always attracted him to church buildings. He was very sure that there was no God. He hated the notion of God as a master whom he would have to obey. He would have liked very much to know that a loving heart existed somewhere in the center of this universe. He knew there was no God, but he was sad that such a God of love did not exist.
Once, in his inner spiritual conflict, Richard entered a Catholic church building; He saw there people kneeling and saying a prayer to the holy virgin; “Hail, Mary, full of grace.” He repeated the words after them again and again, he looked to the statue of the Virgin Mary, but nothing happened. He was very sad about it. And one day, being a very convinced atheist, he prayed to God. His prayer was something like this: “God, I know surely that You do not exist. But if perchance You exist, which I contest, it is not my duty to believe in You; it is Your duty to reveal Yourself to me.”
After their wedding, Richard and his wife, Sabina determined to live life to the full; he was a successful businessman with plenty of money to spend and together they set out on a round of night clubs, theatres, and parties. Within a year, he had developed tuberculosis and was taken into a sanatorium up in the mountains for fresh air and rest. In a nearby village, he met an old carpenter who gave him a Bible and introduced him to Jesus. He quoted, “At fourteen, I have convinced an atheist as the communists are today. I had read an atheist book and it was not that I did not believe in God or Christ…I hated these notions considering them harmful for the human mind. And so I grew up in bitterness towards religion. But as I understood afterward, I had the grace to be one of the chosen of God for reasons which I don’t understand. These were reasons which did not belong to anything in my character, because my character was very bad…And the Bible he(the old man) gave me was written not so much in letters, but in flames of love fired by his prayers. I could scarcely read it. I could only weep over it, comparing my bad life with the life of Jesus; my impurity with His purity; my hatred with His love; and He accepted me to be one of His own.”
Richard continued his search for God and began to attend meetings held under the auspices of the Church’s Ministry among the Jews where he was eventually converted and baptized. His wife rebelled against his decision, protesting they were Jews and should have nothing to do with Christianity. She decided that on the day of Richard’s baptism she would commit suicide, but her attitude changed and she too was won to Christ.
The two new converts were anxious to share their faith with their fellow Jews and took every available opportunity, whether on a train, in a park or in the street. Richard started by telling the Rabbi who conducted their wedding service and was rebuked for having read Isaiah 53, which was forbidden; on other occasions he visited synagogues on Friday evenings, the beginning of the Sabbath, to speak with Jewish people about the Messiah. Richard wrote, “In the first days after my conversion, I felt that I would not be able to live any longer. Walking on the street, I felt physical pain for every man or woman who passed by. It was like a knife in the heart, so burning was the question of whether or not he or she was saved. If a member of the congregation sinned, I would weep for hours. The longing for the salvation of the souls has remained in my heart and the communists are not excluded from it.”
Out of remorse for having been an atheist, he longed from the first day of his conversion to be able to witness to the Russians because they are a people raised from childhood in atheism. Its fulfillment began in Nazi times because they had in Romania many thousands of Russian war-prisoners and they could do Christian work among them. Richard wrote, “It was a dramatic, moving work. I will never forget my first encounter with a Russian prisoner. He told me that he was an engineer. I asked him if he believed in God and he lifted towards me eyes without understanding and said: ‘I have no such military order to believe. If I have an order I will believe.’ Tears ran upon my cheeks. I felt my heart rent into pieces. Here stood before me a man whose mind was dead, a man who had lost the greatest gift which God has given to mankind- to be an individual…After the shock of seeing what communism has done to human beings, I promised God I would dedicate my life to these men, to give them back their personalities, and to give to the faith in God and Christ.”
When the English mission church was closed and the pastor forced to leave; Richard became the new pastor. He was able to continue preaching, visiting and witnessing both Jews and Gentiles. When the German army arrived in the city, he even had a special edition of John’s Gospel printed for free distribution to the soldiers. On three occasions he was arrested but was never in prison for more than two or three weeks. These years saw the beginning of Underground Church where the believers were forced to gather secretly in each other’s home. Though they were an Underground Church, like John the Baptist, they spoke openly to men and rulers about Christ.
The communists convened a congress of all Christian bodies in the parliament building. There were four thousand priests, pastors, and ministers of all denominations. They chose Joseph Stalin as the honorary president of this congress. Richard and his wife were present at this congress. His wife sat near him and told him: “Richard, stand up and wash away this shame from the face of Christ! They are spitting into His face”. He said to his wife: “If I do so, you lose your husband.” She said: “I don’t wish to have a coward as a husband.” Then he arose and spoke, praising Christ and God and said that our loyalty is due first to Him. Afterward, he had to pay for this, but it had been worthwhile.
While walking alone to church on Sunday 29th February 1948, Richard was seized by the secret police. His identity papers and belongings were taken away and he was given a new name. As a result he ‘disappeared’ and for eight and a half years was impossible to trace. At first, Sabina was told he had absconded with money intended for famine relief work, then later he had died in prison.
Between 1948 and 1956, Richard was frequently interrogated and subjected to terrible forms of torture. He was hung upside down and beaten on his feet, placed in an ice-box ‘refrigerator cell’, beaten till his bones were broken and had eighteen holes burned in his body. When his captors could not break him, they let him go; he had lost much weight and was in bad shape, and it was a miracle that he was still alive.
Richard had to go through brainwashing. It is the most horrible torture. For years they had to sit for seventeen hours a day hearing: “Communism is good! Communism is good! Communism is good! Communism is good! Christianity is stupid! Christianity is stupid! Christianity is stupid! Give up! Give up! Give up! Give up! “ Several Christians have asked him how he could resist brainwashing. He told them, “There exists only one method of resistance to brainwashing. This is heart washing. If the heart is cleansed by the love of Jesus Christ, and if the heart loves Him, you can resist all tortures. What would a loving bride not do for a loving Bridegroom.”
It was strictly forbidden to preaching other prisoners. It was understood that whoever was caught doing this received a severe beating. A number of them decided to pay the price for the privilege of preaching, so they accepted their terms. It was a deal. Richard wrote, “We preached and they beat us. We were happy preaching. They were happy beating us. So, everyone was happy.”
Imprisoned again after three years of freedom, he was betrayed by his own associates in the underground church, he was finally released five and a half years later, during a general amnesty in 1964. Richard quotes, “When I look back on the fourteen years of prison, it was sometimes a very happy time. Other prisoners and even the guards very often wondered at how happy Christians could be under most terrible circumstances.”
During these years Sabina was also imprisoned and, without trial, sentenced to three years’ hard labour. She was interrogated incarcerated in a narrow cupboard with air holes designed to break down a prisoner’s resistance. And while helping to dig a big canal, she had two ribs broken when thrown into the River Danube by the guards. Richard wrote, “My wife has eaten grass like cattle to stay alive.” Their son, Mihai, was left an orphan for three years, and the two ladies caring for him were seized by the police, beaten and left permanently crippled. At school, he was twice expelled for daring to speak out against Communist indoctrination and lost two years of his education.
Realizing the great danger of a third imprisonment, Christians in Norway negotiated with the communist authorities for his release from Romania. The communist government had begun “selling” their political prisoners. The going price for a prisoner was £800. Richard’s price was £2,500. He concluded that it would be better to continue his work from outside, and decided to live in the United States where he could be the ‘voice’ of the Underground Church in the free World. He founded the Christian Mission to the communist world, through which help could be channeled to believers in Communist lands.
Following the fall of Communism in 1991, the Mission’s focus of concern widened to include Christians living under other regimes eager to destroy the Church. Knowing their fears and needs, together with Stuart Harris, Richard set up Release International in 1992. The aim is not simply to support families to martyrs and prisoners, but also to help the persecuted Church win to Christ those opposed to the Gospel.
When Richard came out of prison in1956, his son- who became a Christian as a result of his parents’ witness- asked him, ‘What have you learned from all your suffering?’ His father replied, “First, that there is a God; second, Christ is our Saviour; third, there is eternal life; and fourth, love is the best way.”
Wurmbrand wrote 18 books in English and others in Romanian. His best-known book, titled Tortured for Christ, was released in 1967. In several of them, he writes very boldly and emphatically against Communism; yet he maintained hope and compassion even for those who tortured him by “looking at men… not as they are, but as they will be… I could also see in our persecutors. a future Apostle Paul… (and) the jailer in Philippi who became a convert.” Wurmbrand last lived in Palos Verdes, California. He died at the age of 91 on February 17, 2001 in a hospital in Torrance, California. His wife, Sabina, had died six months earlier on August 11, 2000. In 2006, he was voted fifth among the greatest Romanians according to the Mari Români poll.
Wurmbrand, Richard, Tortured For Christ
Hanks, Geoffrey, 70 Great Christians
Wikipedia extracts included