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A “Grail of Peace”

This story is too amazing not to share. The first chalice acquired for the first Baptist church in Tbilisi, Georgia, has been discovered almost literally in my back yard: in a closet in the chapel at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. This was, in fact, the chalice from the first Baptist church founded in the Russian Empire in the 1860s. Archbishop Malkhaz of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia has graciously granted permission for me to share with my readers the email I received from him. It is reproduced in full below the break, with links added and some very minor editing.

Stalin and the Baptist Minister

It was the end of September when I was taken ill in the early morning. I felt very unusual pain in the abdomen. I thought I was clever to apply a hot bottle on the spot where it was hurting most. It was the silliest thing I could possibly do: the pain immediately started excruciating and, as we say it in Georgia, it made me walk on the walls. By the time I went to see the doctor the pain slightly lessened. The doctor carefully examined my abdomen and then told me to get dressed .

“Shall I go home now and take some medicine?” I asked him.

“I am afraid you are not going home, you are going to the emergency unit of the JR Hospital!” was his answer. I was rushed to the hospital and immediately operated upon.

After my appendicitis was taken out I had to cancel my visits to Rome, Dublin, Tbilisi. My GP wanted me to cancel one more visit to the USA but I would not. I had promised my US-Georgia counterpart, Dr. Frank Broome, to attend the annual meeting of the CBF Georgia in Macon. I could not easily give up an opportunity to visit my friends and family. Since Ala and I got married I have seen her only a few times for brief periods of time. Thus I found myself being pushed in the wheelchair in the airports of the JFK New York, Raleigh-Durham and Atlanta. I felt like Andy Pipkin from the Little Britain.

This visit proved to be one of the most moving visits I have ever taken anywhere! I am going to tell you a story which should not have happen by under any circumstances. A story which is made up by a chain of co-incidents. It would not have happened had one link went missing in the chain.

In mid-February while I was conducting research for my dissertation in the Angus Library at Regent’s Park College, Oxford, Julian, an archivist, suggested to look at two folders with an inscription on them: BWA-USSR. I did not expect to see much material on Georgia in the folders but I took a look at them anyway.

I came across the name of Louie D. Newton, a prominent USA-Georgia minister, who visited the USSR in 1946 and met both religious and political leaders of the country. I had heard of him many years ago from Dr. John Baker, a dear friend and then the minister of the First Baptist Church in Columbia Missouri. He told me that during his visit he met Stalin. Dr. Newton was a vice president of the Baptist World Alliance and the President of the Southern Baptist Convention. He had been a member of a Russian War Relief delegation of Americans who were invited by the Soviet government to inspect the uses of gifts for relief from America; to inspect medical, educational, and cultural institutions; and to confer with Soviet officials. After his visit to the USSR Dr. Newton wrote report on his visit to Dr. Rushbrooke, the head of the Baptist World Alliance. I found this report in those folders. I learned quite a bit about his visit to the USSR and also found out that he had visited Tbilisi, Mtskheta and Gori in the Republic of Georgia as well. This was interesting! Unfortunately one part from Newton’s report was missing.

I wanted to see what was in the missing part of the report. I sent query about Newton’s archival materials to my two friends in the USA, Prof. Susan Broome and Prof. Karen Bullock. Both professors reacted on my request by return. Prof. Bullock sent me a little booklet by Newton where he writes about his visit to the USSR in 1946. But there was not much from the missing part of the report. On the other hand there was a piece of information which haunted me. I learned from the booklet that Dr. Newton was given a chalice which used to belong to the Baptist church in Tbilisi.

Prof. Broome told me that Dr. Newton’s diary of this trip was located in the archives of Mercer University. She most kindly offered to transcribe the diary, search for other files in our archives, and search for related materials at Druid Hills Baptist Church in Atlanta—and she mentioned some photos she had seen of a chalice that was presented to Dr. Newton from the Baptists in Russia at the end of his visit. And also a picture of an Orthodox Archbishop who looked exactly like me. Of course I knew that it was not me but who was he? From the little booklet I knew that when Dr Newton was looking for a Baptist church and Baptist ministers in Tbilisi. Mistakenly, he was taken to the office of the Catholicos Patriarch of Georgia, Kalistrate (Tsintsadze), who welcomed him warmly and even offered a couple of large icons which Newton did not accept due to the baggage consideration.

Because of my research I was particularly interested in Newton’s trip to Tbilisi, Georgia, and in any documentation of a possible meeting between Newton and Joseph Stalin. Susan worked tirelessly to find, transcribe and send all the materials I needed. A search of correspondence files provided enough information to make it seem very likely that Dr. Newton did have a personal encounter with Stalin, presenting him with a Bible and two pipes. Both Newton and Stalin were pipe-smokers. Probably this was the first and last meeting Stalin ever had with a Baptist minister. In late September Susan met with one of Louie Newton’s grandsons in late September confirmed that a face-to-face meeting actually did take place.

The Chalice

Something that was even more exiting was the story of the chalice. As Susan continued finding and sending more materials about the chalice, I came to realize that this was the first chalice ever to be acquired by the first Baptist church in the Russian Empire of which then Georgia was a part. The chalice was purchased by N. Voronin who was the first Baptist to be baptized in the river Mtakvari, which divides the Georgian capital of Tbilisi into two parts.

Nobody in Georgia knows what has happened with the chalice. Owing to Susan’s efforts I got a photograph of a large and handsome chalice. This was already absolutely fascinating: we had the photo of the first chalice with which all our spiritual ancestors celebrated Eucharist. The chalice from which all our martyrs and teachers of faith drank: Basil Pavlov (the man who was exiled many a times by the Russian authorities), Ilia Kandelaki (the founder of the Georgian Baptist church was assassinated by Bolshevik authorities when he was returning from a mission trip to east Georgia), Ekaterine Kutateladze (the woman who was a teacher of faith in the age of persecution), Zakaria Paciashvili (who was exiled to Siberia), Askold Belousov (prominent Baptist leader and teacher of faith who lived and died in Georgia)… Eucharist is extremely important part of our spirituality in Georgia and I got a photograph of the first chalice. This was a great discovery, but was it enough?!

This reminds me an old Tbilisian anecdote. A mother is giving politeness lesson to her boy. She asks the boy: “what do you say in answer when a candy is given to you?” the mother expected the boy to say “thank you” but he replied: “give me more!” Susan had identified the photograph of the chalice but we wanted to have more. I wanted to know what had happened with the chalice in the States. Was it lost? Was it kept by Newton’s family? We knew that Dr Newton admired this gift and traveled all over the USA with that chalice. I have a lot of newspaper clippings with Dr. Newton’s picture with the chalice in his hands. One of the first such pictures was taken in North Carolina, at the Meredith College campus (with the Meredith College Chapel in the background).

Susan tried hard to locate the chalice after almost 65 years since its presentation. The chalice was not part of Mercer’s library holdings of Dr. Newton’s personal papers, nor at Druid Hills where he was a minister. It was not at the American Baptist Historical Society’s archives in Atlanta, nor at the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives in Nashville. Susan wrote later that “the thought of having to tell Malkhaz that it could not be located weighed heavily on me, particularly since it had originally been used in Tbilisi at his own church in 1868.” I thought it was impossible to find the chalice and I should give up even dreaming to find it. But there was fascinating development awaiting for us. This is what Susan wrote:

In mid-March one of my faculty colleagues mentioned that she had heard the word “chalice” used in a taped interview with Dr. Kirby Godsey, then-president of Mercer University, that she was cataloging. She didn’t know the details of that part of the interview, but she knew I had been in search of a chalice—and this is not a word that Baptists use very often! How odd, I thought. Why would he mention a chalice unless he had seen one? A few nights later, just as I was about to fall asleep, I suddenly had a vision of an anteroom in Newton Chapel on our campus. I had a vague memory of photos on the wall related to Dr. Newton, since the chapel was named for him a number of years ago. The room isn’t always open, but I knew where it was. Because of an out-of-town meeting, I had to wait until the end of the next day to walk over to the chapel, try the doorknob to the room, discover it unlocked, turn on the light, and find the chalice right in front of me as the centerpiece of a display of photos, printed documents, and other objects (including pipes that belonged to Dr. Newton—which were a clue of why he presented pipes as gifts to Joseph Stalin!). It was March 25.

Susan then saw documents that described the chalice as 14th- or 17th-century Florentine. Either way, it is very old. It is a matter of further research to date the chalice which should not be too difficult. The Chalice has three markings at the bottom: they shall tell us quality of the silver, the place where the chalice was made and who made it.

What we know about the chalice so far is the following: it was bought in 1868, when the first Baptist church in the Russian Empire was constituted in Tbilisi. It was purchased and presented to the newly established church. What began as a sheet of silver was hammered into shape, assembled, plated with gold, and then hand-engraved with a Latin phrase that circles it, inviting Christian believers to “Drink ye all of it.”

It appears that the chalice was used in observance of the Eucharist at the church in Tbilisi until 1928, at which time it was taken to Moscow, the largest Baptist church in the Soviet Union. According to our records it was given to M. A. Orlov.

On Thursday morning, August 8, 1946 Dr Newton visited the Kremlin. He met with Stalin and presented him with a copy of the New Testament and two pipes. Dr. Newton says in his report that he is “prohibited to speak about the meeting.” In the evening of the same day, August 8, 1946 Dr. Newton preached his sermon in the Moscow Central Baptist Church and con-celebrated Eucharist with other clergy. After the Eucharist he was given the Tbilisi Chalice. Newton treasured the chalice and was proud of this gift. An American newspaper, the Protestant Voice of January 1947 calls it “a holy grail of peace.”

From Georgia to Georgia

I arrived to Atlanta on November 5, and was met at the airport by my fellow CBF bishop, Frank Broome, to be taken to Macon, the city where the Mercer University is located. The first thing we did in the city was to go to the University library where Susan, Dr. Frank Broome’s wife, was awaiting for us with the chalice. That day I held the chalice reverently still being unable to believe that it was found. But the story does not finish here. In Macon I had a few engagements: I had to attend a Sunday class for adults and speak about Georgia, I was to participate in the opening worship service on Sunday morning I had to greet the First Baptist Church in Macon, in Sunday afternoon I had to speak to a women’s group, in the evening I had to participate along with Susan and Frank in the opening worship service of the CBF General assembly and next day on Monday I had to give a talk at the breakouts meeting.

In the morning I told the class the story of the Tbilisi Chalice. Everybody was exited and amazed by it. Particularly the Dean of the Chapel, where the chalice was kept who had not heard anything of the chalice and had not even been in the ante chapel where the chalice was kept. “What is going to happen with the chalice?” the Dean asked when I finished my presentation (At that point I did not know he was the dean). “This is simple,” I answered jokingly, “I am going to steal it!”

After the class the dean approached me and told me with confidence: “I am going to do what I can do to return the chalice!” I could not even dream to get the chalice back. I had not even asked Susan and Frank whether it would be possible to return the Chalice to Tbilisi. In the evening at the opening of the CBF General Assembly Susan told the people the story of the chalice and Frank presented me with a large, beautifully framed photograph of the chalice. Frank is highly intellectual cool minded person. He does not often shows his emotions. That evening at handing of the photograph everybody noticed that he became emotional when he said, “Please, accept Archbishop, this photograph of your chalice!” The worship service was followed by a beautiful reception. Frank did what he could, he did not own the chalice, the chalice belonged to the University. Frank gave me what he could but his gift pulled the trigger. A lot of people came to me and said we should give you the chalice. The minister of the First Baptist Church jokingly told me “if you give me a robe similar to yours, I will help you to get your chalice. The University president is a member of my church.” “Who is the president of the university?” I asked him spontaneously. “You met him last time you were here in Macon. Let me introduce you to him.” Surprisingly the president Underwood and his wife were at the reception. “We shall give you your chalice” the president told me, “or perhaps we should trade it with the picture you have received.” I could not figure it out whether he was serious or it was a sort of Southern humor. I could not believe such a decision could be made so spontaneously. As I found out later President Underwood meant what he said. On Wednesday, November 10 the chalice was formally handed to me in the University Chapel by Prof. Susan Broome and the Dean of the Chapel. It had been more then 142 years since the chalice was given to the Tbilisi Church, more then 80 years since it left Tbilisi, almost 65 years since it left Moscow I got the chalice back!

The story of the chalice is not finished yet. There will two Eucharistic celebrations before the chalice leaves the USA. One will be celebrated at the Newton Chapel of the Mercer University and another at the CBF General Assembly next year. At the arrival of the chalice to Tbilisi there will be another celebration with participation of Georgian and American clergy. The Eucharist with the Grail of Peace will be celebrated in the Peace Cathedral in Tbilisi, Georgia.

The chalice was found owing to the friendship, cooperation and partnership of a great number of people in the United Kingdom and the United States. Had I not been doing my research in Oxford, had I not been friends with the Broomes, had they not been interested in Georgia the chalice would never be found. It would remain in the ante-chapel at the Mercer University in Macon without anybody knowing about its significance. I am using this opportunity to thank them for their help and kindness.

Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, New York, USA
13 November 2010

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