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The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia

The 16th century Reformation also affected Livonia (today’s Latvia and Estonia), where Lutheranism spread due to the close ties with Northern Germany. Mutual disagreements between the Livonian Order, the Archbishopric of Rīga and the City of Rīga created a favourable climate for the spread of Lutheranism.

Rīga was the first city outside of Germany where Lutheranism spread: the first congregation was already formed in 1524. In contrast to the situation in Germany, Lutheranism did not develop into a peasant social movement in Latvia, as the German tradesmen and craftsmen of the City of Rīga and the Baltic German landlords played a decisive role in the spread of Lutheranism, while Lutheranism hadn’t yet reached the Latvian peasants. The spread of Lutheranism in Rīga had a forcible nature (1524-1525). As a result of the Reformation, the rift between Latvians and the Baltic Germans, between towns and countryside deepened. After the Livonian War (1558-1583) the territory of Latvia was subjugated by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which began the Counter-Reformation in Latvia.

In the 17th century, the Swedish, who extended protection to Lutheranism, began to rule over the central part of Latvia. During the denominational dispute period, the Latvian peasants began to practice their traditional religion actively. In the 18th century, when Latvia ended up within the Russian Empire, the Tsarist administration ensured support for itself by allocating special privileges to the Baltic German landlords and the Evangelical Lutheran Church. In the 19th century, the Evangelical Lutheran Church obtained the status of regional Church, while the Orthodox Church gained the status of State church. When the aggressive Russification policy commenced in Latvia in the 1880s -1890s, the Baltic Germans and the Evangelical Lutheran Church which represented its interests, began to support the development of a Latvian national consciousness.
Thus, the 1905 revolution had a deciding role in the secularization of Latvians: Lutheran priests, who defended the interests of the Baltic German landlords, took position against social-political changes, leading to increased anti-clericalism among the people. However, the Evangelical Lutheran Church was able to strengthen its positions after the proclamation of the Republic of Latvia (1918). The Lutherans, just like the Catholics, the Orthodox, and the Old Believers, had political parties which represented them within the parliament. In the 1920s-1930s, the Evangelical Lutheran Church was the largest in number and the most monolithic in ethnicity (the most Latvian) Christian denomination in Latvia. Even though the Baltic German Lutherans made up only 7% of the total number of Lutherans, there were no strained ethnic relations within the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Nervertheless, there was no shortage of disagreements with other denominations, mainly with the Roman Catholic Church over the ownership of church buildings. The so-called “denominational wars” over church buildings continued for 10 whole years. After the establishment of the authoritarian regime (1934), the Evangelical Lutheran Church had to fulfil the role of a supporter of the state ideology, even though the state was building a secular religion, which centred in the personality cult of the Prime Minister.

With the entry of the Soviet army into Latvia (1940), Lutheran priests were subjected to repression and persecution, which is why about 60% of Lutheran priests headed into exile at the end of the Second World War. The Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church Abroad was founded in exile and continues to function in various countries and continents. The Soviet authorities nationalized Church properties in Latvia, restricted religious freedom: the only permitted form of activity was basically the Sunday service. Even though it wasn’t possible to avoid the control over the church by the Soviet authorities, a group of dissident priests developed in the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and were actively involved in the Awakening Movement (1986-1991).

The activities of the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church were restored completely after Latvia regained its independence. Within the Church, recent discussions about the issue of female ordination and attitudes towards LGBT people have been controversial.

D 1 March 2017    AAnita Stasulane

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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