A Short History of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church
Estonia was Christianized in the 13th century. The Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church (EELC) has grown out of the Reformation of the 16th century. From the end of the 16th century the territory of Estonia became part of the Kingdom of Sweden, from the 18th century until the beginning of the 20th century it belonged to the Russian Empire. For centuries Lutheranism was the predominant faith of Estonian peasants and the ruling Baltic-German nobility.
At the beginning of the 20th century Estonia was administratively and ecclesiastically divided into two provinces – Estland in the north and Livland in the south. Altogether, Lutheran congregations of the Russian Evangelical Lutheran Church formed eight consistorial districts all across the Russian Empire and were subordinated to the General Consistory in St Petersburg. The General Consistory was the higher ecclesiastical authority of the church, but not the highest power in administrative matters, as the church was subordinate to the Russian Ministry of Interior, the Senate, and the Tsar.
The church was often called Landeskirche. All local Lutheran peasants had to belong to a certain parish, but they were not allowed to participate in governing bodies of their congregation. As society in general, local parishes and the church were governed by the Baltic-German nobility, mostly local manor owners. Until 1920 the majority of the clergy were also of Baltic German origin. As the Baltic Germans and the Russian government were unable to create a socially stable and nationally balanced political system, the end of the 19th century saw the establishment of an Estonian civil society, based on national values and national history. Until the establishment of an independent state it functioned as a parallel society, with its own social organizations, newspapers and, from the beginning of the 20th century, political parties.
The Faculty of Theology at the University of Tartu was responsible for educating clergy and had a prominent history and reputation. It was the only Evangelical Faculty in the Russian Empire and educated Lutheran ministers for the entire Russian Evangelical Lutheran Church. Lutheranism in Estonia was influenced foremost by German culture and theology.
The First World War resulted in the fall of the Russian Empire in 1917, which was soon followed by the establishment of the new independent Baltic republics in 1918. It coincided with the establishment of independent churches. The Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church was born as a result of the First Church Congress in 1917, when Lutheran parish representatives in Estonia decided to reorganize the church as a free people’s church. The aim of the new church order was to unite all members into one organization so that they would all feel at home in their own church.
The new church became now an episcopal-synodical body, with a democratic order. Its parliament (Church Diet) had more than 500 members, church government (Consistory) was led by the bishop and had a lay vice president, the church had its own court system for religious matters. According to the rules there were no limitations based on property or social position to participate in church governing. In 1919 the Baltic-Germans lost their leading position in the church. The first bishop of the church was Jakob Kukk, who served as the leader of the EELC until his death in 1933.
The Republic of Estonia passed its first constitution in 1920, where it was stated that there was no state religion. Although the church had aimed for self-rule too and the state had approved the new approach, as an outcome of the new policy the church was now deprived of nearly all of its public functions. From the second half of the 1920s, the church gradually handed over its duties of registering births, deaths, marriages and divorces. The clergy retained the right to register marriages as authorized civil servants. With the land reform passed in 1919 the church lost most of its properties in rural areas and this weakened the church’s position. The system of compulsory tax and regulative tax, with landowners financing the church, was abolished, and the church now functioned only with the support of its members and their voluntary annual contributions.
The implementation of the new church order and the election of the new leadership went hand in hand with a new mentality, changing the orientation and working methods of the church. The Estonians responsible for reorganizing the church at the beginning of the 1920s did everything to free the church and Estonian Lutheranism from anything that resembled the previous Landeskirche, a church for the nobility, or the Herrenkirche, as it was often called. Where previously the church had belonged to the sphere of German Lutheranism, Scandinavian churches and the Church of England now received maximum attention. Bishop Jakob Kukk was consecrated by the Swedish Archbishop Nathan Söderblom and the Church of Finland was among the most influential partners of the EELC. Beginning from personal contacts, relations were established between ecclesiastical societies and in the end of the 1930s even between a few parishes. The Finno-Ugric cooperation between the two churches culminated in the first Finnish-Estonian pastor’s congress, which took place during the fourth Finno-Ugric cultural congress in 1931. In the 1930s cooperation grew closer with the Church of England. After two sessions of negotiations in 1936 and 1938 the churches of Estonia, Latvia and England signed a joint report on cooperation.
During the first period of Estonian independence from 1918 to 1940 the EELC was the majority church in Estonian society, with 78% of the population identifying as Lutherans. The church, representing Christian values, was the moral cornerstone for the majority of Estonian people. However, Estonian society showed signs of rapid secularization already in the 1920s and 1930s, so that the numbers of baptisms and confirmations decreased more than one third during the period.
In 1940, during the Second World War, the independence of the three Baltic States was forcefully interrupted. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were annexed in 1940 by the Soviet Union (USSR), and were forced under Soviet rule. In a de facto atheist state, religion was considered a relic and something society needed to overcome. For this reason, the activity of churches was strictly regulated and monitored. It was made difficult in every possible way to be a religious person or a church member. Church organizations, missionary activity and youth work was criminalized as religious propaganda. Publishing activity was also prohibited. Consequently, church buildings remained the only places for worship and practicing religion, because any other public expression of religion was prohibited. The clergy fell victim to repressions and many pastors were forced to become agents and keep an eye on their colleagues. Many church buildings were used as warehouses or gyms or were just left in ruins.
Essentially, it was a society of fear, which the Soviet authorities had established and controlled, leaving little room for religious freedom. Nevertheless, for the churches the situation improved starting from the second half of the 1950s, and although the main line was firm, the authorities were not very consistent in putting policy into practice. As there were a number of institutions dealing with religion, and they were hardly in agreement with each other, their actions were not always coordinated.
The Faculty of Theology in Tartu was closed and replaced by a theological institute supported by the church. The institute did not offer full-time studies, which had an effect on the quality of theological education. Despite German Protestants being one of the closest partners of the EELC the German tradition slowly but steadily faded from the church’s sub-consciousness.
Although the isolation had consequences for the theological profile of the church, there were theologians with admirable wisdom and talent, who managed to publish translated articles and their own work in volumes of typewritten copies, which were distributed in small numbers among students and pastors.
In 1944, fearing new Soviet repressions, approximately 70,000 Estonians had also left the country, escaping either to Sweden or Germany. Among them was the leader of the EELC, Bishop Johan Kõpp, who had been democratically elected in 1939 and had remained in office during the Soviet and German occupations. More than 70 pastors managed to leave Estonia in 1944. Under the guidance of the Soviet authorities, a new church leader, Jaan Kiivit senior, became an archbishop in 1949 and served the church from 1949 to 1967.
Bishop Kõpp arrived in Sweden and with the help of the Church of Sweden managed to organize religious work among Estonians. By the end of the 1950s the church in exile had around 60 congregations all over the world, with 65 ministers and around 65,000 members.
Naturally, the main aim of the church was to be of service to the exile community and to unite the Estonian community around the world in the service of God. No less important, however, was the ideological fight against communism, and drawing attention to the Soviet oppression of the Baltic States.
The EELC in exile participated in the founding meeting of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Amsterdam in 1948, and based on a 1938 decision by the EELC to join the WCC, it was accepted as a full member. In 1947, the EELC in exile was also one of the founding members of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF). The LWF was essential for Estonian refugees because of its relief work. American churches supported refugees financially and from the end of the 1940s guaranteed them permits to enter the United States of America.
The accession of the Russian Orthodox Church to the WCC in 1961 paved the way for other churches in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to join the WCC. The EELC joined the WCC in 1962 and the LWF in 1963.
As the churches were ousted from the public realm and foreign relations were in the hands of the state, only a small number of pastors were allowed to represent the church abroad. Although the number increased over the years, it still remained relatively small and travelling abroad was exclusively the privilege of church leaders and a few previously monitored pastors and theologians; for ordinary pastors it was impossible to attend any conferences, or to visit the West for other reasons.
The case of Archbishop Kiivit senior is a good example of how pragmatic the state was in using the church for its own interests. Kiivit was respected by Western church leaders as one of the wisest theologians and church leaders in the Soviet bloc. For this reason he was elected to the boards of Christian organizations and attended so many meetings and conferences in various countries that the Soviet authorities began to suspect his loyalty and to fear that he had become too popular and too independent in representing the church abroad. Consequently, in 1967 he was removed from office by the authorities. Although it was claimed that he had bad health, in reality he was removed because he had become a threat to the system. From the same year the church began to ordain women.
In the 1950s the relationship with the Finnish Lutheran Church was re-established. In the foreign relations of the Soviet period there were two major partner churches – the Lutheran churches in Finland and in West Germany. However, for most of the clergy, literature was the only way to break out of isolation. The church was, to a large extent, isolated in terms of international cooperation, but it was also kept from the public realm within Soviet society. In Soviet society, there was no honest and open discussion about social matters, and the church was not allowed to take a public position on any social issues.
Official foreign visits and personal contacts were very complicated at least until 1975, the signing of the Helsinki Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. After that, and especially at the beginning of the 1980s, the number of foreign visits started to increase. Notably, even the congregations hosted foreign visitors, mainly from Finland. The real breakthrough, however, came with the social change in the Soviet Union, beginning in 1985. In 1986 a delegation of the EELC visited the North-Elbian Church, and from that visit friendly relations have been maintained to the present day.
The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 saw yet another change, as the Baltic States managed to restore their independence and take the path of democracy. Already during the period from 1988 to 1991 the EELC started to organise events which had been customary before 1940, such as religious song festivals and annual conferences for clergy, and it set up new committees to organise its work. Being members of various emerging social organisations the clergy participated in the national awakening and the so-called singing revolution, which began from 1987/1988. There was an increase in the number of baptisms and confirmations, but it proved to be temporary and the numbers began to fall from 1992. Because of the Soviet occupation the church was left weak, it did not have sufficient funds, members, resources, experience or qualified personnel. The church began to organise its structure, educate pastors and renovate its buildings. It also began to participate in social discussions in a highly secularised Estonian society.
Nowadays, the EELC has 167 congregations. About 10% of Estonian population are members of the EELC. The church is governed by the Consistory, which comprises of the Archbishop, bishops, the Chancellor and assessors. From 2015 the Archbishop of the EELC is Urmas Viilma. The General Synod serves as the highest legislative body of the church. The EELC has more than 220 ministers, more than 40 of them are women. In addition to Estonia, the church has congregations and preaching stations in other countries, constituting the EELC deaneries abroad. In 2010 most parishes of the EELC in exile and the EELC in Estonia decided to become a united Estonian church again.
The EELC is a member of the Estonian Council of Churches, the Conference of European Churches, the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe, and the Porvoo Communion.
The clergy is educated at the Theological Institute in Tallinn or at the School of Theology at the University of Tartu. The church’s newspaper “Eesti Kirik” is published once a week and is the only weekly religious newspaper. Different areas of work are overseen by the Department for Diaconal Work of the EELC Consistory, the Association for Work with Children and Youth, the Mission Centre, and the Church Music Association. Family centers in Tallinn and Tartu provide family counselling. People with severe health problems are cared for in the Tallinn Diaconal Hospital. In co-operation with other churches, Lutheran ministers work as chaplains in the Defense Forces, the police, prisons and hospitals.
The church cooperates with the state through joint committees, discussing legislation, preservation of historical church buildings, recording of spiritual cultural heritage, care for the living environment and family values as well as education. The Republic of Estonia is giving financial support to renovate churches. In recent years, three Lutheran schools have been reopened in the two biggest cities in Estonia: Tallinn Cathedral School, St. Charles’ School, and St. Peter’s Lutheran School in Tartu.
Source: „Eesti Evangeelne Luterlik Kirik 100“, EELK Usuteaduse Instituudi toimetised XXVI, Tallinn, 2017“