1.4 Beginnings of Christianity

Valdis Tēraudkalns, Ņikita Andrejevs, Anders Fröjmark, Giedrius Janauskas

The case of Latvia

The different narratives about the introduction of Christianity in Latvia are a politicised field where different religious and political allegiances have clashed. Baltic-German authors have often stressed the humanitarian and educational role of the first German traders and clergymen who arrived in the territory of Latvia. Latvian and Russian authors who belong to the Orthodox faith have highlighted the role of the Russian colonies in Latgale, the eastern part of Latvia, before the German invasion. But there are also those (who belong to the Latvian Nationalists or Neopagans) who would regard the whole period of German rule as 800 years of slavery and would depict any Christian influence in dark colours – be it Eastern or Western.

There are few written sources available for that period. The Chronicle of Henry of Livonia was written in the 13th century. Its unknown author writes about Christianisation of the region from the German perspective. The Chronicle of Henry of Livonia allows us to assume that there were Christian churches in Latgale and that some Latgalians, for example Visvaldis, the ruler of Jersika, were baptised by the Orthodox church. However, sources do not tell us whether churches were built to serve the local Russian community of traders and soldiers or for missionary purposes as well. It is also not clear whether the faith of some of rulers and their people was primarily motivated by religious convictions, or if it was the result of political / diplomatic efforts. The Chronicle mentions that sons of Tālivaldis (ruler of Tālava) visited a deputy to the Catholic bishop Albert in order to exchange the “Russian faith” for the Latin one in order to get German military support against Lithuanian and Estonian invasions. Archaeologists have found burials in Latgale with crosses and orientation of deceased towards the East. But a possible counter-argument to that is that these pendants with crosses have been found only in graves of women and children which means that probably they were not used as religious artefacts but as jewellery.

The History of the Archbishopric of Hamburg-Bremen (written in the 11th century) talks about the Christianisation of Northern Europe. It mentions a church in Courland, built in the 11th century by a tradesman with support of the Danish king. However, nothing more is known about this fact. A list of bishops of Courland also exists, but this document is unreliable and some of the facts mentioned in it are clearly false. It seems that the reason for the compilation of that list was to highlight the role of Denmark in the region. The first historical bishop of Courland was Engelbert, appointed around 1234 by the papal legate Wilhelm. Historical data is also available for Meinhard, the first bishop of Üxküll (now Ikšķile), consecrated in 1186. He travelled with merchants to Livonia to convert local tribes. He is often depicted as a peaceful missionary, however at the end he also turned to the idea of a crusade, which was put into action by his successors Berthold (killed by locals) and Albert. The latter was assisted by the newly founded Livonian Order of the Brothers of the Sword and converted locals by force. Conversion of the territory that is now known as Latvia to Christianity should be viewed as part of the long-term process of Christianisation of Europe where economic, military and religious interests intertwined. It is difficult to say when it was fully accomplished (if we take it to mean Christianity being rooted in the everyday lives of local people). It most likely happened during the emergence of the Moravian movement in 18th century and with the spread of reading culture fostered by the Enlightenment.

In general, Christianisation of the region may be seen as a part of the Europeanisation project, when Christendom as a complex of religious, economic, social and political systems and power relationships expanded from Western Europe to other parts of Europe. In the 20th century, Christianisation was opposed by Latvian neopagans (dievturi, God-keepers in Latvian), who depict the history of Latvia as 800 years of German colonisation (formally ending with the Baltic-German exodus initiated by an agreement between Nazi Germany and Latvia in 1939). The Latvian dievturi movement emerged in the 1920s and is closely linked with nationalism and the search for alternatives to German-dominated Lutheranism among some circles of the Latvian intelligentsia. For some, it meant various Latvianisation projects of Christianity, while some looked for ways to construct a new, indigenous religion.

The following are two excerpts from two different sources. The first comes from a book on Church history written by Roberts Feldmanis, Lutheran pastor and Church historian who supported the idea that Western Christianity was the first branch of Christianity that arrived in the territory of Latvia. Orthodoxy in his book is depicted as foreign to Latvians. Sometimes Feldmanis does not call Orthodoxy pareizticība (as it is usually translated into Latvian) but uses the word akin to the transliteration of the Russian term (pravoslāvība) to rhetorically reinforce his argument. He also criticised the view that Germans came peacefully and points to possible Scandinavian missionary activities in 11th century.

Looking back at the beginning of the Christianisation of Latvia I would like to stress one very important aspect – the existence of the much-propagated view that the Christian faith first reached us from the East, from Orthodox side, from Polotsk, and it was a nonviolent process compared to the West that came with ‘fire and sword.’ […] We know that Russian aggression against Latvia was always extremely cruel, coarse and bloody – also in 1180 and in 1182 when our lands were already in contact with the West. Russians of Pskov and Novgorod invaded an area in southern Estonia and northern Latvia called Tālava that was around Valka, Alūksne and north of Latgale. They mercilessly and frequently destroyed it, not in just one attack. According to the chronicles, invasions into Estonia were systematic – after some years, again and again the same devastations and threats. What did Polotsk do? It rang church bells in Jersika and everything was nice and beautiful? Chronicles of Polotsk have recorded one message that is a key to understanding the ‘peaceful’ coming of Orthodoxy to our land. In 1107, a huge army from Polotsk went to Zemgale to invade it.
- Roberts Feldmanis. Latvijas baznīcas vesture. Rīga, Luterisma mantojuma fonds, 2010. P. 23.

The second fragment comes from the book written in inter-war period by Antonijs Pommers, an Orthodox author who had a different view.

There are no remaining historical documents that would allow us to state the year or even the century when Christ’s teachings were for the first time introduced in the land that we now call Latvia. We can only be sure that in the 12th century, Christians were already here. [...] In 988 Grand Duke Vladimir accepted Christianity from Byzantium and also commanded all his citizens to do so. In the 12th century, Russia had outstanding cultural centres. Polotsk, Pskov and Novgorod were the areas closest to Latvia. The See of the Metropolitan of All-Russia was in Kiev but all the largest urban centres had episcopal sees. The first metropolitans were sons of the highly cultural Byzantium. […] When the Dukes of Polotsk and Pskov started to conquer Latvian lands, they built fortresses in order to strengthen their power. […] None of these dukes ever tried to enforce their faith on locals. As it is everywhere, they practiced religious tolerance that is characteristic to Orthodoxy. From locals they demanded only what was agreed in mutual agreements. The consciousness of locals remained free. But, of course, when ‘foreigners’ themselves wanted to join Orthodoxy they were not rejected. We can find evidence for such cases in the Chronicle of Henry of Livonia, in the materials collected by historian W. Gutzeit, in the message of Pope Honorius III and in other materials. Gutzeit writes: ‘It is definitely known that preachers of the Greek faith were the first who brought the Christian faith to Vidzeme (Livonia).’ People Honorius III in his message of 8th February 1222 suggests to Catholic clergy that it should more actively oppose the spread of Orthodoxy and should force Orthodox to convert to Catholicism. It seems that Orthodoxy and its mission in Vidzeme (Livonia) had a serious impact if reports about that were sent even to the Pope and he decided to encourage his people in their fight with Orthodoxy.
- Antonijs Pommers. Pareizticība Latvijā: vēsturisks apcerējums. Rīga, 2015. Pp. 3–7. (Reprint of the 1931 edition)

Questions for reflection and discussion (1)

  1. How are the two views presented in the sources different? What could be the motives for the difference in views?
  2. Compare the sources to the introductory text: Which other viewpoints/arguments can you find?

The case of Lithuania – the Last Pagans of Europe

The advance of Christianity into the territories of Baltic tribes began in the 10th century. Later, the Teutonic Order and the Livonian Brothers of the Sword were established in order to spread Christianity in the Baltic lands. Contributing to the spread of Christianity, these orders constantly attacked Lithuania. In 1236, in the Battle of Saule, one of the biggest battles at that time, the Lithuanians won and managed to stop for a time the movement of crusades into Lithuanian territories. In order to survive, the Orders merged, becoming one unit. European knights helped the crusaders to conquer the Prussians, and then came Lithuania’s turn to be invaded.

To protect the Lithuanian state from the enemy – the Teutonic Order – King Mindaugas of Lithuania agreed to be baptised. The baptism of Mindaugas, his family, and the members of his court took place in 1251. However, in 1263, after the death of King Mindaugas, Christianity in Lithuania began to weaken again and experienced difficult times. From the mid-13th century, rulers of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were under pressure to become Christian. In general, conversion to Christianity was seen as a necessity for the future for (geo)political, cultural, genealogical and economic reasons. Two choices existed for the Grand Duchy of Lithuania: to take the Western (Catholicism) or Eastern (Orthodox) path of Christianity. In the end, two brothers - dukes Kęstutis and Algirdas - found a way to rule the country. Kęstutis concentrated on the western territories of the state, Algirdas focused on eastern lands of the Grand Duchy. Both brothers looked for possibilities to find consensus with Christians. Kęstutis started negotiations with Pope Clement VI while Algirdas kept the balance in Lithuanian and Ruthenian lands of the Grand Duchy by allowing people to follow both pagan and Orthodox religions. It seemed that the new territories conquered in the east strengthened the country, but still the choice needed to be made.

The baptism of Lithuania occurred when the Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland Jogaila (in Polish: Jagiełło) came to power in Poland, who promised to baptise both himself and Lithuania. He accepted baptism with his brothers in 1386. Next year, Jogaila came to Vilnius with a group of Polish nobility and priests to baptise Lithuania. On 17 February 1387 Jogaila founded the diocese of Vilnius, as well as seven new parishes in Krėva, Maišiagala, Nemenčinė, Medininkai, Ukmergė, Oboltsy and Haina. According to Robert Frost, “despite early difficulties, the conversion succeeded, even if popular pagan beliefs proved harder to eradicate. Jagiello’s grip was sufficient to ensure there was little noble resistance of the sort that had led to the assassination of Mindaugas 120 years earlier, at least in Aukstaitija; in Samogitia, where paganism was strongly rooted, it was different: in 1382 the Samogitians had warned that if Jagiello ordered their baptism, they would resist”. Up to 1413 only the Samogitians were still pagan. The Grand Duke of Lithuania, Vytautas, and Jogaila, were concerned about the baptism of the Samogitians and thus went to Samogitia, where they participated in baptizing groups of people and interpreting the truths of faith.

The destruction of the sanctuaries and cult of the former faith went together with the establishment of Catholic system in religious, political and social spheres. Vytautas continued to take care of strengthening Christianity in Lithuania.

Jurgis Galminas led 60 noble Samogitian who presented a complaint about activities of the Teutonic Order at the Council of Constance in 1416.

The Brightest Duke and King of Kings, the Fathers and Devout Gentlemen Honoured in Christ!
[...] There were people who came to our country to rule our lands and we hoped that they would redeem our homeland from the mouth of the dragon and the Duke of the Darkness and open the vision of our homeland through baptism into the grace of Christ. But in their spirit they wished not to expand the Catholic faith, but to fill their own warehouses rather than the heavens. In their false, perverse and mad-minded control, we were like a wandering sheep, because there was no one who would save us and bring us to the Catholic faith, because perhaps the time had not yet come.[...]
In order to understand the prolongation of our baptism and conversion into true faith known to you, we are willing in this letter to declare you truly and rightly, asking you to give us a humble and affectionate audience for the humble and devout and willing to turn to the Catholic faith.[...]
Although we have come from free parents from the very beginning of our existence and we are truly free, and we have our riches and property as an inherent and full freedom of inheritance, we have not been tied to slavery, but the brothers of the Teutonic Order of Prussia, knowing our origin from free parents and life in full freedom, have made great efforts to deprive us of our freedom and peaceful life, the most hostile and cruel way of devastating us, ignoring our long-standing worship and hot desire and effort to join the Catholic faith. They did not try to win our souls for the true God, but they wanted to occupy and usurp our heritage and our lands as they did in other cases. We hoped that these brothers were sent by God, but our unaware and inexperienced minds that believed in Christ were shown that nothing else was important to them but the secular things. They do not think about heavenly issues or how to show us the path to salvation and to teach us the doctrine of faith. These brothers take care to look after us not by what is given by God, but what is theirs, and try to occupy our lands. It is not the humility, the goodwill and the justice of God that matters to them, but the greed and many injustices and especially all kinds of evil, which is the father of violations of law, the teacher of all kinds of harms, the carrier of evil, the source of strife and the pit of all kinds of offenses. Where we wanted to find the fullness of justice, we experienced the lack of Catholic faith in us, they had no human compassion and their shameful life affected some of us. Their mistakes predetermined so much that many, disgusted by their behaviour, preferred to die in their mistaken [pagan] beliefs rather than accepting their deformed Catholic faith. […]
- ŽEMAIČIŲ KRIKŠTAS tyrimai ir refleksija. Ed. by Darius Baronas. Vilnius. 2013. P. 21-31.

Catholic church position towards the conversion of Lithuanians to Christianity based on apostolic letter, Sescentesima Anniversaria, of the supreme Pontiff John Paul II on the occasion of the sixth centenary of the “baptism” of Lithuania.

To my Venerable Brother Liudas Povilonis Apostolic Administrator of Kaunas and Vilkaviskis President of the Lithuanian Episcopal Conference and to the other Bishops of Lithuania
[...] 2. The conversion of the Lithuanian peoples to Christianity took place some centuries after that of the neighbouring peoples of old Europe. Squeezed as in a vice between the East, from which the Slav peoples pressed close, and the West, from which came the powerful Teutonic Knights, your forefathers, already at the dawn of the thirteenth century, had consolidated the structures of an autonomous State, and were tenaciously committed to defending its independence and freedom. These specific political and geographical circumstances explain why the Lithuanians for so long resisted accepting the Cross from those who came against them with the sword and threatened to reduce them to subjection.
It was precisely in order to escape from external pressures that, in 1251, the Grand Duke Mindaugas decided to embrace the Catholic faith and placed himself under the special protection of this Apostolic See, obtaining from Pope Innocent IV the royal crown. The Pope at the same time erected the first Lithuanian diocese and decreed that it be subject solely to the Holy See. But the conversion of Mindaugas, which was not adequately prepared, met resistance among the people, who did not follow the example of the Grand Duke. Even before the year 1260 the Bishop had to withdraw and in 1263 the tragic death of Mindaugas put an end to that shortlived spring.
3. Over a century had to go by before the bright day of the "Baptism" shone forth. This was the work and merit of an illustrious son of Lithuania, the Grand Duke Jogaila, who in 1386 agreed to be baptised together with his subjects into the Catholic faith, and obtained the crown of Poland and the hand of Queen Jadwiga, the exemplary figure of a Christian woman, still venerated today in Krakow as Blessed. For the next four centuries, the history of Lithuania is marked by a singular identity of destiny - political and religious - with Poland. In 1387, the King - who had taken the name of Ladislaus II - returned to Vilnius, the capital of the Grand Duchy, and set in hand the conversion of the people, who received mass Baptism, thanks also to the personal dedication of the King. In that year the Diocese of Vilnius was founded and the Franciscan Andrew, who had already been a missionary among your people, was named as the first Bishop.
In 1413 Jogaila, with his cousin the Grand Duke Vytautas, devoted himself to the evangelization of the Lithuanian population of Samogitia. A few years later, the Council of Constance designated for that region certain of its own Legates, in order to erect the Diocese of Medininkai, to consecrate the first Bishop, Matthias, and to bring to completion the conversion of the population. King Jogaila, a man of simple and noble heart, led an exemplary Life of Christian virtue, practising works of piety and mercy and with lively zeal concerning himself with the destiny of the Church. He adopted wise provisions for favouring the free dissemination and establishment of the Christian faith in all the territories of the Grand Duchy. [...]
- From the Vatican, 5th of June 1987, in the ninth year of my Pontificate. JOHN PAUL II. Can be retrieved from: http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_letters/1987/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_05061987_sescentesima-anniversaria.html

Questions for reflection and discussion (2)

  1. Based on these sources and the two texts, what are the reasons given for Christianity being accepted or not accepted in Lithuania?
  2. Compare these with the case of Latvia - what differences and similarities can you spot?

Alternatives to Christian Lithuania

The Romuva is a community which propagates ancient pagan Baltic religion and which has active members in Lithuania, Canada and the USA. In Lithuania, there are also many other communities which are focused on the heritage of pagan Lithuania. Romuva is one of the largest communities representing the neo-pagan movement in Lithuania.

Romuva originates from the Baltic religious tradition which is comprised of the religious heritage of Lithuanians, Latvians and Prussians. [...] the community of Ramuva was founded in 1967 and it was only in 1992 that Romuva was officially registered as a Baltic faith community for the first time. Romuva communities are active in the USA and Canada. At the end of 2001, three communities of the ancient Baltic faith from Vilnius, Kaunas and Molėtai officially merged into the Community of the Ancient Baltic Religion, though, in fact, these communities have been working in cooperation for ten years prior to that.
All leading Krivis and Vaidilas who participated noticeably in the spiritual unification of the Baltic peoples on the religious basis and in nourishing the ancient Baltic faith are recognised as spiritual leaders of the Community of the Ancient Baltic Religion. [...]
During the pre-war period of the Republic of Lithuania, the recognition of Romuva as an institution was halted by the Catholic Church, which had a considerable influence on both the political life and the government at that time. During the Soviet period, Romuva had to conceal its religious aspirations. Still, active Romuvians were repressed. It is only in the independent Lithuania that the communities of Romuva gained official recognition as religious communities. However, the union of the communities of Romuva, i.e. the Community of the Ancient Baltic Religion formed on 11th of November 2001, is not fully recognised even today.
The spiritual needs of people of our faith are met in neither secondary schools nor the Lithuanian army. The Ancient Baltic religion is a living unity of spiritual experiences and knowledge which satisfies the relevant needs of members of the community.
- Quoted from the “About us” section of the Romuva Community homepage: can be retrieved from: https://romuva.lt/apie/romuva/?lang=en

Questions for reflection and discussion (3)

  1. How did the Christianisation of the lands where your country is located take place? Is there any discussion (in public space or among historians) on the date or reasons for that (political, religious, economical) or the character of the process (violent, peaceful)?
  2. Is there a reason to trust any person who writes the history of the origins of Christianity in a certain territory? What possible interests that are present in the current time can influence the way historical events are presented?
  3. How is the “history” of the introduction of new religious movements to the European countries in the recent years “written” in the media of your country? What kind of rhetoric is employed? What is portrayed as “traditional” and what as “foreign” in your context?
  4. Are there pagan movements similar to the Romuva community in your country? When were they formed? How prominent are they in society? Why?

Further reading

  1. Culture Clash or Compromise? The Europeanisation of the Baltic Sea area 1100–1400 AD. Papers of the XIth Visby Symposium held at Gotland Centre for Baltic Studies, Gotland University College, Visby, October 4th–9th, 1996. Ed. by Nils Blomkvist. (Acta Visbyensia, 11). Visby, 1998.
  2. Robert Frost. The Oxford History of Poland-Lithuania Volume I: The Making of the Polish-Lithuanian Union, 1385—1569. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2015.
  3. Žemaičių krikštas: tyrimai ir refleksija (The baptism of Samogitia: research and reflection. Ed. by Darius Baronas. Vilnius, 2013.