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History of the ELCL

The history of Christianity in Latvia begins at the end of the 12th century when Meinhart, an Augustinian priest, came from Germany to convert the people in Latvia to the Christian faith. In 1186 Meinhart became Latvia's first bishop, establishing his church at Ikskile. The church in Latvia was from early on influenced by the Reformation.

The first Lutheran congregation was established in Riga in 1523 and Martin Luther himself addressed a letter to it. During the 18th century the church in Latvia was influenced by the pietism of the brotherhoods of the Herrnhuter movement of Conrad Zinzendorf and through their work Christian faith and literature played a large role in the life and education of the people.

The foundation of the Republic of Latvia in 1918 was accompanied by significant changes in the structure and the spiritual life of the Lutheran Church. In 1919 there were 194 Lutheran congregations in Latvia, including twenty German congregations. Church councils were elected and in 1920 Synods, at which both pastors and representatives of congregations took part, were called for the first time. In 1922 the Lutheran Church of Latvia elected its first bishops. Kārlis Irbe was elected Bishop of the Latvian-speaking congregations, while P. Poelchau was elected Bishop of the German-speaking congregations. These were consecrated on July 16, 1922, by Nathan Sōderblom, Archbishop of Sweden.

In 1932 the Synod decided to unite the ELCL under one head and elected Teodors Grīnbergs to be its first Archbishop. Although in 1923 the Bishop of the ELCL had received "the right to possess the Cathedral Church of Rīga and the adjacent buildings and squares," the agrarian reform carried out by the Latvian government confiscated much of the land belonging to the church and its vicarages. Moreover, the manors and local administrative districts were released from their obligation to give financial support to the parishes.

Traditionally most Lutheran pastors in Latvia received their theological training either at the Faculty of Theology at the University of Tartu (Dorpat) or at Faculties of Theology in Germany. However, in 1919 the University of Latvia was founded, and along with it the Faculty of Theology. By 1934  the Faculty of Theology had educated over one-hundred theologians with at least sixty-four of them serving as pastors in Latvian congregations and eleven in German congregations. 

The ELCL after World War II

The institutional development and integrity that largely characterized the years between 1918 and 1940 were severely disrupted by the outbreak of World War II and the subsequent religious persecution under communist rule. As the Russian army approached Latvia in 1944, Archbishop Teodors Grīnbergs and approximately sixty percent of Lutheran clergy went into exile. Kārlis Irbe was elected to lead the church. Initially Irbe and others believed that cooperation with the new Soviet government would allow the church to retain some independence.

However, this optimism was destroyed with the arrest and deportation of Irbe and other active clergy. Control over church life in Latvia was effectively under the representative of the USSR Council for the Affairs of Religious Cults who was directly accountable to the USSR Council of People's Commissars. Under such control, the church was intentionally discredited, its pastors banished and its property nationalised. Church activity was virtually limited to Sunday services held in church buildings.

In addition in 1954 the Soviet regime forced changes in the Constitution of the church, adopted in 1928, forced the suspension of Teodors Grīnbergs and oversaw the election of a new archbishop. These measures were ratified by decisions of a Synod that elected Gustavs Tūrs as Archbishop. In turn he was succeeded by Pēteris Kleperis and Alberts Freijws, both of whom, however, died shortly after their election and were never consecrated. From  1969 until 1983 the ELCL was led by Jānis Matulis.

Today the membership of the ELCL numbers approximately 580,000 persons. The ELCL has 297 congregations, and in 2007 the ELCL numbered 136 ordained pastors and around 70 evangelists.


For more extended discussion of the Lutheran Church of Latvia during the Soviet period, see the following publications:

Sandra Gintere and Ilma Zālīte, "An Insight into the History of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia after World War II," "Ceļš 1" (44), Rīga LU TF 1992, p. 97-106.

Jouko Talonen, "Church Under the Pressure of Stalinism" (Helsinki, Historical Society of Northern Finland, 1997).

Ēriks Mesters, "The History of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia (1944-1990)" (Rīga, Klints, 2005).

 

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