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Secrets from the Baltics – Part I

Moravians in Livonia

At the beginning of next month, the European Christian Youth Parliament (ECYP) and the Europe Prayer Sunday will be held during the same weekend in Tallinn. The Estonian capital was chosen because this nation is currently holding the chairmanship of the Council of Europe (not to be confused with the Council of the EU).

During these last months, I have been able to visit this ancient hanseatic city in order to prepare these events. While some Wikipedia articles helped me to have an overview of the history on this side of Europe, some documents and books received from relatives revealed the fascinating spiritual history of these nations to me. In this Prayer Paper and the next, I will shortly share with you the stories of two revivals that have had a long-lasting impact in these regions.

For centuries Livonia (today’s Estonia and Latvia), occupied first by the Holy Roman Empire, then by Russia, was dominated by the Germanic nobility. The Estonian, Latvian and Livonian locals were marginalised in society. Christianity (Catholic and Protestant alike) had settled in an authoritarian way but hadn’t brought any change to the local population. Their forced conversions did not sway their pagan customs. Nonetheless, a change began in the 18th century. The Pietist movement, which started in Germany and emphasized the personal transformation through new life and spiritual renewal, had also attracted the German nobility of Livonia. The Pietist teachings opened the eyes and hearts of the nobility on the disastrous spiritual, moral and material conditions of the locals.

At the same time, a revival fuelled by a continuous prayer meeting (which lasted 125 years!) was going on in a small community of Moravian refugees near Herrnhut, in Germany. Having heard about it, General von Hallert from Livonia asked the leader of the Moravian community, Count von Zinzendorf, to send teachers to his manor in Wollmar (today Valmiera, Latvia) to found a seminary. Later, the Herrnhut community also started sending their first missionaries who learned Latvian and Estonian languages. Their work triggered an unprecedented revival among the people. Attracted by the simplicity and openness of the German missionaries, contrasting with the usual superiority of the nobility, thousands converted to Christ. Around 1850, nearly 300 prayer houses had been built in Livonia. These attracted more than 80.000 souls to the Moravian movement.

Moreover, the Moravians started building schools, thus offering local people access to education. Those who had found a living faith in God abandoned alcoholism and all kinds of depravation for a more disciplined life. Without a doubt, the Moravians were the key factor for the economic and intellectual prosperity that came into 19th century Livonia. Echoes of this revival reached even the Russian tsar of the time, Nicholas the 1st, who was then controlling the territory.

Shortly after the fall of the Russian Empire, in 1917, Livonia split into two independent nations: Estonia and Latvia. There is little doubt that the influence of the Moravian mission played a central role in the self-determination of the people. Sadly, these young nations would lose their freedom during World War II twenty years later. The Soviet takeover and its godless ideology had given way to sanguinary persecution.

Darkness seemed to have totally destroyed the wonderful transformation that had taken place in these countries. But the story doesn’t end there. In this hostile climate, a second and totally unexpected revival would start in Estonia. This will be the theme of my next Prayer Paper.

The two events of next month can trigger a new wave of transformation in the Baltic States, in our continent and beyond. May the discovery of the stories of what God has done in our nations inspire us to pray and become agents of this change.

Cédric Placentino

* Picture above – a painting of Wollmar (today’s Valmiera in Latvia) in 1795.

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