George Repetski: Protestantism on Belarusian Soil
Пратэстантызм упершыню зьявіўся на беларускай зямлі амаль 600 гадоў таму назад у асобе Гэраніма Пражскага. Амаль 100 гадоў пазьней вучні Жана Кальвіна адведалі Беларусь і там жа з дапамогай знакамітых сем’яў беларускай шляхты пачалі распаўсюджваць пратэстанцкія ідэі і вучэньне. Зьявіліся пратэстанцкія супольнасьці, якія пабудавалі сабе малітоўныя дамы, у шматлікіх месцах Беларусі. Гэта ўсё адбывалася ў межах Вялікага Княства Літоўскага, што і паспрыяла рэлігійнай талерантнасьці ды паўплывала на палітычнае і эканамічнае разьвіцьцё ВКЛа. Пад уплывам Контар-рэфармацыі многія зь беларускай шляхты зь цягам часу перайшлі да каталіцызму, асабліва пры стварэньні Рэчы Паспалітай, калі аб’ядноўваліся ў адну судружнасьць дзьве дзяржавы Польскага і Літоўскага Княстваў. Пратэстанты другім разам зьявіліся на беларускіх землях у дзевятнаццатым стагодзьдзі ды прыйшлі з розных крыніц. Пры Савецкім Саюзе большасьць пратэстантаў былі жорстка рэпрэсаваныя і толькі па распадзе гэтай дзяржавы яны атрымалі поўны дазвол на існаваньне і дзейнасьць у межах сёньняшняй Беларусі.
Has Protestantism played any significant role in the history of Belarus? To answer that question, we have to go back to the time prior to the Reformation which, as is generally accepted, began in 1517. However, we know that from March to May of 1413, almost 100 years prior to the Reformation, Jerome of Prague, upon invitation by Grand Duke Vitaut of the Grand Duchy of Litva (GDL), came to preach a simplified form of Biblical Christianity. During the course of his visit in these parts he was reported to have visited the cities of Vitebsk and Vilnius, possibly, Polatsak and other cities. Jerome of Prague was a personal friend of the Czech reformer, Jan Hus, and both of them were condemned as heretics by the Roman Catholic Council in Constance in 1415. This led to their execution which angered many Czechs and prompted them to send a delegation to GDL’s Grand Duke Vitaut to ask and invite him to become King of the Czech nation and support church reforms which Jan Hus and Jerome of Prague had proposed. Vitaut accepted their offer and in 1422 sent off an army of 5,000 men, under the leadership of his commanding officer, Sigismund Korybut, to assist the Czechs in realizing their hopes for reforms. Seven years later soldiers from GDL’s army returned to their homeland having been acquainted and greatly affected by Hussite ideas of the need for reforms. This laid the groundwork for reformists’ ideas throughout GDL, particularly among the country’s nobility.
Hussite influence hovered over GDL’s nobility for many years to follow; the intellectual centres for Hussite ideas were found in the universities of Prague and Krakow. It is noteworthy that Franciszak Skaryna, who came from GDL’s city of Polatsak, studied at Krakow University. He showed up in Prague in 1517 and established a printing facility there. He printed his first edition of the Psalms in Belarusian, then continued to produce translations of 22 books of the Bible into literary Belarusian of that time. He was influenced by the Reformation in understanding that the Bible should be translated into the language of the people, so that it becomes understandable and applicable to its readers. The Reformation started by Luther greatly influenced the Belarusian Chancellor Mikalaj the Black Radzivil and in 1553 he laid foundation to Protestant churches in Brest, Vilnius and Niazvizh.
The Reformation Movement quickly spread among GDL’s magnates and nobility and soon included some well-known Belarusian families as adherents and supporters of this new faith. During the second half of the 16th century some 300 Protestant Reformed churches quickly appeared throughout GDL. In 1553 Mikalaj the Black Radzivil established a printing press in Brest that produced 40 titles related to Protestant faith. For example, in 1562 he printed the book “Catechism” in Belarusian and the booklet “Justification of Sinful Man Before God;” both were written by Simon Budny, a well-known supporter of the Reformation. This was followed by the printing of the Brest Polish Bible in 1563. This served as a standard Bible for Protestant Christians throughout the Polish-GDL Commonwealth for many years. Worthy of mention here is Budny’s friend, Vasil Tsiapinski, who also established a printing press and produced materials in Belarusian including his own translation of the New Testament Gospels.
Following the death of Mikalaj the Black Radzivil Protestants divided into two groups: the Calvinists and Arians (Arians denied Jesus’ equal status with God the Father). By 1570 another Radzivil, Mikalaj Radzivil Rudy, brought about an agreement between Lutherans and Calvinists in GDL by which they conducted religious work together, both adhering to the Sandomir Confession. This included Czech Reformed groups. Each denomination could continue to hold onto their particular doctrines but at the same time find ways to work together in disseminating Christian teaching and instruction. Calvinist churches accepted the Heidelburg Catechism (1563) and Second Helvetic Confession (1562). One individual from GDL who wrote extensively on Christian doctrines and terminology from the view of Protestant thought was Andrey Volyan. He wrote in Latin, thus his works were not available to Belarusian masses, but he did express teaching that was going on in the newly formed Reformed churches.
The Reformation led to positive social changes which some historians have termed as the Golden Age of Belarus’s history. During the 16th century many cities came into being, almost 400 reaching town or city status. Grand Duke Sigismund II Augustus (1569-1572) allowed the creation of local governing parliaments which set the stage for greater self-government of localities but also led to the system of sending representatives to a central state parliament. Protestants played a key role in the creation of the Second and Third versions of GDL’s Statutes that came out in 1566 and 1588. With the building of Protestant church edifices came also the building of hospitals and elementary schools.
The Protestant dominance within the nobility did not last for long as an over-arching trend within GDL because of the Counter-Reformation that took over motivating many within the nobility to eventually change to Catholicism. Protestants with time began losing their positions of influence within the cooperative Commonwealth of the Polish Kingdom and GDL. A symbolic victory for people supporting the Counter-Reformation was the Union of Brest that was worked out in 1595 and 1596 between consenting Orthodox groups and the Catholic Church. It was a union of the two confessions which gave recognition to the Pope as leader. One important feature from a Belarusian point of view was the Uniates’ use of the Belarusian language. Those Orthodox who did not enter nor support the Brest Union within the Polish-GDL Commonwealth suddenly started to seek support from the Protestants. The Radzivil Family stood for religious liberty of all religious groups which did not agree to enter the Brest Accord. As Protestantism continued to lose influence on society as a whole its most prominent activities remained in and around the city of Slutsk where in 1617 the educational Gymnasium, under Calvinistic influence, was established and for many years served as educator of prominent Belarusians. It existed for approximately 300 years and produced Belarusian scientists, researchers, civilian and religious activists. It is interesting to note that the 1863 Uprising against Russian domination in the Slutsk area was led largely by former students from this school. It harbored the idea of a Belarusian identity even so late as the 19th century. Once the 1863 Uprising was put down the Slutsk Gymnasium was converted into a classical Russian school.
The 17th and 18th centuries came to be a time of gradual decline for the Polish-GDL Commonwealth. The Belarusian language lost all official state status (the Statutes of GDL were originally in literary Belarusian of that time) for it had been replaced by Polish as the official state language. Battles were fought with neighbors, particularly with Moskoviya. Over time the Polish-GDL Commonwealth lost territory to its enemies with the final death of the state in 1795 due to the partition of its remaining territories by Austria, Prussia and the emerging Russian Empire. Protestants were persecuted more and more and it came to the state of affairs that by 1668 it was officially forbidden for any Catholic to convert to any other form of Protestantism. In 1717 members of the Protestant nobility were barred from occupying any civil positions, also from conducting public religious meetings and opening new churches. By 1767 under Prussia’s and Russia’s insistence the Polish-GDL Commonwealth was forced to renew some semblance of religious freedom that had been guaranteed by GDL’s Third Statute, but by this time there were only 40 recognizable Protestant churches within GDL’s borders. In spite of the decline of Protestant churches following the break-up of the Polish-GDL Commonwealth, Protestant groups did continue to exist and function in what is today’s Belarus. By the middle of the 19th century, for example, we find Lutheran and Calvinistic churches in some major cities and villages.
On the whole, however, there were few Protestant churches and groups with Orthodoxy and Catholicism being the prominent ones. This was generally true throughout the 19th century and only towards the end of the 19th century do we see the reemergence of Protestantism on Belarusian soil but this time in a somewhat different form. One major contributing factor was the printing of the Russian Bible in the common vernacular which took place in 1876. This served as a catalyst to several Christian Protestant movements that broke out in various parts of the Russian Empire, today’s Belarus included. Towards the end of the 19th and into the beginning of the 20th century we also observe a revival of Belarusian nationalism with stress on past history of GDL, the role of the Belarusian language and the nation’s culture.
The Evangelical Christian-Baptist movement began to have inroads in Belarus from various sources. First, there was the growing influence of the so-called Shtundists from Ukraine. Ukrainian peasants were hired by German farmers and introduced to religious “hourlies” (from the word “Stunde”) during which time German ministers preached from the Bible and encouraged personal study resulting in Ukrainians peasants being converted to a Protestant faith. Belarusians had contacts with relatives and friends in Ukraine, they visited them and came back with this new “Shtundist” ideas. Another source was the Evangelical Christian Movement that had broken out among the higher class elite in St. Petersburg. They sent out missionaries to various parts of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine leading to the founding of new congregations. Baptists from the Baltics and Poland were instrumental in starting congregations in key cities of today’s Belarus. The first known Baptist group on Belarusian territory appeared in 1866 in the village of Uts in Homel District followed by other major Belarusian cities such as Polatsk, Vitsebsk, Pruzhany and Miensk. New congregations began appearing in other cities and many villages. By 1910 over 200 Protestant evangelical churches existed throughout Belarus. Protestants united into several separate unions of churches.
One particularly notable Baptist congregation appeared in Brest in 1921 under the leadership of Lukash Dziekuts-Malej that with time grew to be the largest Protestant congregation of that time. Diekuts-Malej saw the need to provide the Scriptures in common Belarusian. He worked with representatives of the British and Foreign Bible Society and with the well-known Belarusian activist Anton Lutskevich to produce the New Testament and Psalms in Belarusian which was first printed in 1931.
We recall World War I and its political fallout. Of particular interest to us here is the fact that, following the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on March 3, 1918, Belarusian nationalists from many ethnic Belarusian parts that had been under the control of the German National Army organized themselves and met in Minsk to form their own governing parliament and leading council. On the 25th of March they declared the existence and functioning of the Belarusian National Republic with its seat in Minsk. Their control of the area lasted for a short time only and by January 5, 1919 it had been replaced by the Communist Government that declared Belarus to be a part of the Soviet Union and termed the state as the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR).
Following the end of the Polish-Soviet War Poland received in 1921 control of Western Belarus. This partition between Poland and the USSR greatly affected how Protestant churches developed within each side. Protestants in western Belarus enjoyed relative freedom to evangelize and start new churches while the Communist authorities in the BSSR began closing one congregation after another. Their leaders were arrested and sent off to labor camps in distant eastern points of the Russian Empire. Most of them did not return home.
Then came World War II. Once Germany attacked Poland in September of 1939 the Soviet Union annexed western Belarus, enjoining it to BSSR. In typical Soviet style churches were being forced to close down and its leaders repressed. Suddenly in June of 1941 Germany attacked the USSR sweeping quickly across Belarus. This saved some religious leaders from repression and allowed them to seek and receive permission from German authorities to continue their religious work. Many Belarusians converted to a Protestant form of Christianity during the occupation.
Once Soviet forces drove the Germans out of Belarus those Protestants leaders who remained were again persecuted by Soviet authorities and only in the 1970’s and 1980’s many were officially rehabilitated. One interesting moment came in 1944 when key Protestant leaders were brought from prisons and labor camps to Moscow to create a union of Protestant groups into one All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists. These leaders were sent to their home communities to reopen churches that had been closed earlier. This was done to receive support from Protestants in driving out the Germans from occupied parts of the Soviet Union. While churches were again allowed to open and function in Belarus, it was only in major cities and towns, not nearing the number of congregations that had existed before.
The Department for Religious Affairs controlled who was chosen as leaders and kept a close watch on the churches’ tendency to convert non-believers. This came to a head in 1962 when the All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, under pressure from the Soviet Government sent out the “Instructive Letter to Senior Ministers” curtailing evangelistic efforts, especially among youth. A significant sector of believers did not agree to accept the terms laid out in the Instructive Letter and created their own union of unregistered churches. A new wave of persecution rolled over this group of believers. This brought about condemnation from world governments and leaders and already by the 1970’s the level of repression started to soften.
By the mid-1970’s and beyond new congregations were allowed to be formed and be registered. In 1976 Belarusian Christians of the Evangelical Faith (i.e. Pentecostals) were allowed to leave the All-Union Council and form their own central church structure. Today the Pentecostal Union of Churches is the largest Protestant group in Belarus. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union and Belarus’s declaration of independence on the 27th of July, 1990 the Belarusian Government stopped controlling church structures. The early 1990’s saw the massive wave of opening many new Protestant churches throughout Belarus that included greater printing and distribution of Bibles and Christian literature, even the appearance of seminaries.
While there has been some return of control over the growth and expansion of Protestant churches since then, adherents do sense greater freedom than during Soviet times. Those churches that do exist and function within Belarus’s present laws on religious activities continue to do so largely without Government interference, although in 1999 Belarusian authorities began terminating rental facilities to Protestant churches. In 2002 a new law came into effect under the title of “Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations,” resulting in a notable negative reaction on the part of Protestant leaders. Major Protestant groups that operate today within Belarus’s borders are: Evangelical Christian-Baptists, Pentecostals, Seventh Day Adventists and a more recent addition – the so-called “Charismatics.” It is estimated that of all Christian groups in Belarus Protestants make up from 25 to 30%. In the 2012 Census the following figures of registered churches or parishes were reported: Orthodox – 1567, Protestant – 1025, Catholic 479.
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George Repetski: Protestantism on Belarusian Soil (Abstract, magazine “CULTURE, NATION”, June 2017, issue 18, pp.38-44)
Protestantism was introduced in Belarus almost 600 years ago in the face of Jerome of Prague. Almost 100 years later, the disciples of Jean Kalvin visited Belarus and with the help of well-known families of the Belarusian nobility began to spread Protestant ideas and teachings. Protestant communities were organized which built houses of worship in many places of Belarus. This all happened within the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL), which contributed to the religious tolerance and to the impact on the political and economic development of the GDL. Influenced by the Counter-Reformation, many of the Belarusian nobility over time moved to Catholicism, especially when creating the Commonwealth, when united in one two states of the Poland and the GDL. Protestants for a second time appeared in the Belarusian lands in the nineteenth century, and they came from different sources. When the Soviet Union, most Protestants were severely repressed and only on the decay of the state they have received full authorization for the existence and activities of today’s Belarus.