Baltic Union Conference
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History of the Baltic Union Conference
Adventist believers in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have suffered oppression and war. In the few years of peace and freedom, 1918-1940, and from 1990 to the present, the Advent message was well accepted by large numbers, especially by the Lutherans in Estonia and parts of Latvia. In fact, one of the reasons for rapid church growth seems to have been a remarkable openness for the Adventist ideal of a continuing Reformation.
In 1908, when the Russian Union and the Baltic Conference were organized, the Baltic Conference, which included also Estonia, and St. Petersburg and Pskov and their environs, had 383 members in 3 churches. In 1909 a worker went to the city of Libau (now Liepaja), where he found 15 members. Within three years their number had increased to 93 and they were building a chapel of their own. In the same three years there was gathered a group of 100 members in Mitau (now Jelgava), and the Riga group doubled its membership from 150 to 300.
All this occurred under stringent governmental regulations, under which no meetings for the public, only the regular church services, were permitted to the SDA’s. Despite the adverse conditions, in 1910 there were 445 baptisms in the Baltic Conference outside the area of Riga, many of them in Latvia.
After Latvia became an independent republic, and complete religious freedom prevailed, the church work entered a period of prosperity. Evangelism took different forms. In 1924 Baltic Union Conference was organized, it included Latvian Conference, Estonian Conference and Lithuanian Mission Field. Wide missionary work started. It took different forms. For example, in 1927 the Baltic Union School conducted on its property a vacation Bible school for the children of patrons of the summer resort. Baltic Union became part of the Trans-European Division of the General Conference.
But by 1935 conditions had changed; all public lectures were required to be registered beforehand and the material to be censored. Baltic Union existed until 1936, when under the pressure of the state’s church it was liquidated. Nevertheless the church membership continued to grow. In 1937 it was 3.199 in 60 churches, served by 15 ministers.
In this period (1940-1990) Adventist churches in the Baltic states were included in the Euro-Asia Division, with center in Moscow. Communication with churches in the West could not be established.
In 1989, with Perestroika, it was possible again to unite Adventists in the Baltic states. Baltic Union Conference was re-established and in 1994 it returned to its historical “home” — Trans-European Division. Again we have freedom to preach the Gospel, the second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to teach The Holy Scripture.
Now Baltic Union Conference unites 77 Adventist churches in the Baltic countries with more than 7,000 membership.
We invite you to take a look into our Mission pages.
This section prepared by Guntis Bukalders,
Based mainly on SDA Encyclopedia, Vol. 10, pp.1532-1536.
Latvian Conference History
The first Adventist church was established 1896 in Riga by L.R.Conradi, when he visited Gerhard Perk, a literature evangelist and lifelong trailblazer; here, as in many other places, a first comer to unentered territories. Little is known about these first few years when Perk travelled in Latvia and Estonia.
Riga has remained a strong center of our church ever since. In 1907 it was chosen as the headquarter of the “Russian Union”. Membership in Riga grew to 300 by 1912, reached 800 by 1927, and in 1932 than a thousand Adventists went to the seven churches in the city, including churches for Russian and German minorities. Riga was also the center of our publishtng and educational work. Printing began in 1899 in a small way but there was no publishing house until 1922. A few years later when 40 colporteurs started to travel into every village, Adventists churches — initially only in Riqa, Liepaja and Jelgava — began to cover the western part of the country. Literature evangelists sold 30.000 copies of The Great Controversy to the 1.5 million people. (Today 2.7 mill.) About one such book to every 50 inhabitants.
Riga gained added significance, when Baltic Union School was opened in “Suschenhof” (now Suži), a beautiful campus near the sea. Students from all three Baltic countries came to take theology and secretarial work, working for their fees in the school industries: dairy and poultry farming, a soap factory and a woodworking shop. In summer, the school was turned into a seaside resort, with Vacation Bible School for the children of the guests.
Like in other parts of Russia religious freedom was limited to allowing regular church services, but public evangelism was not permitted. Even after 1918 when Latvia was a free country, there were difficulties with the government.
It would be interesting to investigate the causes of governmental restrictions even in a democratic country where religious freedom was officially established. Was it the influence of the bigger churches, even in the predominantly Lutheran parts of Latvia? No doubt, the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches were even less inclined to allow the publishers of books like “The Great Controversy” full freedom. In the eastern part of the country, in Latgalia, where these churches dominate, there was (and still is) very little of an Adventist presence.
In all the Baltic countries the incorporation into the Soviet Union, 1940, brought losses through deportation, flight and through the loss of school, publishing house. But the membership stayed at around 3.000 until freedom came and with it guest evangelists and a reorganization of the Baltic Union, 1989, with Riga as a center.
Estonian Conference History
Estonia, with a population of about 1.5 millions has a language similar to Finnish but very different from Latvian, Lithuanian or Russian. Imagine the difficulty of operating a Baltic Union of Adventists with three native languages, and Russian and German minorities Estonian is the language of beautiful folk songs which attracted thousands to great national song festivals. These festivals continued through the darkest hours of Communist oppression and kept the desire for freedom and independence alive.
Links with Scandinavia, especially with Finland, have always been close, as many Estonian Adventist can tell in gratitude to sisters and brothers in these countries…
Mothers of the Faith
Three women in Reval (now Tallinn) were baptized in 1897 by H.J.Loebsack and Gerhard Perk, who had come because a woman in St Petersburg had written a letter. She thought that her Baptist relatives in Estonia would be interested. Indeed they were. On September 9, 1897 “Perk organized the first SDA church in Estonia.” (SDA Encyclopedia (1976), p.1532). While “Fathers of the Faith” are mentioned by name and remembered for their powerful preaching, women — the unsung heroes — were the first to accept the gospel, usually against strong opposition from family and friends. They, the mothers of the faith, have passed on the torch of truth to their children.
The young churches in Estonia suffered from outside pressures first. When these were removed, “internal difficulties sprang up and led to a division within the church, caused by differences among the leaders”. L.H.Christian, General Conference president at the time, mediated in 1920 and restored unity. The question remains: What were the issues which divided the leadership in the early days? Have these questions been resolved in a way to ensure unity in the future?
Books and Education
Starting in 1898 Estonian books were printed, first in Helsinki, then in Hamburg, until 1914. The first Adventist book was typical of Adventist literature in those days: “Taanieli Raamatu Seletus” (Explanations of the Book of Daniel). Later, in the years of freedom, books and a large number of periodicals were printed in Estonia. In 1940 all stocks of books and magazines were confiscated, but fortunately it was possible to buy them as “scrap paper” — to the great delight of church members who had a last chance to get those books which later on had to be copied by hand, illegally.
Radio broadcasts by Eduard Magi, and evangelism in many places brought the membership to more than 2000. Enough members to have a school of theology of their own? Obviously! They managed to attract between 60 to 80 young people, who were taught by about 7 teachers, under the direction of R.W.Vinglas, who nearly missed deportation when the Red Army ‘liberated’ his country.
During forty years pastors had to be trained by being ‘disciples’ of an older worker. Today — once more in Riga, — there is systematic education for pastors. Negotiations are continuing for the regaining of the Suschenhof (now Suzhi) school campus. Starting in January 1994, Adventists in the Baltic countries are once more part of the Trans-European Division, together with their traditional friends: Scandinavians.
All three Baltic countries had remarkable evangelistic success during the recent years of complete religious liberty, 1992-1995, as illustrated by the story of Adventists in Lithuania.
Lithuanian Conference History
Lithuania’s population of 3.5 million is less fragmented in language groups, and united by a strong national tradition of Catholicism. Lithuanian history is marked by tenacious resistance to Prussian and Russian attempts of incorporating it into their empires.
Adventists in Lithuania, at first mainly Germans in Klaipeda (Memel), have had good relationships with German Adventists who had established very strong churches in neighboring East Prussia (today Kaliningrad). There was hardly any Adventist presence before 1920, when Lithuania became part of the East German Union.
Wilhelm Strohl, a young German-speaking Latvian from Jelgava, will be remembered as a pioneer. Invited by a small group of Adventists in Zagare, near the Latvian border, he earned his living by teaching English and bookkeeping, and did evangelistic work in his free time, preaching in Russian, translated into Lithuanian by a local church elder.
After two years of study in Friedensau Missionary School (Germany) Strohl started to work in Siauliai. In 1925 a church with 17 members was organised there At that time there were more than 130 Adventists in the country, and evangelism had started in Kaunas — the capital city during the years of freedom.
We have an unusual mission story from the life of Strohl as told by Karl Strasdowsky in 1995:
One Sabbath afternoon in 1927 Wilhelm Strohl was talking a walk into a part Kaunas which he had not visited before: the army barracks. Seeing groups of young soldiers standing around he asked casually: “Is someone here an Adventist?” A young recruit turned around and remarked. “I am looking for an lady who is Adventist. She has a pharmacy. Can you give me her address?” Strohl explained that this lady had retired and returned to her native Latvia. “But the fruits of her mission work, including myself are still in Kaunas.”
Karl Strasdowsky, the young recruit, had just come to Kaunus for the first time. Seven years ago, before her death, his Adventist mother had told him to see that Adventist lady in Kaunas. He had childhood memories of children Sabbath school in Jelgava, Latvia, but atter the death of his mother he had no connection with Adventists anywhere. Meeting an Adventist that Sabbath afternoon was an answer to his prayers.
A few weeks later, on his first 24-hour leave, Strasdowsky went to the home of W.Strohl, where the small church group was meeting. In the street outside he heard the familar hymns.
Years later, after military service, ministerial training in Suschenhof, and years of colporteur work he returned to Kaunas to work for the church together with Strohl for 15 years. When the Soviet Army came to Lithuania in 1940, they seized and sealed the office, and the publishing house immediately. K.Strasdowsky, the only minister still in the country at the time, was tipped off by friends in the newly established Communist administration of the country, that he was in great danger — particularly because one of the books by J.Birsin, published under his responsibility contained criticism of Stalin.
In the years between 1940 and 1991 there was no organised work in Lithuania. Through death and apostasy the number of church members came down to an estimated 44 (from about 200 in 1940).
With independence, in 1992, things changed for the better. Several evangelistic teams evangelised in public meetings, starting in Vilnius and Kaunas where Pastor Jont Barndt & Mrs. Liebelt, accompanied by a medical doctor and his wife, added about 200 new churchmembers to the few who had met in the home of Mrs. Kontacunas. In 1993 the SDA church in Kaunas was chosen by the Nevada/Utah Conference in USA as partner church. Kevin Page and his wife Kathy were sent to work there. Unlike other evangelists they have started to learn Lithuanian and keep working for a church of 250. Already now, 1996, problems are coming up. Many are not coming regularly any more. The challenge is — here as in other places — to keep young converts, many of them university students, in the church.
At the General Conference in Utrecht, July 1995, Kevin Page reported that about 1000 church members were under the care of two ordained ministers, three ‘foreign workers’ and a group of nine young Lithuanians receiving instruction together with other ministers in Latvia and Estonia in two-and-a-half week intensive courses, organised by Newbold College and the Trans-European Division which had once more taken over responsibility for the three Baltic countries in 1994.
Many evangelistic meetings have been held by Danielius Ozhelis, Nicolai Link, Americans and even a young minister from the Philippines, John DeLapaz III. Their efforts have been supported by 2000 Bibles, translated by A. Velius, an Adventist pastor in USA, who did all translation and publishing on his own, long before the years of religious freedom. This is the only complete Bible translation in modern Lithuanian so far.
In September 2013 Lithuanian Mission became Lithuanian Conference.
Based mainly on SDA Encyclopedia, Vol. 10, pp.1532-1536.