Influences of Pietism and the Moravian Brethren

Being joined to Russia did not mean isolation for Estonia. It belonged to the German cultural sphere and was therefore able to participate in pan-European cultural and spiritual movements. This was further facilitated by the large-scale immigration of the German intelligentsia in the 18th century

During the first half of the 18th century, the influence of Pietism grew in strength, no longer hindered by the ideological pressure of the Swedish absolutist monarchy. The number of Baltic German students increased in Halle, the centre of German Pietism. One of the leaders of the movement, August Hermann Francke, also dispatched Pietist pastors to fill the numerous teaching posts at Estonian church and town schools left vacant by the Northern War. Contrary to the formalities of Lutheran orthodoxy, Pietism stressed individual religious experience and encouraged the faithful to read the Bible themselves. The Pietists thus strove to develop the Estonian language and religious literature. On the initiative of Pietist clergy, translation of the Bible and the publishing of religious literature had begun even in Swedish times. The full vernacular Bible appeared in 1739. The translators tried to eliminate the vast difference between the ‘country language’ and ‘church language’. The Bible translation became the basic text that regulated the written Estonian language for more than a century.

Despite its enormous impact on the development of the Estonian language, individualistic Pietism found a direct response primarily among the German-speaking clergy and nobility. The Estonian peasantry appear to have welcomed the movement of the Moravian Brethren which had started in Herrnhut in Saxony. In contrast to the elitist Pietism, emphasising penitence in the spirit of the Old Testament, the christocratic theological approach of the Moravians made them an optimistic and popular movement. This began to spread widely among Estonian peasants in the 1730s, when the founder of the movement, Count Nikolaus Ludwig Zinzendorf, visited Estonia.

While not denying the centuries-long influence of the Christian religion on the ancient inhabitants of Estonia, it can nevertheless be said that it was the Moravian movement that truly awakened a great number of Estonians to spontaneous and enthusiastic acceptance of the Christian truths. Their religious zeal was emphasised by the neglect and demise of semi-pagan folk poetry and ancient traditional music. The Moravians encouraged the spread of written culture among the peasants, as confirmed by numerous Estonian-language autobiographies in manuscript form which were read out and distributed in church. Members of the Moravian congregation were the first to start correspondence in Estonian. Personal religious experience provided the enserfed Estonians with new self-esteem.

As in its ministries elsewhere, the Estonian Moravian organisation was based on Zinzendorf’s congregational administration which divided each congregation into so-called choirs. The Moravian movement offered Estonian peasants new areas of activity and possibilities for self-development. The social standing and consciousness of the elite of congregation heads (schoolteachers, parish clerks, church wardens) encouraged other peasants to strive towards a disciplined and abstemious lifestyle and model farming. It is generally believed that the Moravian movement countered the tendencies towards Germanisation and prepared the ground for the growth of the Estonian national movement in the second half of the 19th century.

It should be kept in mind, however, that the Moravian movement never involved more than a fraction of the Estonian peasantry, and its regional penetration varied greatly. The movement also suffered several setbacks in its temporal development. Supported by Baltic German clergy and nobility, the Moravians found themselves at odds with the official Lutheran church. The latter took issue with the unregulated legislation between the Moravian congregation and the church. After the initial widespread awakening movement, manifesting several religious and social-revolutionary extremes (e.g. ecstatic sermons at meetings in Saaremaa and Võrumaa, in southeast Estonia, demanding Christian equality between peasants and landlords), from 1743 the Moravian congregation was officially forbidden for a long time. Aided and abetted by a number of landlords, the movement was still active (though ‘treading quietly’, or in stille Gang).

The persecution ended during the reign of Catherine II; enjoying a new upsurge after a declaration of clemency by Alexander I (1817). The Moravian movement had reached its peak by 1839, when its followers in Estonia and Livonia totalled 50 000. Increased pressure from the official Lutheran church, and the secularising tendencies of the approaching industrial era, caused the rapid dwindling of the Moravian congregation in Estonia during the second half of the 19th century.

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