Protestant Reformation in the Baltic

By Rachelle Harrison


Map: Putzgers, F.W., Historischer Schul-Atlas, Bielefeld, 1929





The Protestant Reformation brought about great change in the Baltic Region of Europe.  Effects in religious, social, and political aspects of life occurred, as well as an impact on education and language development.  Language development was enabled in local vernaculars because of religious services held in local languages and the translation of works and printing of books.  The Counter Reformation occurred in the southern Baltic region, with a focus on the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.  This movement against the Reformation pushed Roman Catholicism and attempted to regain the powers lost by the Church.  A power vacuum was created after the Livonian Order fell apart, a result of the Reformation, and the Livonian War ensued.  In following years governments and countries were shaped by religion.  Various other religions were established as well, with Luther’s teachings leaving their mark well past Luther’s own existence.


Life before the Reformation


The religion of most people in Europe before the Protestant Reformation was Roman-Catholic.  Roman Catholicism in the Middle Ages had a basis in the Pope and God directly appointing him.  He had the power to give pardons and guarantee salvation.  There was the practice of buying souls out of purgatory as well.  One could not receive forgiveness for sins without an intermediary, and sermons were ritualistic, being performed in Latin.


Russian-Orthodox Missionaries brought Christianity from the east.  In the 1160’s western Catholicism came to what are now known as Estonians and Latvians.  In 1198 the Baltic Crusade was proclaimed and a crusading army was established in the Baltic.  This organization of German speakers had fought in the Crusades for Christianity, but wanted to obtain land of their own as well.  There were two main organizations, the Teutonic Order and the Brethren of the Sword.  By 1236, the Sword Brethren allied with the Order of the Teutonic Knights and became known as the Livonian Order of the Teutonic Knights.  By 1500, two main territories existed in the territory of present-day Latvia and Estonia, the Livonian Confederation (a result of the Crusades) and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL).  GDL fought successfully in the Crusades, resulting in Catholicism not entering the area.  However, in 1569 Poland and GDL formally united and GDL converted to Christianity.


Nobility took control of the land in the area and established serfdom.  The religious practices in the areas were in two main groups.  There were the German or Polish speakers, who were the nobility and upper class (landowners), and then there were the native speakers (of the local vernacular).  The nobility was Roman Catholic and that influenced the practices of others in the area.  Serfs were forced to follow the religion of the ruling class, which included going to church and such.  However, serfs still practiced paganism even though they were forced to follow something else.



The Reformation in Europe

The Reformation in western/central Europe officially began in 1517 with Martin Luther (1483-1546) and his 95 Theses.  This was a debate over the Christian religion.  At the time there was a difference in power.  Roman Catholicism stands with the Pope as central and appointed by God.  Luther’s arguments referred to a direct relationship with God and using the local vernacular to speak to the people (in sermons, etc.).  Luther’s arguments remove the absolute power from the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church in general.  The revenue from the taxes paid to the Church would be reduced with Luther’s ideas, in part because of the removal of buying souls out of purgatory.  If purgatory exists, then the Pope should empty it out of goodness and love, and not for the reason of money.  There is also the removal of the power of buying one’s pardon (and with it salvation) from the Church.  The focus shifts from buying pardons to spending that time and money for works of mercy and love.  Overall this presents an argument that removes the infallibility from the Pope and as a political entity, the Church loses monetary funds and power in general.


The Church, while losing power over the masses of people, also lost political power.  Previously taxes were collected from the people (peasants to landowners) and paid to the kings, who in turn paid the Pope.  In return they received monetary assistance when needed, as well as the international prestige of the Church.  Now there were options.  Kings could still collect taxes from their subjects, but it was not required that the Church be paid as well.  The money could be used at the discretion of the king.  This was related with countries becoming wealthy enough to defend themselves against the Pope’s army, insuring their independence (the kings’, not subjects’ independence).  Countries become independent entities in and of themselves, not relying on the Pope’s protection but having the ability to raise their own armies. 



The Reformation in the Baltic


The Reformation resulted in great change in the Baltic.  Ideas entered the Livonian Confederation very quickly and by the 1520’s they were well known.  Language, education, religion, and politics were greatly transformed.  The Church services were now given in the local vernacular, instead of Latin, as was previously used.  Instead of being forced to only attend rituals, understanding of what was being said came about.  Even though the peasantry did not have a choice in their official religion (they followed what the nobility followed at the time) they were able to comprehend the services now that they were no longer in Latin.  The Bible was translated into the local languages as well (Old Testament published: Estonian 1739, Latvian 1694, Lithuania 1660-62).  This was the beginning of printed materials in the area with the translation and publication of the Catechism (Lithuania 1547) the first books were printed in the native languages, which also contributed to the development of the languages. 


Education also improved over time.  Universities were established for translation of texts and overall higher education.  The first university was the University of Koenigsberg in 1544 (Musteikis 45) in Prussia, where texts were translated into Lithuanian.  The only other university at the time in the Baltic Provinces was Tartu University, established in 1632 by the king of Sweden.


Religion overall was transformed as a result of the Reformation.  The Baltic Provinces became Lutheran while GDL remained Roman Catholic.  However, the Counter Reformation influenced the continued position of GDL in regard to religion.


The Counter Reformation


The Counter Reformation began in Lithuania in 1543.  It was in response to the Reformation in the Baltic.  It was a Roman Catholic movement against the rise in Lutheranism.  As a religious movement it grew with the support of Jesuits, a group noted for its educational, missionary, and charitable works.  The Counter Reformation resulted in the establishment of Vilnius University in 1579.  The Counter Reformation can also be seen as political movement because of a loss in revenue (taxes) in the Baltic provinces.  The Lutheranism in the area diverted funds from the Church because that religion did not require taxes to be paid to the Pope. 


Livonian War (1558-1583)


The Livonian War began when Ivan IV (a.k.a. Ivan the Terrible) invaded in 1558.  He defeated the Livonian Order, which was already unstable because of the Reformation.  In 1525 the Master of the Order Walter Von Plettenberg converted himself and the Order to the Lutheran faith.  The Order was unstable because of the religious conversion, as well as the fact that their power had been reduced in previous years (in 1410 the Teutonic Knights were destroyed by the Grand Duke of Lithuania in GDL).  The Livonian Confederation (knights, cities and merchants, and Roman Catholic Church) disintegrated in 1561.  Officially the Livonian War ended in 1583 with GDL and most of Latvia and Estonia now under Polish rule.  A few decades later, Sweden gained control of Estonia, northern Latvia and Riga, reestablishing official support for Lutheranism in the region.


Role of Government


The role of government in religion was a large one.  There was one official religion for the country and the people followed it.  As was the case before, the upper classes followed the religion while law to follow the religion of their masters mandated the peasantry.  Even so, good did come out of government.  One example is with the rule of Sweden.  Schools were established and laws allowed for more equality among citizens.



Religious Variants


In the years following the Reformation other religions were formed.  Some were Pietism (general term used to describe the trends in the church stressing an individual relationship with God), the Moravian Brethren (1700s), and Calvinism (began in 1500s and grew as a religion in later centuries).  The Moravian Brethren felt that Protestants and Lutherans did not do what they set out to do during the Reformation, which was to bring religion to the common people.  The Reformation was a movement of the upper class.  This religion used the philosophy of equality between everyone.  The individual relationship with God was the most important.  This religion encouraged education, literacy, and social work.  In these regards, it had a positive influence on language and communities in general, when it was allowed in the area (the Moravian Brethren were banned for many years in the eighteenth century).


The Reformation was a major turning point in the Baltic.  It transformed the social structure and helped develop the local languages.  A rise in education was in part a result in the printing of texts in local vernaculars.  Overall the powers of the Roman Catholic Church and the Pope diminished.  There was not necessarily a freedom of religion, as typically there was an official religion of the government, but choice was in the area.


 (Click on the map to see the full-screen image)





Musteikis, Antanas. "The Reformation in Lithuania". New York: East European

        Monographs, 1988


A small but good book dealing with Lithuania.  A basic history is given of both society and the religious beliefs.  There is a major focus on the social effects of both the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation in the country.  There is acknowledgment of various problems with studies of this type (religious) and suggests how they are to be dealt with.



Packull, Werner O. "Sylvester Tegetmeir, Father of the Livonian

        Reformation: A Fragment of His Diary". Journal of Baltic Studies

        16(4): 343-355.


An article focusing on influences of the Reformation.  Political and social backgrounds are given of Livonia and Riga.  There is a major focus on Tegetmeir's impact on the Reformation.  Includes a translated selection from Tegetmeir's diary.



Plakans, Andrejs. "The Latvians". Stanford: Hoover Institution Press,



Two short sections pages 30-40 on the Reformation and Counter-Reformation.  Good for a short overview.  Includes different groups resulting from the Reformation.


Raun, Toivo U. "The Development of Estonian Literacy in the 18th and 19th

        Centuries". Journal of Baltic Studies 10(2): 115-126.


An article focusing on factors influencing literacy rates in Estonia.  Begins at the Protestant Reformation and continues on until around 1897.  Includes other factors such as the Great Northern War, Moravian Brethren, and Swedish occupation.  Contains literacy rates for males, females, and both in Estland and Livonia, urban and rural.



Udrenas, Nerijus. "Women in the Ethnic Processes of Sixteenth Century

        Lithuania". Lituanus 42(2): 16-26.


A general overview of women’s' social and legal positions in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania prior to and during the Reformation.  Their roles are examined regarding religion and the household.  It seems to focus on the landowners and serfs are not mentioned.  However, their legal rights are described and how they compared to others in Europe.



Internet sources

The site of All About Latvia …a reference book on the net was last copyrighted in 1998 by the International Co-operation Centre and this page focuses on Latvia’s history.  There are some pictures and gives a general overview of the history of the territory as far back as the Ice Age.  The Protestant Reformation is only mentioned in one paragraph.

Latvia. A guide book” is a site with publishing house “PUSE” last copyrighted in 1993.  It is a history text that summarizes events with a focus on the period of time after 1500 AD.  The reformation is mentioned only in one section.

 “The Reformation” from the Catholic Encyclopedia Volume XII was written by J.P. Kirsch and was published in New York in 1999.  An overview of the reformation region by region, including the Baltic, is available.

The World Congress of Ethnic Religions has an article by Audrius Dundzila, Ph.D.  It provides an overview of religion in Lithuania with one paragraph focusing on the Protestant Reformation.

The Internet Medieval Sourcebook, with site design by Paul Halsall, was last updated 1/20/1999.  It provides texts of letters (translated) on various subjects.

The Protestant Reformation was last updated 07/17/1998.  It contains links to various texts and is sorted by author and reformation.  It also has various articles, essays, and resources.

Martin Luther’s 95 Theses

ERC of US department of state on Estonia, including a history of the region.

Information on the Teutonic order.




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