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Review of the conference "Pietism in Baltic History – Research Issues and Perspectives"

On 2 June 2023, the National Library of Latvia in Riga hosted an online conference on "Pietism in Baltic History – Research Issues and Perspectives" in cooperation with the Francke Foundations and the Interdisciplinary Centre for Pietism Research, both in Halle. Eleven speakers – hailing from Estonia, Germany, Latvia and Lithuania – delivered their papers, most of them in German. The majority of contributions dealt with the historical territories of Livonia (comprising northern Latvia and the southern half of the Republic of Estonia) and of Estonia (the northern half of the Republic of Estonia). We offer review of the conference by historian Jürgen Beyer.

After welcoming speeches by the heads of these institutions, the organisers of the conference – Beata Paškevica (Riga), Christian Soboth and Holger Zaunstöck (both Halle) – introduced the questions to be discussed during the day.

In a keynote paper, Gvido Straube (Riga) gave an overview of the Moravian Brethren's history in Livonia, concentrating on practices such as education, reading, writing and sobriety which for the Herrnhut movement were means of furthering Christianity but which in the second half of the nineteenth century proved to be essential preconditions for establishing national movements of Latvians and Estonians.

Tiina Erik Friedenthal und Meelis Friedenthal (both Tartu) presented an imprint of 1697, containing Johann Fischer's funeral sermon for Wilhelm Ludwig Spener who had died the year before in Livonia as Fischer's guest. Superintendent-general Fischer, of Riga, was a friend of Philipp Jacob Spener, the father of the deceased. Most of the accompanying poems were penned by professors of Tartu University or by Livonian pastors of Pietist persuasion.

While most tourists in Riga today rather will head for the cathedral church and St Peter's church, Beata Paškevica drew our attention to the much smaller St James' church during the last quarter of the seventeenth and during the entire eighteenth centuries. This church was the property of the state and the seat of the superintendent-general. Many of its clergy professed Pietism, the first one being Fischer (mentioned above), the last one Christian David Lenz – the father of the Sturm und Drang poet Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz.

Sebastian Rimestad (Leipzig) presented Eberhard Gutsleff the Younger who had studied in Halle. He first worked as a pastor in Tallinn and later served as superintendent of the island of Saaremaa. Gutsleff favoured the work of the Herrnhut movement.

Darius Petkūnas (Klaipėda), too, studied Moravians. In East Prussia they concentrated their efforts on Salzburg refugees and Lithuanian speakers. Unlike in Estonia and Livonia, however, Moravian work in East Prussia during the 1740s achieved very little.

Jürgen Beyer (Tartu) – apart from chairing all conference sessions – recounted a voyage of Marcus Heinrich Windekilde who ran the Moravian congregation in Tartu. Together with his family, he travelled by horse-drawn carriage from Tartu to Vilstrup in the duchy of Sleswick in order to attend the celebrations on the occasion of his father’s fiftieth anniversary as a Lutheran pastor. On returning he wrote for the local brethren an account of the journey in Tartu-Estonian – a now extinct literary language. Windekilde took great care to explain things encountered on the way of which his humble audience had never heard before.

Mait Laas (Tallinn) concentrated on the parish of Tori (Livonia) where since the end of the eighteenth century most peasants belonged to the Moravian movement. Their pastors were both Pietists and Freemasons, creating a milieu emphasing the creation of a new Man.

The paper taking participants the furthest afield was the one by Kaspars Kļaviņš (Riga). He participated from Azerbaijan and spoke about field research conducted among the Kalmyks by the Baltic German pastor Benjamin Bergmann in 1802 and 1803. Bergmann set out on his research from the Moravian colony of Sarepta on the Wolga.

Liina Lukas (Tartu) discussed the influence models found in Herrnhut edifying literature, written in Estonian and Latvian, had on the development of commercial mass literature during the nineteenth century which scholars have often dismissed as sentimental. She argued that the Moravians had created the possibility of poetic expression in Estonian and Latvian.

Aira Võsa (Tallinn) discussed Pietist traits in the works of some female German authors from Livonia and Courland. They ranged from expressions commonplace in the period’s literature to rather unique religious ideas.

The last speaker, Māra Grudule (Riga), was unable to participate online but had her contribution filmed in advance. She presented research from the archives in Herrnhut. During the First World War, Estonians and Latvians had to serve in the Russian army, and consequently they were to be found among the prisoners of war in German camps. Already at the start of the war, Herrnhut decided to support these prisoners by providing them with newspapers and songbooks in their languages.

Some readers might be surprised that most papers dealt with the Moravian Brethren and only a minority with adherents of Halle Pietism, but given the huge membership the Moravians once had in Estonia and Livonia and their importance for the development of national movements in the region, this was, indeed, a balanced selection of papers.

As the conference was hosted by a public institution in a Baltic country, it came as no surprise that all things digital ran impeccably. Still, it was a pity that participants attended the conference online. In this way they missed not only joint coffee breaks but also the impressive view from the National Library over the river onto the old centre of Riga. Furthermore, they were unable to visit the exhibition on the Moravian Brethren which Paškevica had been instrumental in setting up in the library building. As the exhibition runs until 30 September 2023, readers still have a chance to see it while in the vicinity the place Windekilde's family stayed at on their way through Riga has now disappeared.

A publication of revised versions of the papers is planned for 2025 in the Proceedings of the National Library of Latvia.

The programme can be found HERE, abstracts can be found HERE.

Recordings of the presentations are available on the NLL YouTube channel.

Jürgen Beyer is a German historian, author of several books and articles, currently a leading researcher at the University of Tartu.

The conference is one of 500 Years of Latvian Book programme's events, which is being implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Latvia.


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