Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church
(Eesti Evangeelne Luterlik Kirik)
Although the first contacts of Estonians with Christianity are more than a thousand years old, organized church life began only in the 13th century. By the end of the 15th century Estonia had 94 parishes with a network of churches and chapels, and 15 monasteries. The Lutheran Reformation arrived in 1524, bringing with it the use of the Estonian language in the church. In the 18th century the country became subject to Russia. During this period, the church was under feudal German Lutheran domination and subject to Russian religious legislation. The whole Bible was translated and printed in Estonian in 1739, followed by hymnbooks and catechisms. The idea of a free Estonian People's Church emerged at the beginning of the 20th century and was realized when, in 1917, the founding assembly of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church met in Tartu. Estonia became independent in 1918. The second world war and the ensuing 45 years of Soviet occupation with its atheist propaganda and hostile attitude towards religion ruined the authority of the church, alienated it from the majority of the people and denied the nation the possibility to practise Christian values. About 80,000 church members went into exile, accompanied by the archbishop of the church and seventy pastors. The Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church in Exile was established in Sweden. In 2010, the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church Abroad, which had congregations in the United States, Canada, Sweden, Germany, Australia, Argentina and England, reunited with the EELK and became the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church Diocese Abroad. Its consistory is based in Toronto, Canada.
Since the second world war, Estonian society has undergone dramatic political and social changes which have also affected the church. Before the war, the EELK was the established church with a membership of 82 percent of the population. It is not in this position any longer. The structure of parishes remained unchanged during the Soviet period, when the church was unable to go along with demographic and other developments in society. As a result the church has no congregations in many urban areas. There is one pastor for every 200-5000 people in rural areas and one for every 25,000 in towns and cities. However, in people's memories and in the collective memory of society, the church lives on in its former position as an institution which can be relied on and bears some responsibility for the well-being of the people. The Lutheran Church is still the largest church in Estonia, but with the difference that now 10-15 percent of the population are members, and 80 percent do not belong to any church. Yet society still traditionally expects the church to give clear and ethically justified answers to many of today's social problems. Therefore the EELK is facing the challenge to change from a confessing church, which it was during the Soviet period, into an established and people's church once more, and to immerse itself in society. It must clarify its institutional character and structure, and spread its presence over the country, both physically and socially. It must also develop new competence among its clergy and laity. Therefore the first priority is education. The Institute of Theology of the EELK is an educational centre for the entire church: for preparing clergy, other church workers, lay people, church musicians, etc., for various types of work within congregations. The institute also trains teachers of religious education in public schools, as well as military, prison and hospital chaplains and people who are going to work in the mass media.
The membership of the congregations has grown younger, since a considerable number of young people join the church through confirmation. A certain number of them maintain closer contacts with his or her congregation and turn up at regular services. Since 2004, an association for work with children and youth coordinates all the work with children and youth. The church has a Sacred Music Union, and there is a strong tradition of choir singing in Estonian culture.