Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia
(Latvijas evaņģēliski luteriskā Baznīca)
The beginnings of Christianity in Latvia go back to the 12th century. The first bishop was consecrated in 1186. The Reformation penetrated the area already in the early 16th century. Riga became one of the first cities to actively support Luther's ideas. The spiritual renewal touched only the German-speaking, ruling minority (almost all the pastors were German). The Latvian-speaking majority remained largely alienated from the church up to the beginning of the 18th century when the pietistic movement of Moravian (Herrnhut) Brethren reached Latvia. But the German domination of the Lutheran Church continued throughout the 19th century. A uniform Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia (ELCL) began to develop only after 1922 when the central board was established and the synod elected a bishop for the Latvian-speaking congregations.
For the first time in the history of the country an independent Republic of Latvia was proclaimed in 1918. The short period between World War I and World War II was the golden age for the Latvian state and the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church. The faculty of theology was founded with the University of Latvia, new churches were built, choir and Sunday school work flourished, contacts with churches abroad and mission work were established, carrying the name of Latvia as far as India. All this came to an end with the Soviet occupation in 1940 and World War II, and the church entered a period of great hardship and persecution. Many pastors were killed or deported to Siberia, all property of the church was nationalized, many church buildings were turned into workshops, stables, amusement halls or museums. The church was denied any activities apart from Sunday services.
With the opening up of the former Soviet Union new social processes emerged in Latvia. After decades of ideological oppression people joined in the struggle for a truly dynamic, independent and free religious life. The church could produce its own publications, prepare television and radio broadcasts, organize Sunday schools, reclaim abandoned sanctuaries, hold services in schools, hospitals, nursing homes, prisons, military bases, etc. It enjoyed great popularity. The number of church-goers increased six times within less than a year. The strength which the church acquired as a result of moral purification and spiritual rebirth communicated itself to society as of 1987, when the ELCL was socially the most active denomination and the one that determined the spiritual dimension of national awakening and revival.
The ELCL convened a synod in April 1989 at which a new head and a completely new governing body were elected, effecting a total turnover in church leadership. Dozens of new congregations were established all over Latvia and there was a dramatic lack of pastors. One of the objectives became the formation of a qualitatively superior system of theological education. The faculty of theology at the Latvia University could not provide the necessary number of pastors, so the church established the Luther Academy as its own institution for the formation of clergy. The work of diakonia has developed greatly during the last years. Soup kitchens, clothing, medical consultations and medicine are made available to those in need. Telephone counselling, chapels in hospitals, work with ex-prisoners, street children, are areas where the church is actively involved. Sunday school and youth activities are growing fast, hopefully as a preparation for future congregation members. The ELCL is especially concentrating on securing ministers with a living wage and adequate transportation so that they can serve two or three remote country congregations. With the entry of Latvia into the European Union since 2004, the ELCL is looking for ways to best protect its Christian faith in Latvia within the European context, and to be a part of the European Christian community, standing firm and speaking out with one voice when needed.