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The Orthodox Church of Estonia

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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Tucked in a remote corner of northern Europe on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea, lie the republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. These nation states possess distinct cultures, languages and peoples, yet they have shared a common history and fate. Squeezed between larger and more powerful peoples — Danes and Germans to the west, Swedes to the north, Poles to the south and Russians to the east — theirs is a history of domination and subjugation. Each neighboring power has struggled to capture their hearts, minds, souls and wealth.

Northern Crusades. The Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians were the last European peoples to embrace Christianity. At the end of the 12th century, Pope Celestine III called a crusade to convert the non-Christian tribes of the Baltic Sea. These “Northern Crusades,” conducted by military orders allied with the Catholic kings of Denmark and Sweden, succeeded in converting the Baltic peoples by the 14th century.

Christianity, however, was not unknown among them. The Slavs of Kievan Rus’, especially those in the nearby city of Novgorod, had established mission churches throughout the region since they embraced Christianity in its Byzantine form in the 10th century. The Kievan Rus’ — whose descendants today include Belarussians, Carpatho-Rusyns, Russians and Ukrainians — maintained close trading partnerships with the various Baltic tribes, whose amber, flax, honey and timber were particularly valued among the Byzantines. Some Baltic tribal leaders even adopted the Byzantine religion of the Rus’, erected churches, ordered their peoples to be baptized and had them instructed in the Orthodox faith.

The military orders who carried out the Northern Crusades, especially the knights of the Teutonic Order, did not end their exploits with the establishment of Catholic states in the Baltic, which included the Duchy of Estonia. They also incorporated Orthodox principalities into their realm — which Pope Innocent III called Terra Mariana, or Land of Mary in Latin — and imposed Catholicism. In 1240, Catholic knights invaded Orthodox Rus’, capturing the city of Pskov, then attacked Novgorod, which had remained independent despite the marauding Mongols, who at the same time were devastating other cities of Kievan Rus’.

On 5 April 1242, the reigning prince of Novgorod, Alexander Nevsky, lured the Catholic knights on the frozen surface of Lake Peipus, where they were crushed by Nevsky’s cavalry. The Battle of the Ice, known in Russian as the Slaughter on the Ice, ended the efforts of the Teutonic Knights to advance Catholicism among the Orthodox Rus’ and drew a definitive northern border between the Catholic West and the Orthodox East.

Though routed in the East, the Teutonic Order consolidated its holdings in the Baltic and formed the Monastic State of the Teutonic Knights, or Ordensstaadt. In 1525, the 37th grand master of the order, Albert of Brandenburg-Ansbach, embraced the reforms of Martin Luther, secularized the Ordensstaadt and, after offering fealty to the kings of Poland, established the Duchy of Prussia, the first Protestant state.

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Tags: Orthodox Church Church history Soviet Union Estonia