Martin Luther and Bessarabia
By Arnulf Baumann
Martin Luther und Bessarabien
von Arnulf Baumann
Heimatkalender der Bessarabiendeutschen, Landsmannschaft der Bessarabiendeutschen, Stuttgart, Germany, 1983, pages 16-20
Translation from the original German-language text to American English by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado
The above title may surprise many a reader. Didn't Martin Luther
live at a time when Bessarabia was part of the Turkish Empire's
lands and lay at an unfathomable distance for the Wittenberg professor
of theology? That is true, and one can hardly imagine that the Reformer
had ever heard of the land near the Black Sea, not to mention having
had any kind of contacts there. However,
in the Year of Luther, 1983, during which the 500th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther's birth is observed everywhere, we have sufficient reason to give some thought to what this man meant to us and our ancestors in Bessarabia.
One reason for answering this question is given by a sermon that the young pastor Wilhelm Meyer gave during a celebration of the Reformation in Neu-Posttal in 1912, of which sermon a transcript exists at the Bessarabian Archives. After reminding the community of the occasion for the celebration, namely, the posting of the 95 Theses, which set the Reformation in motion, the preacher then spoke of the significance of that event to then-present times:
"The word Reformation might be translated into German to mean
a back-formation or renewal. Our Church is named Evangelical because
it is based on the Evangelium [the Gospel]; and it also called Lutheran
to distinguish it from the Roman Church - not that we believe in
Luther himself, but that we believe as Luther did. His faith is
the same faith the Apostles taught and confessed.
Thus the Evangelical-Lutheran Church is not a new church, but the old Christian, Apostolic Church, purified and reformed from the heresies of the Papacy. So today, as we recall Luther's cleansing and reforming acts, we should make ourselves aware of the gifts and graces that the Reformation brought, and we should also realize appropriately the obligations it brings for us."
Seen from today's vantage point, one can see how sharply this sermon delineates the Evangelical-Lutheran and the Roman Catholic churches, and how the pastor deals with this even more sharply in the remainder of the sermon. The abuses during the time before the Reformation are denounced, and they are blamed, more or less directly, on the later Catholic Church; and in his strong emphasis of the differences in faith and teaching, the preacher's field of vision barely encompasses the existence of some common points between the churches. In this age of the ecumenical movement, we have learned -- despite the differences that still exist, then as now -- to view the points of commonality in the faith that binds all Christians together and engenders a greater sense of community among them. However, in 1912, very little of that spirit was apparent in Evangelical -- and also in Catholic -- sermons, and that was equally true for Bessarabia!
There is an obviously strong stress in this sermon on the connection between the Evangelical-Lutheran Church and early Christianity, and that the Reformation had not created a new church, but a church, based on the Apostles and prophets, that had been cleansed and purified of heresies. Expression was thereby given, with astonishing clarity, to an idea that was a basic concern to the Reformation: it was not a matter of gathering up the followers of Martin Luther into a special church organization, but a renewal of all of Christendom. Martin Luther can therefore not be considered a kind of saint in whose person one must believe, but a witness to the Evangelium [Gospel] to which the Apostles had given testimony. In a way, this appears to sound as though it was already a basic precondition for the ecumenical movement, a responsibility for all of Christianity.
Even with the all-Christianity emphasis by the Evangelical-Lutheran Church, the figure of Martin Luther does carry special significance for her. He effected impulses that the preacher recalled with great warmth:
"Which three glorious legacies did our Father, Martin Luther, bequeath to us, aside from the free preaching of the Grace of Jesus Christ and which is what matters most? They are: the German Bible, the German divine service, and German church music!"
In doing so, he named nearly all the factors by which Martin Luther was known among the Evangelicals in Bessarabia and by which his work has remained in everyone's mind.
To the Evangelicals in Bessarabia, the Bible was in effect known only in its German translation. It was read not only in divine services and meetings of the communities of brethren, but was used in many families on a daily basis. The better known stories and Biblical sayings, impressed themselves, in the words of Martin Luther, on one's mind and would thus become a matter never to be lost, and it would constitute the most important aid in orienting one's life.
The Order of Divine Service within the Evangelical-Lutheran communities in Bessarabia did differ from the custom so common in many Evangelical-Lutheran communities in Germany in that pastors [here] did not practice liturgical singing, preferring on principle to speak even when the community answered in song. In every other aspect, their order of divine service could not deny its origins in the reform of divine service, which as of the Reformation had basically been developed under the direct influence of Martin Luther. Inclusion in the divine service the celebration of the Holy Supper, which in Germany was not introduced until after World War II, had been customary in Bessarabia for a long time.
Church songs played a major role in Bessarabia, especially since they were also used outside of services. In the Book of Hymns, which from 1926 on was published "for the Evangelical Communities of Southern Russia" and, by the beginning of World War I, was published only for Bessarabia -- and which among families constituted a genuine book for their homes -- songs by Martin Luther took on special importance, the most important among these being the hymn "Eine feste Burg ist unser Gott [A Mighty Fortress is Our God]." By far most of the people realized that Luther was the actual founder of Evangelical Church song.
It was not by chance that the Bessarabian preacher of 1912 emphasized so strongly that Martin Luther bequeathed to his church as his legacy the German bible, the German order of divine service, and German church song. At this outpost in a country with its foreign language, a fact that took on great importance was that Martin Luther's Reform placed such great value in the use of a language that was common to the people. And through the Bible, through church song, and via divine services, the folks who in their everyday lives nearly always spoke in their dialects, would come into regular contact with High German, and it would not occur to anyone to use Schwabian or Plattdeutsch during divine services. They knew how to distinguish occasions when dialect was the natural language and occasions when one should speak and write "nach der Schrift" [in the language of the scriptures]. It is not entirely clear why our preacher of 1912 did not mention Dr. Martin Luther's Small Catechism. In his view the catechism might have been so much a school book that did not wish to speak about it during divine services for he entire community, which was mostly a matter of the "Legacy" of Luther. Luther's Catechism was there for use in religious instruction and, especially, in the preparation for Confirmation. After World War, that is, after separation from Russia, editions of the Catechism printed in Bessarabia would also include a second part entitled "Evangelischer Unterricht zur Konfirmation, das ist die Taufbunderneuerung mit der christlichen Jugend vor dem ersten Genuss des heiligen Abendmahles [Evangelical Instruction for Confirmation, that is, the Renewal of the Baptismal Bond of Christian Youth before first Consumption of the Sacred Supper]." Still, the overall edition (of 1921) simply carries the title "Der Kleine Kathechismus von Dr. Martin Luther fuer die Evangelischen Schulen Bessarabiens [Dr. Martin Luther's Small Catechism for Evangelical Schools in Bessarabia]." But even if one learned the Catechism in one's early years, the declarations and explanations by Luther, in all their inimitable conciseness, would become a strong existential part of Evangelical Christians in describing the contents of their faith and the duties of a Christian. And there were occasions aplenty for refreshing one's knowledge of them.
From these points it should be clear enough that everyone in Bessarabia who belonged to the Evangelical Church would be familiar with the person and the works of Martin Luther.
All of this evokes a specific question: how was it that the Evangelical Church in Bessarabia understood itself to be so clearly an "Evangelical-Lutheran" one, as we can see, for example, in the sermon by Pastor Wilhelm Meyer in 1912? Those settlers who, subsequent to the wars of liberation, had come from Germany to Bessarabia, had certainly come from areas of different churchly character! Would it not have been natural to create an Evangelical Unity church to which all Evangelicals could belong, but which would abstain from emphasizing "Lutheran" and "reformed" peculiarities?
This concept suggested itself not only for practical reasons, but it was a rather obvious one. Indeed, and emanating from many localities during preparations for the Reformation jubilee year 1817 was the wish for a combining and unification of Evangelical churches; in the state of Prussia, this "Union" was formally celebrated in 1817. At the same time, within the Tsarist Empire, too, little attention was paid to that which separates individual confessions, and the commonality of all serious Christians was emphasized. This spirit of good will went so far as having Tsar Alexander I appoint, in Sarata, as Russia, a certain Ignaz Lindel, who was formally still a member of the Roman Catholic Church
But the winds of change arrived quickly. In Prussia, the overly hasty introduction of the "Union" caused severe internal disagreements. And in the Tsarist Empire, the spring-like bloom of Christian amity across all confessional boundaries also quickly disintegrated when fear of a coup d'etat an revolution took hold. In the face of a world that seemed to be out of control, people became very cautious about any and all changes and tended to hold fast to the tried and true and to what had been handed down to them.
So it happened that in 1832 Tsar Nicholas decreed a "Law Concerning the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Russia" that was based on an ecclesiastical law from the 17th Century by the Swedish Lutheran Church and in effect in parts of the Baltic region. This law would establish a juridical framework for further development of church life even in the new settlements in Bessarabia.
By the 1840s, a new theological orientation took hold at the Theological
Faculty of Dorpat (the only training site for Evangelical pastors
in the Tsarist Empire), which sought a connection between the deep
piety of the Awakening Movement and the theological depth of the
Reformation. Pastors graduating from this school (at first nearly
all from the Baltic region, but later also Bessarabia-Germans) made
a concerted effort to transform in their communities
the multifacetedness of religious life of the settlement period into a some measure of unity -- one should remember, for example, that the settlers had all brought along their own hymnals, thus using a multiplicty of hymnals, side-by-side, in their services -- and to mold these communities into consciously Evangelical-Lutheran ones. The sermon by Pastor Wilhelm Meyer of 1912 is a
clear sign of these efforts that, the longer the time, the more their efforts fell on fruitful soil.
Then, after World War I, when all the Bessarabian communities first formed their own combined organization named "Evangelisch-Lutherische Landeskirche Bessarabiens [Evnagelical-Lutheran Church of the Country fo Bessarabia]," and later on joined up with the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confessions of the Siebenbuerger Saxons in Romania, they still did not wish to let go of the designation "Evangelical-Lutheran." As it happens, the term "Ausburg Confessions" actually clearly meant nothing other than Evangelical-Lutheran, since the Augsburg Confession of 1530 was the core confession of of Evangelical-Lutheran churches. However, to the Bessarabian church representatives, the theological position of the Sibenbuerger Church seemed in their own view to be so watered down that, only after some hesitation and after being granted a few special rights, they finally approved their joining in 1926. Most importantly, questions concerning the interior furnishings of churches were to be decided, as before, in Bessarabia and not in Hermannstadt. Furthermore, they naturally wished to be known as "Evangelical-Lutherans" and not as the "A.B." (Augusburger Bekenntnis [Augsburg Confession]).
It can thus be said that, in Bessarabia, Martin Luther was not only a personality from the past, who was familiar to everyone, but that his view of the faith and life of Christians -- as seen in the form delivered to them by the renewal of Lutheran theology in the 19th Century -- in a special way informed the manner and content of religious and church life in Bessarabia.
Today our countrymen are scattered far and wide. They live in regions where churches expressly call themselves "Evangelical-Lutheran" (as in Lower Saxony and Bavaria); or where churches merely call themselves "Evangelical" even if they are Evangelical-Lutheran (as in Wuerttemberg); or where churches call themselves "Evangelical" because they are based on the unification efforts of the previous Century (as in the Rhineland, in Westphali and in Berlin-Brandenburg). But wherever we happen to live: we should be members of those churches which remain grateful for the influences that emanated from Martin Luther, and for those who in their churches actively work for the continuation of those infuences.
A. Kern (Ed.), Heimatbuch der Bessarabiendeutschen.
J. Schnurr (Ed.), Die Kirchen und das religioese Leben der Russlanddeutschen [The Churches and Rleigious Life of the German-Russians], Part 2, ed. Stuttgart 1978.
H. Dalton, Verfassungsgeschichte der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche in Russland [Constitutional History of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Russia], 1887 (Reprinted, Amsterdam, 1968).
R. Wittram (Ed.), Baltische Kirchengeschichte [Balitc Church History], Goettingen, 1956.
W. Meyer's sermon during the Reformation Festivities of October 21, 1912, Bessarabian Church Archives at Neufuerstenhuette.
Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.