PROTESTANTISM IN BULGARIAN LANDS
Author: Nikolai Mizov
First contacts with Protestantism
In 1810, the American board of commissioners for foreign missions was created, representing the interests of American members of the Congregationalist and Presbyterian denominations of the era. Nine years later, in 1819, the board sent two of its missionaries to the Near East, where they found within the limits of the Ottoman Empire a multitudinous nation — the Bulgarians.
The American board of commissioners for foreign missions described Bulgarians as the “most needy” of missionary work, and was encouraged by the good impression it had of the people, who seemed very sharp-witted and cheerful, more interested in learning and more cultured than other subjects of the Ottoman Empire. Together with the Methodist Church, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions divided Bulgaria into a northern and a southern region, with Stara Planina being the demarcation point. The Methodists took responsibility for the north, and the American Board for the south.
New Jersey-born missionary and scholar Dr Elias Riggs began to show a great interest in the Bulgarians in the early 1840s, following his years in Greece and time in Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey). His "Grammatical Notes on the Bulgarian Language" were published in Smyrna, in 1844. Later, he became one of the influential figures in the translation of the Bible into contemporary Bulgarian. It was in relation to the Bible’s translation that Bulgarians had their first contact with Protestantism.
Through their co-operation with British and other foreign Bible societies, American missionaries learnt that Bulgarians had a great hunger for the Word of God. At a fair in Smyrna, in two weeks, nearly 2000 copies of the recently published New Testament in the Bulgarian language were sold.
On suggestion of Cyrus Hamlin — who, in 1863, along with Christopher Rhinelander Robert, went on to Robert College of Istanbul — in 1857 the first missionaries arrived in Bulgaria: Wesley Prettyman, Albert Long, Cyrus Hamlin himself and Charles Morse. Long and Prettyman settled first in Shoumen, in the north-east of the country, and later moved to Tarnovo, where they set up the first Bulgarian-language church services.
Hamlin and Morse established three missionary centres in southern Bulgaria — in Odrin, Plovdiv and Stara Zagora.
While setting up home, the missionaries learnt the language and created friendly mutual relations with local people, travelling to surrounding villages together with the Bulgarians who were helping them to adjust. They talked with people primarily in cafes, on the streets and at gatherings. They also handed out brochures and books, taught English to the youth as well as hymns.
It was such that they gradually began their Evangelization.
From 1840 to 1878, the first evangelical churches were founded — in Bansko, Tarnovo, and Svishtov — with Sofia having one founded in 1899. In southern Bulgaria, from 1870 to 1909, there were already 19 such churches, with a total congregation of 1456.
Churches all around the country had, in addition to their normal Sunday services, Sunday schools for children and courses in biblical instruction for adults; women’s groups and youth groups were also formed. Summer Bible schools were held annually from 1896 to 1948.
Plovdiv saw the opening of Bulgaria’s first Protestant primary school in 1860, followed three years later by the first primary school for girls, in Stara Zagora.
In 1871, an evangelical-orientated school opened in Samokov. This, in 1926, grew into the American College of Sofia. Fifty years after the Samokov school first opened, an evangelical seminary was founded in the same town (in 1931).
At the 1876 annual conference of missionaries, the beginning of organizational activity in the country was established. The evangelical churches of Bulgaria formed a united association in 1909.
Setting the situation
The intention of the missionaries was to support the Protestant church in educating Bulgarians in the truths of what the Bible said, while helping them to make themselves party to European culture, and to spread the Bible in the Bulgarian language.
To understand why this goal was not attained, the reasons should be explained. It was the most dynamic and vitally important time in Bulgaria’s modern history. For five centuries (since 1396), the Bulgarians had been living in the confines of the Ottoman Empire, which comprised Persia, the Caucasus and the Balkans. In the 18th and 19th centuries — up until 1878, to be specific — they were going through a time of maturation and preparation, which resulted in the realization of their goal of freedom, following the national liberation revolution.
They were realizing changes in all spheres of life — social, economic, political, cultural and religious. The Bulgarian church was then under Greek control, as it had been since the late 14th century. The fight for an independent Bulgarian church became one of the key points of the Bulgarian Renaissance. The other key point was the liberation from Ottoman rule.
It was in such an atmosphere that the missionaries were able to help the country in its advances. In 1870, the Bulgarian church received official recognition as an independent entity. The missionaries thought that that would lead to an acceptance of purer Christianity, thus leading to the acceptance of Protestant beliefs or to a revitalization of the Bulgarian church.
But, they had not taken into account some important points: the Bulgarians’ connection to the “original” faith was strongly woven into daily life and habits. During the five centuries of Turkish rule, being called a Christian was equivalent to being called a Bulgarian. Any change in the former appellation was viewed as moving to the side of the Turks. That is why “Protestant” was seen as the same as a “national traitor”.
Yakim Grouev warned that it would not be possible to build up a Bulgarian church on the foundation of the Gospel alone, without preserving national rites and traditions. The Protestant missionaries were accused both secretly and in the open of undermining the Orthodox faith that the church had fervently preserved. Evidently the attitude of the Bulgarian, Greek and Russian Orthodox churches and the lack of political support for the missionaries by Protestant countries contributed to this. Despite the participation of some Protestant Bulgarians in the fight for national freedom, the attitude of the missionaries towards the struggle was rather neutral. Apart from that, with their efforts to inform the general populace abroad of the scandals of what the Ottoman powers did to subdue the April Uprising (1876), and their participation in assisting the victims, the missionaries greatly helped the Bulgarian nation. Eventually, everything led to the decision of the Istanbul Peace Conference that led to the start of the Russo-Turkish War (1877-78), which resulted in Bulgaria being freed from Ottoman rule.
For these reasons, the missionaries focused their activities more on the cultural and educational spheres, because, though they were missionaries, they were also highly cultured teachers and intellectuals. And at that time, Bulgarians were searching for exactly that. From the missionaries, they were able to receive academic, literary, and a higher cultural and moral education. They sought out and read the missionaries’ books and newspapers, which included both non-Protestant and Protestant material.
This helped to define a Bulgarian identity, increase the sense of patriotism and create an atmosphere in which the mentality of the Bulgarian Renaissance could develop and be spread. Along with undertaking reforms in the Bulgarian language and grammar, foundations for a Bulgarian literature, and the creation of a Bulgarian educational system were also established.
Besides religious brochures and pamphlets, the missionaries also published a newspaper, called "Zornitsa" (meaning “Dawn”), which turned into the most powerful and most widespread newspaper of the Bulgarian Renaissance.
In 1844, the first Bulgarian magazine was published, and in 1856, the first Bulgarian library was opened.
The first Bible in modern Bulgarian was printed in 1871, a work of Hristodul Sechan-Nikolov, Dr Rigs, Dr Long and prominent Bulgarian poet Petko Slaveykov.
At about the same time, primary schools in Samokov and Lovech were redefining themselves as high schools. Though it must be said that it was Robert College that played a significant role in the spiritual and educational life of Bulgarians, — more than 160 Bulgarian revolutionaries had graduated from the school. Many of these later became ministers, judges, administrators, doctors, engineers, and founders of cultural institutions and such, taking on important responsibilities in the running of the new Bulgarian state.
After 1908, the ensuing wars cut short the missionaries’ work, but the foundations laid continued to stand firm, with solid support. Until 1944, attitudes towards Protestantism in Bulgaria continued to be intolerant.
The totalitarian regime proved a time full of challenges for Protestantism in the country. After 1944, it became difficult for evangelicals to live in Bulgaria. In 1948, evangelical pastors were arrested and judged as “spies”, — the goal of the communist government was to use persecution, internment, prison and a prohibition to teach children religion as a means to abolish evangelicalism in Bulgaria. In 1949, the Protestant churches in the country were declared unlawful. All contact with anything Protestant was viewed as an attempt at political intervention by hostile persons.
As 1989 approached, there were about 125 evangelical churches, with about 20 000 believers. An additional 5000 or so people were members of unregistered churches.
The past 20 years
In its transition to a democratic society and market economy, the spiritual state of Bulgaria has been accompanied by, in addition to pluralism and post-totalitarian opposition, Western tendencies. Post-modernism has entered the culture, bringing with it the practice of post-communist ideologies, which have created socio-economic strains that have a direct reverberation on evangelical churches in the country.
At present, in 2008, there are about 170 000 people who identify themselves as Protestant in Bulgaria, attending about 1500 registered churches.
Pictures 1, 2, 3 & 4: Sample illustrations on the text. Some major figures of the Congregationalist milieu were possibly omitted from this short presentation and only because of the convenience for the format.
(i). Dr. Elias Riggs was one of the first missionaries of the American Board to recognize the importance of the Bulgarian mission field. He was stationed in Constantinople and was the main translator of the Bible into the Bulgarian vernacular in 1871. Obligingly, this coincided with the recognition of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church by the Greek Patriarch. Here on the photograph, from left to right — Hristodul Sechan-Nikolov, Dr Riggs, Dr Long and prominent Bulgarian poet Petko Slaveykov.
(ii). Miss Ellen Stone was missionary in Bulgaria and Macedonia for over twenty years and served as a leader of the Congregational Bible for women. Her personality was of the type of Mary Baker Eddy and other early woman activists in the field. In 1901 she was captured by Macedonian brigands and released after six months when a large amount was paid for her ransom.
(iii). Rev. James F. Clarke was one of the most prominent Congregationalist missionaries in Bulgaria. He founded the Boys' School in Philippopolis (now Plovdiv) in 1860. A second generation missionary, his grandson James F. Clarke Jr., was one of the most prominent experts in Bulgaristics for the 20th century.
Copyright © 2008 by the author.