Swedish Conversions

Estonian Swedes on Ruhnu Island, 1937.

Estonian Swedes on Ruhnu Island, 1937.

Between 1885 and 1887, 560 Swedes on the Estonian isle of Vormsi sought conversion to Russian Orthodoxy: a parish was established for them on 1 January 1887. Below we provide three letters by Prince Sergei Shakhovskoi, governor of Estland, and Bishop Donat (Babinskii-Sokolov) of Riga on this subject.

No. 1. Letter to Bishop Donat (Babinskii-Sokolov) of Riga from Prince Shakhovskoi, 26 June 1886.

Your Grace, kind archpastor.

Some time ago, I learned by private means about the desire of part of the Swedish population of the isle of Vormsi to convert from Lutheranism to the bosom of the Orthodox Church. This news somewhat surprised me, since, on the one hand, the population of the aforementioned island is under the strong influence of the Swedish preacher Esterblom, from whom it is difficult to expect sympathy for the Orthodox faith and even less [probable] to expect support for this movement, which would have as its direct consequence the lessening of his almost unlimited authority over the island’s population: on the other hand, as far as I am aware, the Swedish peasants, understanding neither Russian nor Estonian, could not strive to join the Orthodox Church either by conviction, enthusiasm, or for the sake of satisfying their religious needs, since the teachings of our Church and the liturgy itself must be incomprehensible to them, even if some of them were present at [the liturgy].

While I am far from the thought of seeing in this movement an attempt to achieve mercenary goals (which the Lutheran landowners and pastors are always inclined to indiscriminately accuse new converts of), I nonetheless find it difficult to see in this phenomenon purity of conviction and am rather more prepared to explain this as an expression of protest against the entire current order of things, from which the exhausted population sees no escape. It seems to me that these people leaving their previous religion will not make a good flock of the Orthodox Church, since we have no liturgical books in Swedish or priests who command this language well: in addition, it is impossible to count on the rapid construction of a parish church for those on the island, given that other parishes of Estland province currently lack temples of God, much to the celebration of the enemies of Orthodoxy, which understandably leads to the worsening [condition] of new flocks of our church. These considerations force me to doubt in the advantage of this conversion to Orthodoxy for the population and to fear about its consequences. It seems to me that reason and moral responsibility in the present case demand that we relate to this movement with great caution given our unpreparedness to satisfy the spiritual needs of the population and direct them to the good of the Church, the state and the population itself. But my gloomy thoughts [on this matter] were somewhat shaken by the report of the head of the provincial gendarme office on 20 June, a copy of which I attach. Colonel von Merklin reported to me that Your Grace allowed yourself to participate warmly in the good intention of the Swedish peasants, and via a range of instructions you have taken measures to the rapid satisfaction of their desires and the removal of some of the vast difficulties in this affair, about which I mentioned above. However, not knowing the sources which Colonel von Merklin drew upon when communicating this evidence and not being informed by Your Grace, I find myself in difficulty about how to relate to his news and therefore I dare to turn to Your Grace with a most humble request not to refuse me the communication of your opinion and intentions regarding the circumstances of this affair.

Using this opportunity to inform Your Grace that in my concerns about upholding and defending the interests and needs of the Orthodox Church, I am often placed in an extremely difficult position, since I do not even have information about either the numbers of those converting in Estland province or about the time and place of their conversion. This information I accidentally draw from the newspapers and other unofficial sources. In view of this, I allow myself to trouble Your Grace with a most humble request: do you think it is possible to suggest deans or, for speed, parish priests who can communicate to me the aforementioned information in the most timely fashion possible, while also informing me about the cooperation which the administrative authorities can offer them depending on the circumstances?

[…]

No. 2: Letter to Konstantin Petrovich Pobedonostev (ober procurator of the Holy Synod) from Shakhovskoi, 8 August 1886.

Prince Sergei V. Shakhovskoi

Prince Sergei V. Shakhovskoi

Deeply respected Konstantin Petrovich.

I have only just received your letter from 1 August and I strive to answer it. I fully share your view on the movement of Vormsi peasants to Orthodoxy, as you can see from the attached copy of my letter to His Grace Donat from 26 July. Unfortunately, His Grace, swept along by his concern about the numerical increase to his flock, sometimes resorts to entirely hasty instructions and does not hold preparatory and multisided discussions of all circumstances of business. However, in consequence of the instructions already issued by His Grace, it is necessary to now consider the phenomenon on the island of Vormsi as a fact.

Undoubtedly, I have to say this this affair could bring much unpleasantness and many difficulties to overcome, but I prefer to keep all this to myself rather than discredit His Grace and show any sign of discord or disagreement with him (and by this give our enemies weapons with which they might strike a sensitive blow to our common affair of joining [the Baltic to the rest of Russia]).

[…]

No. 3: Letter from Bishop Donat to Shakhovskoi, 18 August 1886.

Bishop Donat (Babinskii-Sokolov) of Riga

Bishop Donat (Babinskii-Sokolov) of Riga

Your Excellency, dear sir.

I have the honour to respond to your letter from 26 July […] the attached [documents] give me the opportunity to judge the religious mood of the residents of Vormsi, and your letter communicates to me your views on the declaration of the Vormsi Swedes relating to their desire to join the Orthodox faith. The general view of Your Excellency on this affair can be expressed in the following way: the Swedish preacher on the isle of Vormsi, Esterblom, has a strong influence over the residents of this island. They are unacquainted with the Orthodox faith: they cannot by enthusiasm be searching to join this faith. Therefore it is difficult to see in the striving of the Vormsi Swedes for Orthodoxy purity of conviction, but rather [you] are disposed to explain this phenomenon as an expression of protest against the whole current order, from which the downtrodden population cannot see an escape. We have no people who know Swedish, no liturgical books in this language, no churches and cannot anticipate the rapid construction of churches on the island of Vormsi. Therefore doubt arises about the advantage for the residents of Vormsi from conversion to Orthodoxy, and reason and moral responsibility demand great caution in view of our unpreparedness to satisfy the religious needs of the population and direct them to the good of the Church, the state and the population itself.

Worldly experience and practical wisdom speak in favour of Your Excellency’s ideas. It behooves us to first prepare to accept the Vormsi Swedes into the Orthodox Church and then accept them: for the residents of Vormsi, all that follows is to maintain their intention to become Orthodox while we prepare ourselves. But while it is in our power to refuse to accept them and to prepare capable people for service among the Swedes, beyond our influence is the good will of eight hundred people. Beyond our influence are the internal thoughts of hundreds of those insulted by the neglect [shown] to their sacred desire. Also beyond our influence is the previous indifference of the Lutheran pastor to the spiritual needs of the islanders; beyond our influence are the actions of 4-5 teachers hostile to us and each other: Lutheran, Swedish, Baptist, and private officiants. The most probable consequence of our refusal to the residents of Vormsi until a later time will be the harmonious cooperation of five forces hostile to us, a change in pastor or the appointment of an assistant for him. And in a year or two we will scarcely find anyone desiring to come to us among the residents of Vormsi. These suppositions are based on experience with their countrymen on the island of Ruhnu. In the [18]60s, the Swedish residents of Ruhnu, in number 600, drove their pastor from the island and turned to the bishop to accept them into the Orthodox Church. Exhausted by the struggle to defend Orthodoxy on the mainland and given the lack of people knowing Swedish to take the positions of priest, psalmist and teacher, the bishop, with the special advice of the regional governor, sent a priest and an official to convince the residents of Ruhnu to remain in their previous faith until a later time when people would be prepared to occupy the clerical positions. Indeed, the seminary pupil Orlov was instructed to learn Swedish in order to take the position of priest on Ruhnu. Orlov studied Swedish and translated the liturgy into it, but the residents of Ruhnu did not further renew their desire to become Orthodox and remain until this time bad Lutherans: as for Orlov, now priest on the island of Esel [Saaremaa], only now after 20 years has he begun to refresh his knowledge of Swedish at my instruction. I consider it superfluous to ask: should we imitate this example in our relations to those searching for Orthodoxy on Vormsi and isn’t there a basis to expect the same results from such an imitation?

Furthermore, I bring to your attention the thought about our unpreparedness (ignorance of the language, the lack of churches and liturgical books) and ask: upon mass movements to Christianity or Orthodoxy [in the past], when was the Church sufficiently prepared to accept peoples into the Christian faith and [when were] peoples fully [prepared] for conscious enlightenment by this faith? I cannot give an example from the history of the first three centuries of Christianity, when the Church had no temples, liturgical books, or even bibles in national languages (except Greek and Latin) and had [only] a few individual preachers in entire countries who knew the languages of the barbarian peoples. I turn to the history of the baptism of Rus by St Vladimir. Did he have priests who knew Russian, even just one per town? Did he build churches and translate liturgical books and the Bible into the Slavic language before he baptised our immense motherland into the Christian faith? All this was accomplished only in the previous century, but the Church kept the people, enlightened by the Christian faith, in its fold and made them a religious people through its grace. I turn to recent times and the spread of Orthodoxy in the Baltic region. The popular masses of Estonians and Latvians moved from Lutheranism to Orthodoxy. Besides a few individuals, everyone was against this movement as untimely, catching the government unprepared, as a movement allegedly unfree from mercenary motives. But despite all the opposition and hostility to Orthodoxy, despite all the unpreparedness of the Orthodox clergy, the absence of churches and liturgical books in Estonian and Latvian, the Orthodox Church was confirmed in the Baltic Region and counts tens of thousands of new members from the natives of this region. I will not hide from Your Excellency that even the contemporary movement to Orthodoxy in Estland was met with fear due to the unpreparedness of the clergy and [the lack of] means for schools and churches. If we had obeyed this fear, there would not be several new Estonian parishes in Estland. And without them, there also would not be the current measures of the government to unite the Baltic provinces with Russia. The government would not have given 300,000 roubles for new parishes. Moreover, I have now 20 old parishes which pray for better accommodations no less than the newly opened parishes. I now come to the fact that in the affairs of the Orthodox Church not everything is obvious: perhaps [some things] can be calculated with mathematical precision, but much, if not everything, should be left to the strength of God. Such participation of the strength of God I see in the movement of the residents of Vormsi to Orthodoxy, as an inevitable consequence of religious waves among the different sects. I find this phenomenon on Vormsi entirely favourable for Orthodoxy. When people lose faith in all the religious sects and preachers that they know and the requirement rising in them for peace of the soul in religion remains unsatisfied, then they search for a new religion or a new sect and are not calm until that time when they find a true religion or, despairing of finding such, become indifferent to any religion.   

[…]

The connection of the residents of Vormsi and other islands with Swedish missionaries immediately revives their attraction to Sweden and their alienation from Russia. It is not without reason that the Stockholm missionary society, in the name of which Esterblom acts, calls itself patriotic: I think it is directed at the unification of all scattered Swedes with the aim of using their strength at the appropriate time for the benefit of Sweden. Does it follow to smile upon this? The Swedish elites in Finland are not friends to us. How can we not recognise as an act of providence the movement of the Vormsi Swedes to Orthodoxy, with the wonderful declaration to the priest Poletaev that “we have lost all faith in the confessions known to us on Vormsi and we hope to find a true faith in Orthodoxy. The Orthodox faith alone always remains firm, she is the faith of our Russian tsar and we desire to have that faith which our Russian tsar keeps.” No one sewed these good seeds of unification with Russia via the Orthodox Church among the Swedes. But the seeded have appeared and they are prepared to unify with Russia via the true Church. Do we have the right to say to them: hold off, we are still not ready to accept you in such a close union with us. We will tell you when you are ready to join the Orthodox imperial faith and into one church with us. No, we do not have the right, not [if we] fear responsibility before God, the tsar and the fatherland. Our duty from the beginning is to give to the island what we can give, and the duty of the government is to hand out everything that must be given: a church, people knowledgeable in Swedish, and books in Swedish.

What path led the Vormsi Swedes to such intelligent and good intentions? I have already pointed out the higher divine source of their striving to Orthodoxy, [now] I will attempt to point out the natural [sources]. The practical acquaintance of the residents of Vormsi with the Orthodox faith could have occurred via islanders knowing Estonian and Russian, like the mariner industrialists and sailors who have been in all the ports of the Baltic sea and entered into communication with Orthodox believers, and via our books in Estonian, like that of Pospelov (Basic Instruction in the Orthodox Faith), which the residents asked the priest Poletaev to translate into Swedish since they liked it so much. The acquaintance of the Vormsi people with the Orthodox faith probably was facilitated by communication with Orthodox residents on the island of Dago, in the factory of Ungern-Shternberg, and also with Swedish natives on the island of Roge and on the mainland, among whom 68 people have already joined Orthodoxy.

Acquaintance with the salutary influence of Orthodox on Orthodox people and on the government the Vormsi Swedes could have drawn from the entire history of the relations of the Russian higher authorities to the people without distinction of tribe or social estate, and from the care of the Orthodox authorities about relieving the fate of the simple people in particular. Hence the general cry: the Orthodox faith makes people compassionate, the Russian tsar lives by this faith, to all he is kind and compassionate. It follows to accept this good and oldest of faiths. This cry is repeated by all the Estonians and Kurland Latvians and Lithuanians now accepting Orthodoxy. In this view, Orthodoxy cannot be incomprehensible and undesirable to the Vormsi Swedes. […].

It is unsurprising and natural that to such confessions of Orthodoxy (as a faith beneficent and imperial) they join expectation of the improvement of the heavy economic and social position of the Baltic natives and Swedes.  How are we to look on this incidental incentive to join Orthodoxy? Is it the only one the Swedes had? It cannot be the only one because justification of this expectation cannot be found in the thesis of those accepting Orthodoxy. Does it follow to consider such an expectation of worldly benefits as so incompatible with the acceptance of Orthodoxy that for the sake of it the Church must refuse from accepting the Vormsi Swedes? Again no. […].

So it is for the Estonians and Latvians accepting Orthodox: let them be summoned by the difficulty of their position and hope for its improvement: our duty is to reject any promises of earthly improvement and give only the faith, the school and the church. If they accept Orthodoxy on these conditions, openly expressed by our representatives, then what do we care about their secret hopes and expectations. […] All the improvements in the position of the people in the Baltic region, present and past, all the cares of the government about fusing our region with Russia follow after Orthodoxy. What is surprising and what is false and worthy of condemnation in such expectations of the improvement of their position via Orthodoxy? Were such motivations not there in the beginning among the first Christians from the pagans, who were rightless slaves? But with the acceptance of Christianity, the slaves and the Orthodox Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians were pacified in their souls, calmly bearing their heavy position, prepared to tolerate [it] for their faith. “That faith which is salvational is that which is persecuted: for Lutheranism no-one would stand up to suffer, but for the Orthodox faith they tolerate persecution,” said one old Latvian. […] This satisfaction in the soul, this soulful peace given to man by the Orthodox Church, by God, and by they themselves, constitutes the first warranty for the beneficent influence of Orthodoxy on the newly converted and a warranty for their social tranquillity.

[…]

Source: Iz arkhiva kniazia S. V. Shakhovskogo. Materialy dlia istorii nedavnogo proshlogo Pribaltiiskoi okrainy (1885-1894 gg.) (Vol. 3. St Petersburg, 1910), 3-15.

Plans of the Vormsi church

Plans of the Vormsi church