The Latvian Baptist Union or "Latvijas Baptistu draudžu savienība" (LBDS) is an organization voluntarily formed by Latvian baptist congregations which considers the Bible as its only criterion and its main task - by the power of the Holy Spirit to acknowledge Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as Saviour and Lord for the honor of God the Father and the blessing to other people, in the context of the evangelical traditions cultivated in our churches.
Baptist history in Latvia
Whilst the first Latvian Baptist, Fricis Jekabsons, was baptised in Memel (Klaipeda) in neighbouring Lithuania in 1855, Latvian Baptist history is usually dated back to 1860, when nine Latvians, some of whom had been influenced by Lutheran pietism, were baptised in the same Memel church. A year later, Adams Gertners, the first Latvian Baptist pastor, baptised 72 persons in the Ziru River in Latvia, but they were soon persecuted by the Tsarist authorities in league with the Orthodox Church. Meeting and conducting baptisms secretly. They also encountered Lutheran hostility. Despite this, churches were planted, with both a Latvian (Lettish) and a German church established in Riga in 1867, followed later by Russian language congregations.
In the early 1870s youth work commenced and choirs began to be trained with singing festivals soon a vital aspect of Baptist witness. Bible Conferences and courses date back to the same period with the first Sunday School opened in Riga in 1873. In 1870, the first Baptist day school was established, primarily for Baptist children. Many other schools followed, but lack of legal status meant they were staffed by private teachers from Baptist congregations. Only in 1889 was the first Baptist school legalised.
In 1874, three Latvian Baptist leaders (J. Hermanis, M. Rīss, J. Rumbergs) enrolled at the Seminary in Hamburg. The next year, a de facto Union of Latvian Baptist Churches began, though Latvian Baptists remained formally within the German Baptist Union until 1879, when the Tsar officially recognised the Baptists. In the 1880s, Latvian Baptists started publishing hymnbooks, and a Baptist newspaper "Evanģēlists" (The Evangelist). Whilst the work was growing, there were splits over both administrative and theological issues, with the editor of Evanģēlsists arguing against too much German Baptist influence. Attempts to improve relationships between Latvian and German Baptists saw the establishment of the Baltic Baptist Union in 1885.
Many Latvian Baptists, for politico-economic reasons, emigrated to Russia (first Latvian church, 1869), to the USA (first church, 1890), and to Brazil (by 1914 there were already nine churches). Moreover, some of the leaders of the work were exiled to Siberia in 1916. Baptists in Latvia continued their witness; new church buildings were erected; more newspapers were published, but from 1921-23, following the prophecies of some preachers on Christ’s second coming in Brazil, around 2,300 Baptists emigrated there. Whilst encountering social and theological problems, these migrants significantly contributed to the development of Baptist work in Brazil, and in 1946 began mission work in Bolivia, providing the most thrilling mission story in Latvian Baptist history. There was also missionary activity in India and China. Despite emigration Latvian Baptists experienced considerable growth in the 1920s and 30s, In 1927, there were 89 Baptist churches (9,288 members), and, 11 years later, 109 churches (12,192 members). In 1922, a seminary was established under the leadership of J.A. Frey (Freijs). By 1940, when the Soviet authorities forced closure, 53 persons had graduated from it. From 1925-29 William Fetler also organised a Mission and Bible School. Unfortunately, Latvian Baptists were not able to avoid divisions; from 1926-34, Latvian Baptists operated in two separate unions.
WWII brought tragedy: besides human losses, many church members and 35 pastors emigrated forming Latvian Baptist churches abroad. Today, there are two Latvian Baptist Unions outside Latvia – in America and Brazil – with unassociated churches in other countries. In Latvia repression saw some churches compulsorily closed, whilst in 1945 Latvian Baptists were forced by the State to join the All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists. With Christian social work and children’s activities prohibited, Baptists declined, so that by 1976 there were only 60 churches with 6,000 members. Despite constraints, illegal or semi-legal attempts were made to evangelise, to organise youth groups, to encourage Bible study, and to give Christian instruction to children, all under the leadership of Pēteris Egle and Jānis Tervits. With choirs and music the only legal activity, the Matthew Baptist church in Riga, emerged as a major centre for Baptist work, from 1974 organising the youth music group, ‘Maranata’. In 1980, permission was given for the organising of lecture courses for preachers and church leaders, which were led by Jānis Tervits.
In 1988 mission and evangelism were renewed, with Baptist pastors actively engaged in open air services and other events. When the Union of Latvian Baptist Churches was re-established in Jan 1990, Sunday school work grew rapidly and publishing re-commenced. The Theological Seminary, re-opened in 1991, has from 2002 welcomed Christians of all denominations. Today, one third of Latvian pastors are its graduates, whilst attempts have been made to diversify leadership roles. During the 1990s, new branches of Baptist work have developed, new churches planted with expanding social work, whilst requisitioned church buildings have been returned. In 2005, there were 85 Baptist churches with approximately 6,500 members. The leader of the Latvian Baptists is given the title of ‘Bishop’.
By Olegs Jermolajevs