TRINITY SCHOOL FOR MINISTRY
A HISTORY OF MISSIONS IN ROMANIA THE FREE AND UNDERGROUND CHURCHES
SUBMITTED TO DR. JOHN MACDONALD IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF ME 500: INTRODUCTION TO WORLD MISSION
BY SAMSON COVATCH
MAY 9, 2018
The Christian missionary movement in Romania is both easy and difficult to trace. It is easy in the sense that denominational bickering about what constitutes the true Church, and who is a part of it, has taken a backseat due to the history of the struggle for recognition at any given time. It is difficult to the degree of deciphering what is meant historically by Romania. Is Romania a people group identified by location or language? Perhaps the recognition of the borders of what is now considered Romania should be the measuring rod? All points must be taken equally lest we find ourselves in the precarious situation with those who draw lines around what constitutes an authentic Christian church group. We will look to the general area known today as Romania and how the Christian faith came to be known along with the historical struggles, persecutions, and the need for a continuous missionary work. The people group in the Romanian area had, like many pagan regions, a polytheistic worldview which focused on the worship of natural forces. They had adopted a Greek alphabet and later a Roman alphabet while under the influence of Rome starting in 15 AD. From the earliest times in Christian history, Romania would have believers in and through it due to its location within the Roman empire. Although written records from the first and second centuries are hard to come by, archeological remains for Christian settlements around the black sea demonstrate the presence of Christian communities.
Roman control lasted until 269 when Germanic forces invaded, and by 271 the Goths had settled due to pressure from the Huns. From 271 to 602 no historical records exist for the retention of a Christian community except through archaeological evidence. Georges Castellan writes, The proof lies in the discovery of burial grounds and artifacts dating from 272 to 450 in thirty Transylvanian sites; over 150 coin troves of the same period were also discovered. Finds of objects of early Christian civilization provided the final proof, ‘bearing witness to the spread of the new Christian religion in the Latin language. It entered Dacia from the numerous bishoprics established on the right bank of the Danube, and became officially recognized in the first decades of the 4th century. In the course of the same century and to the north of the river, Ulphilas, a well-known bishop, delivered addresses not only in the Germanic languages, but also in Latin [underlined in the original]. The fact that christianity spread throughout the old Dacian provence proves the survival of a society under Roman influence, since it was able to receive the new religion.’
The history of early Christianity becomes important for Romanians when different types of persecution take place. Whether from outside armies, different Christian groups, or atheist regimes, indigenous missionaries, along with cross-cultural missionaries, would do well to remind those in Romania of their Christian heritage.
After 602 we find another three centuries of silence along with the same type of evidence. By the 9th century, we have a fixed language that was derived from a Daco-Roman-Slav population known as “proto-Romanian” which would later fuse to become known as Romanian. The distinction of language would hold the Romanians together as a group by identity even in times of territorial unrest. The Byzantine empire allowed the uniqueness of the Romanian worship to develop and become ingrained as an identifier to the outside world. As identified with the Eastern Church, and not willing to submit to the bishopric of Rome, the Frankish Empire, instituted with the help of the Latin church, considered them to not be Christians. Castellan records for us an interesting observation from Constantine Daicoviciu’s book History of Romania, “(Ahtum) did not submit to the Christian religion and ceaselessly fought the Hungarians. In reality Ahtum, since he had been baptized at Vadin, belonged to the Eastern church, not to Rome, and was an ally of Byzantium and the Bulgars.” Here we can say that the first western perceived Christian advancement to Romania was an epoch of aggressive missionary tactics.
By the thirteenth century, the missionary advancements from the west follow the historical accounts of medieval political pressures. Attempts are made to exchange protection from advancing Mongol armies for submission to Rome. The Romanians were instrumental as crusaders and for becoming warrior monks in 1211 called “the Teutonic Knights of the Order of the Hospital of St. John.” Even though the Romanian Christians were doing the same work, and believing the same essential doctrines as the Christians in the west, they were still seen as outside the faith. Pope Gregorius IX wrote in a 1234 memorandum, “peoples which, though they regard themselves as Christian, have different rites and customs and non-Christian practices. Indeed, since they despise the Roman Church, they do not receive the Holy Sacraments from our venerable brother...but from some pseudobishops who keep to the Greek rites.”
During the Papal States of Christendom, in the fourteenth century, the Romanians were recognized as part of the Roman Catholic Church, but they would continue to worship with the Greek Orthodox rites. Pope Clement IV was less than thrilled with this arrangement and complained in 1345 “of ‘these schismatics,’ [and] mentioning attempts made by Franciscan missionaries to convert them.” During this time the written form of the Romanian language was being codified if not underutilized. Prior to the sixteenth century, all manuscripts were written in Old Church Slovonic, comprised of many Church Fathers writings and hymns. Missionary work today, for many Protestant and Reformed traditions, spends a great deal of time and energy in the translation of the Bible into the vernacular of those they are trying to reach. If a people group has no language, then one must first be learned, developed, and taught before, what some would consider, meaningful evangelism. If the people group already has a written language, then you only need to translate the Bible idiomatically for the desired conversion results. But, when you have a people group that has not only all of these elements in place but also a language that has developed with both eastern and western language connotations and cultural context, then missions efforts can be increased exponentially. With Romania, you have everything necessary, including an ancient Christian foundation for proselytizing.
Peter Movila founded a Jesuit type college in order to take advantage of the culture by teaching Latin, Polish, and Romanian in 1632. Catechism, written by John Calvin, was published in Romanian at Karlsburgh in 1640 and the first collection of Romanian verse was a translation of the Book of Psalms in 1673. Since Calvinism is very focused on education and discipleship, literature was widely used and developed for the edification of Romanian believers. The graduation of Romanian to a useful written language helped some of the churches further distance themselves from the Roman church and become more identifiable.
The Romanian church was still only tolerated with no legal identity, but it was now in company with denominations that were coming out of the Reformation. Lutheranism (also called Evangelical) was making missionary advances by 1543. The Calvinist version of Protestantism (also called Reformed) made advancements by 1556. In 1564 equal rights were given to these two new faiths, but they were on par with the Orthodox churches and therefore, refused some rights as well. Toleration extended to other belief systems that these new traditions would consider non-Christian, such as the Unitarian (also called Anti-Trinitarian) church in 1571. The Transylvania Uniate church, known as Greek Catholic, formed in 1699 but this Romanized version was not to the liking of the Romanians. The Edict of Tolerance in 1781 gave legal status to the “Eastern Greek Cult” which resulted in showing the element of compulsion with previous conversions as Romanians began worshiping at these churches almost immediately.
The French Revolution, along with Napoleon’s conquests, opened the Romanian lands to new influences. Most Romanian historians set July 1821 as the date for the beginning of the Romanian era. While this may be the date historians look to, the rest of the world saw it differently. Moving into the twentieth century, Romania was still structurally considered an oriental country because one-third of the people live outside the present day border. Hope was shared for a Unified Greater Romania that was realized in 1920 by the majority of world nations. This news to the world was also a call for missions for a new form of Christianity.
In 1922 Gheorghe and Persida Bradin had met Pentecostal Romanian evangelist Pavel Budean while visiting the United States. Persida Bradin had been healed of tuberculosis and dropsy through the working of a miracle. Upon returning to Romania, the couple shared this with others, who they converted, and in 1923 experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit. By the end of 1924, the seeds had been planted, and fifty believers formed a group to submit their petition to the government for official recognition of the Pentecostal confession. They were denied recognition, but this should come as no surprise in a socialist political climate sliding into communism. Many Pentecostals were fined, beaten, or imprisoned after 1929 when it was discovered that they obtained recognition through a subterfuge of identity with the Apostolic Church of God. A Romanian census in 1930 revealed the numbers for the legal churches of which Pentecostal is not listed.
Orthodox 73% Catholic 15% Protestant 6% *Other 1% Romanian Independent Church 90% Uniates (Greek Eastern Rite) Lutherans Jews Nominally Orthodox 10% Latins (Roman Catholic) Calvinists Muslims Unitarian
- subgroup percentages not given
While under persecution, the Pentecostal movement grew large enough to have its first schism.
In 1929, some leaders of the Pentecostal movement in Romania fell under the influence of a Hungarian missionary, Ianos Lerch, who belonged to the organization Misiunea Penticostala pentru Estul Europei (The Pentecostal Mission for Eastern Europe), with their headquarters at Danzig (today’s Gdansk, Poland). In 1930, the superintendent of that mission, Gustav Schmidt (who was also of Hungarian origin, his first name being Augustin Covacs) visited Romania, where he met with Gheorghe Bradin in Timisoara and proposed cooperation, but Bradin refused, for they did not practice foot-washing during the Lord’s Supper, nor did they prohibit the consumption of alcoholic beverages.
By 1950 the approximate number of Pentecostals in Romania was under thirty thousand. They had become a large enough group that the Communist authorities recognized them under a single group category, the Federatia Cultelor Evanghelice (Federation of Evangelical Denominations), along with Baptist, Evangelical, and Adventist. The recognition was partly due to the August 4th decree of 1948 that was passed on all religions. Religion was seen by the Communists as a useful tool if controlled. The decree stated the right to observe freely and that all religious institutions were to be subject to the national laws which confiscated large amounts of property, financial assets, and imprisonment for any clergy found with any foreign money contributions. No religious schools were allowed even though many already existed. Only public education was allowed on the basis of an atheistic Marxist-Lenin philosophy. Clergy members were guaranteed a salary for a declaration of loyalty to the State. If the Church were to survive, it would have to go underground.
In his book, Tortured For Christ, Richard Wurmbrand writes, “Beginning August 23, 1944, one million Russian troops entered Romania and, very soon after this, the Communists came to power in our country. Then began a nightmare that made suffering under the Nazis seem easy.” Missionary work is driven by a love for Christ and the desire to see people come to know him regardless of the cost. The underground Church behind the Communist Iron Curtain would show the pure love for Christ at the loss or potential loss of one’s own life if they were lucky. Sadistic tortures were devised by the State religion of atheistic Communism to break the spirits of men, women, and children who would proclaim the name of Christ. “I heard one torturer say, ‘I thank God in whom I don’t believe, that I have lived to this hour when I can express all the evil in my heart.’ He expressed it in unbelievable brutality and torture inflicted on prisoners.” Even preaching to prisoners was strictly forbidden and according to Wurmbrand “we made a deal: we preached and they beat.”
For all Christian traditions in Romania, from 1940 to 1989, missionary work was a deadly concept. You needed to understand what you could do, what you could say, and when you could say it. The State churches were not safe for proclaiming Christ as many of the clergy members were spies for the secret police. Wurmbrand describes the Underground Church as composed of three groups. The first group was made up of former pastors and ministers who were removed from their flocks because they wouldn’t compromise the gospel. The second group was the vast army of dedicated lay people. The third group consisted of “the large body of faithful pastors in the official, but bridled and silenced ‘churches.’” After the collapse of Communism in 1989 conversion rates began falling even though there was an increase by the churches in the area of humanitarian aid. Illegal churches became officially recognized by the new democracy but the numbers did not keep pace. The Romanian Pentecostals had been surveyed in 1992 showing 220,033 registered Pentecostals. By 2011 that number swelled to 362,314. What I find interesting is that during persecution the church grew by 733% in forty-two years, or 17.4% per year. Conversion growth slowed to 60% from 1992 to 2011, or 3% per year. These statistics have not been lost on the Pentecostal church which has created dialog internally to restructure for a concentration in missions. Sadly, this has been tapered.
There are many leaders in the denomination who think that those who are in higher authority positions in the denomination ought to be relieved of their duties/roles as local pastors to be able to devote more time to the actual vision, mission, and ministry of the Pentecostal denomination. There was actually such a proposal presented and discussed (eventually heavily debated) at the last national congress of the denomination in 2014, but it was eventually rejected.
Other traditions have continued mission work on an independent basis also. I interviewed two missionaries, Joy and Tom, from First Presbyterian Church in Beaver, PA who have been working in sector five of Bucharest, Romania for the last sixteen years. They described sector five as one of the poorest sections in the area. They teach what could be considered a vacation bible school once or twice a year for a week to work with the children. They are not with any mission organization and are not affiliated with the church, but with a local Romanian organization called the Philip House Foundation (PHF). They must work without an affiliation due to government regulations or the foundation risks losing government funding.
Tom told me that the mindset of the people in Romania is that of an old Romanian way of thinking and a new way of thinking. Nominal Christianity is to be expected as most people don’t understand the faith because of communist brainwashing, but only a shell of the gospel message reduced to rituals without substance. The lasting effects of communism have been ingrained in the psyche of the Romanian Christian people working there. At times the founder of the PHF, Ovidiu Filipescu, would not allow foreigners into the school rooms fearing they might be spies.
While adults are not their main focus, they end up witnessing to adults on every trip either directly or through an end of the week family picnic. Many men are disconnected from families due to not having male role models or family structures to model because of the destructive communist practices that lasted for two generations. This is problematic in a patriarchal culture where God is understood as Father, but the experience of an earthly father is one who is not there for you. Joy told me that women are not respected as equals with men making her job as a missionary more difficult and at times, dangerous. When I asked them what has not worked well, or what has been a problem, they answered that communication was the biggest issue. Whether is was communication with the mission group, with their hosts, or with the Romanian language. Joy and Tom even confessed that on one of the trips they had communication issues with each other.
The history of missions in Romania is the challenge of reaching people who have such a diverse background that without a good understanding of who they are, where they come from, and where they are going, missionaries can make all of the classic missionary blunders. With over seventy years of Communist oppression still fresh in the minds of the people, any blindness to this fact will be a hindrance. In the twentieth century, 45.4 million Christians were martyred and 36.2 million were in Soviet-controlled communist countries like Romania. Unfortunately, the United States’ romanticising of socialism and communism will take us down the same road if we don’t turn back to God. It would not be hard to imagine millions of Christians being martyred here with how complicit and accepting the Church has become with Statist ideas. Troubling socialist and communist trends from Latin American missionaries and their organizations need to be dealt with and confronted in the same way we would deal with an African slave trader. The positive aspect is that in the persecution to come the church will grow at an exponential rate, but the intellectual dynamic of the Shema will suffer. The Romanian Church is healing along with those who make it up. We should learn from them and remember the words of Richard Wurmbrand, “I have decided to denounce communism, though I love the Communists. I don’t find it right to preach the gospel without denouncing communism.”
Castellan, Georges, A History of the Romanians, translated by Nicholas Bradley, East European Monographs, Boulder, New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.
McGuckin, John Anthony, The Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/9780470670606.wbecc1184, 1999-2018.
Synan, Vinson and Amos Young, Global Renewal Christianity: Spirit-Empowered Movements Past, Present, and Future, Volume 4: Europe and North America, Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2017.
Wurmbrand, Richard, Tortured for Christ, Bartlesville, OK: Living Sacrifice Book Company, 1967.