The Origins and Early Development of Baptists in Bulgaria

Article excerpt

For the student of Baptist origins and history, Baptist development and work in Bulgaria present a challenge. Little has been written on Bulgarian Baptists, not only by Bulgarians but also by Western historians.

Prior to the World War II, no one attempted to thoroughly research the Baptist movement in Bulgaria. During that time, most church records, personal correspondence, and Baptist brochures and magazines were confiscated by the secret police who served the Communist Party during the forty-five-year Communist rule in Bulgaria. Following World War II until 1989, Baptists suffered severe persecution, and some of the leaders of churches and groups sadly made the decision to deliberately destroy all the historical records and information for security purposes. (1) Some brave Christians, however, took a personal risk and kept documents, old pictures, and issues of old magazines published between World War I and World War II. Baptist historians are indebted to those courageous Christians. (2) Also, materials published from a Marxist perspective during the communist period, although entirely focused on discrediting the Protestants, contain useful historical information. (3)

After communism collapsed in Eastern Europe, a new interest developed in tracing the historical beginnings of the Baptist churches in Bulgaria. One of the first attempts to retell the story of the Bulgarian Baptists was made by Albert Wardin, whose 1991 article "Baptists in Bulgaria" (4) was published in The Baptist Quarterly. Wardin cited primary sources found in Baptist periodicals published in the West. His work represents the first well-documented overview of the Baptist work in Bulgaria for the 130 years of Baptist presence in the country. Using German sources and publications, following important although not extensive research, Dobrina Dadder, a graduate of the Hamburg Seminary in Germany, wrote an article on Baptist beginnings in Bulgaria in 1994. Her work was later translated from German and published in 1996 and 1997 in several issues of the Baptist magazine, Vitania. (5)

The research for materials and sources within Bulgaria and the collection of information from people who still remember the key events of the last fifty years are of primary importance. Historians are not sure whether all of the materials that were confiscated by the secret police were indeed destroyed or were kept in some of the archives that have not yet been opened to the public. One of the vital sources of information is the Baptist magazine, Evangelist. (6) Articles in the magazine captured the living memories of people who were often the first converts or initial leaders of many of the Bulgarian churches before the end of the nineteenth century and also provided details of the development of the Baptist churches between the world wars.

For the past two years, I have devoted much time to the recovery of original Baptist sources in Bulgaria. (7) Based on much of that research, this article first offers an overview of the different factors contributing to the beginnings of the Baptist work in Bulgaria and then provides an account of Baptist development through 1890.

Factors Contributing to the Beginning of Baptist Work in Bulgaria

The first organized Protestant work in the Bulgarian lands was that of the Congregationalists and the Methodists in the 1850s. (8) The Congregationalists' American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (9) established its first missionary station in July 1858 at Adrianopol. (10) The earliest Methodist work in Bulgaria specifically targeted the areas to the north of the Old Mountains (The Balkans), while the Congregational efforts were concentrated south of the mountains. Both denominational mission efforts preceded the appearance of the first Baptist missionaries by a quarter of a century. (11)

Three major factors influenced the beginning of the Baptist work in Bulgaria: (1) the British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS) sent colporteurs to distribute the scripture in the territories under Ottoman control during the later part of the nineteenth century; (2) Baptist refugees of German origin from Southern Russia who were fleeing religious persecution settled in northern Bulgaria; and (3) Bulgarians, who had come into contact with Baptists outside of the country and had been converted to the Baptist faith, returned to Bulgaria and preached Baptist principles. …