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General rules for conversions

Conversions from one religion to another could also happen in the Russia Empire. In this country, where Greek Orthodox religion was the state religion, until 1905 it was not allowed to leave this Church, but, of course, there were no obstacles to join it. Christians of any kind were not allowed to convert to a non-Christian Church i.e. to Islam or Judaism or Buddhism. Mixed marriages were tolerate, but the children of these marriages if one of the parents was an Orthodox, were to be baptized in an Orthodox church and to grow up as Orthodox.

The conversion of non-Christians to a Christian Church other than the Orthodox Church was possible, but special permission was needed except the convert was on the verge of death. The Minister of the Interior was to be applied to for such permission (at least these were the rules in 1835), though Jewish recruits could convert to the Lutheran religion without personal permission. In the Criminal Code (1885) the punishment for non-Orthodox Christian Priests, who converted non-Christians without appropriate permission, was set out. They could be defrocked, if they committed this crime 4 times. Any case of conversion among non-Orthodox Christian confessions was considered by the Minister of the Interior (1835) and his permission was necessary.

A much more serious case was if an Orthodox person converted to another religion. In this case Christian Priests could be exiled to Siberia, but responsible persons of Jewish or Muslim religions would have been condemned to penal servitude (katorga) for 8-10 years at the end of the 19th century. In the 18th century this felony could provoke capital punishment. After katorga the criminals were settled in Siberia according to the general principles of the criminal Law. The converts themselves were not punished seriously by secular courts.

Conversion of Latvians to the Orthodox Church
Conversion of Jews



Conversion of Latvians to the Orthodox Church

A conversion movement of Latvians to the Orthodox Church developed in the 1840s. Historians assert that this was a form of protest against German landowners who were Lutherans, and some hope existed that by joining the Tzar’s religion the peasants might have less dependence on the landowners and better possibilities of acquiring their own land.

The conversion process caused some contradiction between converted and non converted Latvians. There are some known cases of physical pressure exerted on those who decided to convert. By the way, it was a criminal deed even to try to convince a person not to convert to the Orthodox Church; for this crime one could be jailed for up to two years.

The total number of the Latvian converts could be estimated at about 40,000 and in some pagasti of Vidzeme [Livland] up to 30% of the inhabitants joined the Orthodox Church. The Census of 1897 counted about 45,000 Latvian Orthodox believers. The landowners and the Lutheran Pastors were not happy with that great conversion and took some measures against it. They initiated some decisions at the Highest level, but they could only stop further conversion. It was not possible to reconvert a Latvian Orthodox back into Lutheranism, because it was not allowed by the Laws of the Empire. However in 1865 an agreement was made between the Churches and the officials, which allowed children of mixed marriages to be christened as Lutherans and also to attend a Lutheran church. It was an exception made for the Baltic provinces from the general Laws of the Empire. This agreement was canceled in 1885 and later some Lutheran Pastors were punished for baptizing of Orthodox children.

It is of great importance for a family history researcher to know that anybody converting to the Orthodox Church as a rule acquired a new first (christened) name specifically suited to the Orthodox Church. I am not sure, but it seems that it was allowed to change the family name also, though not after 1850 when changes of family names were definitely prohibited.

It is very important for researchers to know of cases of conversions in the family, because after the conversion the civil registers were kept in the appropriate church, therefore the records they are searching for would be located in a different place to where they might assume them to be.

The lists of converts were regularly printed and distributed among the Lutheran pastors. I have gathered quite a few of these documents, but they, of course, still cover only a small part of the converts. The Pastors were required to report the events of conversion to the Consistory with the reasons for conversion, but these reports I have not seen and do not know if they still exist in archives.


Conversion of Jews

The Jews were always encouraged to join the Greek Orthodox religion, and in the time of Tzar Nikolaj I they were even pressed to convert. Especially severe pressure was applied to Jewish recruits and kantonists who were often converted but the conversion was frequently only a formality. To tell the truth, the Jewish conversion was never intensive (outside the Army) though occurred occasionally, and some converts became important or very important persons, so the relevant regulations are proposed here.

I remember reading somewhere that some Jews practiced conversion first to the Lutheran and later to the Orthodox Church. It was said that it was done because in some official papers the religious confession was written with the conversion history, for example, Orthodox from Judaism. If a Jew converted from the Lutheran religion, then in his documents the confession was shown evidently - Orthodox from Lutherans i.e. his Jewish heritage was completely hidden. I have not seen, however, any official documents with such a definition of a person's religion, and I do not think that in reality it was easy to hide a Jewish heritage. As mentioned above, a Jew, except a recruit, needed special permission to be converted to a non-Orthodox Christian religion.

The converts (Jewish or non-Jewish) to Christianity gained the legal status of persons who chose the way of life and were obliged to register in the appropriate estate community of any location of the Empire as no restrictions in settlement existed for them anymore. They had 9 months to choose the region and to register, if they did not, they were prosecuted as vagrants. The registration for them was free of charge, but in the Baltic provinces they needed the agreement of the local community. More about estate communities and the registration in a special Page.

The Law of Inorodci /Svod, vol. 9/ states that the converted Jews from February 6, 1850 onwards were not allowed to change their family name though always obtained a new first name by christening. The only exception was for converted Jewish soldiers, who could coin the new family name from the first names of their godfathers - presumably these were the officers who succeeded in convincing the Jewish soldiers to convert. So the author of a book on kantonists /Ņikitin/ V.Nikitin evidently got his family name from the first name of his godfather Nikita. Permission of the godfather was necessary for using his first name in this way.

If a Jewish father converted to the Orthodox Church, then his sons younger than 7 were also christened, if a mother did, then her daughters under 7 were converted with her. If only one of the Jewish spouses converted, the marriage could be dissolved on the demand of the convert, because an Orthodox could not be married with a Jew. The divorce was not obligatory in this case, however.

In the newspaper Latweeschu awises of 1874 I have found some information about a Rabbi Rudolph Gurland, who converted himself to the Lutheran religion and started mission activities among Jews initially in Kišiņeva (now in Moldova) and later in Jelgava [Mitau] where he was a Lutheran Pastor of the German parish and the head of a Jewish Mission. In this Mission 17 young Jews applied for conversion in 1873 and 12 of them really were educated in the religion and converted, 5 Jews were converted in 1874. R.Gurland is named on the lists of Jelgava Pastors up to1890 but not for 1895. In 1874 a book about him and his activities was printed in the Latvian language (it cost 25 Kopecks). The officials of the Empire discovered that the missionary activities of the Churches except the Greek Orthodox Church were illegal and in 1889 an order was issued that prohibited any persuasion of people to join the Lutheran religion.

The percentage of ethnic Jews in various revolutionary organizations of the Russia Empire was relatively high, and as a rule they converted to the Greek Orthodox religion i.e. they were not Jews either from the Empire's point of view or from the point of view of Judaism. They did not accept any religion, of course, but even for simple revolutionary activities it was necessary to travel freely in the country and this was not possible for non-converted Jews. I do not know, however, of any high level Jewish revolutionary from the Latvia region.



Only during the time of the Revolution of 1905 the Tzar declared religious freedom on April 17, 1905. His Manifest also implied the possibility of converting freely from one religion to another, which initiated a rather great reconversion of the Latvian Orthodox who went back to the Lutheran Church especially in cases where the families consisted of Lutheran and Orthodox members.

The reconversion from the Orthodox Church was still not very easy, because it was connected with serious formal obstacles; and the Orthodox Priests were obliged to investigate each case of reconversion and to report to the higher Church authorities.

According to the data of Ministry of the Interior, from 1905-1909 about 12,000 Orthodox persons reconverted to Lutheran confession in the Baltic provinces i.e. they mainly were Latvians and Estonians by ethnicity. /KV, vol. 3/. The statistics of the Latvians, who remained in the Orthodox Church, are published in the Page of religious statistics.

The same source /KV, vol. 3/. informs that in the whole of the Empire, including the Pale, up to 400 Jews reconverted to Judaism in 1905-1909. I suppose that this number was so small, because the number of Jewish converts to the Orthodox was relatively small, but unfortunately I have no statistics concerning Jewish conversion.


© Bruno Martuzāns. 1995-2002