Tarzier Memoirs

Part II   War and Awakening



Skraba’s grassroots group was only one of many spiritual currents flowing in the Latvia of the early 20th century. The Lutheran Church, imposed by the German baronial rule, was infamous for stale rituals and cold formality. Centuries earlier, Paganism, the belief in natural deities in the style of the Druids, flourished quietly as the underlying spiritual background, the Jani festival its modern manifestation. Democratic, participatory religious observance coexisted uneasily with formal Lutheranism in the early days of the 20th century. Grandfather Karlis was a principal Teller at the Tirzieshu Assembly, an affiliation not unlike Christian Science. Also mentioned in the memoirs are the Herrnhuters, Moravian forefathers of Methodism; and of course the charismatic Baptist religion introduced by William Fetler and later adopted as the Tarzier family religion.

In the year 1517, Martin Luther posted his 90 Theses in Wittenberg, Saxony, opening up the massive breach with the Catholic Church known as the Reformation. Protestantism moved quickly east along the Baltic Sea, reaching the Baltics four years later. The first Reformation service in Latvia was held in 1521, in Riga’s St. Peter’s Church. The first Lutheran church of Riga, St. James Church, was founded in 1524. It exists to this day.

Ernst Glück

The spiritual awakening we saw happening in Lidere was not unheard-of among Latvians. More than two centuries earlier, under benign Swedish rule, a religious awakening took place under the guidance of a German, Ernst Glück (1652-1715). Glück was then the Lutheran parson in Aluksne, a town in northeastern Latvia. Besides being a theologian and an accomplished linguist, he was an intensely spiritual man and a compassionate advocate of our folk. His letter to Superintendent Fisher in Riga says it all: “it is impossible to describe, without tears in my eyes, the spiritual darkness, the sufferings and utter humiliation of the Lettish people.”

Ernst Glück’s feelings for Latvian and its people were not just empty words. A monumental contribution was the translation of the Bible into Latvian, an achievement especially impressive because his mother tongue was German. In other words, Glück first had to master Lettish, an abstruse language foreign to him in every way. To this day, Latvian linguists marvel at the Glück Bible, as it came to be known. Latvians now had access to the Bible in their native tongue, a fact that heralded the spiritual awakening under the guidance of Herrnhuter missionaries from Moravia.

The Brethren/Herrnhuter/Assembly

Lutheranism represented oppression, however benign, by German barons. Russian orthodoxy was even less welcome. In opposition to the official state-sponsored faith, a religion of dissent flourished in the Latvian countryside. The peasantry asserted the power of the individual against the oppression of the state, and claimed independence of thought and practice. The Assembly was part of this grassroots rebellion.

As a bit of background, before the Herrnhuter began their work, Lutheran services in Latvia were largely led by German pastors (not missionaries), who had at best a poor command of the Latvian language. Eventually native Latvians traveled to German universities to study for the ministry and return to serve the population, but meanwhile the Assemblies of the Brethren, or Ernutiesi,* stood as a welcome respite from imposed belief systems. These were the peasant-farmers who made up with their heart what they lacked in formal religious education. In the summer, when the windows were open, we could hear our neighbors sing Saturday and Sunday morning devotions. Like many around us, we were officially members of the Lutheran parish, though our religious allegiance was more with the Ernutiesi at that time.

As I mentioned, Herrnhuters were Protestant refugees from Moravian Catholic persecution with the help of Bishop Count Zinzendorf. They were sincere believers with a minimalist lifestyle. The founder of the Herrnhuter spiritual movement in northern Liveland (Vidzeme) was sent as a missionary to the Lettish people and was probably not an ordained minister as we understand the term.

As the movement grew, it needed an appropriate venue. Latvian Herrnhuters built large log barns, “Saiesanas,” in which to hold revival meetings. Led by local farmers, including my father Karlis Tarziers, the congregation assembled to sing Lutheran hymns, to give testimony as “Tellers,” or simply to read from the printed parish sermon book. Father never used the book, though. He read directly from the Glück Bible and then delivered a short, unrehearsed commentary. He also composed new text for the old Lutheran hymns. He read the verses and the congregation sang the new text. It was obvious to us that the people loved to hear him speak, because news of a service led by our father, the Predelu Tetins, meant a full house.

Not all was sweetness and light in the green Latvian countryside. Around 1905, the idle teens who fancied themselves the new wave of socialism desecrated our house of worship. On Sunday, the Kante’s father, who was the caretaker of the old Tirzieshu Assembly House, walked in before the Sunday service. He liked to come in early in order to meditate. A disgusting smell greeted him at the door. A pile of human excrement stood on the floor before the Tellers’ table. The young “revolutionaries” had cut a square hole in the ceiling and deposited their signature for the congregation. Instead of meditating, the old man had a foul cleanup task. He never said a word to anyone until much later. Robert asked him what the square hole in the ceiling was all about. The man shuddered as if seeing the Devil in person. After some prodding, he told us the story. And those desecrators were the ones to sing, “A new world we shall build, where justice and freedom will rule.”

The Assembly

The Assembly existed by popular demand, a rebellion against the mechanical memorizing of Catechism without understanding or participation. It was, then, a popular form of worship in addition to the formal Lutheran services, folk religion without rituals. For us Tarzier children, it was a chance to participate without being brought to task or shamed before our elders. We could wear our best clothes and meet other children. Our only rules were to sit quietly and behave ourselves.

Prayer meetings were simple. They consisted of meditation, a short reading from the Bible with a brief commentary, and then a kneeling prayer circle. One after the other, the participants would pray out loud, and the rest would join them—“they lifted up their voice to God with one accord,” as the Bible says. Embarrassing silence was the exception, and frequently one prayer would begin before another ended.

The informal leader of the Brethren when we were growing up was the old Kante or “singer,” called “First Among Equals.” He kept the big iron key to the hall, since he lived close to the Assembly House. To start the service, Kante came out from the speakers’ room in back and took his center seat behind the table. The other speakers followed, sitting next to him on the bench. They did not speak right away, but waited for Kante to finish his message. When he was done talking, they strode single file to the special speakers’ room. After a brief time, they came back in in the same solemn manner and the next speaker began his talk. When the speakers were many, an intermission was called, and then people would go out in the yard to say hello to friends and neighbors.

As my brother Peteris wrote, “We were not far from the Assembly House, just some three kilometers away. It was just a large barn built of resinous pine logs, with a thatched roof. Pastureland was ridged with trails, and they all led to the same point, like spokes of a wheel—to the Assembly House. Near a lush meadow, surrounded by a grove of tall birches, near the river Tirza, that’s where it was. The name Tirzieshu came from the Tirza creek in Palestine—our river had been named afterwards, God knows by whom.”

He went on, “Our whole household attended the meetings, leaving only a caretaker to look after the livestock. Father was one of the speakers, a Teller. I enjoyed going to the meetings. It meant wearing my Sunday best and putting on shoes instead of Pastalas (moccasins) .”

Baptist Origins

The first Baptist church in Latvia was founded in 1860, in the governorship of Courland. Baptist faith originated in Memele, a small seaport in the southern region of the Baltic Sea, then part of Germany. The story goes that eight Letts, as our people were then called, all farmers, went to Memele by rowboat in the dark of night. They were baptized in secret, as Russian laws forbade such “heretical” religious activities throughout the Russian empire. Our first non-lay Baptist pastors received their education in the Baptist Theological Seminary in Hamburg, Germany. Even the first Baptist faith statement was a copy of the Onken statement of principles of faith.

Eventually Latvia would have “professional,” that is, non-lay Baptist pastors, the Fetler brothers, William and Robert, trained in London. In general, though, Baptist work in Latvia was directly God-inspired. The early propagators of the message were plain farmers who, through spiritual awakening, made it their mission to spread the word.

We were young lads, Peteris and I, ages nine and eleven, when the word “Baptist” entered our vocabulary in 1912. Our father had traveled to Riga on farm business, and while in the big city, he attended one of Pastor William Fetler’s evangelistic revival meetings at the Golgotha Church. From that point on he was hooked—hooked enough, when he came home, to pass around a contribution box to support Fetler’s work. I was much impressed when our Murenu uncle, Janis, who was then doing carpentry work at our house, dropped five kopeks in the box, a royal sum to me at the time. Two years later, World War I broke out and we heard no more of Fetler until 1923, when I met him in person. Little did I know, as a child, that Fetler would become my mentor of twenty years and a friend for the rest of his life.

Father was friendly with the Baptists. Herrnhuters were generally on good terms with the Baptists, if for no other reason than Baptists and Herrnhuters alike were farmers. We had two Baptist churches within a 20 km range. One was in Lidere to the south, the other in Velena to the north. Our farm happened to be located halfway between the two churches, so whenever a group of singers traveled to the other Baptist church, they stopped at our house to rest and feed their horses. Once with us, they took the opportunity to sing and preach. Peteris and I did not care much for the sermons and testimonials, but we loved to hear the singing.

The Golgotha Church met in a former Russian Orthodox army church building, just purchased from the military. Father told us the story of its acquisition. The army had vacated the building and moved to a different part of the city. Baptists at that time had no right to own property, not in the city at any rate, but three deacons bought the property as trustees to get around this rule. Fetler, an internationally known evangelist, held Gospel services in this big house of worship, when Father first heard him speak.

Apparently Father happened to be there at a momentous occasion. The local authorities had tried to put a stop to the services. The city police arrived, ordered everybody out, and locked up the building. Fetler, at his best under pressure, led the whole congregation of several hundred worshippers in a long procession over to the local cemetery, and there he held what was ostensibly a memorial service for a deceased member of the church. Russians have great respect for the dead, and they did not dare disturb the cemetery service. Father was impressed as much by Fetler’s delivery of the message of the Gospel as by his chutzpa.

Sunday services were full of expectation. People meditated in silence, asking the Lord to make His word alive. Besides the regular Sunday services, the faithful might hold Keswick type rallies, ** especially in small towns—they would come together to “sit at Jesus’ feet, listening to some teaching the word, being endowed with the power of the Holy Spirit from above, heart filled with power from on high.” I do not know of any literature that chronicles the spiritual revival in Latvia between 1918 and 1922. The best record of those times appears in Kristigs Vestnesis (Christian Messenger) of the years 1924-1926, somewhat after the fact, because the Revival Tree had been cut down by the people who fled to Brazil.

It was in 1920, if I remember correctly, that the Tirzieshu Assembly of the Brethren observed one hundred years of spiritual work. A representative came to join in this celebration. His speech was very long winded, and I remember not a word he had to say. At that time, age 19, I led a quartet which met at my house for rehearsals—I didn’t know much about directing, but as they say, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed is king. For weeks on end, we had rehearsed especially for this solemn occasion. We patiently waited our turn, sitting to the right of the speakers’ table. But our guest spoke on and on, late into the evening, and we never got to sing. This was the end of the Brethren for me.

* “Ernutiesi” is a corruption of the German word “Herrnhuter.”
** The Keswick format is standardized. The subject of the first day’s meetings is that of sin, portrayed in graphic detail. The topic of the second day deals with the provision through the cross for power over sin. The third day addresses the topic of consecration, man’s abandonment to the rule of Christ as both crisis and process. The fourth day focuses on the Spirit-filled Life. And the final day focuses upon the necessity of Christian service which is seen as a necessary outcome of the Spirit-filled life.

Two Brothers Join In

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