Church and religion. Spiritual world

When the Russian–Livonian War broke out (1558), Old Livonian towns were mostly Lutheran and the German landed gentry also expressed support for the new teaching, but the subsequent wars caused much confusion in religious life. In North Estonia, which had been Swedish-controlled since 1561, Lutheranism became established: Sweden, which had adopted Lutheranism as the official religion, was a staunch supporter of Protestantism at the beginning of the 17th century. In Estonia and Livonia Stockholm considered the building of the state church as one of its most important aims, which became a dominant policy in the 1630s after all Estonian territory had been captured by the Swedes. The situation was more complicated in Polish–Lithuanian-dominated Livonia, where, due to Jesuit activity, Catholicism enjoyed a revival. In both Estonia and Livonia Swedish authorities went on to restore church buildings and to recruit clergy: it is rumoured that only five Lutheran pastors had been installed in Livonia at the end of the Polish reign. The shortage of pastors was overcome partly by the fact that German-born clergymen fleeing the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) settled in Estonia and Livonia, where they were put in charge of the congregations.

The Swedish authorities exercised a strict control over religious and intellectual life, arranging regular inspections, the so-called visitations, from the end of the 16th century and throughout the 17th century. The higher clergy — bishops or superintendents — visited congregation after congregation to inspect the religious beliefs of peasants and to root out the ‘remnants’ of paganism or Catholicism; simultaneously the pastor’s proficiency in the Estonian language, his attitude to his religious duties, his morals, etc., were also checked. The collected data were written down in visitation protocols, and on the basis of these it might be argued that pagan, Catholic and Lutheran elements were all mingled in the peasants’ outlook.

In this respect, the belief in witchcraft and witches as reflected in the mental attitude of both peasants and higher estates is particularly noteworthy. The witchcraft trials had started in the Middle Ages, but a witch-hunt spread from Europe to Estonia at the end of the 16th century. The majority of recorded trials (about 150) were held in Tallinn: this might be accounted for by the fact that the relevant South-Estonian sources have not survived. It is claimed that between 1520 and 1699, 196 people were charged with practising witchcraft; 65 were condemned to death at the stake. The trials which ended in the death penalty fell mostly into the three first decades of the 17th century. The earliest record of death at the stake in Estonia goes back to 1527; the last recorded public execution of a witch dates from 1699. There were usually 2 to 4 defendants; big trials, with a score of defendants, characteristic of western Europe, were not common here. Among the defendants, who were mostly peasants, there were more men than women; though those found guilty were equally men and women. In this respect Estonia — and Finland — differ from western Europe, where witchcraft was ‘practised’ mostly by women. The plaintiffs were also Estonian peasants and, as a result, the trial protocols contain Estonian witchcraft and magic spells. The crime of an Estonian witch consisted of causing harm to other people, most often by poisoning them with charmed beer. The alleged victims also included people from the higher estates

At the end of the 17th century, Pietist teaching (from Latin pietas ‘piety’) reached Estonia and Livonia, which sought a deeper religious awareness through personal religious experience received by reading the Bible. Lutheran Sweden was trying to check the spread of Pietism, dismissing pastors and university professors who had taken up the new teaching. Swedish subjects were forbidden to go and study in the University of Halle, the most influential Pietist centre. However, the Swedish authorities were not successful in restricting Pietism and the conquest of Estonia by Russian forces in the early 18th century gave it a new impetus.

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