Power and the Sacred in Lativan and Estonian Mass-Conversion to Orthodoxy in the 1840s

Saturday, January 8, 2011: 11:30 AM
Room 205 (Hynes Convention Center)
Mark R. Hatlie , American Public University System
In the 1830s, the Russian Orthodox Church intensified its missionary activity in the Russian borderlands. The role of imperial, economic and cultural power in the resulting religious changes varied, depending on the situation. In this paper I will explore the mass conversion of Latvian and Estonian peasants to Russian Orthodoxy in the early 1840s. Tens of thousands were baptized into the Orthodox Church. The case is interesting for the Russian Empire because, unlike conversion campaigns in Muslim areas, it involved an encounter with another branch of Christianity and with a people who were generally considered to be more western than the Russians themselves, convoluting the cultural hierarchy typical of missionary encounters elsewhere.
Were the peasants simply doing an end-run around local German power, appealing to the religion of the Tsar during an agrarian crisis as others have argued? If so, why did German pastors bother to argue theology with them and Russian apologists argue religion back? How did Orthodoxy eventually take root as an "authentic," albeit minority, religion among these peoples? To approach answers to these questions, I will explore the role played by religious convictions and conversations about the sacred during the conversion period in the context of Foucault's ideas about power. Both salient aspects of his understanding of power manifested themselves during the turmoil in that the peasants 1) sought and found creative solutions to their plight by tapping into new channels of power through religious conversion 2) did so not only by navigating a maze of manorial, police and administrative restrictions, but through religious conversations and practice as well. Discourses about the sacred and the material were bound up together and not always easily discernable – and that applies not only to the converts, but to their missionaries and their former pastors as well.
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