Skip to main content

Christianity: Christianity in Eastern Europe


The story of Christianity in eastern Europe and northern Eurasia is complexa tangled web of changing peoples, nations, and church allegiances; of political, military, and cultural conflicts; and of ideological, social, and spiritual forces in a seemingly perpetual flux. This article traces the course of twenty centuries of Christian history in this region, which is bounded on the south by the tip of the Greek Peninsula, ringed roughly by the Adriatic, Aegean, Black, and Caspian Seas; on the north by the Baltic Sea and the Finnish Peninsula; on the east by the Ural Mountains; and on the west by the eastern slopes of the Alps and the river Elbe.

The history of the Christian Church in eastern Europe and northern Eurasia can be understood through the interplay over the centuries of four major factors: Greek-Byzantine, Latin-Roman, and Frankish-German influences, and the migrations of peoples who eventually settled in eastern Europe and northern Eurasia, primarily the Slavs. These factors represent distinctive religious, cultural, and ethnic traditions that molded the development of the Christian Church over the centuries in this region. There are others, of course, including the Muslim Ottoman Empire in the fifteenth through nineteenth centuries and the Soviet Union in the twentieth century. Nevertheless, the story of how Christianity developed in this area can be told by describing the motives, mind-sets, interests, and policies together with the successes and failures of these four major forces.

Historically, the first actor at work in the molding of Christianity in eastern Europe and northern Eurasia was the Greek-Byzantine tradition. Highlighted by the apostle Paul's mission to the Gentiles and his crossing over into Europe, the Christian church abandoned the exclusivism of its Jewish roots to become a world religion. To be sure, he was not alone in this effort. Many anonymous evangelists and laypersons, including traveling businesspeople, contributed to the spread of the Christian faith from its origins in Palestine to as far as Rome and Spain. Although the Christian faith moved outward in all directionstoward Africa, Asia, and the Indian subcontinentthe church's major growth came as it entered the Greco-Roman world of the Mediterranean basin. As it sought to preach the message of salvation in Jesus Christ, it used not only the lingua franca of its day, the spoken and written Greek of the first century, but also Greek concepts, problematics, and philosophical traditions to communicate, understand, and interpret the faith. Beginning with the New Testament idea of Christ as the Logos (Jn. 1), there is an ongoing record of the incarnation of the Christian message into the Greco-Roman cultural milieu. What came out of this process, Orthodox Christianity, certainly could not be identified with any specific Greek philosophical system; it was uniquely Christian, but it formulated its faith and practice with the tools of the Greek heritage. Strongly concerned with clear doctrinal formulation of the teachings regarding the Holy Trinity and the person of Jesus Christ, the Greek tradition emphasized the transcendent dimension of faith, the reverence and awe of worship, the conciliar understanding of church life, and the ascetic spirituality of monasticism. This early tradition of Christianity, formulated in the writings of the Church Fathers primarily within the eastern part of the Roman Empire known as Byzantium, was embodied and essentially preserved in what much later came to be called the Eastern or Greek Orthodox Church, with all its various local expressions.

However, while accepting and defending as Christian orthodoxy the formulations of doctrine described above, Christianity in the western part of the Roman Empire quickly gave to the Christian message and life nuances and emphases that characterized its Latin heritage. Less theologically speculative, the sober Latin tradition focused on the practical and on the sense of order and pattern required in an increasingly unstable cultural, political, and social milieu produced by the inroads of numerous barbarian tribes beginning in the fourth century. While the Greek tradition concerned itself with the subtleties of church doctrine, frequently generating new heresies, Latin Christianity became a stronghold of fundamental Christian orthodoxy while concurrently remolding this orthodoxy according to its own genius. In practice, that meant an understanding of the Christian faith largely colored by legal concepts. For example, while the Greek East generally tended to understand sin in relational terms (sin as the breaking of the appropriate relationship between the Creator and the creature), the Latin West emphasized its legal dimensions (sin as guilt). This difference, and the exigencies of the breakdown of cultural unity and civil authority in the West between the fourth and eighth centuries, favored the development of a monarchical understanding of the church, leading to the rise of the Roman papacy as the single, supreme ecclesiastical (and frequently secular) authority in the West. The combination of an early reputation for careful orthodoxy in doctrine, with the centralization of authority in the Roman see, became the source of what eventually would come to be called the Roman Catholic Church.

The third group of actors in the drama of Christianity in eastern Europe and northern Eurasia were the Frankish and Germanic kingdoms, which while Roman Catholic in faith were primarily concerned with their military, economic, and political expansion in the area of eastern Europe. It is not that these concerns were unique to the Frankish and Germanic kingdoms, but that these interests affected the development of Christianity in significantly different ways from that of the see of Rome or of Byzantine Orthodoxy. The reason for this is that Roman Catholicism in the western European region sought actively to differentiate Western Christianity from Eastern Christianity, especially through espousal and promulgation of the filioque clause in the creed, which asserts that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.

In 691 ce Clovis III (682695 ce) became king of all Franks, beginning a process of consolidation of political power in the West. With Charles Martel's (c. 688741 ce) victory over Arab forces at the Battle of Tours (732 ce), the integrity of western Europe was assured. A formal political split between the eastern and western parts of the Roman empire, exemplifying the cultural division of Eastern and Western Christianity, occurred with the crowning of Charlemagne (742814 ce) by Pope Leo III (r. 795816 ce) in the year 800 ce as the first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. From that point on, Frankish and Germanic forces perceived the Byzantine Empire and its Greek church as rival powers opposed to their interests.

With the inclusion of filioque in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, at the insistence of the Franks (not originally by the Roman see) the stage was set for a long, drawn-out process of schism between the Western (eventually Roman Catholic) Church and the Eastern (eventually Eastern or Orthodox) Church. (Filioque literally means "and the Son," referring to the claim made mainly in the West that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Son as well as from the Father; the doctrine was rejected by Eastern Churches.) Much of the conflict between East and West played itself out in eastern Europe and northern Eurasia. From the point of view of the history of the church from the ninth through the sixteenth centuries, Frankish and subsequently Germanic interests in the region translated into efforts to make Roman Catholicism dominant at the expense of Eastern Orthodoxy. In contradistinction, during this and subsequent periods, Eastern Orthodoxy became one of the major forces in the struggle of the peoples in the region to retain their cultural, spiritual, and political identity and autonomy. In the sixteenth century the Germanic influence in eastern Europe was expanded with the rise of the Reformation. From that time on, church history was strongly influenced by Protestant interests in the area.

The final actors in the story of Christianity in eastern Europe and northern Eurasia are the various peoples who historically had lived in the region or who came from elsewhere to settle there. Southeastern European peoples, primarily in Macedonia, Achaia, Crete, the Aegean Islands, and Byzantium, were able to trace the continuity of their ecclesiastical and cultural roots to early Christianity and beyond. In contrast, central and northern Europe was an area repeatedly overrun by peoples from the Asian steppes. As a result, the continuity of Christian history was repeatedly broken and reestablished, formed and reformed, in eastern Europe.

Primarily, though not exclusively, it was Slavic peoples who began the invasion of Europe by attacks on Asia Minor and the Balkans around the year 220 ce. Appeased in part by a Byzantine policy that combined military strength, payment of tribute, and settlement, the waves of invaders moved westward in the third to fifth centuries beyond the effective boundaries of the Byzantine Empire. In eastern Europe the newcomers were displaced by new conquerors, and the groups often mingled. Eventually, a measure of identity with particular geographic areas was achieved by the settlers.

The history of the Christian Church in eastern Europe and northern Eurasia can largely be told in terms of the competition of Greek-Byzantine, Latin-Roman, and Frankish-Germanic efforts to gain the loyalty of these largely Slavic peoples. Or, conversely, the history of the church in this area can be understood as the response of the Slavic and other peoples of the region to what the first three had to offer.

Early Christianity

Christianity entered eastern Europe through the missionary work of the apostle Paul as well as the influence of countless Christians who shared the good news of the redemption of humankind by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit. They planted the Christian seed primarily in cities. Illustrative is Paul's dramatic entry into Europe as a result of a dream in which a Macedonian begged him to "Come over to Macedonia and help us," as described in Acts 16. The Christian Scriptures indicate the first-century establishment of Christianity in cities, such as Philippi in Macedonia; Thessalonica, Veroia, and Nicopolis on the western coast of the Greek Peninsula; Athens in Attica; Patras, Corinth, and Sparta in the Peloponnese; on the Aegean Islands of Chios and Samos; and on the island of Crete.

The northern boundary of the Roman Empire in the last decades of the second century extended to the Danube in Illyricum and beyond in the province of Dacia (present-day Romania). On either coast of the Adriatic Sea and the Black Sea there were small enclaves of Christians, but the vast numbers of Thracians, Moesians, Illyrians, and Dacians in the region had not been Christianized. Nevertheless, conditions existed favorable to their eventual conversion. For example, the northern branch of the Thracians, the Geto-Dacians (considered the ancestors of the Romanian people), although polytheists, believed in a supreme god whom they called Zalmoxis, the god of heaven and light. The Geto-Dacians were known to ancient Greek historians, such as Herodotos (c. 484between 430 and 420 bce), who described, in addition to this concept of a supreme god, their strong belief in the immortality of the soul. It is not at all unlikely that during this early period a scattering of Christians existed among the Geto-Dacians as a result of Christian influence in the armies of Trajan (53117 ce; ruled 98117 ce), who had subdued them.

A legend recorded by Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260c. 330 ce) and attributed to Origen (c. 185c. 254 ce) holds that the apostle Andrew preached in the land of the Geto-Dacians, then referred to as Scythia. The Passion of Saint Andrew, included in the Constantinopolitan Sunaxarion (lives of saints for liturgical use), claims that Andrew preached in Pontus, Thrace, and Scythia. Although there is a ninth-century legend that Andrew ordained a certain Apion as bishop of Odessus (present-day Varna, Bulgaria), the first historical record of a bishop of the region was made by the historian Socrates (c. 380450 ce) regarding Theodore the Thracian at the Synod of Sardica (343344 ce). A bishop from the area named Terentius participated in the ecumenical council at Constantinople in 381 ce. A Bishop Timothy was recorded in attendance at the ecumenical council held in Ephesus (431 ce).

Legitimization and the Barbarian Inroads

After Constantine (d. 337 ce), together with the coemperor Licinius (d. 325 ce), proclaimed Christianity to be a legal religion in 313 ce with the Edict of Milan, more and more of the population within the boundaries of the Empire began to be Christianized. But the appearance of the barbarians caused the boundaries of the Roman Empire to contract, and whatever earlier Christian presence existed in the area was severely weakened or destroyed. Among the earliest of the barbarian tribes to appear were the Goths.

During the period from 230 to 240 ce the Goths came out of southern Russia to attack the Roman provinces. A succession of Roman emperors fought against them, including Claudius (214270 ce), Aurelian (c. 215275 ce), Diocletian (245 or 248313 or 316 ce), and Constantine. Christianity in its Arian form seems to have been introduced to the Goths through prisoner exchanges in Cappadocia around the year 264 ce, but it was at least a century before Christians were of any great number among them. By the mid-fourth century there seemed to be an adequate Christian population among the Goths to require a bishop. Thus in 341 ce Ulfilas (c. 311c. 382 ce) was ordained first bishop of the Goths by the patriarch of Constantinople, Eusebius. Ulfilas's work was primarily in Plevna (in modern-day Bulgaria), and he translated the Scriptures and services into the Gothic tongue. It should be noted here that the orientation of these early efforts at Christianization was from the East. Yet over the next few centuries the constant incursions and displacement of tribes in a westward direction meant that little permanency of the Christian presence could be expected.

Missions in Conflict

It was not until the ninth century that Christianity began to gain a permanent foothold in the area. By this time not only had the foundations of Christian doctrinal understanding been formalized through seven ecumenical councils, but the four factors described above had also been clearly defined. As they met on the eastern European stage, they determined the organized forms that Christianity would take there and, in turn, much of its ethnic and political identity as well.

The barbarians, although intent on expansion and the acquisition of land, were also attracted by the quality of the Greco-Roman culture of the Empire, which they respected. The chief ingredient of this attraction was Christianity. In many cases these peoples were seized with a strong desire to embrace the faith because of what they had seen and heard in terms of the quality of life of Christians, the development of a Christian civilization base on Hellenic Paideia, and the power and influence of the Church in society as well as through the missionary efforts of the church. Among these in the ninth and tenth centuries were the peoples of Bulgaria to the south, Moravia to the north, and Russia to the east. The spirit of competitive choice among the recipients of the faith, as well as conflict among the transmitters of the faith, became evident during this period.

In the East the dominant power was the Byzantine Empire, whose fortunes had improved sufficiently in this period to permit consideration of missionary efforts; that is, the spreading of the Greek or Eastern form of Orthodox Christianity. In the West the Frankish Empire was divided in 843 ce at the Treaty of Verdun into three parts, the most eastern of which was to become Germany. Louis I (778840 ce) the German became the founder of the German Carolingian dynasty, which lasted until 911 ce. This dynasty pursued vigorous missionary efforts in eastern Europe and northern Eurasia.

The first area in which the two missionary efforts came into conflict was Bulgaria. Both German and Byzantine missionaries saw the Bulgarian Slavs as ripe targets for missionizing. The Bulgars, however, in their choice between Western and Eastern forms of Christianity, were motivated by their own ethnic, cultural, and political perspectives, with independence as a prime concern. In the year 860 ce the drama began to unfold. Although at first attracted to the German missionaries, Khan Boris (d. 907 ce) accepted baptism from the Greeks. Later, feeling that his church was not independent enough, he turned from Constantinople to the West, admitting German missionaries whose policies even more strongly curtailed the independence of the Bulgarian church. These policies included the imposition of Latin in worship, subjugation of the hierarchy to the pope, celibacy of the clergy, and the filioque doctrine, even though it was not current in Rome at the time. By 870 ce Khan Boris had reacted to these restrictions by expelling the German missionaries and inviting back those from Constantinople. Since then Eastern Orthodoxy has been the dominant religion in the Bulgarian nation.

During this same period a somewhat similar drama played itself out to the north, but with opposite results. The major difference here was that Rome and Constantinople supported the same missionary policy in contrast to the rival efforts of the Germans.

Around 860 ce Prince Rostislav (846c. 870 ce) of Moravia appealed to Patriarch Photios (Photius, c. 820891 ce) of Constantinople for missionaries who could preach in the language of the people and conduct worship in Slavonic. Constantine, known later as Cyril, (c. 827869 ce) and Methodius (c. 825c. 884 ce), two Greek brothers from Thessalonica, were chosen for the task. Before going to the mission field, they created a Slavonic alphabet, into which they translated the Bible and the service books. Their mission policy thus included worship in the language of the people, the preaching of the Eastern form of Christianity (without the filioque ), and the rapid indigenization of the clergy with its consequent spirit of local autonomy in church government. When they came into inevitable conflict with the German missionaries, Cyril and Methodius appealed to the pope and obtained his approval for their methods in Moravia. The Germans not only ignored this approval but even jailed Methodius for over a year. Following Methodius's death, the Germans expelled the Byzantine missionaries and imposed Western Christianity in the region.

During this same period Patriarch Photios also sent missionaries to Russia, and a short-lived mission survived there until 878 ce. As in the past, Christianity nevertheless continued to infiltrate the populace through ordinary contacts from Byzantium in the south, Bulgaria in the west, and Scandinavia in the north. Thus, when Prince Vladimir (c. 9561015) was baptized in 988 ce, the Christianization of the land was readily accomplished, at least in the cities and especially in the region around the capital city of Kiev. As Vladimir had married the sister of the Byzantine emperor, Christianity was adopted in its Byzantine form. Originally centered in Kiev, Christianity gradually spread north and east, developing deep and strong roots among the people, and social concern, liturgical piety, and monasticism united with the culture and language of the Russian peoples. Nevertheless, Western influences were also present in Russian Christianity, influences that found resonance many centuries later.

Schism and Imperial Contention

The eleventh century and early twelfth century were marked by the definitive Great Schism between the Eastern and Western Churches. Begun in the ninth century, it is traditionally marked by the mutual excommunications of Patriarch Michael Cerularios (c. 10001059) and Cardinal Humbert (c. 10001061) in 1054 and considered completed by the capture of Constantinople in 1204 by the Crusaders. The Venetians, at the head of the Fourth Crusade, established a Latin empire with a Latin patriarch in Constantinople. The Byzantines set up their capital in Nicaea and were unable to return to Constantinople until 1261. The result was that the pattern of conflict in the Christianization of the peoples of eastern Europe was intensified over the next few centuries.

On the southwestern shores of the region, the Croatians had long been subjected to efforts at Christianization by Latin missionaries in the sixth through eighth centuries, even though the Eastern empire held nominal control over the area. After 800 ce, however, the Franks brought the Croatians fully within the orbit of the West, completing the task by the tenth century. On their eastern border, however, another peoplethe Serbsopened themselves up to the disciples of Cyril and Methodius. On the dividing line between Eastern and Western Christendom, the ninth-century Prince Mutimir (r. 865891 ce), after some vacillation, looked toward Constantinople for the form of the faith to be practiced by the Serbs. Slavonic worship and Orthodox practices were accepted, and a strong Slavo-Byzantine culture was formed. In 1219 Sava (c. 1176c. 1236) was consecrated as archbishop of Serbia in Nicaea, then the Byzantine capital. This consecration reflected the strength of the Serbian Empire at the time. In 1375 Constantinople recognized the Serbian patriarchate that had been proclaimed three decades earlier.

To the east of Serbia lay Romania, whose early Christian history has been noted. The Romanians are not Slavs but, as their name indicates, a Latin people. Clearly within the Greek-Byzantine ecclesial tradition, they have maintained much of their orderly Latin heritage. At the same time they have adopted a great deal from their Slavic neighbors, especially in the area of worship. The Romanian church is a fruitful amalgam of these various influences. By the fourteenth century, metropolitanates had been set up in various parts of the Romanian region.

At this same time, the Ottoman (Turkish) Muslim forces began to spread into the region from the southeast. They conquered the Bulgarian center of Taburnovo in 1393, took control of Serbia in 1441, captured Constantinople and destroyed the last vestige of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, subdued Bosnia in 1463, captured the Albanian fortress town of Kruje in 1478, put down the last resistance in Moldavia and Walachia (Romania) by 1490, and conquered Dyrrachium in 1501. The majority of the Christian peoples in this area were Eastern Orthodox in faith. The Muslims governed the conquered peoples in accordance with a system that identified each religion as a "nation." Known as the millet system, it required that all Orthodox Christians under Ottoman domination be governed through the patriarchate of Constantinople. This system, over the whole area south of the Danube, lasted for approximately four hundred years, to the mid-nineteenth century.

The major Orthodox nation not conquered by the Muslims was Russia. However, the history of the Russians was not without severe disturbances. The establishment of Kievan Orthodox Christianity in the tenth century was followed by a genuine flowering of church life for the next few centuries in Kiev (present-day Ukraine) and by active missionary work to the north. Notable were the establishments in Novgorod and Pskov. However, Kievan influence was broken in the thirteenth century with the coming of the Mongols. When Kiev fell to them in 1240, a century and a quarter of survival struggle aimed at maintaining Russian life was begun by the church. Gradually, power and strength returned to the Russians, but they then came to be centered in Moscow. The church figured strongly in the rebuild-ing of the Russian nation, and by the time of the death of Sergii of Radonezh (c. 13141392), Moscow was clearly the center of Russian Orthodoxy. In the north, Novgorod and Pskov, while free from the Mongols, were attacked in the mid-thirteenth century by westernersthe Swedes and the Germanic Teutonic Knightsintent upon imposing Western Christianity in the area. The Russians, under Prince Aleksandr Nevskii (c. 12201263), maintained the relative independence of the area. With the fall of Constantinople, the Russians began to think of Moscow as the "Third Rome," and the metropolitan of Moscow was honored with the rank of patriarch in 1589. The Russians emerged stronger and more united as an Orthodox nation as a result of their response to the Mongol threat.

To the northwest the power in the region in the fifteenth century was Hungary, which contained the Muslim advance northward. Christianity was introduced into Hungary in the ninth and tenth centuries by Western missionaries; King Stephen I (9771038) set down a formal constitution for the church in 1001. In 1279 Esztergom (German, Gran) was named the see of the primate of the Hungarian church, and, until the Reformation, Christianity in the area was Western in form with no real influence from the East.

To the northeast of Hungary were the Poles. The history of the Polish people has been turbulent, and this turbulence has had a great impact on the form of Christianity in that land. Scholars once believed that Christianity began in Poland in the tenth century in conjunction with the German see of Magdeburg, but modern scholarship now holds that in all likelihood Christianity came to Poland from Moravia; that is, from the missionary impetus inaugurated by Cyril and Methodius. Situated between northwestern Russia and powerful Roman Catholic neighbors to the west, Poland was subject to influences from both sources. In the eleventh century the civil leaders were allied with the West, although many elements of Eastern Christianity were present in their church. Thus the Gregorian reforms of the Western Church were imposed by civil authorities in the face of stiff episcopal and lower-clergy opposition. The influence of Orthodox Russia was also felt, and there was a significant Eastern Orthodox population in Poland. Nevertheless, until the Reformation, the church of the Poles was generally under control of the West, while at the same time it was marked by significant Eastern influence. Its borders often shifting, Poland sometimes had larger, sometimes smaller populations of Orthodox Christians in its eastern regions.

In a similar fashion the area north of Poland along the eastern coast of the Baltic Seaknown historically as Lithuania, and subsequently as Lithuania, Latvia, and Estoniawas from the beginning of its history caught between the rivalry of Western and Eastern forces with all its ecclesiastical consequences. Lithuania came into being at the time of the Mongol conquest of Russia, and its first and only king, Trointen (r. 12591282), received Christianity from the Germans. By 1341, Lithuania had become a large empire as a result of the king's expansionist policies. Russian Orthodoxy and Polish Catholicism vied for Lithuania's loyalty, but in 1385 a political union of Lithuania with Poland led to the baptism of the Lithuanians into Roman Catholicism by Polish clergy. This Polish-Lithuanian relationship continued into the sixteenth century. Nevertheless, a significant Orthodox population to the east remained ecclesiastically under the jurisdiction of the metropolitan of Kiev. These Orthodox became the occasion for the inception of a new phenomenon in church historyUniatism, also known as Eastern Rite Catholicism.

Conceived as a means of unifying the religion of the populace, Uniatism subjected the Orthodox population to the primacy of the pope and Western doctrine while allowing the retention of the liturgical forms and customs of Eastern Orthodoxy. The Council of Brest (1596) split into Eastern and Western factions, with the Western faction opting for the Uniate approach and many Orthodox bishops accepting it. The Polish king approved the move and initiated a severe persecution of those Orthodox who refused to join. With Jesuit support, the Polish king, Sigismund III Vasa (15661632), took Moscow in 1607, forcing a short-lived union with Rome on the Russian Orthodox. This effort came to an end in 1613 with Czar Mikhail Romanov's (ruled 16131645) restoration of Russian sovereignty. Uniatism, or Eastern Rite Roman Catholicism, was henceforth a complicating force in the relations of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

Northernmost of the nations of the region under discussion here is modern-day Finland. Christianity came to this area in the late eleventh century and early twelfth century concurrently from both the East and the West. Roman Catholicism was introduced by the Crusaders and Eastern Orthodoxy by Orthodox monks from Novgorod, who established the famous Monastery of Valamo in 1100. The area was subject to the competition of its Roman Catholic Scandinavian neighbors to the west and its Orthodox Russian neighbors to the east.

In the sixteenth century the whole religious map of Europe was changed by the Protestant Reformation. Although the Reformation was primarily a western European phenomenon, it did have significant impact in eastern Europe, in some areas achieving dominance and in others remaining a minority factor. In the north, Finland became largely Lutheran, with only a minority of Orthodox. Lutheranism was introduced into Estonia and Latvia and soon became dominant, even under Russian control, in the eighteenth century. Protestantism in its Lutheran form entered Poland from Germany but was nearly erased by the Counter-Reformation. When Poland was partitioned in 1795, with Austria and Prussia assuming control of its western regions, Lutheranism returned to favor. It has remained a "remnant" church in this predominantly Roman Catholic nation.

Protestantism in the geographical area of the Czech Republic and Slovakia has deep roots going back to the fourteenth-century work of Jan Hus (1372 or 13731415) and the Brethren of the Common Life. In 1609 the Hapsburgs granted the Brethren freedom, but they were soon persecuted anew. Protestantism survived among the Brethren in Reformed and Lutheran forms, albeit among a few, until the establishment of the Czechoslovak state in 1918. Lutheran Protestantism came to Hungary in 1518 but shortly thereafter was supplanted by Reformed Protestantism. Both forms suffered under the Counter-Reformation until their adherents were granted civil rights in 1790 and 1791, and relations with the predominantly Roman Catholic nation were established in 1867.

Protestant churches in small numbers were established in Romania, particularly in Transylvania. Unitarianism began in this area. The Lutheran bodies there have strong German ethnic ties. Although early Reformed Protestantism in Transylvania had Hussite and Lutheran connections, in 1567 it adopted the Second Helvetic Confession of Faith. The small number of both Reformed and Lutheran Protestants in modern-day Yugoslavia were incorporated into the nation from border areas, primarily Hungary. The Reformation did not reach Greece, Bulgaria, or Russia until the nineteenth century, and then with only modest results, primarily in evangelical and Baptist forms.

Modern Nation-States

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw the formation of the modern nation-states. The French Revolution set a pattern for self-government along national lines. In Orthodox Russia, czardom reigned, but the influence of the West, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, was strong. Peter the Great (16721725) removed the canonical head of the Russian church, the patriarch of Moscow, through his Ecclesiastical Regulation of 1721, substituting a state church patterned after German Protestant models. Scholastic theology, along with Italian Renaissance music, art, and architecture, was incorporated into Russian church life. This anomalous situation lasted until the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, when the patriarchate was restored.

During the early nineteenth century, as the Ottoman Empire began to dissolve, the various Balkan peoples obtained their freedom through revolutions. Each Orthodox Balkan nation as it came into being sought an independent status for the Orthodox Church within its boundaries, and the nations that had patriarchates before the Ottoman conquest sought to reinstate them. In 1833 the patriarchate of Constantinople acknowledged the independence of the church of Greece. Following in quick succession, the Bulgarian church received its independence in 1870, the Serbian in 1879, and the Romanian in 1885. In these nations the Orthodox Church was recognized as the state church.

Of importance for religious life in Hungary was the creation in 1867 of an Austro-Hungarian "dual monarchy" that allowed a measure of religious freedom for Protestantsa pattern of church-state relations that lasted until World War II. The partition of Poland by Russia, Austria, and Prussia during the second half of the eighteenth century meant the Orthodox in that country came under the jurisdiction of the Russian church, and the Uniates were compelled to return to Orthodoxy. Although the western part of Poland remained subject to Austria and Prussia, Polish Roman Catholics were severely restricted, and Rome was no longer able to exercise control over them. Similarly, Finland was to a large extent occupied by Russia (beginning in 1809), and a strong Russian influence on church life resulted. By the end of the century, however, the Orthodox Finns had asserted their national identity with the institution of services in Finnish.

Eastern Europe and northern Eurasia assumed a definitive national shape in the period just prior to and following World War I. Most notable for church history were the emergence of Finland, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Albania as new nations, primarily as a result of the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Finland was over 90 percent Lutheran with a small Orthodox population that was also recognized as a state church. In 1923 the Finnish Orthodox achieved autonomy under the patriarchate of Constantinople. Similarly, in Poland the Roman Catholic Church became totally dominant, but there remained small Lutheran, old Catholic, Polish Catholic (which came into existence in 1897), and Orthodox Churches. The Polish Orthodox Church was recognized by the patriarchate of Constantinople as autonomous, that is, self-governing under supervision of the mother church, in 1924. In 1980, 92 percent of the population of Czechoslovakia was Roman Catholic. Small Hussite and Brethren Churches also existed, along with a small autonomous Orthodox Church recognized by the ecumenical patriarchate in 1922. Albania became an independent nation in 1912 but was always subject to threats of dismemberment by its neighbors. Its population prior to World War II was predominantly Muslimthe only such nation in eastern Europewith a Roman Catholic minority in the north and an Orthodox minority in the south. The paradigm of the religious situation in eastern Europe at the time was that of Yugoslavia during and up to the end of the communist era. An amalgam of a number of peoples, Yugoslavia included Roman Catholics in its western provinces of Slovenia and Croatia and Orthodox in its eastern provinces of Serbia and Montenegro, thus reflecting the divided status of the church in eastern Europe and northern Eurasia as a whole.

After World War II

Although the redrawing of national boundaries as a result of World War II, primarily at the expense of the Soviet Union's western neighbors, had an impact on church order, the geographical demography of Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and Protestants did not change radically. Affecting all churches, however, were the forces of secularism, communism, and ecumenism. For more than two millennia the primary struggles of the various churches were among themselves. In the twentieth century the churches came to share common enemies that discounted the significance of religious faith. Secularism has taken many forms, but the most militant was Marxism. In the Soviet Union and the nations under its influence, Marxism was ideologically antireligious. However, the Communist bloc nations approached the Christian church with varying degrees of opposition. Albania during this period declared itself the first "atheist state," claiming that all vestiges of religion had been eliminated. The Soviet Union constitutionally granted freedom of worship but prohibited all other church activity. The rest of the nations in the bloc followed this policy but made less-restrictive accommodations with the church. For some nations, such as Poland, this took place out of political reality, and for other nations, such as Romania and Serbia, accommodations were worked out as a result of undeniable ethnic and cultural necessity. In these countries the dominant number of believers and the identification of the national culture with religious tradition made necessary a more lenient religious policy by the Marxist governments.

The dissolution of the Soviet empire had powerful influence in changing the political and religious face of Eastern Europe. In Russia the fall of Soviet Marxism was intimately supported by the Russian Orthodox Church, which sought, and in a significant measure obtained, its pre-Soviet role in public life. Though not proclaimed the official religion of the state, it is recognized as the dominant religious force in the nation, whereas a few other religions, among them Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Islam, are also recognized. Perhaps the most striking change has taken place with the disintegration of Yugoslavia. The process began in 1989 with the efforts of Slobodan Milosević to remove the autonomy of the province of Kosovo, in the face of its Albanian Muslim majority, to prevent its secession. This eventually led to military action and efforts to expel its Muslim population. In 1991 the constituent provinces of the nation, Croatia, Slovenia, and Macedonia, declared independence, provoking a widening war among the ethnic groups. The former two developed Roman Catholic identities and the last an independent national Orthodox identity. When Bosnia-Herzogovina voted for independence the same year, an all-out war for control of the former province pitted Roman Catholic Croatians, Serbian Orthodox, and Muslims against each other under their ethnic identities. The conflict ended a year later with North Atlantic Treaty Organization action, forcing an uneasy peace.

In Poland the dominant Roman Catholic Church and the smaller Lutheran and Polish Orthodox Churches sought an ecumenical solution to their national political life in the postcommunist period. In tiny Estonia, rival church groupings of Estonian Orthodox and Russian Orthodox sought to work out relations. This resolution, however, provoked stressful relations between the ecumenical patriarchate of Constantinople (Istanbul) and the Moscow patriarchate.

Of great influence was the establishment of the European Union, to which several of the nations of eastern Europe have been admitted. The essentially "borderless" character of the European Union has challenged old presuppositions of nationhood and, especially for Christianity, the assumption of close church and national identities.

The story of Orthodox, papal, and Franco-German Roman Catholic and Protestant competition in the great expanse of eastern Europe and northern Eurasia may have largely come to an end. The twentieth-century ecumenical movement brought together in previously unimagined ways the disparate Christian churches. In the postWorld War II era, Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and Protestants of all kinds struggled to replace confrontation and conflict with dialogue, understanding, and cooperation. It may be that the return to a pre-Constantinian status vis-à-vis the state may contain within it the seeds of a new unity for Christendom. What can be affirmed is that in the twenty-first century the various churches, after twenty centuries of conflict, relate to each other with difficulty but of necessity in an unaccustomed spirit of increased cooperation.

See Also

Cyril and Methodius; Eastern Christianity; Ecumenical Movement; Greek Orthodox Church; Marxism; Russian Orthodox Church; Schism, article on Christian Schism; Uniate Churches.


Byrnes, Timothy A. Transnational Catholicism in Postcommunist Europe. Lanham, Md., 2001. Studies Croatia, Poland, and Slovakia, showing deep involvement of the Roman Catholic Church in ethnic conflicts.

Chadwick, Owen. The Christian Church in the Cold War. Penguin History of the Church, vol. 7. New York, 1993. Covers the period from World War II to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Dvornik, Francis. The Slavs: Their Early History and Civilization. Boston, 1956. A thorough introduction.

Dvornik, Francis. Byzantine Missions among the Slavs: SS. Constantine-Cyril and Methodius. New Brunswick, N.J., 1970. The major historical source in English on the topic.

Geanakoplos, Deno John. Byzantine East and Latin West: Two Worlds of Christendom in Middle Ages and Renaissance. New York, 1966. Important insights on the cultural sources of ecclesiastical conflicts. Excellent study.

Greinacher, Norbert, and Virgil Elizondo, eds. Churches in Socialist Societies of Eastern Europe. Concilium, no. 154. New York, 1982. Centers on Roman Catholic concerns. A collection of articles of varying quality.

Hösch, Edgar. The Balkans: A Short History from Greek Times to the Present Day. Translated by Tania Alexander. London, 1972. Readable, and a good introduction.

Hussey, Joan M., ed. The Byzantine Empire. Vol. 4 of The Cambridge Medieval History, 2d ed. Cambridge, U.K., 1966. A standard reference volume. See parts 1 and 2, "Byzantium and Its Neighbours" and "Government, Church, and Civilisation."

Jelavich, Charles, and Barbara Jelavich. The Balkans. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1965. A clearly narrated introduction with a number of helpful maps.

Lanckorońska, Karolina. Studies on the Roman-Slavonic Rite in Poland. Orientalia Christiana Analecta, no. 161. Rome, 1961. Provides evidence of early Eastern influence in Poland.

Latourette, Kenneth Scott. The Thousand Years of Uncertainty, a.d. 500a.d. 1500. Vol. 2 of A History of the Expansion of Christianity. New York, 19371945. Chapters 3 and 4 cover the early history of the spread of Christianity in eastern Europe from both the West and the East.

Mylonas, George E. The Balkan States: An Introduction to Their History. St. Louis, Mo., 1946. A good overview. Argues the Greek position on Macedonia.

Nowak, Frank. Medieval Slavdom and the Rise of Russia (1930). Westport, Conn., 1970. A readable short history of Russia to Catherine the Great.

Obolensky, Dimitri. The Byzantine Commonwealth: Eastern Europe, 5001453. London, 1971. A history of Byzantium with a focus on the cultural, political, and ecclesiastical cohesion with the peoples of eastern Europe.

Purmonen, Veikko, ed. Orthodoxy in Finland: Past and Present. Kuopio, Finland, 1981. A collection of essays written by Orthodox Finns regarding their church.

Russell, James C. The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity: A Sociohistorical Approach to Religious Transformation. Oxford, 1994. Argues that through history there has been a basic rewriting of the Christian message to conform with German culture.

Sutton, Jonathan, and William Peter Van Den Bercken, eds. Orthodox Christianity and Contemporary Europe. Dudley, Mass., 2003. Selected papers of an international conference held at the University of Leeds, England, in June 2001.

Tachiaos, Anthony-Emil N., ed. The Legacy of Saints Cyril and Methodius to Kiev and Moscow. Proceedings of the International Congress on the Millennium of the Conversion of Rusʾ to Christianity, November 1988. Thessalonike, Greece, 1992.

Ware, Timothy. The Orthodox Church. Rev. ed. London and New York, 1993. A clear, detailed introduction to the Orthodox Church.

Yannaras, Christos. The Church in Post-Communist Europe. Berkeley, Calif., 2003. A critique of consumerism, which the author claims has supplanted communion as a lynchpin of modern Orthodox Church life.

Stanley Samuel Harakas (1987 and 2005)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Christianity: Christianity in Eastern Europe." Encyclopedia of Religion. . 19 Feb. 2019 <>.

"Christianity: Christianity in Eastern Europe." Encyclopedia of Religion. . (February 19, 2019).

"Christianity: Christianity in Eastern Europe." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved February 19, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.