John Calvin’s 500th anniversary in Belarus
It happens only once in very few lifetimes — the 500th anniversary of John Calvin! For the Reformed churches in Belarus also, 2009 was the birthday of the great Reformer.
On 10 July we gathered in the small church building of a Reformed church in Minsk, sang hymns to Genevan tunes, read from Calvin’s Institutes, and listened to preaching around core Calvinist doctrines.
A number of important guests were present, including a 2006 candidate for the Belarus presidency.
The celebration of Calvin’s anniversary in, say, France or Switzerland is natural. But what has Belarus — a former eastern republic of the Soviet Union — to do with Calvin and Reformation? Did not the Reformation stop on the border of Poland, never getting beyond that Catholic stronghold?
The answer to the question was given that July evening in an address on the history of Reformation in — yes, Belarus! The influence of the Reformation, and Calvin in particular, extended as far as Belarus.
At the time, Belarus was called the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In the sixteenth century Belarus included Lithuania, parts of eastern Russia, and a significant part of Ukraine. Nicholas Radziwill, one of the most influential princes in the country, was known as ‘the uncrowned king’ of the Grand Duchy.
In early 1550s he was converted to Christ and gave the rest of his life to the cause of Reformation in his land. Although he never met Calvin in person, the two corresponded. In extant letters of Calvin to Radziwill, the former praises the latter for his faith and encourages him to continue the reform despite fierce opposition.
After Nicholas Radziwill’s death in 1565 his brother Nicholas the Red continued to support the Reformation in Belarus. The second part of the sixteenth century is regarded as a golden age in Belarus’ history.
The nation prospered economically, culturally and spiritually. The Bible was translated into the vernacular, hundreds of churches were built, and Calvinistic schools were opened.
Nicholas Radziwill personally invested an enormous amount of money — one year’s income from all his lands — into publishing the famous Radziwill Bible.
A significant portion of the Belarussian nobility was Protestant. Only two Catholics were in parliament; the rest were Calvinists and Lutherans. Belarus was one of the first countries in Europe to adopt laws that granted freedom of religious conscience. No wonder we celebrated Calvin’s anniversary with such enthusiasm!
But what is also amazing is that we have only started remembering Calvin recently. This is the sad part of the story of reformation in our country. The Grand Duchy was attacked by the increasingly powerful kingdom of Moscow and forced to seek Poland’s protection. And, although Belarus was independent of Poland, the influence of Polish kings was still significant in Belarus.
After the death of Nicholas Radziwill and his brother Nicholas the Red, successive Polish monarchs used Jesuits to undo the Reformation in Belarus. Gradually, Rome recouped its losses and by the end of the seventeenth century the Reformation had been suppressed there.
Only now are we beginning to realise what a blessing the Reformation had once been for our nation. Only now are we beginning to look for our spiritual roots.
The Belarussian state has recently recognised that the Reformed church is part of the nation’s cultural heritage. Several years ago, the first Evangelical Reformed Church was registered — the same name the church had in the sixteenth century.
We are grateful to the Lord for that period of great spiritual prosperity in the past. We lament the centuries of darkness that followed, but are now deeply hopeful that the breath of reformation will grow strong again in Belarus, at the beginning of the third millennium.