Bird Droppings from Estonia: John Bunyan in Estonia
Arvamus 12 Jul 2013 Hilary BirdEWR
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During 1946-1948, 4-6,000 Estonians (including my mother, Alice Meikar) were decanted to the UK from Displaced Person Camps. The first Lutheran congregation was organised in London in May, 1946, by the Estonian Ambassador, August Torma, and the Church of England: the first service was held on Mother's Day in the Swedish Church Hall. This Church is now based in St Agnes and St Anne (first mentioned 1137).

The building was badly bombed during the London Blitz of 1940 but after worldwide donations enabled repairs, it reopened for use by Lutherans (including Estonians) in 1966. Famous users of the church include the poet John Milton (1608-1674, “No man who knows aught, can be so stupid to deny that all men naturally were born free.”), John Wesley (1703 –1791, “Why should the devil have all the best tunes”) founder of Methodism (an Anglo Saxon version of Pietism) and writer of catchy hymn tunes and John Bunyan, (1628-88, “Words easy to be understood do often hit the mark; when high and learned ones do only pierce the air.”) author of The Pilgrim’s Progress.

And here we come to one of those surprises that messy Mistress Life can serve up because The Pilgrim’s Progress was translated (from the German) in Urvaste, Võrumaa and circulated in hand written manuscripts during the late 18th century. The translation is thought (by R. Põldmae) to have been done by the Estonian köster Mango Hans (ca.1713-1780), who also wrote an Estonian ABD (in 1776), examined (as did Pietists in Britain and America) his “journey to God” in a biography and collected and translated sermons.

Hans been taught to read and write in Estonian and German by the Moravian Brethren many of whom came from the headquarters of the movement at Herrnhut, now in modern Saxony in Germany. Moravian values were Christian unity, personal piety, music (choirs and brass bands were important), temperance (as sober artisans, they were welcomed in the Russia empire after the devastation of the Great Northern War) and missionary work. Mati Laur writes that the Moravians “offered the peasantry an opportunity for self-realisation. It is significant that both Estonians and Latvians accepted the Moravian term "awakening" as a synonym for their national movements.…

It is well worth remembering that Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald, Carl Robert Jakobson, Jakob Hurt, Villem Reiman and Jaan Tõnisson all came from … the Moravian Church." I would add that Brotherhood missionary work also included Estonians in a remarkable international network that included (at that time) missions to the native tribes of North America, (the Moravian Mohicans were the first native Christian congregation in the USA), Africans in the Caribbean, the Inuit of Greenland and the aborigines of Australia. I wonder what they made of the news from abroad down in Urvaste – are you there Contra?

Bunyan wrote, "My father was of that rank that is … the most despised of all the families of the land." The Bunyans were tinkers who travelled around villages repairing pots and pans but to some in the manor houses and the parsonages, a tinker was little better than the despised gypsies. John Bunyan became a Pietist Christian (an English “puritan”) after he married a girl whose only dowry was two books - The Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven and The Practice of Piety but he always referred to himself simply as “a Christian.” After conversion John combined his travels with preaching. He was popular but was also called “a witch, A Jesuit, a highwayman” (an interesting range of insults) and was arrested in 1660 for holding religious services outside the Church of England. He was in and out of prison for the remaining 28 years of his life. In prison he wove shoelaces to support his family, preached to his fellow prisoners and wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress.

How Bunyan must have appealed to our ill-used ancestors! Men like Hernhutter Tallima Paap (1710- 1768) from Haanja who preached that all men were brothers and all property was communal and who also ended up in prison after his preaching aroused peasant unrest that frightening the squires. The tsarinas banned the movement from 1743- 64 but it carried on underground issuing samizdat in Estonian. Not the first and not the last time. But what a breath of fresh air it must have been for the peasants to hear a strong, egalitarian voice from a tinker as opposed to some snotty lecture from the well-fed parson in his pulpit or the arrogant squire in his manor-house drawing room. And what a story Bunyan offers! The Pilgrim’s Progress was one of the first books I ever read. It didn’t make me into much of a Christian but neither did the Bible (that is a also a great story book and work of literature) but, oh, how I loved the drama and the stories … And Bunyan definitely had the last word: The Pilgrim’s Progress has never been out of print since it was first published in 1678 and has been translated into over 200 languages.

A large number of Estonians could read in the 18th century. According to research by Professor Tim Blanning, University of Cambridge, 60% of males in England could read in 1750, 47% of males could read in rural France by the 1780s and, in ‘German speaking Europe,’ around 25% could read by 1800. The Russians didn’t really begin to read until a century later in the 1860s but that’s another story! But in Livland and Estland records kept after the peasantry became liable for military service in 1796 show around 66% of Estonian speakers could read. But what was there to read? Catechisms and prayers and hymns, probably written in poor Estonian by a (very) few well meaning German speaking pastors. But in Urvaste a shepherd, a ploughboy or a maidservant could read about good Pilgrim and Great Heart, about bad Mrs Light Mind (a resident of the City of Destruction who gossips about a bawdy party at Mrs Wanton’s house), Mr. Brisk (who dumps his fiancé when he finds she makes clothing only to give away to the poor) and, most importantly in those pre-Kalevipoeg days, about the giants – Giant Grim (also known as Bloody Man), Giant Maul, Giant Slay-Good and Pope (the English were very anti-Catholic in the 18th century) and Pagan, easily translated as vana pagan …

First appeared in Estonian, in an April issue of Maaleht (The Country Newspaper)
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Jan 31 2018 - Toronto Eesti Maja
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