In 1810, the American board of commissioners for foreign missions was created, representing the interests of American members of the Congregationalist and Presbyterian denominations of the era.
Nine years later, in 1819, the board sent two of its missionaries to the Near East, where they found within the limits of the Ottoman Empire a multitudinous nation - the Bulgarians.
First contacts with Protestantism
New Jersey-born missionary and scholar Dr Elias Riggs began to show a great interest in the Bulgarians in the early 1840s, following his years in Greece and time in Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey). His Grammatical Notes on the Bulgarian Language were published in Smyrna, in 1844. Later, he became one of the influential figures in the translation of the Bible into contemporary Bulgarian. It was in relation to the Bible's translation that Bulgarians had their first contact with Protestantism.
Through their co-operation with British and other foreign Bible societies, American missionaries learnt that Bulgarians had a great hunger for the Word of God. At a fair in Smyrna, in two weeks, nearly 2000 copies of the recently published New Testament in the Bulgarian language were sold.
The American board of commissioners for foreign missions described Bulgarians as the "most needy" of missionary work, and was encouraged by the good impression it had of the people, who seemed very sharp-witted and cheerful, more interested in learning and more cultured than other subjects of the Ottoman Empire. Together with the Methodist Church, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions divided Bulgaria into a northern and a southern region, with Stara Planina being the demarcation point. The Methodists took responsibility for the north, and the American board for the south.
The first missionaries
On suggestion of Cyrus Hamlin - who, in 1863, along with Christopher Rhinelander Robert, went on to Robert College of Istanbul - in 1857 the first missionaries arrived in Bulgaria: Wesley Prettyman, Albert Long, Hamlin himself and Charles Morse. Long and Prettyman settled first in Shoumen, in the north-east of the country, and later moved to Turnovo, where they set up the first Bulgarian-language church services.
Hamlin and Morse established three missionary centres in southern Bulgaria - in Odrin, Plovdiv and Stara Zagora.
In 1859, Frederic Flocken, Russian born but later immigrated to the United States, joined the American missionaries in Bulgaria.
While setting up home, the missionaries learnt the language and created friendly mutual relations with local people, travelling to surrounding villages together with the Bulgarians who were helping them to adjust. They talked with people primarily in cafes, on the streets and at gatherings. They also handed out brochures and books, taught English to the youth as well as hymns.
It was such that they gradually began their evangelisation.
From 1840 to 1878, the first evangelical churches were founded - in Bansko, Turnovo, Svishtov and in Ludovic - with Sofia having one founded in 1899. In southern Bulgaria, from 1870 to 1909, there were already 19 such churches, with a total congregation of 1456. (At the time, the country's population was about 4551 000.)
In the late 1800s, there were about 10 missionaries, with 25 Bulgarian assistants.
Churches all around the country had, in addition to their normal Sunday services, Sunday schools for children and courses in biblical instruction for adults; women's groups and youth groups were also formed. Summer Bible schools were held annually from 1896 to 1948.
Plovdiv saw the opening of Bulgaria's first Protestant primary school in 1860, followed three years later by the first primary school for girls, in Stara Zagora.
In 1871, an evangelical-orientated school opened in Samokov. This, in 1926, grew into the American College of Sofia. Fifty years after the Samokov school first opened, an evangelical seminary was founded in the same town (in 1931).
In 1874, a Bible school was organised in Rousse for people wanting to become pastors.
At the 1876 annual conference of missionaries, the beginning of organisational activity in the country was established.
The evangelical churches of Bulgaria formed a united association in 1909.
Setting the situation
The intention of the missionaries was to support the Protestant church in educating Bulgarians in the truths of what the Bible said, while helping them to make themselves party to European culture, and to spread the Bible in the Bulgarian language.
To understand why this goal was not attained, the reasons should be explained. It was the most dynamic and vitally important time in Bulgaria's modern history. For five centuries (since 1396), the Bulgarians had been living in the confines of the Ottoman Empire, which comprised Persia, the Caucasus and the Balkans. In the 18th and 19th centuries - up until 1878, to be specific - they were going through a time of maturation and preparation, which resulted in the realisation of their goal of freedom, following the national liberation revolution.
They were realising changes in all spheres of life - social, economic, political, cultural and religious. The Bulgarian church was then under Greek control, as it had been since the late 14th century. The fight for an independent Bulgarian church became one of the key points of the Bulgarian Renaissance. The other key point was the liberation from Ottoman rule.
It was in such an atmosphere that the missionaries were able to help the country in its advances. In 1870, the Bulgarian church received official recognition as an independent entity. The missionaries thought that that would lead to an acceptance of purer Christianity, thus leading to the acceptance of Protestant beliefs or to a revitalisation of the Bulgarian church.
But, they had not taken into account some important points: the Bulgarians' connection to the "original" faith was strongly woven into daily life and habits. During the five centuries of Turkish rule, being called a Christian was equivalent to being called a Bulgarian. Any change in the former appellation was viewed as moving to the side of the Turks. That is why "Protestant" was seen as the same as a "national traitor".
Yakim Grouev warned that it would not be possible to build up a Bulgarian church on the foundation of the Gospel alone, without preserving national rites and traditions. The Protestant missionaries were accused both secretly and in the open of undermining the Orthodox faith that the church had fervently preserved. This attitude of the Bulgarian, Greek and Russian Orthodox churches and the lack of political support for the missionaries by Protestant countries contributed to this. Despite the participation of some Protestant Bulgarians in the fight for national freedom, the attitude of the missionaries towards the struggle was rather neutral. Apart from that, with their efforts to inform the general populace abroad of the scandals of what the Ottoman powers did to subdue the April Uprising (1876), and their participation in assisting the victims, the missionaries greatly helped the Bulgarian nation. Eventually, everything led to the decision of the Istanbul Peace Conference that led to the start of the Russo-Turkish War (1877-78), which resulted in Bulgaria being freed from Ottoman rule.
For these reasons, the missionaries focused their activities more on the cultural and educational spheres, because, though they were missionaries, they were also highly cultured teachers and intellectuals. And at that time, Bulgarians were searching for exactly that. From the missionaries, they were able to receive academic, literary, and a higher cultural and moral education. They sought out and read the missionaries' books and newspapers, which included both non-Protestant and Protestant material.
This helped to define a Bulgarian identity, increase the sense of patriotism and create an atmosphere in which the mentality of the Bulgarian Renaissance could develop and be spread. Along with undertaking reforms in the Bulgarian language and grammar, foundations for a Bulgarian literature, and the creation of a Bulgarian educational system were also established.
Besides religious brochures and pamphlets, the missionaries also published a newspaper, called Zornitsa (Зорница, meaning "Dawn"), which turned into the most powerful and most widespread newspaper of the Bulgarian Renaissance.
In 1844, the first Bulgarian magazine was published, and in 1856, the first Bulgarian library was opened.
The first Bible in modern Bulgarian was printed in 1871, a work of Long, Riggs, Konstantin Fotinov, Hristodul Sechan-Nikolov and Petko Slaveikov.
At about the same time, primary schools in Samokov and Lovech were redefining themselves as high schools. Though it must be said that it was Robert College that played a significant role in the spiritual and educational life of Bulgarians: more than 160 Bulgarian revolutionaries had graduated from the school.
Many of these later became ministers, judges, administrators, doctors, engineers, and founders of cultural institutions and such, taking on important responsibilities in the running of the new Bulgarian state.
Following the revolution
This period can be characterised by economic progress. The arising artisans and entrepreneurs accepted, with interest, the missionaries' advice on the benefits of working with structure and rationality when giving money and time to something. They found Bible passages about living a modest, sober-minded and frugal life very interesting. Every virtuous person who "secured" not only "heavenly blessings" but also earthly ones found wide acceptance among the growing Bulgarian bourgeois. So, it is not surprising that the first Bulgarian Protestant families became well-to-do...
Of the returning youth who had been sent by the missionaries to study in the US, a number of them bought property around Plovdiv and Sofia and established farms and factories, started up commercial undertakings or became representatives of American and British firms operating in Bulgaria, among other roles. Some of them decided to enter into the fields of education and research.
All this happened after the liberation, a beginning that can be credited to the support of the missionaries.
And thus the Protestant influence became part of the overall rebirth of the Bulgarian nation, exchanging the narrow-minded feudal lifestyle for a more bourgeois, learned culture. The missionaries themselves considered their work as small-scale, yet gratifying.
"Little by little, the idea of freedom, independence and equality was spread," one missionary said, and another, in 1888: "It seems to me that the mission's work in Bulgaria has already greatly benefited the whole nation..."
The missionaries saw a ray of hope in the people's change in character, one that could be seen namely in the ethical conduct of Protestant Bulgarians. They had become more moral, and more restrained, particularly when it came to drinking wine. Protestant Bulgarian women knew how to read, and their houses were cleaner and more orderly.
After 1908, the ensuing wars cut short the missionaries' work, but the foundations laid continued to stand firm, with solid support. Until 1944, attitudes towards Protestantism in Bulgaria continued to be intolerant.
The totalitarian regime proved a time full of challenges for Protestantism in the country. After 1944, it became difficult for evangelicals to live in Bulgaria. In 1948, evangelical pastors were arrested and judged as "spies": the goal of the communist government was to use persecution, internment, prison and a prohibition to teach children religion as a means to abolish evangelicalism in Bulgaria. In 1949, the Protestant churches in the country were declared unlawful. All contact with anything Protestant was viewed as an attempt at political intervention by hostile persons.
As 1989 approached, there were about 125 evangelical churches, with about 20 000 believers. An additional 5000 or so people were members of unregistered churches.
The past 20 years
In its transition to a democratic society and market economy, the spiritual state of Bulgaria has been accompanied by, in addition to pluralism and post-totalitarian opposition, Western tendencies. Post-modernism has entered the culture, bringing with it the practice of post-communist ideologies, which have created socio-economic strains that have a direct reverberation on evangelical churches in the country.
At present, in 2008, there are about 170 000 people who identify themselves as Protestant in Bulgaria, attending about 1500 registered churches.
The seeds that those missionaries planted 150 years ago continue to grow.