Harward on Clark, 'Sectarianism and Renewal in 1920s Romania: The Limits of Orthodoxy and Nation-Building'

Roland Clark
Grant Harward

Roland Clark. Sectarianism and Renewal in 1920s Romania: The Limits of Orthodoxy and Nation-Building. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021. 232 pp. $115.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-350-10095-4.

Reviewed by Grant Harward (US Army Medical Department Center of History and Heritage) Published on H-Nationalism (October, 2021) Commissioned by Douglas I. Bell (Rotterdam International Secondary School)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56683

Interwar Romania continues to fascinate and capture the imagination of Romanians today who view the era as a lost "golden age." Perhaps it is because of this nostalgia that many historians feel the compulsion to investigate the complex and contradictory reality of life in “Greater Romania.” The rise of fascism in Romania during the 1930s means that political history continues to dominate the historiography of the interwar period, but Roland Clark’s new work, Sectarianism and Renewal in 1920s Romania, is a welcome foray into the religious history of this important era. Clark has produced an original work that takes a fresh approach, one that combines several histories that are usually told separately and challenges assumptions about the religiosity of interwar Romania.

Clark argues that Romania during the 1920s was a “dynamic and polyphonic sphere” consisting “of diverse religious communities responding to rapid social change in different ways” (p. 9). A new constitution granted increased rights to peasants and empowered the laity, higher literacy rates in the countryside allowed people to engage with scripture in new ways, a growing civil society encouraged more debate, annexation of new territories brought along populations with different faiths, and other factors encouraged new religious practices. Within this dynamic context, Clark concentrates on the “thought-worlds” of both church leaders and lay members, unlike previous histories of religion in interwar Romania that focus on legal or institutional changes of churches. He uses sermons, pamphlets, newspapers, and magazines as sources. This approach is effective at engaging the reader. Clark also analyzes the history of the Romanian Orthodox Church’s history and of the “Repenter” churches as two parts of the same story. “Repenters” (pocăiţi) was a derogatory nickname for members of neo-Protestant churches (Baptists, Brethren, Nazarenes, Pentecostals, Adventists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses). By putting these two histories into dialogue, a fuller understanding of the religious upheaval in interwar Romania emerges. Finally, Clark suggests that older views about the Romanian Orthodox Church’s sway over Romanians must be reexamined because both foreign missionaries and local priests believed that the educated elite were irreligious and complained that the uneducated peasantry often knew little of theology. Therefore, while the Romanian Orthodox Church had become a tool of the state’s nation-building project, it was accused of failing at its “job” of strengthening the spirt of the Romanian people (p. 3). This was a central reason for the renewal movement within the Romanian Orthodox Church during the 1920s, but the efforts to reform the church from the inside could only go so far before the reformers were accused of going too far and becoming like the despised Repenters.

Sectarianism and Renewal in 1920s Romania consists of thematic chapters organized into three parts. Part 1, “A Modern, National Church,” delves into the historical context of the Romanian Orthodox Church after the First World War. In his analysis of this era, Clark shows that there was a sense of spiritual crisis within the Romanian Orthodox Church resulting from the research of ethnographers whose studies exposed Romanian peasants’ ignorance of Eastern Orthodox theology and the efforts of Repenter preachers having relative success in proselyting. Although the Romanian Orthodox Church claimed that Western religious practices infiltrated the Romanian countryside through the Repenter churches, Clark repeatedly demonstrates that Romanian Orthodox leaders “were the ones whose theology had been profoundly shaped by Western learning,” especially by theological training abroad and the reading of Western religious texts (especially Anglican writings) (p. 33). Moreover, the Romanian Orthodox Church had come to adopt the Western standards of “good” religion, including such indicators as regular church attendance, knowledge of doctrine, and renunciation of sinful behavior. Clark shows how the Romanian Orthodox Church, during its revival movement in the 1920s, became more open to Western Christianity and placed more emphasis on preaching, reading of scriptures, and even social engagement. In this section, Clark also addresses regional factions within the Romanian Orthodox Church as it sought to integrate and dominate the Eastern Orthodox churches of Transylvania (fiercely independent), Bukovina, and Bessarabia (the latter two including many ethnic Russian and ethnic Ukrainian members)—which all favored greater lay governance of the church. Despite these internal disagreements, Eastern Orthodox clergy united against the external threats of schematic sects, Catholicism, and Repenters.

Part 2, “Orthodoxy’s Others,” examines these challenges to the Romanian Orthodox Church. Clark shows how the church’s subordination to the state triggered several schematic sects to develop in Bessarabia, a region with perhaps the strongest monastic tradition in Romania. Inochentism, a millennialist group, initially departed from the Russian Orthodox Church when it emerged before the First World War. It continued separate from the Romanian Orthodox mainstream during the interwar period. Old Calendarism (Stilism) appeared when the Romanian Orthodox Church abandoned the Julian calendar of Eastern Europe for the Gregorian calendar of Western Europe in 1924 (to match the decision taken by the state in 1919). Although very different movements, they both believed the Romanian Orthodox Church had fallen into error, placing the state above God. The largest minority religion in Romania after 1918 was Catholicism. Although mostly concentrated in Transylvania, it “was most bitterly contested” by Romanian Orthodoxy (p. 87). Even worse were the many ethnic Romanians who practiced Greek Catholicism. Previously, religion had closely matched ethnicity, but now Catholicism had a claim to also be a national church like Romanian Orthodoxy. Lastly, Clark investigates the foreign origins of Repenter churches and how they spread to Romania. Although a tiny fraction of the total population of Romania, Repenters attracted much concern from religious leaders and were considered traitors by secular authorities. In response, the Romanian Orthodox Church initiated missionary efforts to counter the influence of these other churches, efforts that enjoyed the state’s support—which persecuted schematics and Repenters through legal and police repression. However, the Concordat signed between the Vatican and Romania in 1927 granted Catholics and Greek Catholics key rights and protections, much to the disappointment of the Romanian Orthodox Church.

Finally, part 3, “Renewal Movements, examines those groups trying to revive the Romanian Orthodox Church from within, ones that in many ways mimicked the religious practices of Repenters. The Lord’s Army was the most successful of these organizations and attempted to revive rural spirituality in the Romanian Orthodox Church by placing special emphasis on temperance, a practice only followed consistently by Repenters. Nevertheless, it was eventually declared a sect and broke into two parts: a state-approved group under the Romanian Orthodox Church’s control and a grassroots movement of loyalists to the original cause. Another important reform group, the Stork’s Nest, was the most controversial renewal movement in the Romanian Orthodox Church because of how Repenter-like it became, triggering much public debate between traditionalists and revivalists over doctrine and liturgy, and its followers were pushed out.

Sectarianism and Renewal in 1920s Romania is an ambitious book that covers a lot of material in a relatively limited number of pages, but it never feels bogged down in doctrinal minutiae. Clark introduces the reader to a whole host of fascinating religious leaders who probably each deserve their own biography. There is the unlikable Bishop (later Patriarch) Miron Cristea who backed state control of the Romanian Orthodox Church, the charismatic priest Ion Levizor who founded Inochentism, the zealous Bishop Grigorie Comşa who was the most ardent missionary for the Romanian Orthodox Church, the former village priest Iosif Trifa who wrote the newspaper that created the Lord’s Army, the sympathetic cantor Dumitru Cornilescu who embraced Repenter-like beliefs during his efforts to re-translate the Bible into more colloquial Romanian for the masses, and others. While Clark examines the paths not taken by the Romanian Orthodox Church, he also shows the direction it took in subsequent decades. He frequently fast-forwards to show how certain religious groups and leaders became attracted to fascism in the 1930s in part due to the religious upheaval of the 1920s that led them to become disillusioned with liberal democracy. The casual antisemitism of traditionalists and revivalists alike, who accused one another of being in league with Jews, stands out as well. Of course, religion was a central part of Romanian national identity, so religious leaders’ debates had wider implications on the fate of minorities in subsequent decades. The state persecuted Jews and Repenters during the Second World War under the authoritarian Ion Antonescu regime and forced Greek Catholics into the Romanian Orthodox Church under the communist regime. Repression rather than renewel became the means to confront sectarianism in Romania after the suspension of liberal democracy.

Clark’s Sectarianism and Renewal in 1920s Romania provides nuance and complexity to the history of interwar Romania generally and the Romanian Orthodox Church specifically. He demonstrates how substantially the Romanian Orthodox Church was changed by its encounter with modernity. Consequently, this is not a niche book, because Clark’s arguments have wider implications for the study of Eastern Orthodoxy more widely. Anyone with an interest in the history of religion in modern Eastern Europe will find this an important work to study.

Citation: Grant Harward. Review of Clark, Roland, Sectarianism and Renewal in 1920s Romania: The Limits of Orthodoxy and Nation-Building. H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews. October, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56683

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.