It is the 28th of February 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I’m Dan van Voorhis.

The year was 1870.

Today we travel to a place that we have not visited in the 660+ shows we have produced since 2019. It is the great country on the banks of the Danube and the Black Sea. The land is known for its caves, bats, and waterfalls (and other things, but check those things out!) Today we visit Bulgaria for a moment in the church’s history.

If you grew up during the Cold War, you might be forgiven for being a little confused when it comes to those countries that end in -ria, or -aria. If the Balkan region confuses you, that’s ok too! There is a reason we call a breakup of a big thing into little things as being “balkanized.” Staying in the general region, you can also remember that if something is overly confusing, we can call it “Byzantine.”

Keep the Balkans and the Byzantines in your mind. We’ll be back to them shortly.

Bulgaria is the country just north of Greece and south of Romania. Macedonia and Serbia border its West and the Black Sea and Turkey to the East and South East. This put Bulgaria near Constantinople for a time but also on the front lines against Ottoman incursion.

Bulgarians have remained an ethnically distinct people with a Balkan influence, a Greek influence, a long time under the Ottoman rule and thus an Ottoman influence, And since the 19th century, a relationship with Russia (as a kind of big brother, both use a version of the Cyrillic alphabet).

We will skip the Thracian and Roman periods and jump to 864 when the tsar Boris I brought the Christian faith to the Bulgarian people. Students of the Missionaries Cyril and Methodius further brought and taught Slavic Christianity into Bulgaria, creating a distinct church. The Bulgarian church was established as a Patriarchate and then a Greek-style Archbishopric, and then a Patriarchate again. It’s all confusing. And don’t get too caught up with the words “patriarchate” or “archbishopric” with this story. The main issue is: who tells you what to do? Who is in charge, and are they universal, national, ethnic? Plus, using neither Latin nor Greek, they skewed Slavic and had a longstanding beef with the Macedonians and other Balkan and Slavic nations. The Bulgarian church was isolated. But it was perhaps this isolation that served it during the dark years of Turkish domination. The Turkish occupation lasted almost 500 years, during which the Bulgarian church was put under the authority of the Greek church and its patriarchs. Yet, despite Greek rule, they kept their own traditions.

In that emancipatory and revolutionary 19th century, the burden of the Ottomans was decreasing while the Bulgarians claimed that the Greeks were becoming more powerful. To curry favor with the Bulgarians, the Ottomans decided to let the Bulgarians establish their own independent church.

It was on the 28th of February in 1870 that Sultan Abdulaziz proclaimed Bulgarian ecclesiastical independence. The document was written in Arabic and Cyrillic, a nice tip of the hat to people tired of reading Greek.

The “Bulgarian Exarchate,” as it is known, was intended to be a partially independent church, not a completely autocephalous church (that is, a church that appoints its own head). However, within two years, Constantinople declared the Bulgarian church schismatic and anathematized its leaders. Not all Orthodox churches joined in the condemnation. Perhaps it is not surprising that the Russian Orthodox refused to condemn their Bulgarian sisters and brothers.

The other Orthodox churches did not recognize the Bulgarian church until 1945 when their “Autocephaly” was recognized. In 1953 The Bulgarian Patriarchate was created again. Today Bulgaria claims 85% of its population are members of the church, making it one of the most Christian nations in the world… except that 85% number could be dodgy. Or maybe we need to rejigger what we mean when we say “Christian nation.” Nonetheless, the little church that could, the descendants of the mighty Thracians, the Bulgarian church gained its independence after years of Greek and Turkish domination on this, the 28th of February in 1870.

The reading for today comes from Reginald Heber. This is his “Bread of the world, in mercy broken.”

Bread of the World, in mercy broken
Wine of the soul, in mercy shed,
By Whom the words of life were spoken,
And in Whose death our sins are dead.
Look on the heart by sorrow broken,
Look on the tears by sinners shed;
And be Thy feast to us the token,
That by Thy grace our souls are fed.

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 28th of February 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by the always autocephalous Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day, and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.