Estonian Lutherans oppose Mormon access to genealogy records.

PernauNovember 22nd 1905, a group of socialists threw an Estonian preacher from the pulpit, causing the congregation to flee in panic.{1}  Back then, Estonia was just as religious as anywhere else.

After just a few decades of Soviet rule, Estonia is now one of the least religious countries in Europe.

The largest surviving religion, the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, claim just 15 percent of the Estonian population.

Estonia, map and flag. by the US Department of State

During the Soviet era, when Estonia was part of the USSR, the Lutheran church and other churches had their records archived by the state.

Since the fall of communism, the Estonian government has been sharing these records with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, (also known as the LDS church, or the Mormons), who are digitizing and storing them.

These records are then primarily used for genealogy work.  To Mormons, genealogy work has a religious significance.  Mormons use the names of their dead ancestors as they do rituals on their behalf.

This is where Arho Tuhkru, a spokesperson for the Estonian Lutheran church, draws the line.

According to Baltic Reports  Tuhkru said that “The reason that [the Mormons] committed their activities for the dead as well is not justified.”

Tuhkru knows something about the Mormon religion, and doesn’t like it. “Their theological justification and appeal to free will is clumsy.”

However, English speaking commenters on the website seem to generally think the whole reaction is overblown.

“This is kind of a silly article.” writes Rob Hansen “Anyone who really knows anything about the Church of Jesus Christ [of Latter Day Saints] (aka: Mormons) knows that baptisms for the dead may sound weird, but really it’s no different from people praying for their dead ancestors.”

Kendall Grant, however, is with the Lutherans. “It is an AFFRONT to the dignity and privacy of those who have died.” Grant says.

The article notes that during the Soviet era, the state would have asked the Catholic or Lutheran church permission to share their records.

The Hurriet Daily News points out  that many people, not only Mormons, benefit from the deal.

“Money was not the only benefit to Estonia, as the Mormon Church did all the legwork to digitalize the data and make it available for Estonians to trace their ancestry and find out about their family’s past.”

As an historian, this story raises many questions including:

  • Who holds the rights to old records?
  • If I found a journal of a soldier who served in the war of 1812, or a teacher who taught in the early 20th century, is it ethical for me to publish that journal?
  • What are the ethical and unethical uses of old records?
  • At what point, if ever, should private records be made public?

In the United States, records like the census and voting list are made public 70 years after they’ve been made. In the United Kingdom, the delay is usually 100 years.  These records are widely available on websites like and FindMyPast.

However, certain genealogy records, like birth and marriage certificates, are not always available to the general public.

Corporate records and church records can also be off limits to the general public.  Not all of the archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, for example, are available to the public.

The Estonian Lutheran Church has had other disputes with the state. In addition to church records, the Soviets confiscated church property, including a large plot of land which is now used as a concert venue, Delfi reports.

At the end of the Communist era, the independent Estonian state’s duties included “to return all the churches […], the parsonage, the church estates, forests and farmland and the cemeteries” whereever possible.  However, some representatives of the Estonian government dispute what can and can’t be restored to the Lutheran Church.

The church property in dispute was bombed in 1944, and the Lutheran congregation saved art from the building. Much of this art was then put on display by the state.

Arho Tuhkru appears to claim that the state itself did the destruction, so it shouldn’t be allowed to hold what survives.

The Estonian Evangelican Lutheran Church doesn’t get involved in every dispute involving Estonian Lutherans, however.

A month ago, Arho Tuhkru told Estonian Public Broadcasting that Veiko Vihuri (a controvertial Lutheran Minister for Estonia’s Islands) did not represent the Estonian Lutheran church.

In  this article by Kristopher Rikken, it seems that Veiko Vihuri was protesting against Estonia’s “Equality Commissioner.”

Vihuri is quoted as saying that the Commissioner’s criticism of the Lutheran Church when it fired an employee, and the Commissioner’s other criticisms “show that a Kafkaesque system characteristic of an authoritarian regime is developing where the autonomy that is guaranteed by law for religious associations is violated and ordinary citizens are intimidated with various discrimination accusations and procedures.”

(Franz Kafka was a short story writer and novelist from the last century. He is best known famous for “The Metamorphosis”, a story in which a bureaucrat with a boring job turns into a giant bug. )

That story further claims that Vihuri criticized a campaign ‘which he said stigmatizes traditional values as “phobias.”‘

{1} see page 1 of The San Francisco Call, Thursday November 23, 1905.