The first Methodist missionaries came to Bulgaria from the US in the middle of the 19th century, and were received hospitably by the Turks who ruled the country at the time. But they did not merely set up new congregations. It was also one of these missionaries, Dr. Albert Long, who translated the whole Bible into Bulgarian, thus making the Word of God accessible to the Bulgarian population in general for the first time. By choosing the East-Bulgarian dialect fort his translation he tremendously influenced the Bulgarian literature of the following 50 years and even the creation of an official national language. In the years that followed, girls’ and boys’ schools were founded, contributing to the literacy of the country. However, in spite of the success and significance of this early pioneering work, the history of the UMC in Bulgaria in the following decades was like a roller coaster, and, often enough, the Church had to fight for survival.
The period of Communist rule from 1947 to 1989 began with a terrible persecution of all Churches in the country, and was an especially dark era. Many pastors were beaten, thrown into prison for long periods, or even murdered. A law implemented at the time nominally provided for religious freedom, but in reality it rendered practically all Church work impossible. All Email between the UMC in Bulgaria and the international Church was prohibited.
Following the political opening of the country in 1990, only two of the original sixteen congregations still existed, and the pastors were either old and frail, or had already passed on. In spite of this, the UMC was able to reorganize, and relations were renewed with the Central Conference of Central and Southern Europe and with the supervising bishop.
Since then, the Church has been growing continuously, thanks to God’s grace and the tireless efforts of many lay people and a few pastors from the new generation. In many places where earlier Methodist congregations once existed, new work is being done after an interruption of many decades.
In carrying out missionary and service work, the UMC in Bulgaria has not forgotten that it has been a minority church since its founding. For one thing, this is reflected in the fact that it makes a point of spreading the Gospel to minorities, such as Turkish gypsies, Armenians, and Rom. Moslems (after decades of atheist teachings, this denomination is more an ethnic and cultural reference than a religious one) also learn about Jesus Christ in personal talks, evangelization meetings, and film viewings.
The goal of spreading the Gospel in word and deed is the motor for many social projects such as soup kitchens, literacy courses, out-patient clinics, prison work, creative or play times for neglected children and youth, etc. Samuel Altunian, one of the young pastors, says: “It’s impossible to imagine being a Church in Bulgaria today without providing these services for the poor and the minorities.”
At the same time, the importance of the literature projects should not be underestimated. These support not only the printing and distribution of Bibles, but also practical guides for the reader.
It may not show outwardly, but many members of the UMC in Bulgaria are very poor. The massive economic changes since 1989 have, for the most part, worsened their situation. Thus the existence of the Church and its credible service among the people continue to present a challenge that should not be underestimated.
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