Iosif Trifa was born on Saturday, 3rd of March, 1888, in what is today the village of Câmpeni, Alba County, Romania. Câmpeni is located some 118 km south west of Cluj-Napoca. He was the fourth of six sons born to a peasant couple – Dimitrie and Ana Trifa.
The atmosphere into which he came in to the world would appear to have been one of devout Orthodoxy – at least as far as his mother was concerned. As a young boy her desire for him was that he would become a priest and, at the time of her untimely death on November 10, 1895, when he was only seven years old, she gave him a Psalter, saying as she handed it to him – ‘For your salvation and that of many’. The Psalter in question had belonged to his grandfather Nicoale Trifa, who had received it as a gift from the Romanian patriotic hero Avram Iancu – ‘The Prince of the Mountains’.
In 1895, when he was 7 years old, Iosif entered primary/elementary school in his home village, remaining here until 1899. For the following four years he studied at Brad and finally, from 1903-1907, took up his secondary education some 118.0 km away in Beiuș.
Interestingly we have a letter written by Iosif from Beiuș in 1906 to fellow student George Leon –
‘Foreigners went so far that they even removed the Romanian language from this poor institute. As for me, I am the son of a Romanian peasant from the country and village of Iancu and Horea. The land where I was born is purely Romanian. Although in school I encountered a foreign language and culture, I remained close to the sweet language spoken by my grandparents, and in a special way I studied and study our literature with pleasure’.
In the Autumn of 1907, following his mother’s long held desire, Iosif enrolled at the Andreian Theological Institute in Sibiu. In 1910, he was named as a ‘Confessional Teacher’ in the Transylvanian mountain village of Vidra de Sus, which today is know known as Avram Iancu.
In 1911 he married Iuliana Iancu, a niece of Avram Iancu and, and on July 15th that same year, was ordained priest of Vidra de Sus Parish by the Orthodox Metropolitan Ioan Mețianu. In 1912 the couple’s first child, a girl, Olympia, was born, but she died the following year. In 1914 their second child, this time a boy, Titus Gheorghe, was born, but he also died the following year. In 1916 Romania entered World War 1 on the side of the Allies, in an effort to wrangle Transylvania from Austro-Hungarian rule. During that same year, Iosif and Iuliana’s third child was born – a boy, whom they named the same as their second son, Titus-Gheorghe; this child is the only one who survived. In 1918, their fourth child, a girl, Augustina, was born. As World War I ended the Spanish flu endemic took both his wife Iuliana, and his daughter Augustina. Iosif was left with only his son, Titus, who at the time was three years old. Iosif would reman a widower until his death some 20 years later.
Sometime about 1910 Iosif was as shocked by the arrival, in his area, of the first known neo-Protestant missionary, who began evangelising Orthodox villagers. Trifa contacted the Mayor and the Chief of Police asking them to ‘take measures’ to remove, what he considered to be, a dangerous threat to the community. However, he was stopped in his tracks one day when an old parishioner told him that the intruder – ‘doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink and doesn’t fight with anyone. We (the Orthodox) are worse than he is.’
Over the following months and years, as Trifa rose to prominence among a group of reform-minded Orthodox clergy in Transylvania, he became increasingly convinced that both Romania and the Orthodox Church were in desperate need of moral and spiritual renewal. Initially he attempted to fight this battle on a moral front – but soon realised that underneath the symptoms lay a spiritual cause which urgently needed to be addressed. Soon he started speaking and preaching with a more evangelical tone with an emphasis on repentance and a ‘new birth’ experience, as well as calling for a more intimate relationship with God. Preceding this Iosif himself had come under a deep soul searching and reassessment of his own life and condition before God before entering in to ‘new life with Christ’.
In 1921 Metropolitan Nicolae Bălan, his former teacher at the Andreian Academy, invited him to Sibiu, with the express intention of setting up a religious publication. Trifa subsequently moved with his son Titus to the city where he was also appointed priest of the Theological Academy. His work here also included Sunday duties at Sibiu’s Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral.
On January 1st, 1922, the first issue of the weekly paper for the people ‘Lumina Satelor‘ (The Light of the Villages) appeared (the majority of the population of Romania at that time lived in the villages). Iosif Trifa was the editor-in-chief. The magazine had the potential of reaching thousands of Romanians. This publication would be the impetus for the formation (by Trifa), in the same year, of ‘Oastea Donmului’ (Lord’s Army) – a movement within Orthodoxy dedicated to the deeper spiritual life. Oastea Donmului would go on, not only to transform Romanian society but, sadly and perhaps inevitably, to bring it into conflict with the mother church that gave it birth.
The Lord’s Army, at its formation, and still today, exists through lay and voluntary involvement. Trifa would later define it as a grassroots, Bible-based force for revitalising the Romanian Orthodox Church. Trifa commended the following to the members of Oastea Donmului as a means of evangelism – ‘The daily life of a Christian (which he defines as the best sermon), acts of mercy, love and prayer, forgiveness and suffering, and the distribution of Christian literature’.
By 1926 the Lord’s Army membership stood at some 20,000. In addition it was beginning to spread its wings beyond the borders of Romania into other Eastern Europe nations. In 1928 the distribution of ‘Lumina Satelor’ stood at 15,000 copies and in 1929 Iosif purchased, for the furtherance of the work, a substantial printing press from Leipzig, Germany. It was up and running by the end of the year.
The Lord’s Army were bound by a strict code of ethics and practice. They also evangelised and fostered a true Christian fellowship, rooted in Orthodoxy, throughout Romania. Some 15 years after its inception is said that ‘Oastea Domnului (Lord’s Army) counted over 300,000 members from all social categories’. Initially the local Metropolitan (Archbishop) Nicolae Bălan, who had invited Trifa to Sibiu, supported him. However, as time went on he became increasingly hostile due to what many considered his jealousy of Trifa’s growing power and popularity. However, there were also doctrinal disagreements due to Trifa’s emphasis on the ‘new birth’ and ‘conversion’. He was also accused of downplaying the importance of (infant) baptism. Furthermore, it is said Trifa’s silence on the role of liturgy, the church, and icons in salvation and spirituality also help to explain the controversy surrounding his writings and the movement he founded.
In 1934, three years before his death, Trifa published ‘Ce Este Oastea Domnului?’ (What is the Army of the Lord?), which outlines the purpose and strategy behind the movement. Some themes stand out in this foundational text.‘Christ the crucified stands as the core principle in the Army of the Lord’s teaching. The cross is the door to salvation and the key to victory over temptation and sin. The struggle against sin and the importance of living righteous lives comes through a true understanding of Christ’s victory on the cross’. Trifa also wrote that the sign of the cross ‘has the power to drive away Satan only when we put it in the understanding of the sacrifice of the cross, especially as we receive the gift of the sacrifice, Jesus the Saviour and his victory’.
As a result of the ongoing tensions between the Orthodox church and Trifa, in 1935 Metropolitan Bălan defrocked and excommunicated him and took charge of the Lord’s Army himself. However it is recorded that – ‘This official movement lacked popular support and soon died out, leaving Trifa with no official status but a nationwide network of committed believers’.
In addition to opposition from within the Orthodox church, disagreements also arose over various issues within the Lord’s Army itself. Never enjoying good health all of this took a heavy toll on Iosif. He suffered from both cancer and other serious ailments and underwent a total seven major operations throughout his relatively short life – he was only 50 when he died.
Despite opposition from within and without, in 1936, it is recorded that a number of special gatherings of the Lord’s Army took place throughout Romania. The total attending these was estimated at ’50 thousands brothers and another 60 thousand listeners’. It is also recorded that – ‘3964 souls were surrendered to the Lord’.
On September 12, 1937, more than ‘500 soldiers’ from various parts of Romania came to Sibiu with the intention of presenting a petition to Metropolitan Bălan seeking a resolution to the ongoing strife between the Lord’s Army membership and the Orthodox church authorities. However Bălan refused to meet with the delegation. In his written refusal he addressed his note – ‘To the rebels’.
On the same day the delegation had been rebuffed by Bălan, the Lord’s Army published a ‘motion’ stating clearly where is stood in relation the Orthodox church –
‘(The) Army of the Lord is a child of the Church. He was born and lives under the wing of the Church. The Lord’s Army is not something more than Orthodoxy, but a restricted family, a communion of evangelical brotherhood with the precise idea of living more intensely the teachings of the Bible and the Church. We only strive to get out of the ordinary of life, to grow in the Lord, for the salvation of our souls. The Lord’s Army has no dogmatic or canonical claim. We have nothing to add to the canons. The army neither wanted nor wants to make rules over or against the Church. But the Host of God wants to live, with all his being, the existing rules of the Church …’
However, conflict with the Orthodox church authorities continued unabated and, on January 28, 1938, the Sibiu Court ordered the confiscation of Iosif Trifa’s printing press. By all accounts the press had been purchased by Iosif himself. The ruling read in part – ‘The court admits the plaintiff’s action – the Romanian Orthodox Diocese of Sibiu and compels the defendant Iosif Trifa from Sibiu, under enforcement action, to hand over the following objects in possession to the plaintiff within 15 days …’
It was all too much for Iosif. After struggling with increasingly ill health and having recently undergone heart surgery, the attacks of those who should have supported him and the loss of his precious printing press – ‘he passed into eternity in the night to morning of February 11 to 12, 1938, hidden under the thin and white veil – like an angel’s wing – of the first snow of that Siberian winter’.
Two days before his death, on Wednesday, February 9, 1938, Iosif had called for his friend and confidant – and the man who would perpetuate his work, Traian Dorz.’With the last strength and glimmer of his soul, (he) dictated to him his last article – The parable of the poor sheep from 2 Samuel.’ It is estimated that, at the time of his death, the membership of the Lord’s Army stood at some 300,000.
Metropolitan Bălan initially refused to send a priest for Iosif Trifa’s funeral but later relented and – ‘let the Cathedral bell be tolled for him just once.’ However Bălan refused to allow him, as was the custom, to be buried in his priestly vestments.
So ended the life of this remarkable man – little know here in the West – but still remembered and revered, both in Romania, and much further afield.
Following his death the Lord’s Army continued under lay direction – Traian Darz being regarded as the movements leader. In 1944 when the Communists Party came to power, the Orthodox Church refused to recognise the Lord’s Army as a legitimate Orthodox movement. However, since the Army insisted it was Orthodox and refused to register as a Protestant church, it had no legal protection. It was officially outlawed by the Communist authorities in 1948 and would become one of Romania’s most persecuted religious groups under Communist rule. However, despite all of this, the movement continued to gain strength in Romania throughout the next 40 years of Communist domination.
Traian Darz, who was also a prolific poet and hymn writer, was imprisoned from 1947 to 1964. He continued to suffer harassment and restrictions even after his release. We will look at the life of Traian Darz in a later post. Nicolae Maldoveanu (1922-2007), another prominent Army poet and, arguably, the most important Romanian hymn-writer of the twentieth century, was also imprisoned for five years and harassed even in freedom. Moldoveanu is said to have written 8,000 songs in his lifetime, over 300 of them while in prison.
After the fall of Communism in 1989, the Orthodox Church officially recognised the Lord’s Army as a society within the larger church and belatedly admitted that Trifa should have been buried as a priest, This, it is said, caused a rift within the Army, some welcoming the closer connection to Orthodoxy and others suspicious of it. A few members, including Moldoveanu before his death, broke ties entirely with the Orthodox Church.
Wikipedia notes –
‘In 1990 , the “Army of the Lord” was rehabilitated by the Romanian State and the Synod of the Orthodox Church, which raised the canonisation of Iosif Trifa. Nowadays, Oastea Domnului has its administrative headquarters in Sibiu , where it has its own publishing house, bookstore and printing house. Here, with the blessing of the Synod of the Romanian Orthodox Church, the weekly “Iisus Biruitorul ” and the newspaper “Oastea Domnului” are printed, with the youth magazine” Timotheos” as a supplement. The Lord’s Army is led by an Operative “Brotherly Council” which includes approximately 30 members, representatives of the areas. Today the Lord’s Army has a presence, not only in Romania, but also beyond its borders. The activity of the Army is based on ‘volunteering of the laity’, even although many clerics are also part of the movement. The meetings of the members of the Lord’s Army take place in churches and private houses, after the main Church Services. The program of these fraternal meetings includes: prayers, songs, religious poems, words of teaching and spiritual confession, catechesis and activities for children and young people. Also, zonally or regionally, Oastea Domnului develops an educational activity in schools, as well as a social one in penitentiaries, social and humanitarian settlements.’
The material used in this article is drawn mostly from other sources – some of these being translated from Romanian by our dear friend Mr. Google. Among others the following were of great assistance –
Tom Keppeler, A Summary of Trifa’s ‘What is the Army of the Lord?’, (Institute for East-West Christian Studies. East-West Church & Ministry Report, 1994.)
James Foster, Priest Iosif Trifa, Man of Pain and Accustomed to Suffering, (2016.)
James Foster, Host of God, (2016.)
Edwin Woodruff Tait, Marching in the Lord’s Army, (Christian History Magazine, Issue 109.)
The image in the head graphic is of Iosif Trifa imposed on the Church of the Holy Trinity (Roman Catholic) Sibiu, taken by the author while visiting friends in Sibiu in 2018. The logo is that of Oastea Donmului – The Lord’s Army.