At the beginning of the 19th century the existence of the Bulgarian race was almost unknown in Europe, even to students of Slavonic literature. Disheartened by ages of oppression, isolated from Christendom by their geographical position, and cowed by the proximity of Constantinople, the Bulgarians took no collective part in the insurrectionary movement which resulted in the liberation of Servia and Greece. The Russian invasions of 1810 and 1828 only added to their sufferings, and great numbers of fugitives took refuge in Bessarabia, annexed by Russia under the treaty of Bucharest. But the long-dormant national spirit now began to awake under the influence of a literary revival. The precursors of the movement were Paisii, a monk of Mount Athos, who wrote a history of the Bulgarian tsars and saints (1762), and Bishop Sofronii, whose memoirs have been already mentioned. After 1824 several works written in modern Bulgarian began to appear, but the most important step was the foundation, in 1835, of the first Bulgarian school at Gabrovo. Within ten years at least 53 Bulgarian schools came into existence, and five Bulgarian printing-presses were at work. The literary movement led the way to a reaction against the influence and authority of the Greek clergy.
The spiritual domination of the Greek patriarchate had tended more effectually than the temporal power of the Turks to the effacement of Bulgarian nationality. After the conquest of the Peninsula the Greek patriarch became the representative at the Sublime Porte of the Rûm-millet, the Roman nation, in which all the Christian nationalities were comprised. The independent patriarchate of Trnovo was suppressed; that of Ochrida was subsequently Hellenized. The Phanariot clergy - unscrupulous, rapacious and corrupt - succeeded in monopolizing the higher ecclesiastical appointments and filled the parishes with Greek priests, whose schools, in which Greek was exclusively taught, were the only means of instruction open to the population. By degrees Greek became the language of the upper classes in all the Bulgarian towns, the Bulgarian language was written in Greek characters, and the illiterate peasants, though speaking the vernacular, called themselves Greeks. The Slavonic liturgy was suppressed in favour of the Greek, and in many places the old Bulgarian manuscripts, images, testaments and missals were committed to the flames.
The patriots of the literary movement, recognizing in the patriarchate the most determined foe to a national revival, directed all their efforts to the abolition of Greek ecclesiastical ascendancy and the restoration of the Bulgarian autonomous church. Some of the leaders went so far as to open negotiations with Rome, and an archbishop of the Uniate Bulgarian church was nominated by the pope. The struggle was prosecuted with the utmost tenacity for forty years. Incessant protests and memorials were addressed to the Porte, and every effort was made to undermine the position of the Greek bishops, some of whom were compelled to abandon their sees. At the same time no pains were spared to diffuse education and to stimulate the national sentiment. Various insurrectionary movements were attempted by the patriots Rakovski, Panayot Khitoff, Haji Dimitr, Stephen Karaja and others, but received little support from the mass of the people. The recognition of Bulgarian nationality was won by the pen, not the sword. The patriarchate at length found it necessary to offer some concessions, but these appeared illusory to the Bulgarians, and long and acrimonious discussions followed.
Eventually the Turkish government intervened, and on the 28th of February 1870 a firman was issued establishing the Bulgarian exarchate, with jurisdiction over fifteen dioceses, including Nish, Pirot and Veles; the other dioceses in dispute were to be added to these in case two-thirds of the Christian population so desired. The election of the first exarch was delayed till February 1872, owing to the opposition of the patriarch, who immediately afterwards excommunicated the new head of the Bulgarian church and all his followers. The official recognition now acquired tended to consolidate the Bulgarian nation and to prepare it for the political developments which were soon to follow. A great educational activity at once displayed itself in all the districts subjected to the new ecclesiastical power.