Jānis Vanags was born May 25, 1958, in Liepaja, Latvia. After he completed his primary schooling in his hometown, he studied chemistry at the University of Latvia in Riga from 1976-82. He worked as a teacher of chemistry at the 31st Secondary (middle) school in Riga from 1982-85. As a young adult, Vanags converted to Christianity and was baptized in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia (ELCL). Under the Soviet regime, this eventually led to his expulsion from the teaching office.
In 1985, still as a student of the ELCL’s Theological Seminary, Vanags was ordained and served as a pastor in five congregations. During the last period of the Soviet era, he was involved in the movement for independence of Latvia and was a co-founder of the “Rebirth and Renewal” group, which fought for the liberation of the church from the control of the Soviet government.
In 1993 he was elected and consecrated as Archbishop of Riga. During his episcopacy, Vanags strived to strengthen the confessional awareness and Lutheran identity of his church. He initiated the foundation of the Luther Academy, which now is the only institution of Lutheran education in Latvia. Under his leadership, the ELCL entered in full fellowship with The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and is heading toward joining the International Lutheran Council. As a council member, he was a conservative, Lutheran voice in the Lutheran World Federation. For his theological position and his engagement as a church leader, Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, awarded him the honorary Doctor of Divinity in 1997.
As the leader of the largest Christian denomination of his country, Vanags worked toward renewal of the relationships with the Latvian state, which were destroyed by the Soviet occupation. He participated in formulating the new legislation for religious organizations including particularly the law for the Lutheran church, which provides the ELCL freedom to exercise faith without state interference. He also endeavored to establish constructive cooperation between the state and the church in social care, culture, education, monument protection and other fields. He played an important role in developing friendly relationships of trust and cooperation with churches of other denominations in Latvia. Vanags has been recognized for his contribution with the awarding of the Medal of the Three Stars in 1998. In 2006, the Republic of Estonia awarded him the Cross of Terra Mariana.
Vanags and his wife, Baiba, have three children: Krists (1980- 2007), Gatis and Elizabete. In his limited free time, he enjoys directing retreats, diving caves and listening to good music.