The Roots and Development of the Laestadian Movement in Finland

A Lecture Series by Dr. Pekka Raittila

Dr. Pekka Raittila lectured at the Pastor's Seminar October l8 and 19, l982, at Inter-Lutheran Theological Seminary. Dr. Pekka Raittila is a professor in the Theological Seminary at the University of Helsinki, Finland, and a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, the state church of Finland. Pastor Elmer Yliniemi translated these lectures at the Seminar. Melvin F. Salo prepared this manuscript from cassette tapes of the lectures and it was subsequently converted to this web page.

Copyright 1987 by Inter-Lutheran Theological Seminary 11015 County Road 15 Minneapolis, Minnesota 55441 612-546-3332. All rights reserved.

  1. Introduction and Overview
  2. Relationship of the Laestadians to the Lutheran Church of Finland
  3. Laestadians to the Present
  4. Missionary Work
  5. Organization of Laestadians
  6. The Training of Ministers
  7. Conclusions: Observations of Pekka Raittila Regarding the American Laestadian Scene

Page 3: Laestadians to the Present

At the turn of the century Laestadians divided into three group: l. The largest group is the Old Laestadians (Vanhoilliset), 2. Next in size is the First Born (Esikoiset), 3. The New Awakenists (Uudestiheraneet) is the third group in size. In both the First Born and the New Awakenist groups there have been small opposition groups. These opposition groups developed after World War II. Both have been protest actions the changes that had taken place in their respective groups. In the First Born group the simplicity of life as particularly emphasized and criticism against the dead condition of the state church was especially powerful. The course language that Laestadius used was continued in practice. In Europe and probably in America great changes have taken place in the First Born group in regard to these practices. The opposition group that developed wanted to continue the old model of Laestadius. The New Awakenists demanded that every Christian needed to experience in new birth a breaking of the sinful heart. As children grew up in the homes of the New Awakenists parents the concern arose as to whether children who have grown up in a Christian home needed to experience a new birth with the breaking of a sinful heart. This demand was beginning to abate and to disappear. The opposition that developed supported the old requirement. Neither of the opposition groups have been able to change the course of the major group they opposed. The Old Laestadians (Vanhoilliset), the Conservatives, are different. Great divisions have taken place over the years. The first great division took place in l930s. 1934 was a decisive year. The Big Services were held in Oulu in 1934 by the Old Laestadians (Vanhoilliset), the Conservatives. The result of that meeting was that the Word of Peace (Rauhan Sana) group separated from the Old Laestadians, now called the Suomen Rauhanyhdistysten Keskusyhdistys (SRK). Conditions in America contributed to the division in Finland in 1934 though conditions in America on the other hand were not the decisive factor in that division. As early as the beginning of the twentieth century two factors arose in the Old Laestadian (Vanhoilliset), Raattamaa aligned group (SRK) that seemed to contribute to that division. Two areas seem to have separated from the Old Laestadian (Vanhoilliset), Conservative group. John Rauttio who as a preacher in the Tornia River Valley was recognized and honored by all of Finland's Laestadians. He worked mainly in the Tornio River Valley. Oulu developed into the headquarters of the Old Laestadian (Vanhoilliset) (Raattamaa), Conservative (SRK) group. The Tornio River Valley congregation was left in the sidelines. The congregation didn't seem to have reason for opposition but in practice their relationship with the main body of the Old Laestadians (Vanhoilliset) (Raattamaa), Conservatives, waned. Another that became more isolated from the main body of Conservatives (SRK) were the Swedish speaking Laestadians in the Kokkola and Pietasaari. The reason for the drift apart was the language difference. There were in other areas Old Laestadians, Conservatives, who believed differently on some issues from the main stream of Conservative Laestadians. The decisive dividing of waters was the stance of the American Conservative Laestadians. In America those who considered themselves the Conservatives had a close feeling of fellowship with the like minded Conservatives (Vanhoilliset) in Finland. Even earlier the Conservatives were drifting apart into two distinct groups. Pastor Arthur Leopold Heidemann in 1908 began to separate from the others. By l920-1930 the separation was distinct to the extent that new congregations were being formed. In l928 the (Finnish) Apostolic Lutheran Church of America (the Federation) was established and separation was accelerated. The (Finnish) Apostolic Lutheran Church of America (the Federation) with headquarters in Hancock, Mi., and the (First) Apostolic Lutheran Church with headquarter in Calumet, Mi., (the Heidemann group), had fellowship relationship with like minded brethren in Finland. The Tornio River Valley group were allied with the (Finnish) Apostolic Lutheran Church of America (the Federation). The congregations and preachers in the Oulu area were allied with the (First) Apostolic Lutheran Church with the Mission and headquarters at Calumet, Mi. (the Heidemann group) in America. Close to the Swedish border in Central Finland the congregations allied with the (Finnish) Apostolic Lutheran Church of America (the Federation). Of the pastors and preachers Paul Rantala was the recognized minister there. He had visited in America twice in the early 1900s and was acquainted with the reasons for the division. The two distinct groups of Conservative Laestadian Lutherans in Finland and Apostolic Lutherans in America became closely allied with their like minded brethren across the the sea. Pastor Oscar Jussila and his father Heikki Jussila, Robert Vepsalainen and others were in fellowship with the Heidemann group and made mission trips to America on request of the Heidemann group. Antti Krekula and Ville Kaikkonen from Finland were called to America for mission visits by (Finnish) Apostolic Lutheran Church of America (the Federation). Because these two accepted the call from America they were disciplined by the SRK Laestadians in Finland. Sympathizers rallied to their support among the Conservatives in Finland. The calling of speakers from Finland by the two Conservative groups in America though not the decisive factor in the division yet it served to solidify the division between the two. The small First Born group felt they were forced out of the Conservative group. This group established its own paper the Word of Peace (Rauhan Sana). Looking at this division from a historical perspective of Laestadians the Word of Peace group (Rauhan Sana) should properly be called a schism and not a heresy for both groups seem to be generally in the same teaching and the same doctrine but different matters seemed to have caused the division. At the time of division differences in understanding and teaching suggested as differences in doctrine. It was recognized that in the Federation group there were many who supported the New Awakenist teaching. It was understood in Finland that the speakers who made the controversial trip to America had given support to the New Awakenist teaching but their explanations were not recognized or attention given to them. There was a noticeable difference in doctrine of the two groups though it was not great as earlier perceived. The Heidemann group here and the SRK group in Finland adhere more stringently then do the other groups to the doctrine of exclusivity or that their group is the only true group in teaching and practice. This type exclusivity is not as strongly emphasized in the Word of Peace (Rauhan Sana), the (Finnish) Apostolic Lutheran Church of America (the Federation) as it is in the Heidemann and the SRK groups but in practice in many areas in Finland there is not much difference. The inherited tradition and doctrine in both groups seem in general to be the same. The Word of Peace (Rauhan Sana), the (Finnish) Apostolic Lutheran Church of America (Federation) is much smaller in Finland than is the SRK group. The Rauhan Sana group is most numerous in the Oulu and Kokkola areas. Laestadian support and activities in the Tornia River Valley have decreased recently.

In 1960 there was another type of crisis. This correctly should not be called a division but a crisis in which a large number of Conservative pastors separated or were separated from the SRK. There are different opinions about this. (The lecturer belonged to this group though personally he said he has never been separated from any group. The lecturer, Pekka Raittila, is a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland with a conviction to the SRK Laestadians.) Though there were a few who were separated by the main group of the SRK yet the majority had not been separated by the SRK. A few pastors who were in leadership positions were separated from the SRK. There were about one hundred pastors who left the SRK movement at that time. Two or three lay preachers and a lay Christian joined the pastors' group at that time from the SRK. Though the number of pastors and lay Christians was small yet the separation reflected negatively on the SRK image.

After World War II the Laestadian Movement had become well respected in the National Lutheran Church of Finland. There were many Laestadian pastors especially in the Oulu area who wielded much influence in the National Church of Finland. There were several well known Laestadian pastors in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland. Pekka Tapaninen, rector in the Tornio River Valley, had visited in America and was one of the many outstanding Laestadian pastors. Tapaninen in 1934 was aligned with the SRK but separated from the SRK in 1960. In 1945-1946 an attempt was made at reconciliation between the SRK Conservatives and the Rauhan Sana group. In this attempt Pekka Tapaninen was very active and over this incident he lost the confidence of the SRK. As a result of SRK loss of confidence in him he began to rethink the relationship of Laestadians to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland. He was a highly respected pastor that provided leadership for the young pastors. He espoused the idea that responsibility should not be preservation of the Laestadian traditions and doctrine but rather preservation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland traditions and doctrine. The pastors' group also established their own newspaper, Word of Life (Elaman Sana). The paper is small and the group is even smaller.

In America in the Conservative (Raattamaa) group there is an additional group, the Pollari group, which has divided into several groups. In Norway there is a group called the Alta group that may be classified with the Conservative Movement. Alta is an old Finnish community in Norway. The Alta group is of Finnish descent. With the exception of the Pollari group in America all the other groups have fellowship with comparable groups in Finland. In Lyngen, Norway, there is a small group of Laestadians who don't desire communication or relationship with other Laestadian groups. They have a Laestadian doctrinal interpretation and need to be counted as Laestadians. They resemble the First Born in doctrine and practice. They are very conservative. Their singular characteristic is that they are more committed than other Laestadian groups to Lutheran Confession of faith and Luther's writings. With them baptism receives more emphasis than with any other Laestadian group. They do not seem to adhere to the exclusivity doctrine as rigidly as the other Laestadians but on the other hand they live in such isolation in the mountains and fiords that concern for other religion is minor. They have fellowship with no other group and seem to exist spiritually alone. They are located in about four or five parishes in northern Norway within the state church of Norway. They totally control the parish church doctrine and practice. To interest members into the church in addition to Laestadians the pastor brought in Christmas tree into the church. The Laestadians stayed away with the result that no one was left in the church and the pastor had to leave. There are perhaps two thousand Laestadians in these four to five parishes in the Lyngen area of Norway. PEKKA RAITTILA RESPONDS TO QUESTIONS FROM THE PARTICIPANTS Did the divisions in the Laestadian Movement bring in additional members? It appears that the activities and the internal interest and concern brought in additional members. The division of the group created needs in both Finland and America for additional meeting houses and churches as well as a need for ministers to serve the newly established congregations. The disputation, interest and concern within the individual congregations generated activity which went beyond the congregation and tended to bring in new member converts. For example, the New Awakenist crisis resounded throughout Laestadian Finland and America. Though only a small group accepted the New Awakenist doctrine for themselves and founded a new congregation, yet all Laestadians regardless of persuasion were moved to study and analyze the foundation of their faith. These crises did not just result in confrontation but caused a new awakening and a serious self-examination of one's faith. These crisis situations tended to strengthen one's faith for they caused one to examine carefully one's faith. LARS LEVI LAESTADIUS Lars Levi Laestadius was the inspector of the Lapp country parishes in Sweden. Because of his inspectorship responsibilities he had influence not just in his own parish. During his tenure Laestadianism spread into many parishes in Sweden, Norway and Finland as far south as the Tornio River Valley. After the death of Laestadius the Movement spread much more rapidly. In the l860s there was a heavy emigration from Finland due to a great extent to a disastrous drought . Finns traveled north to fish in the Arctic Circle and some migrated to Helsinki and Saint Petersburg now called Leningrad for employment. Laestadianism spread to many parts of the north country because of the migration. By the beginning of the l870s the Laestadian Movement had spread to America as well as to Saint Petersburg and Helsinki and other cities in southern Finland. By l880 Laestadianism had spread to all the areas where it is now found. These were areas where Finnish was spoken. Finnish was spoken in the Karelian area near Saint Petersburg and in northern Sweden and Norway. Laestadianism was a Finnish speaking movement. The Movement had very little influence in Norway and Sweden beyond the Finnish speaking areas. In northern Sweden there were some Laestadians who spoke both Swedish and Finnish and who then made preaching tours into Swedish speaking areas of Sweden. Consequently, in areas of Sweden where only Swedish is spoken a few Laestadian converts are found in scattered parishes. The Laestadian Movement also spread into some of the parishes of northern Norway. Laestadianism thus spread along the pathways of the social and economic movements of the people.

In reality formally organized mission work did not spread Laestadianism. Missionary preachers were only sent to those areas that already had a few Laestadian converts. Laestadianism was initially a rural movement. Preachers were to a great extent farmers. But when Laestadianism spread to southern urban cities like Helsinki, Oulu, Turku and other cities then these cities became the centers of these movements. There most of the preachers were many craftsmen - shoemakers, tailors, carpenters. Oulu developed into the most important Laestadian center. A great change took place after World War II in support of the Laestadian movement. In Finland and Sweden as well as in America there was a heavy migration from rural areas to urban centers. Therefore many of the rural congregations shrank and even died out and urban Laestadian congregations increased in size and influence. Another factor after World War II was social stratification. At the turn of the century many Laestadians were well to do farmers and craftsmen. The major may have been of a lower social and economic strata. Up to l930 Laestadians believed that education beyond the compulsory school age of 15-16 years could be hazardous to one's spiritual life. Farmers feared that education would teach the young lordly attitudes and aversion to honest labor. Laestadians as well as other religious groups believed that in school students would learn to withdraw from Christianity for Paul's words were remembered, "Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate" (Rom 12:16). Up to l930 there were very few Laestadians as well as members of other similar religious groups who had attended high school and fewer yet who had attended technical school or the university. This rejection of advanced education was most strongly felt by the First Born group and least in the New Awakenist group. After World War II a tremendous change took place in regard to education. There are many in the universities from each of the Laestadian groups. There is considerable variation in choice of vocations. In the First Born movement there is a bias against studying for the ministry. At present there are two First Born Laestadians studying for the ministry at the University Seminary in Helsinki. Many Laestadians choose the technical fields of engineering, medicine which offered a neutral choice from the study for the ministry. The Conservative Laestadians (SRK) have had many students attending the theological seminary. Academic training and improved economic conditions of Laestadians have caused a social integration of Laestadians into the general population in Finland, Sweden, Norway, and yes also in America.

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