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 4: Missionary Work

Laestadius established and organized Lapp mission schools for educating the Lapp people. He modeled these schools after schools established by the Swedish Mission Society. The Swedish Mission Society had been established in l835. Its purpose was foreign and Lapp missionary work. It was understood that though the Lapp people had been baptized into the Christian faith that they still needed missionary work. These mission society schools were established in the southern areas of Lapland. Laestadian mission schools were his individual effort. He did want to incorporate his schools under the Swedish Mission Society's work but the Mission Society was not interested but he did receive financial assistance from the national government for his schools. The majority of financial support was collected from Laestadian Christians as free donations. Though little money was collected as money for money was scarce other donations included gold ornaments that the Lapp women wore and which they gave to support the schools. The gold ornaments were brought to southern cities and exchanged for money. These schools that Laestadius established and for which he gathered support became vehicles for the propagation of the Gospel. Not only children but adults also came for reading and religions instruction. For this reason for decades later worship services were called schools. Also for a long time preachers sent to other areas were called mission men. Sending a man to a neighboring parish to preach was called mission work. When the Conservatives (SRK) in Finland organized the group was named Headquarters of the Mission Work. They soon established a newspaper, the Zion Mission Paper. In America all of the Laestadian groups have mission organizations. In very few denominations is the word mission used as much as it used by the Laestadian groups and yet there is hardly a church group that does as little formal foreign mission work as the Laestadians. This word mission has been carried to the present from those initial mission schools of Lapland. "Why is so little formal mission work done by the Laestadians? asks a participant. As we study the history of the Laestadians we see it is inaccurate to state that the Laestadians have done very little mission work. The students of Laestadius, the first Laestadians, were zealous in speaking with all persons with whom they came into contact. When his students traveled from Kaaresuvanto (Karesuando today), Laestadius parish in northern Sweden, to market in the city of Tornio they spoke to all they met of what they themselves had learned. Or when they followed their reindeer herds to Tromso in northern Norway they spoke to all they met of the Gospel they had received. In this way Laestadianism was spread by zealous converts. Certainly, we may call this missionary work. We may ask whether in the next generation the Laestadian movement spread in the same way from person to person and neighbor to neighbor naturally. It is certain that it occurred. For example, Laestadians spoke the message to relatives, friends, neighbors and co-workers. In this way through person to person contacts home missionary work continued and continues naturally. We might ask might not the mission work that comes naturally be more effective than organized formal mission work? Perhaps in big cities officially organized mission work is necessary in order to reach all the people. We must remember that Laestadianism was born in small villages and rural areas. In the natural course of events the Laestadians were able to contact others. "How can we make better use of our opportunities today", we may ask. Also, "Why weren't the Laestadians sent to communities where there were no Laestadians?" To some extent this did happen. Laestadius himself gave a good example. When the Mission Boad of the Conservatives in Oulu was established the stated purpose of the Mission Board was to take the Laestadian Word to darkened regions. Laestadians understood that darkened regions were those where Laestadians themselves did not reside. They believed that other missionary and state church activities of the time had not enlightened the darkness. Only when Laestadian preachers arrive does light come to the darkened region, they believe. Despite the early good intentions not much happened to bring the Gospel to areas that were not Laestadian. It was enough for the mission societies to respond to requests for preachers from areas where a few Laestadians lived. Laestadian missionary preachers did not go much farther than their original area of converts. Even the home mission activity was rather limited. We might ask why the Laestadians were not more effective in their missionary work? Perhaps this is a practical explanation. The unity that provides security for the Laestadian convert in the congregation is a positive contribution to members but at the same time it may hinder converts from leaving the security of the congregation to do missionary work outside. Yet, the principal of missionary work is confessed to be an obligation. When the first Laestadian emigrants to America wrote home to Finland they received from Juhoni Raattamaa response to the effect: "You have been sent as seed to that strange land. You Finnish Laestadians were elected as carriers of the gospel to American shores." When Juhoni Takkinen arrived in Calumet, Mi., he wrote home to Finland that there were people of many cultures and languages and he hoped that the gospel could be spread to these people. Despite the consciousness of this calling that they were the messengers of the kingdom of God, yet, neither Juhoni Takkinen or other preachers made preaching trips to any other areas except those where Laestadians already resided. This also has been true of missionary efforts in America. Let us consider foreign missions. Laestadius in at least one recorded sermon suggested that preaching the gospel in the world than just in the north country had more possibilities . Laestadius did not follow up on his own suggestion. The mission work carried on at that time was appropriate for the circumstances of the time when Laestadius lived isolated in the far north. It would have been remarkable if foreign mission work would have developed in the minds of the early far north Laestadians in as much as foreign mission work was being initiated only then by Finland and Sweden. Luther's letters failed to give much support to mission work. Both the reformers of the 1500s as well as the orthodox leaders of the 1600s almost overlooked the command of Jesus to "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature" (Mk 16:15). Purification of the gospel and organization of congregations consumed their time and attention. It was inevitable that the doctrine developed at this time, which Laestadians later supported, that the gospel had already been preached to all peoples. Another reformer Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) also supported this thinking. In fact at the end of the sixteen century there was an explanation how each nationality had received the gospel. Every nation already had had its time of visitation. The understanding that the spirit of the Lord in the last times rests in the north country, that is in Finland, was not the understanding of Laestadians alone but of all the Scandinavians. This idea comes from the Old Testament. It is another matter whether this is correct interpretation. Jokingly and perhaps with sad humor it is stated the spirit of the Lord truly "rests" in the north country; it doesn't stir. In the north country, that is in Finland, this was a practical conclusion under the circumstances. When the Laestadian believes that only the Laestadian congregation in foreign mission work has value, then the mission work of ministers of other congregations appears to him to be without spiritual life and value. THE MISSION EFFORT OF THE LAESTADIAN MOVEMENT

We need to find a spiritual/religious explanation for the apparent lethargy of the Movement or its lack of missionary effort. In the American and in the Finnish Laestadian Movement their was a desire to take the gospel to the English speaking who of course were the overwhelming majority. The Finnish emigrants had limited facility in English and, consequently, had difficulty in approaching the English speaking majority or people of other languages. Be careful not to under estimate the extent of missionary work done by individual Finnish Laestadians to friends, neighbors, relatives, co-workers and casual contacts. The Finnish Laestadians in America were very zealous and desired to spread the Gospel though not much organized mission work was done except in communities already having Laestadian converts. We need to recognize that the American Laestadian Movement continues to live on in the tradition of Finland's Laestadian Movement. Hence, the Finnish tradition in this instance serves as an obstacle to formal mission work in America. Therefore, the Finnish passivity toward formal mission work is reflected in American Laestadian mission work passivity. Not all the Laestadian groups were affected by passivity toward organized missionary work. The New Awakenists group of Laestadians in the early 1900s experienced a definite call to foreign missions especially. Some of their leaders especially received this call into their hearts. Consequently when the New Awakenist group of Laestadians organized in the early 1900s they emphatically provided for missionary work patterned after the missionary work of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland. The New Awakenist mission work was organized as a branch of the mission work of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland. The New Awakenist group mission work organized as a branch of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland sent missionaries to China in l910 and when work there ended in l948 they sent missionaries to Taiwan and then to Namibia in Africa. Young Pastor Juntunen serves in Pakistan. The New Awakenist group has invested heavily in mission work. Though the effort has diminished in size yet the spirit of sacrifice for mission work lives on. Some feel that the home mission effort has suffered because of the heavy emphasis on foreign missions. There was also some criticism for the long education required for foreign mission ministers. They contemplated sending two lay preachers without special training to China but this was never attempted. There was also criticism that long amounts of the funds were being spent on building schools and hospitals should have been spent on preaching the gospel instead. Though the missionary effort in China lasted but ten years yet most reports indicated that the schools and hospitals established by the New Awakenists were far superior to schools and hospitals established by other Finnish groups. Then people began to understand the value of this work also. Especially after l960 the missionary effort of the Word of Life, the Laestadian ministers' group, has increased. To some extent the missionary effort of the Word of Peace (Rauhan Sana) group which is in fellowship with the (Finnish) Apostolic Lutheran Church of America (the Federation) has also expanded. You people here in America are acquainted with the missionary work of the (Finnish) Apostolic Lutheran Church of America (the Federation).

The SRK (Suomen Rauhanyhdistysten Keskusyhdistys) is very negative toward any type of missionary work. The main argument against foreign missionary work by Laestadians is that they would become involved with other missionary workers who are unbelievers . The Laestadians do not recognize that they work closely with the members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland whom they consider unbelievers. What stands in the way of missionary work is that the Laestadians believe and proclaim that the kingdom of God is only within their own particular Laestadian group and, consequently, for each Laestadian group the kingdom of God does not extend to other Laestadians or beyond the Laestadian Movement. Consequently, this belief prevents Laestadians from cooperating with others or even with each other in mission work. This attitude makes mission work almost impossible. Conversely, in the SRK, for example, there is a question whether it would be possible to establish foreign mission work exclusively theirs. In practice this seems difficult if not impossible. How do we explain that Orthodox Lutheranism in Germany was definitely opposed to foreign mission work but the German Pietist movement was committed to and carried their program over Europe and the Americas. And then conversely, the orthodox Lutheran church of Finland (Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland) is committed to foreign mission work and the Laestadian revival movement which had its roots in Pietism is opposed to foreign mission work in cooperation with other faiths. Though the Laestadian movement had its roots and its foundation in the Pietist movement for personal experience of salvation and though the Pietist movement was a foreign mission revival movement opposed by Lutheran orthodoxy, yet the tradition of foreign mission work of the Pietists movement in Germany was impossible for the Laestadian movement in Sweden, Finland and Norway. The Laestadian tradition of opposition to missionary work was very decisive. The Laestadian movement began among the poorest of society and if we could say that had the Laestadian movement begun among the more wealthy and educated classes as had the Pietist movement in Germany, then probably the tradition would have been different and similar to the Pietist movement. Unfortunately, the Laestadian movement that began as a revival movement with other revival movements has become a traditional movement. If we had the zeal of the revival movement today with our economic and educational advantages and our many modes of communication at our disposal we should be able to do great foreign mission work. It is important for Laestadians to try to preserve the revival tradition that they had in the beginning. As historians if we ask which of the many Laestadian groups has retained the true gospel we must not respond from the heart but must respond from the intellectual and the academic perspective of the historian and state that all of the many groups of the Laestadian movement seem to carry on the original traditions of Laestadian teaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the forgiveness of sins in His blood and name. Each group, each sect, may emphasize one aspect of teaching more so than may another sect. The original zeal of the Laestadians seems to have withered badly. The historian must say that all the Laestadians have changed since the inception of the movement but the changes vary from sect to sect. The Laestadian researcher though a Laestadian must not maintain the perspective that everything evident in the Laestadian movement is the truth. As Laestadians today we may and need to consider what in Laestadian tradition is behind our traditions of today that influence our lives and what other traditions and factors in addition to Laestadian traditions impinge on our beliefs and traditions today. Hence we need criteria to better judge what is the truth and what is wrong as well as determine what is best. Respect and love of tradition causes us to honor and to cherish our own heritage. The law of Love for truth and justice justify and commend us to differ from and to amend our heritage. Where does that contention in American Laestadians originate that they have the only true pure faith and gospel? This is not peculiar to American Laestadians but has its roots and is still adhered to in Finland. A Lutheran minister purportedly stated that in America there are many sects that proclaim their faith as the only right and true one and, consequently, this understanding of the Laestadians may not necessarily be an impossible stumbling block to cooperation with other groups. It seems that in all revival groups - the Laestadian as well as other Protestant revival movements -that there has been a serious question whether the second generation should not be experiencing the same revival experience as did the first generation. Yet, it appears that in all revival movements the second generation has not had the same experience as their forebears . It appears that in all second generation revival movements there is not the same revival spirit, for the second generation experiences a growth period of teaching rather than revival.

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