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Finishing the Finnish Reformation

October 2016 | by Miska Wilhelmsson

Being an international seminary student in America, and studying the Protestant Reformation in Germany, as well as more recent church history in England and America, made me realise how little I know about the Reformation in my own country of Finland.

This led me on a quest to study my own Reformation heritage and learn how it applies to the current spiritual situation in Finland. It needs to be noted that many history books include the Finnish Reformation under the heading of Sweden, since Finland was ruled by Sweden from the thirteenth century until 1809.

In many ways the Finnish Reformation did follow the pattern directed by the Swedish crown, but it also should be noted that Finland had a Reformation of its own, in many aspects separate from Sweden’s. I will focus here just on Finland.

The first Finnish reformer has been identified as Petrus Särkilahti, a young Finnish man who studied in Wittenberg, Germany, under Luther himself. While there, Särkilahti embraced the newly rediscovered truths of the Bible, which had lain hidden under the rule of the Roman Catholic Church.

After finishing his studies in Germany, he returned home to Finland in 1524 and began preaching in the native Finnish language. Many people came to hear him, as he publicly proclaimed Reformation truth in the Finnish language, instead of in Latin (which the common people did not understand). But he was soon silenced and his name disappears from the historical records; it is likely that he died around 1528.

His ministry proved to be very short, but in God’s providence it later proved a very important beginning.

Mikael Agricola

One of the young men profoundly impacted by Särkilahti’s witness and preaching was a man called Mikael Agricola. Agricola was a young clergyman who, following in the footsteps of Särkilahti, also went to study in Wittenberg and learn under Luther and Melanchthon.

In God’s providence, the main reason that Agricola was able to go there was that the recently appointed Bishop of Turku, Martin Skytte, had financed Agricola’s studies and was supportive of sending young Finnish men to study in Wittenberg.

This is especially noteworthy, when taking into account that Bishop Skytte remained a Roman Catholic himself and never fully embraced the Lutheran teaching of the Reformation. It seems that he was a patient man, who had endured much hardship in his life and did not want controversy. He saw value in supporting the Protestant Reformation, even though he did not agree with it all.

The decision by Skytte to send young Finnish men to be trained in Wittenberg proved a great help to the Reformation in Finland, not just for Agricola, but also for ten other men sent there to study, who would later return to help with the Reformation in Finland.

After finishing training in Wittenberg, Agricola returned to Finland with a letter of recommendation from Luther and Melanchthon. Soon after his return, he was given the position of Rector of the Latin school in Turku, where he worked for the next nine years.

During that time, he worked on many literary projects, the first being his ABC-Book, published in 1543 — the first book ever published in the Finnish language.

The book was a simple primer to the Finnish language and included a translation of Luther’s Small Catechism. It is mainly because of this ground-breaking work that Agricola is referred to as the father of the written  Finnish language.

The next year he published another monumental work, a biblical prayer book of 900 pages, which included material from the Bible, Church Fathers and Reformers. His most important achievement was a translation of the New Testament into the Finnish language, published in 1548.

Agricola was convinced of the Reformation principle that the Word of God should be accessible to the common man in his native language. It was largely due to his literary work, undertaken in obedience to God and for his fellow countrymen, that the Reformation took hold of the Finnish people far more than if it had only come through a political imposition by the Swedish crown.

After Bishop Skytte died in 1550, Agricola became the officially recognised Bishop of Turku, making him the first Protestant Lutheran Bishop of Finland.

Not long after Agricola became bishop, war broke out between Russia and Finland. In order to help achieve a peace treaty, Agricola departed to Moscow. On his way back, he died suddenly, in 1557, on the Karelian Isthmus at Kuolemanjärvi (Death Lake).

During Agricola’s life time, paganism and Roman Catholicism had competed with the Protestant faith, but, by the time of his death, Lutheranism had gained a strong hold on the Finnish people. In 1593 Lutheranism was made the official religion of Finland.

Legacy

When thinking about my heritage as a Finnish Christian (I’m not a Lutheran myself, but certainly a Protestant) and how God brought about the Finnish Reformation, which in turn gave the Finnish-speaking people the greatest gift on earth — the written Word of God — I am overcome with thankfulness for this legacy and blessing God has bestowed on Finland.

On the other hand, I am saddened by the situation now in Finland. As a nation it has rejected God and his Word, even though it still claims to be ‘Christian’. But one major lesson that stands out from Agricola’s work is the great importance that Christian literature — in particular, the Word of God and other Protestant writings — have had in advancing the cause of Christ.

The truth of the gospel needs to be made known in the language of the people, and there is still a great need for biblically sound material in the Finnish language.

Agricola and others certainly achieved much in helping Finland turn from Catholicism to the Protestant Lutheran faith. However, the Reformation there will always need to continue, in the reformation of individual sinners being converted to Christ, and also in the Christian church’s understanding of Scripture as it relates to Christian doctrine and practice.

Future reformation

Even though we should be thankful for the giants of the Reformation and how God used them, we also need to recognise that there were some areas in which their understanding and practices were not fully in accordance with the Word of God.

Therefore, the call to Christians, whether Finnish or of other nationalities, is to strive forward and continue the Reformation in our personal lives, as we strive for Christ-likeness and seek to bring the truth of the gospel of Christ to those around us. Semper Reformanda!

Miska Wilhelmsson 
The author is a student at the Master’s Seminary, California. This article (edited and used here by kind permission), along with a full list of references consulted, is available on his blog at http://www.nordicpreacher.com

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