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The progress of Christianity in Finland

October 2016 | by Miska Wilhelmsson

As a Protestant Christian from Finland, I trace my spiritual heritage back to the Finnish Reformation, when the country turned from Roman Catholicism to Protestant Lutheranism.

Although not a Lutheran myself, I am thankful for how God used this period to bless my home country with the Word of God in the Finnish language, although at the same time recognising that a large part of the Reformation was politically motivated.

The questions that remain are, how was Finland introduced to Christianity in the first place; and is that period when Roman Catholicism ruled in Finland to be completely rejected as a time of darkness? Or is there some aspect of it that a Bible-believing Christian can be thankful for and appreciate?

Scandinavia

The first person known to preach Christianity in Scandinavia was a German monk called Ansgar. He arrived in Denmark in 826 and started preaching there. A few years later, in 830, he travelled to Sweden to evangelise the people there also.

Some individuals were converted through his ministry both in Denmark and Sweden, but these monks were persecuted by many of the native people in those lands. Ansgar died in 865, which led to a decline in the German mission to Scandinavia.

In the beginning of the eleventh century, Christianity began to gain a stronger foothold in Scandinavia. It was no longer composed of scattered individuals, but larger groups of people embraced the Christian faith, deserting their former paganism.

These conversions resulted in a decline of the Viking raids that had once been commonly practised by the Scandinavian people, since many of them now realised the evil of such behaviour.

When we consider the big picture, it is worth noting though that it was mainly these Viking expeditions for raiding and exploration that, in the first place, connected Scandinavia with the more civilised, Christian parts of Europe.

The first Christian king of Sweden was Olof Skötkonung, who was baptised in 1008. The western part of Sweden was converted to Christianity with the king, while other parts of the country remained pagan. Only in 1150 did Christianity take over the remaining parts of Sweden.

Finland

Even though most of Scandinavia had been introduced to Christianity by the eleventh century, Finland’s tribes were still fully pagan, engaging in piracy across the Baltic sea and raiding neighbouring countries, especially the coastlands of Sweden.

Before the arrival of Christianity, Finland was not a unified nation, but a place with different tribal groups. The process of developing from scattered pagan tribes to a more unified nation would last around 400 years and would begin with the arrival of Christianity.

Finland was introduced to Christianity in the ninth and tenth century through the influence of sailors, merchants and immigrants from other countries, who brought with them the teaching of the Catholic Church in the West.

It is probable that some Finnish individuals did convert to Christianity, even though the society around them was pagan. However, it was only scattered individuals who came to faith. The nation would later gain a stronger Christian identity through Swedish immigrants moving into coastal areas bringing a more organised form of Christianity.

So it can be said that (mediaeval) Christianity came to Finland in three stages: first, through the influence of visiting merchants and seamen, second, through Swedish settlers; and, third, through the three Crusades that took place from the twelfth century onwards.

The main person chosen to propagate Catholic Christianity in Finland was the Bishop of Uppsala, Henrik, who was said to be originally from England.

Forced conversions

It seems that one reason the king of Sweden wanted to convert the pagan Finnish people was to stop their piracy of the Swedish. According to tradition, during the First Crusade, King Erik of Sweden offered the Finnish people Christianity and peace, but when this offer was refused, he turned to violent force.

The conquered areas were forced to receive Christian baptism, while Bishop Henrik is reported to have preached to the people about Christianity. The focus was not on personal religion, but on the people receiving baptism and changing aspects of their outward behaviour.

King Erik returned to Sweden, but Bishop Henrik stayed in Finland to spread Christianity further inland. During one of his missionary journeys there, Bishop Henrik was faced with a Finnish man named Lalli, who, according to tradition, was guilty of murder and judged for his actions by the bishop. Enraged by this, Lalli killed Bishop Henrik. The bishop later become known as ‘the apostle to Finland’.

At the end of the Middle Ages, there were about 130 churches in Finland, although much of Finland was still uninhabited, especially in its middle and northern parts. The Catholic services were almost completely conducted in Latin, which was foreign to the Finnish speakers.

However, the wealth and pomp of the Catholic Church made an impression on the people. It seems that the flickering candles, mystical smoke, echo of songs in a foreign tongue, impressive nature of the priests’ clothing and impressive church buildings all appealed to the superstitious, pagan people of Finland.

Evaluation

Bible-believing Christians need to recognise the evil of the Crusades and realise that true Christianity is not spread by violent and forceful means. However, we can still be thankful for some aspects of what happened, recognising that God uses even the evil deeds of men to achieve his purposes.

The Crusades helped introduce the Finnish people to some basic Christian truths. Even though, undoubtedly, much false teaching was propagated in the name of Christianity, there were still basic aspects of truth given to the people.

Teaching given to the laity might have comprised little more than memorising the Lord’s Prayer, the Ave Maria (the angel’s greeting to Mary, the mother of Jesus), and the Apostles’ Creed. The teaching would often have been mixed with error, but there was still some truth taught to the people, especially when at times Gospel portions were read to them in their own language.

Because of the rule of the Roman Catholic Church, Finland experienced some material benefits. Its raw pagan practices slowly disappeared and law and order became established in society. The Finns began to unite more, instead of living as scattered enemy tribes. Finland also became better connected with other countries in Europe.

God’s sovereignty

Apart from these material benefits, we need to remember too that the apostle Paul rejoiced, even if men preached Christ for the wrong reasons (Philippians 1:15-18). So too, while deploring the false teaching and evil acts that took place, we can be thankful for this period of time in Finnish history.

We recognise that God sovereignly used it to bring basic gospel truths to a remnant of people who would trust in Christ alone, in spite of the false teaching and wrongdoing.

Miska Wilhelmsson 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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