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Literacy in Finland

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In 1660 Johanes Gezelius the Elder was appointed Bishop of Åbo. His priority when he arrived in Åbo was to upgrade the clergy of Finland. He wanted them to be more pious, better trained and civilized, especially the pastors who lived in the most remote areas. He determined that the local pastors were generally underpaid. But before he raised the wages, he required each pastor to come to Åbo Cathedral for additional training and experience. Within a few short years the skills and level of caring of the pastors had increased.

While Bishop Gezelius traveled around Finland, he noticed that few cities had any schools. And the few schools were not adequate. Before long he was instrumental in establishing new schools and improving the existing schools.

Most of the people who lived in rural areas received very little education. The Bishop agreed with Martin Luther that the people should know how to read and write that they might "see with their own eyes what God commands and demands in His sacred word." He wanted to carry out a program of reform to make the whole country literate, but there were many complications. The main problem was that books were rare commodities. All books were printed in Swedish and many parishes had only one Bible or New Testament. He wanted to change this and put his own educational skills to use. He began writing text books. Åbo had only one printing press, dating from 1642. The Bishop obtained his own press, bought a small paper factory and began printing his own books.

Armed with his books he set out on foot around the countryside, visiting the parish cantor of each parish. He required them to find one talented boy in each village and teach him to read and write. These young boys were to grow up, teaching their neighbors to read and write. Any cantor who failed to teach lost his wages and position with the parish.

He was Bishop from 1664 through 1690 and wanted to guarantee that his goals for education would continue. In 1665, every parish was required to begin keeping parish records. Each time a person in the parish received Holy Communion, it was recorded along with various personal data, including their reading and comprehension skills. Any pastor who did not abide by the wishes of Gezelius knew that he would be replaced.

These new records became known as Communion Books and Main Books. They are the backbone for genealogical research throughout Finland. They provide researchers with more personal details about the lives of our ancestors than probably the records of any other country in the world.

The Communion Books of each parish are divided into villages and then by individual farms. Gezelius wanted the information for each family to be kept together. Each parish had one communion book with each page covering five to ten years, usually one farm per page. As the size of the farms increased over the centuries, new villages were established. Sometimes a farm changed villages, although the farm itself never moved.

For the first few decades, the Communion Books of each parish were just simple large ledgers with blank pages. The pastors or parish clerks had the chore of writing the complex headings on each page and filling in the names and details as needed. The name of the farm went in the upper left hand corner. Then listed were the farm owner, his wife, children, their spouses, elderly parents, grand-parents, crofters, soldiers, craftsmen, paupers and anyone else who may have lived on the farm. No person was ever omitted from the records.

From the time that Finland became Lutheran, every person was required to be confirmed in the church. There were variances between parishes, but generally confirmation occurred when a young adult was from 14 to 16 years of age. Since the 1600s it was a Royal law that every person be taught to read and write before being confirmed. To guarantee this, the Crown required everyone to be confirmed before they were allowed to marry. This law remained in effect until the 20th century.

By the 1800s each parish had separate registers for confirmation. They were kept separate for males and females, by village. Information included the full name, birth date, farm, village and knowledge of religion during confirmation classes. These registers are generally microfilmed to a more current date than are the birth records, and this can benefit the researcher.

It is possible to tell when a person was confirmed by checking the Communion Books. The date of the first communion will be listed with the parents, or other relatives from the farm who were at Holy Communion on that particular day. A young person was considered a full, responsible adult upon confirmation. He was then allowed to marry and became legally responsible for himself.

The main reason Bishop Gezelius began the keeping of the Communion Books was to monitor the literary skills of the people and promote their understanding of the Christian faith. Several columns were devoted to the recording of such information. Since the time of Gezelius, and lasting into the 20th century, every person who was past confirmation age was required to attend an annual examination known as the reading examination. Each village held an annual examination, hosted by one of the local farm owners. Every adult read aloud for the pastor from the ABC Primer and the Bible. The Lord's Prayer, Apostles' Creed, Ten Commandments, and Luther's Small Catechism had to be known by heart, and favorite passages from the Psalms of David were recited. The meanings of each had to be explained in detail.

As the person responded, marks were placed in the Communion Books for each category. These marks were used as a sort of grading system. Various marks were used, including an "X". Other marks, such as "Y" and "/" were used. An "X" might mean they did very well and "/" might mean they did not do as well. A key to the system used can usually be found inside the front cover of the volume.

The reading examination was a day of great stress for many people. But most people looked forward to it with anticipation. It was usually held in the autumn after the crops were harvested and there was little farm work to do. That was a day when neighbors and friends came together. The examinations began in the morning and lasted into the afternoon. A short sermon concluded the official activities of the day. Afterward everyone joined in the hymn sing.

The elderly did not have to participate in the examination if they were in bad health or mentally incapable. Neither did anyone who was deaf, blind or feeble-minded. This was one reason that personal characteristics were written into the records.


Extracts from Finnish Genealogical Research, Vincent and Tapio.

June Pelo


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