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The Christian Tradition


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The Catholic Church occupied a strong position in the 15th century and played a leading role in society. The church terminology, worldview and rituals were firmly etched on the popular awareness, especially in the southwestern parts of the country. New congregations were founded, but the inland areas were still uninhabited and Christianity had not yet reached the Lapps.

The emphasis in the medieval church was on the correct ritual performance of the Mass and Communion. Although the vernacular was spoken in certain rites, Mass was said in Latin. On the whole Catholic Christianity was collective and emphasis was on form. The focal concept of godliness was the Mass offering. The correct performance of the rituals and offerings brought God’s blessing on both the individual and the congregation. Both concepts – ritual and offering – had long been familiar among the people but they now acquired a new content and meaning. No wonder, therefore, that the sacrificial rites (e.g. on the altar) remained a custom among the people even in the Lutheran Church of the 18th century. TheCatholic ritual also influenced folk magic and folklore (e.g. incantations). The elements enhancing divine worship in the Catholic ritual (incense, signs and gestures and certain substances) were assimilated into popular magic and the chants and curses into magic sayings.

The Catholic Church set out to gain complete dominance over human life and man’s worldly pilgrimage. The Church had, through its organization and financial might, proved its supremacy in every way. Any relics of the former religion were swept aside. The Christian worldview and attitude to one’s fellow beings, the church rituals and ceremonies were fully absorbed by folk culture before the end of the Middle Ages.

During the changes that took place in the 16th century, the Reformation quietly ran its course within the Church, starting at the top and working downward, and without any assistance from the people, even in the towns (unlike in the Baltic countries, for example). In the middle of the century Mikael Agricola laid the foundations of a written Finnish language based on the southwesterly dialects. The Lutheran religious literature was intended chiefly for the clergy. Some of the numerous editions of the Catechism nevertheless passed into the hands of the people, even though few could read. Throughout this century the Catholic faith continued to make its mark on folk Christianity. In the early 17th century, after the meeting in Uppsala in 1594, The Lutheran faith was known – apart from the clergy – to only the leading circles in the land, some members of the nobility and the urban bourgeoisie.

Lutheranism did not really spread until the 17th century, the guideline being the church manual of 1614. All traces of Catholicism had to be eliminated from the rituals and ceremonies. It was more difficult to teach the people that, according to the new faith, offerings and rituals could call forth God’s blessing on neither individual nor congregation; what was required instead was observance of God’s Ten Commandments, humility and a blameless life. The Lutheran Christianity centered around the individual, but in the 17th century and for long after it still simultaneously carried a collective stamp. Private deeds and sins were not just private affairs, and disobedience would deprive the entire community of God's blessing. Man's earthly pilgrimate thus concerned the whole community to when he belonged.

In order to show true humility before God and lead a blameless life, it was essential for all to be familiar with the demands of the faith. The 17th century church thus took it upon itself to educate the people. The congregation had to be disciplined and rebuked, after which it was ready to receive the Christian teachings. A constant check had to be kept on the results of such teaching. The disobdient and recalcitrant were chastized so that the congregation, the Church, the entire nation and land would not be deprived of God’s blessing. It has been said of the strong leaders of the Finnish Church that Isak Rothovius (1627-1652) achieved order and discipline, Johannes Gezelius (1664-1690) taught the people the Christian doctrine, and his son, J. Gezelius the younger (1690-1718) taught the people to read.

In the 17th century an important Ecclesiastic Law was published in 1686 (1687 in Finnish), and the Orthodox part of Karelia (the province of Käkisalmi) was converted after the Treaty of Stolbova (1617) to the Lutheran faith. The Lapps were converted in the 17th century. The number of clergy doubled (around 280 in 1615 but 588 by 1710).

Divine worship now centered around the sermon and included regular readings from the Bible. The complete Bible was printed in Finnish in 1642 (in an edition of 1,200) and 1685 (2,000), but it was intended chiefly for church use and the clergy. The Catechism (the “Little Bible”) was, however, the first real popular book, for teaching the Catechism was one of the church’s primary tasks, and also belonged to the sermon. A Catechism with the Ten Commandments framed for hanging on the wall was published in numerous editions. The teachings of the Ten Commandments on the status of the individual in the family, the household and society (the various estates or classes) had a strong influence on people's views and concepts of society.

Divine worship adhered to such customs as kneeling for prayer, making the sign of the cross and saying “Amen” out loud. Gone was the Latin plainsong, and the folk hymn singing had to be learned in its place. Although the first hymn book was published in 1583 (J. Finno) and the next in 1605 (Hemminki Maskulainen), hymns and chorales did not acquire any great significance until the 18th century. In addition to a pulpit the churches now had pews (and with them the highly controversial issue of who was allowed to sit where), in some places even an organ. In order to help enforce obedience, there was also a bench of shame and stocks for stubborn youngsters.

Items taught during divine worship and in the sermon were gone over at prayer meetings and devotions in the home. The results were then checked in church (during Mass and confession before Communion) and toward the end of the 17th century at catechetical meetings. The work of the church was marked by orthodoxy, which was supervised by both the church and the national leaders; the church was, after all, an important element in the policy of unification during the period of Swedish rule.

The great trials of the early 18th century – the Great Northern War, famine and plague, accompanied by 8-10 years of Russian occupation – threw the church into disorder. Only a fraction of the clergy remained at their posts; the majority fled to Sweden.

By the eve of the Great Northern War early Pietism had already gained a foothold among the gentry, but in the 1720s it began to emerge in Finland Proper and Ostrobothnia in an early form of popular radical Pietism. The 18th century was to be the century of Revivalism. The Lutheran Church had been influenced by the German theology of the Enlightenment, which also left its mark on the preachings of the church. The educated and uneducated people held different concepts, and as time progressed, the gulf grew wider. By mid-century, secularization had gradually taken great steps forward. So had literacy, thanks to the church’s teachings. Confirmation was then introduced, though not in all parts of the country.

The Catechisms and other church literature spread further and further afield. About 80 editions were issued of the Catechism published by J. Gezelius the elder in 1666, and they had been joined by others (e.g. Svebilius 1746, Wegelius 1771 and Muller 1793). The hymn book (the ‘old’ hymn book of 1701 had been in use for two centuries) and Bible (new editions in 1758 and 1776, the latter already in an edition of 9,000) also became available to the people.

Along with the Catechism, the hymn book was a folk book whose worldview was, however, still colored entirely by the medieval concepts. Together with the preachings and teachings of the church, the hymn book transmitted to the peple a more thorough Christian outlook than before. This included the tripartite concept of the world (earth, heaven, hell) an eschatological belief in the end of the world after which only heaven and hell remained, the concept that man’s life on earth was mainly only a preparation for a blissful death followed by resurrection and expectation of the reuniting of body and soul, and the concept that Christians were God’s chosen people, whereas others, the “worldly” and “sinful”, would be denied God’s blessing.

These views, which were supported by the sufferings of the Great Northern War and which conflicted with the habits of the educated circles and even the clergy, engendered the dissatisfaction and oppositon that gave birth to the national revivalist movements. These demanded that the Christian outlook and principles be implemented in everyday life. And it would be wrong to overlook the growing self-awareness and independence of the agrarian population in society at the time.

The first revivalist movements were a protest against the teachings of the church, but they all operated within the church and had no separatist strivings. The first of the revivalist movements, Beseecherism, exerted its influence from the 1750s onward in Vakka-Finland and West Satakunta and never spread beyond this area. By contrast, the Pietist movement emerging in North Savo in the 1790s spread through Savo, Karelia and Ostrobothnia in the course of the following century. Other movements emerging in the 1840s were Laestadianism in the north and the Evangelical movement in the south. The movement with the biggest influence on the people was probably Pietism, affecting not only the concept of society, customs and habits, but also the way people dressed.

At about the same time, in the first half of the 19th century, the uniform Lutheran culture that had prevailed from about 1600 to 1850 began to decline in many ways. Divine worship did, however, still attract full churches on Sundays, people regularly went to Communion, and their knowledge was still tested at catechetical meetings. Confirmation was now made available to all, though in Porvoo Diocese not officially until 1842, and young people attended confirmation school beforehand.

On the other hand devotions were no longer practiced in the home, and the growing social inequality in the rural regions did nothing to confirm the teachings of the church. The great economic and social changes of the latter half of the 19th century would in themselves have been sufficient to disperse the old ecclesiastic order. This trend was now hastened along and supported by the liberal movement gaining ground among the educated circles from the 1860s onward and the socialist ideology assimilated by the working classes at the end of the century. The general strike of 1905 meant the passing of an era not only in the political sense but also in the Church and folk Christianity.

From: Finnish Folk Culture by Ilmar Talve

June Pelo

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