Revivalist Movements within the Lutheran Church

Revivalist Movements within the Lutheran Church

Another characteristic of the Lutheran Church of Finland that distinguished it from the other Lutheran churches of the Nordic countries was the strong tradition of revivalism that flourished within it. Elsewhere, revivalists left the state churches and founded their own. Although Finnish revivalist movements at first seemed a threat to the state church, ecclesiastical authorities came to learn that these new currents of religious feeling could enrich the church rather than diminish it. Since the nineteenth century, about half a dozen distinct movements had found a secure and enduring place within the established church. This meant that the Lutheran Church in Finland did not experience recurring splits caused by members dissatisfied for reasons of doctrine or temperament. The enthusiasm and the fervor of the revivalists were a frequent tonic to the state church, and their presence within it allowed the church closer ties to the whole of the Finnish people than would otherwise have been possible.

The revivalist movements remained distinctly Lutheran; they adhered to the doctrine of justification by faith alone as the center of preaching and teaching, and made clear demarcations between the Kingdom of God and the material world. Worldly pleasures were generally decried, with a varying degree of emphasis being placed instead on abstinence, faith, abnegation, and prayer. The faithful could go to God directly without the church and clergy as intermediaries. Priestly intervention was not necessary in the spiritual realm. In the material world, however, there was secular government with a justified civil authority worthy of obedience. The movements also followed the traditional Lutheran insistence on giving ritual a smaller place than it enjoyed in Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. Hence, there were only two sacraments--baptism and Holy Communion-- retained as symbols to strengthen faith, for Lutherans felt that they had no inherent redemptive value.

In the late 1980s, the five or six main movements had well over 100,000 members and each movement was vigorous enough to have a central organization, newspaper, or magazine. Each held a summer convention that could attract tens of thousands of the devout. Though the movements might on occasion disagree with positions adopted by the Lutheran Church as a whole, they could protest them, or could actually prevent their adoption at the church's democratically arranged meetings and forums.

The earliest of the movements was The Awakened. Its most important leader, Paavo Ruotsalainen (1777-1852), was an uneducated peasant who attracted a substantial following by appealing to the poor and the oppressed through his emphases on Divine greatness and on human wretchedness and helplessness. Man, he proclaimed, was inept and could never succeed; only God redeemed and healed. Man's duties, then, were to abandon his own works and to trust only in God. Followers of The Awakened held religious services at their homes to supplement those of the church. Unlike the Laestadians, who belonged to a movement founded somewhat later, followers of The Awakened were tolerant; they did not call attention to themselves as believers to whom grace belongs, in contrast to the rest of the world, which was unrepentant. In the late 1980s, the movement was strongest in the eastern Savo region and in Ostrobothnia, and it attracted between 30,000 and 40,000 to its summer meetings.

The Laestadian Movement, named after its founder, Lars Levi Laestadius (1800-61), a Swedish preacher in Lapland, was perhaps the strongest of all the revivalist movements; even in the 1980s, it could attract 100,000 of the faithful to its mass meetings. One reason for its large gatherings was the importance the movement attached to the visible congregation and to the absolution given to its members after confession. The movement's services were often marked by ecstatic outbursts. Laestadians were somewhat intolerant, as they stressed the certainty of salvation for Christians and the probability of damnation for nonbelievers. This adamancy caused occasional rifts within the movement. Laestadians continued to have their stronghold in northern Finland, where the movement had originated.

The Evangelical Movement was an offshoot of The Awakened. Its founder, Fredrik Gabriel Hedberg (1811-93), believed that an obsession with wretchedness detracted from the assurance of salvation that a Christian has through his faith in Christ's righteousness. The movement stressed infant baptism, as its adherents believed the whole of salvation was given through this sacrament. It also was noted for its missionary work abroad.

The smallest of the old revivalist groups was that of the Supplicationists, founded by Henrik Renqvist (1789-1866), an early advocate of the temperance movement. Supplicationists believed in frequent and fervent prayer and in meetings at which all remained on their knees. Supplicationists were active mostly in southwestern Finland. Quite conservative in their outlook, they were not especially successful in attracting young converts.

Revivalism has also seen the formation of newer groups. One of these was the Fifth Revival, dating from shortly before World War II. It stressed missionary work and evangelism. In the 1970s Charismatics also began to be active within the Lutheran Church of Finland.

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